When the latest generation of Xbox consoles launched towards the end of 2020, Microsoft didn’t have a single platform exclusive to announce their arrival with. Breaking from tradition, there was no new Forza to gawp at (now fixed), and Halo Infinite was still over a year away.
But that didn’t mean there was nothing to play then, and it’s certainly not the case now. All new games look and play better on the Xbox Series X|S than ever before, as well as benefiting from the super speedy load times afforded by the upgraded SSD, while Microsoft’s various studios have spent years optimising some of the biggest games in the platform’s more than 20-year history so they make use of the new consoles’ power.
Then you’ve got Game Pass, the almost unreasonably good value subscription service, on which all of its own games sit, ready to be downloaded. The Xbox feast has never been more appetising.
Here are our recommendations across the board.
(Additional words by Chris Kerr)
1. Gears 5
We loved last year’s Gears 5, the fifth entry in Xbox Game Studios’ long-running and impossibly muscular cover shooter series. While still very much a Gears of War game (despite for some reason dropping the ‘of War’ bit), the more open-ended structure of the predictably bloody campaign felt like just the right amount of evolution.
It being one of Microsoft’s flagship games, it’s no great surprise that Gears 5 has been optimised for Series X|S. The game was already a visual showcase, but now you’re getting improved graphics, better performance and faster loading, as well as the option of supremely smooth 120Hz multiplayer should your TV be up to the job.
It’s not new, but Gears 5 should be one of your first Game Pass downloads, whether you’ve already played it or not.
2. Dirt 5
Dirt 5 is pure, unfiltered arcade racing. The latest entry in Codemasters’ delirious spin-off ditches the realism of the Dirt Rally franchise for an altogether more heightened experience.
Each race feels like a Hollywood chase sequence, asking players to fling all manner of hatchbacks, trucks, buggies, and supercars around iconic racecourses sprinkled across the globe. Whether you’re drifting atop a frozen lake in a Ford Focus or speeding through a Nordic hamlet while lightning cuts across the Aurora Borealis overhead – if there’s one thing Dirt 5 does well, it’s spectacle.
Those showpiece moments look better than ever on the Xbox Series S and X, with the Optimized version of the high-tempo racer offering faster load times, improved visuals up to 4K resolution, and frame rates of up to 120fps. How’s that for va va voom?
3. Death’s Door
In Death’s Door you’re a crow who reaps the souls of the dead for a living. That probably sounds a bit bleak, and it is, but this is one of the funniest, strangest virtual worlds you can explore on your Xbox, where you can be a very literal Pothead and go about your day without having to field too many questions.
Death’s Door is also incredibly fun to play, an isometric Zelda-like with stunning fantasy worlds to explore and tricky but never too punishing combat. Taking down bosses that have cheated death is crucial in order for the crow to open the titular Death’s Door and compete his day’s work, and every one of them is memorable.
We would have strongly recommended Death’s Door anyway, but its recent addition to Game Pass makes it an essential play.
4. It Takes Two
Josef Fares has been a innovating with co-op experiences since he becoming a game designer, and It Takes Two is probably the best of the bunch. You and your partner play as a pair of soon-to-be divorced parents who are forced to work together when they’re transformed into their daughter’s toys.
Neither are particularly likeable characters and It Takes Two’s narrative is definitely the weakest aspect of the game, but you should overlook that because everything else is pretty superb. Co-operative multiplayer games are nothing new, but It Takes Two does more with the genre than any game we’ve played before. Whether you’re firing well-aimed nails into the wall for your partner to swing on, taking part in some synchronised rail grinding, or flying a plane while the other player fights a squirrel in a 2D fighting mini-game, this brilliant action-adventure game just never runs out of ideas.
We hate to make the lazy comparison, but it really looks like a playable Pixar film at times, and while we didn’t feel compelled to find out how the story resolved itself, we made sure we saw every one of its vibrant levels. If you’re looking for something to play with a friend or partner, you won’t find anything better than It Takes Two.
5. Forza Horizon 5
The outrageous consistency of the Forza Horizon series makes it easy to take its games for granted. Playground Game’s immaculate open-world racing series has been close to perfect since the third entry, so when we first booted up Forza Horizon 5 there wasn’t much going on that we didn’t expect.
But why mess with something already so brilliant? In Horizon 5 we leave the rolling, sheep-lined fields of Great Britain and head to Mexico for another brash and suspiciously moneyed racing tournament that has you competing in all manner of motoring events, from jungle dirt races to street racing through moonlit countryside towns. It’s all ridiculously fun, and the single-player offering is bolstered further by story-driven “adventure” events that ensure you get to drive the best cars very fast while actually learning a bit about Mexico in the process.
We haven’t even talked about the myriad multiplayer modes, or user-created events, or the fact you can change your driver’s name to Potato. It’s best you just discover it all for yourself in what might be the Xbox Series X|S’ crown jewel.
6. Tetris Effect: Connected
Tetris Effect is one of our favourite games of the last generation, but unfortunately for Xbox owners it’s been a PlayStation 4 console exclusive for the past two years. Now, however, the ethereal puzzler is making its way to the Xbox Series S and X with a whole bunch of enhancements and new modes in the form of Tetris Effect Connected.
The expanded version offers the same zen-inducing Tetris Effect experience, but adds all new co-op, competitive online, and local multiplayer modes. Visuals have also been enhanced on the Xbox Series S and X, with developer Monstars touting smoother gameplay, improved particle effects, and faster load times.
Basically, then, one of the best game experiences of the past few years just got even better. Go play it.
7. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Yes, it’s time to get stuck into 60+ hours of yet another Assassin’s Creed game. This one’s set in England’s Dark Ages, casting you as a particularly serious-looking Viking raider (male or female) seeking power and glory. Because what else was there to do back then?
Despite not being a platform exclusive, Valhalla was as close to a showpiece launch title as the new Xboxes had. It runs at 4K/60fps with enhanced graphics and really gives Microsoft’s hardware a workout.
Even if these games seem to be getting further away from the series’ stealth roots with each new entry, Valhalla offers a surprisingly narrative-driven epic with vast English countryside to pound with your big Viking boots.
8. The Artful Escape
The Artful Escape treads fairly familiar ground when it comes to its themes. Legacy, ambition, not wasting your talent, the fear of disappointing people: it’s stuff that various forms of media have explored since storytelling began. Except in this game, they’re explored through a playable psychedelic rock opera.
In this bizarre and brilliant indie gem, you play as Francis Vendettii, the nephew of a folk music legend in the sleepy town of Calypso. Everyone expects Francis to follow the path his uncle paved for him, but naturally the young musician instead accepts an invitation from an alien to fill in for an absent guitarist in an outer space rock band, and so begins an epic journey of self-discovery.
The Artful Escape is a very simple 2D platformer that offers almost no challenge and little in the way of actual gameplay. But the stunning visuals, excellent music and perfectly told little story make it a must-play.
9. Psychonauts 2
For a game that very few people played, the original Psychonauts has some following, and a sequel is something fans have dreamed about since the mid-noughties. It finally arrived with Psychonauts 2, and industry legend Tim Schafer’s studio, Double Fine, did not let them down.
Psychonauts 2 picks up almost directly after the events of the first game, but a handy recap means it doesn’t matter too much if you missed the original. You once again play as Razputin “Raz” Aquato, a newly qualified member of the Psychonauts, a group of psychic secret agents who can infiltrate people’s minds.
Psychonauts 2 is the follow-up to a platformer from several generations ago, and at times it does feel a bit old-fashioned to play. But it’s the game’s stunningly imaginative levels and careful handling of some pretty heavy themes that mark it out as an absolute must-play.
10. Microsoft Flight Simulator
Microsoft Flight Simulator is less a game than it is a truly mind-boggling tech demo. There’s no story and very little in the way of objectives, but that really doesn’t matter. It knows that all it needs to do to blow you away is put you in the cockpit of a Boeing 747 and let you choose where you want to fly it to.
Most of the world is rendered in near-photorealistic detail, and the game simulates real-time weather and conditions so at times you really feel like a pilot. That is, until you accidentally send your aircraft careering towards Mount Fuji and are quickly reminded that it takes several years of training for a reason.
Those who spend time in the tutorials will get the most out of the experience, but Microsoft Flight Simulator is something everyone should experience, and as it’ll almost certainly be permanently available on Game Pass, you have no excuse not to.
11. Ori and the Will of the Wisps
One of our favourite games of recent times, Ori and the Will of the Wisps is a sensational follow-up to Ori and the Blind Forest, retaining all of the first game’s stunning fairy tale aesthetic, tear-jerking story beats and deceptively difficult platforming, but tightening everything up and putting a greater emphasis on combat.
And if you haven’t played it yet, now is the time. One of the game’s directors has said that Will of the Wisps renders at 6K resolution on the Series X and then supersamples it down to 4K, which should make for one of the best-looking platformers of all time.
And like a lot of the games on this list, it’s also on Game Pass.
What else is there left to say about Hades? The rogue-like inside sensation was Stuff’s game of the year in 2020 and we still hop in for the odd run even now.
In this stupidly enjoyable dungeon-crawler you play as Zagreus, the angsty and rebellious son of Hades who really doesn’t like living in the Underworld. In fact, he hates it so much that his sole mission in the game is to escape, and that’s where you come in. As you’d expect, the god of dead doesn’t take kindly to people trying to leave his wretched world, and he certainly doesn’t offer his own kid any mercy. You will die a lot in Hades, but dying is all part of the fun.
Other than cold hard cash, everything you accumulate in each randomly generated room you hold onto to spend on upgrades before you try again, meaning you always feel like you’re progressing. And thanks to the game’s brilliant writing, talking to characters to progress the story before you embark on your latest escape attempt is as fun as the fighting itself. We haven’t even mentioned the visuals and the music, but rest assured that Hades is the total package.
13. Halo Infinite
Microsoft’s flagship series has waned a bit in recent years, and there were concerns about Infinite after the game suffered several delays and underwhelming showings.
But we needn’t have worried. Halo Infinite’s single-player campaign is the best it’s been since the franchise’s glory days, and you only need to spend a few minutes with the multiplayer to be reminded that, even in the age of Warzone and Fornite, nothing really comes close to Halo. The leaning into open-world gameplay definitely shakes up the series, but it’s not as revolutionary as you might think. Far more impactful is the new Grappleshot, a grapple hook that makes both traversing the map and facing off with enemies incredibly fun.
On the free-to-play multiplayer side, the progression system and controversial battle pass could have derailed the game and its longevity, but if you’re happy to play without a lot of the cosmetic unlocks and keep things old-school then you’ll probably feel no temptation to part with more cash.
14. Sea of Thieves
Rare’s pirate ‘em up multiplayer extravaganza was a bit barebones when it first launched, but a wealth of new content has made it one of the best games to play with friends on any given night of the week. Last year Captain Jack Sparrow himself even showed in up an expansion.
Whether you want to search every island high and wide for hidden treasure, clash swords with strangers or simply bob along singing sea shanties, Sea of Thieves will happily oblige. And it doesn’t half look fantastic running at 4K 60FPS on the Series X.
15. Elden Ring
If you play a lot of video games you might think you already know where you stand on the Souls games. Some relish the merciless challenge and refusal to hold the player’s hand, others frankly can’t be bothered with it all.
But we’d go as far as to say that everyone should play Elden Ring. Unlike Dark Souls, Sekiro and Bloodborne before that, FromSoftware’s latest takes its signature action RPG template and goes open-world, and much like Nintendo did with its first open-world Zelda game back in 2017, somewhat embarrasses the competition.
Elden Ring is still a very difficult game in which you will die a lot, but this time if you hit a brick wall with a particularly enemy or boss, you can simply walk away from them and do something else. The Lands Between is the richest and most interesting open-world map since Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule, and with lore conjured up by none other than the legendary fantasy novelist George R. R. Martin, there’s so much to discover that you’ll always have another distraction. There’s a reason this one is already being hailed as one of the greatest games of all time.
Starfield received mixed results upon its release. It’s the largest scale game that Bethesda has ever created, and presented a literal galaxy for gamers to explore. All you had to do to reach new planets though, was sit through what seemed like an eternity of fragmented loading screens. In true Bethesda style, there’s a million and one ways to customise your character and develop your skill tree within the game, but a somewhat lacklustre main quest is a little disappointing.
But whether you love it, hate it, or simply think it’s a little ‘meh’, Starfield makes for an impressive gaming experience. Navigating the unknown can be deeply rewarding – a single overheard conversation or clue can unveil countless possibilities. Gunplay rivals many dedicated first-person shooters, space battles are a riot, and can play out in pretty hilarious ways if you get creative with your ship building. Whether Starfield will stand the test of time we’re now sure, but for now the Starfield universe is worth exploring.