Sam's favourite Xbox games of the decade

By Sam Quirke,
Game of the Decade

Looking back on 2010-2019 for our TrueAchievements Game of the Decade event certainly is a weird experience. It is undoubtedly the period in which I've gamed harder than ever – thanks in large part to my entry into this community. My tastes have broadened across genres and mechanics. And yet, compared to the first decade of the millenium, I'm hard pressed to pick games that I think are the very best in class. The 10s were, for me, plagued by okay sequels, games with whole sections I couldn't possibly defend even if I liked the overall product. Maybe nothing is ever flawless, but it certainly seems like most of the games I would claim in my top 10 I also have to defend due to quite a few problems, from bugs to structural issues to bad writing. It might be nostalgia talking, or a less critical youthful eye at the time, but I don't think I would have as much of a problem picking my games of 2000-2009.

I hope to see more innovation in the next decade, and I think it's coming, out of necessity. The old industry is crumbling. Console manufacturers are skipping industry events and taking everything into the cloud, blurring the lines of exclusivity and player base. People are picking up one game and playing it indefinitely – because it's cheap, because their friends are on it, because it's full of tantalising hooks pulling at their attention and their wallets. The games I typically prefer – character driven, lore-heavy action-adventures – have tried and mostly failed to join in with the move to games and a service, and so I hope 2020 sees these developers take more risks and try to move in their own, bold directions. And I hope the Next Big Thing remembers that there's more to life and gaming than progression hooks and the dopamine hit of earning a new cosmetic.

So where does that leave my Top 10? I've simply had to shrug off my concerns about which games are actually "the best" and instead speak about the games I had the biggest emotional response to. The games that said something to me, the games that floored me, and the games that were just fun – especially with friends. With that in mind, forgive my 10 wildly inappropriate choices for the Games of the Decade – it's just my opinion.

10. Fallout New Vegas

Fallout New Vegas

The fact that I spent a good ten minutes finding a half-decent screenshot of Fallout New Vegas says a lot about how the game has aged – heck, it didn't even look particularly great at the time. However, for my money, New Vegas is still the Obsidian product to beat, much as I enjoyed The Outer Worlds. Like its world and denizens, New Vegas is rusty, scrappy and just barely clinging on to its own identity, and I love it for that. Only Red Dead Redemption 2 can compare in terms of capturing the humour and darkness of surviving in the American West, but Fallout New Vegas smashes the cowboy mythology together with the series' trademark goofy sci-fi Americana with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Somehow within the madness Obsidian managed to craft an interesting story about benevolent dictators, the dangers of repeating past mistakes and just what happens when one wild card decides to waltz in and put their fist on the political scales. It's a chaotic mess plagued by Bethesda's dusty buggy engine and Obsidian's kitchen-sink approach to content. I adore it still.

9. Halo Reach

Halo Reach achievements revealed

Halo 3 is great, and the Master Chief Collection is arguably the most generous offering of great experiences in the history of first-person shooters, but my heart remains on Reach. It's as much a personal thing as anything else – right when my friendship group was starting to drift apart after college, Halo Reach landed at a critical moment to bring us all back together, kicking off a decade of (quite unnecessarily) dragging all of our TVs and consoles round to one friend's house for an all-night co-op and PvP session – something we'd repeat with AC mutliplayer entries, Portal 2 and GTA V. As a relative newbie to Halo, Reach is also one of the most accessible to play stand-alone without prior knowledge of the series. Sure, it builds up to some Master Chief related business, but the story is really one of a small squad desperately trying to make a dent in a surprising and overwhelming alien attack. The story was a little hackneyed and one-note, but when you're in the thick of it with friends even those by-the-numbers narrative beats feel impactful. It's also scored beautifully with the best Halo soundtrack to date. Reach's version of ODST's Firefight remains one of my fondest FPS co-op modes of all time.

8. Portal 2

Portal 2

When my local gaming circle eventually shrank to just me and my best friend, Portal 2 was there for us. Portal remains one of my favourite games of all time, and the prospect of Portal 2 was as worrisome as it was exciting. How could Valve possibly iterate on a near-perfect little physics puzzler? The answer, surprisingly, was to literally slap some paint on the old model. Portal 2 gets wackier and more inventive than its predecessor and yet the puzzles still somehow hold together for the most part, and JK Simmons' performance as an eccentric R&D company CEO jovially signing off on dangerous experiments provided plenty of laughs – even if I was personally happy to see the back of Stephen Merchant's Wheatley by the finish. The game finds longevity in its co-op mode, though, as two players take on the role of a couple of robots forced to run trials in GLADOS' cruel experimental games. The awesome feeling of finally understanding a Portal puzzle is only more thrilling when you're working as a team – and if you get frustrated, you can just goof around by slapping paint and portals on each other.

7. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

A dragon overlooks its mountain domain

I almost feel bad promoting Bethesda Game Studios products twice on this list, as their seemingly rudderless creative direction – and tendency to release games full of bugs on a creaky old engine – are starting to grate on most of the community, myself included. But Oblivion would almost certainly be in my top three games of the previous decade, and the desire to sink myself back into Tamriel in 2011 with the arrival of Skyrim overrode my critical sensibilities. Skyrim is a game suffused with atmosphere and beauty, so much so that it kicked off my desire to travel around Scandinavia just so I could capture that same spirit in the real world. The story is nothing to write home about, and the combat is garbage, but damn me if Skyrim isn't still one of my top fictional holiday destinations of choice thanks to its beautiful geography and compelling, thoughtful lore-building. I'd even put up with a buggy dragon or two dropping out of the sky – sometimes backwards.

6. Mass Effect 2

ME2 characters

This list is fast becoming a creative obituary, stuffed with games from studios that have since succumbed to technical incompetence or a lack of strong ideas. But we'll press on with Mass Effect 2 – in my opinion the last truly great BioWare game, despite my own fondness for 3 and many a gamer's delight with Dragon Age Inquisition. What sets Mass Effect 2 apart is its tightness – in a genre sprawling endlessly out into the open world, Mass Effect 2 managed to instil a sense of interplanetary wonder while keeping a pretty tight rein on the story and player agency. The central conceit of gathering friends old and new for a climactic suicide mission is inspired, as it makes the player want to explore relationships with the crew for gameplay reasons as much as narrative ones. This was the entry that cemented Garrus as a fan favourite, and added compelling, complex characters like Thane and Jack into the mix too. While the giant Terminator boss left a lot to be desired, the real emotional payoff comes just before, as your relationships with the crew and critical choices as a commander play out with unexpected and potentially fatal consequences. We'd have to wait many years until The Witcher 3 to see such meaningful character choices played out again on a AAA scale, and for my money Geralt's grim adventures can't quite match up to the Normandy's colourful cast.

5. Assassin's Creed: Revelations

Assassin's Creed Revelations

Probably my most outrageous pick for a Game of the Decade, but I'm beyond caring at this point. Assassin's Creed Revelations might be lacking somewhat in innovative gameplay over its predecessors, but from my perspective it has one of the most thoughtful narratives in the series' history, kicking off a bit of a philosophical identity crisis for the series and the Assassin's Creed itself that would keep the series stumbling in the dark until Origins. Ezio moves from a one-note charmer with a troubled past into an old man wondering what exactly all the fighting has been for, as he seeks to mentor both his own Brotherhood and a young prince in a vibrant city, evolving at a pace he simply can't keep up with. It works surprisingly well smashed up with an awkward but believable romance and some silly 80s adventure movie set-pieces. It's a game suffused with unexpected warmth and reflection, and delivers some of my favourite quotes from video gaming history on the nature of memories, and the passing on of our stories. Throw in a pretty competent multiplayer and a modern-age story that can mostly be ignored, and you have a top-tier Assassin's Creed game.

4. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Black Flag

A tough choice to pick between my two favourites in my favourite series, but Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag wins out for two reasons. Firstly, it has one of the most compelling and revelant representations of an anti-hero in gaming; secondly, pirates.

The second point is obvious, so let's lean into the first: Edward Kenway is a definitive flawed hero, with his deep moral guilt and vengeful jealousy of the wealth of others leading to rash decision after rash decision. Every victory is snatched away from Edward not by cruel fate, but by his own inability to stop trying to fill the hole in his heart with money. The game doesn't try very hard to make us like Edward, and in fact makes plenty of efforts to let us know – through the people he meets and dooms – that he's more than a bit toxic. What really makes Black Flag's narrative memorable for me is that Edward doesn't die in a blaze of glory like so many anti-heroes, effectively negating any moral lesson to be drawn from their story. Edward's journey to redemption ends with him standing alone, his friends long gone, contemplating unexpected fatherhood on top of the wreckage he has made of his life and the societies his avaricious path blazed across. It's a bold and strange tale to tell in the midst of a bright and tropical action-adventure, and I loved it.

Plus, pirates.

3. Gone Home

Gone Home

Despite almost all of my picks so far, by the latter half of the last decade my patience with sprawling worlds was starting to wane. As you might have picked up by now, I really like games for their narratives, and the constant box-ticking exercises of open world game design is more often than not a narrative mood killer. I came across Gone Home quite a while after it was first released and hyped about, and in just a few short hours I had a new favourite game. Of course, some will say it's not a game thanks to its walking-simulator style, and to those I say: sure, okay, if you like. Whatever you want to call Gone Home, I just love it for being exactly what it wants to be. I've never played through an experience so taut with a variety of emotions, and the fact that this one story of a regular teenage girl is told only through cassette tapes left around a quiet house at night is a testament to how carefully it has been constructed. Just by stepping through this house, picking up scraps of information from belongings left behind and listening to one character pour their heart out on a Walkman, the player is invited into a compelling life story. My heart was in my mouth in its closing moments, a reaction only a scant handful of games have been able to draw out of me. It's almost indescribable, so I simply recommend that you play it if you have the patience for a game crafted from the ground up to tell one simple, emotional story.

2. Minecraft

Minecraft

Minecraft technically started life in 2009, but Mojang's official release of the game in 2011 makes it feel like a fair inclusion in the last decade – not to mention its quiet, persistent dominance of the industry's landscape throughout the last ten years, easily weathering and perhaps helping to create the rise of streaming culture in the decade's latter half. It's the quintessential sandbox survival simulator, and the only one that has truly gotten its claws into my brain for extended periods of time. It simply hits so many of my buttons – my lifelong quest to just exist in a peaceful atmosphere, a childhood obsession with LEGO, and my love of goofing around with my friends. When my group finally couldn't bring themselves to actually meet up and game anymore, it was Minecraft that we gravitated to online, allowing each of us to express ourselves in our own idea of fun while still hanging out together. My engineer friend wanted to create the perfect autonomous farm, while my dreamer friend just wanted to strike out into the unknown, invariably getting into trouble and wailing at us over Xbox Live to go and rescue him. For me, ever hungry for whatever scraps of story I could get even from a bare-bones sandbox, I was deep beneath the dirt searching for that elusive portal to the Ender Dragon. What makes Minecraft so perfect for me is that it closes the distance between my friends – in the game, in real-world geography, in our lifestyles – by giving us a shared world that we can put our stamp on. No matter how far any of us go, digging down or exploring wide or inventing crazy machines, we'll always be connected by following our paths back to the scrappy little house we made on our first night in the Minecraft wilds.

1. Celeste

Celeste Portrait

What else could be my number one game of the decade than a game that helped me see it through, when I wasn't sure that I would? It's hard to articulate my adoration of this game better than when I originally wrote about Celeste's thoughtful portrayal of mental health. What's so fascinating about Celeste is how it makes those philosophical musings part of the game, rather than delivering it in a cutscene or a voiceover. Celeste, the mountain, is both the mental and physical hill that Madeleine has to climb. Her seeming enemy in this endeavour both mentally and physically impedes her progress, her insecurities and anxieties made manifest in an alter-ego. Where Celeste succeeds – where other gaming depictions of mental health tend to fail – is in how she ends up climbing that mountain. Celeste shows us in no uncertain terms that there is no defeating our internal demons – but there is value in understanding them, and perhaps learning to work with them.

Besides all of this, Celeste is a thumpingly good masocore platformer with killer soundtrack, that caters to every single level of player capability. The main game is a tough but manageable ascent for the average gamer, with the game's secret remix levels, the B- and C-sides, and a final gauntlet reserved for the platforming elite. Nothing in the game's story is locked behind a skill wall, though – Celeste has pretty much written the book on accessibility customisation for the industry, offering a suite of toggles to tweak to make the experience manageable for any player. The fact that these controls can be modified on the fly give the player the option to take certain training wheels off as they get more confident with the flow of the game. Even this aspect of the game feeds back into its overall message about anxiety and depression – we don't have to keep bashing our heads against a problem on our own. There's no shame in seeking support, none. The mountain is for us to climb in whatever way we need to, and there is joy in reaching the summit regardless of the route we took to get there.

That's it for my list – we'll be sharing Sean's and Heidi's thoughts in the coming days, as well as a roundup from our volunteer staff members. How are you faring in picking your Games of the Decade so far?
Sam Quirke
Written by Sam Quirke
Sam has been a Newshound since 2016 and is now the Editor for both TrueAchievements and TrueTrophies. He loves gaming on all devices and in all genres. He remains a stubborn Assassin's Creed and Pokémon fan.