An absolute steal (starting at just £7.99 a month), Xbox Game Pass is essentially Microsoft’s video game version of Netflix: you get access to scores of Xbox and/or PC titles for a flat subscription fee.
With hundreds of titles on offer, deciding what to download first can be a bit of a head-scratcher. Dozens of new titles have been added only recently with the addition of EA Play and almost the entire Bethesda library. Do you go with a GPU-straining triple-A blockbuster or opt for an innovative indie title? We’ve picked our must-play favourites from the available selection to get you started.
Additional words by Matt Tate
Mass Effect Legendary Edition (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
Whether you’re a first-time greenhorn captain or a spacefaring Spectre veteran keen for another run through BioWare’s beloved sci-fi adventure, Mass Effect Legendary Edition is the best way to experience the game. Featuring the entire trilogy and more than 40 pieces of DLC, it offers enhanced visuals and a 4K resolution, UI tweaks and more. Mass Effect is one of the best story-driven action RPGs in history, giving you the ability to save the galaxy by playing main character Commander Shepard as a goodie-goodie Paragon or a take-no-prisoners Renegade, and having its aging visuals spruced-up is more than enough of an excuse to give it a whirl once more.
Stardew Valley (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
Bequeathed a dilapidated farm by your grandfather, you ditch your unfulfilling office job for a new life in the fresh air of the countryside – and its direction is entirely up to you. Will you spend your days befriending the locals (perhaps even finding a husband or wife)? Building up a lucrative agricultural business? Exploring the gloomy caverns in search of treasure? Or (and this is the most likely) some kind of combination of all of the above? While Stardew Valley’s cutesy graphics and music hint at a lightweight and relaxing experience, there’s so much here to do and discover that you may find yourself swiftly and hopelessly addicted to its homely charms.
Outer Wilds (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
To reveal too much about this glorious space exploration adventure risks spoiling an experience driven by new discoveries. Suffice it to say Outer Wilds casts you as a newly qualified astronaut about to embark on their first mission. Your local solar system is an open world, your easy-to-fly rocket ship your ticket to any of its miniaturised but highly distinct heavenly bodies, and your schedule is your own – but beware that you’re on something of a restrictive timeline.
Wonder, beauty, tragedy and a whole gamut of emotions await you in a compelling, self-driven tale that’s one of those surprisingly rare things among video game stories: one that could only be told effectively using video game mechanics.
Halo: Infinite (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
Halo goes open-world, and it’s a combination that works quite well, even if it’s not revolutionary or even particularly transformative. Despite the big icon-dotted map and freedom to roam, Halo: Infinite is very much in the same vein as the Master Chief’s previous outings when it comes to the core mechanics of its FPS combat: that intoxicating loop of shooting, grenade throwing, melee and movement still shines – it’s just that you get more of a say in when and where you get into fights. There’s also multiplayer, of course, and if you can put up with the annoying battle pass system of unlocks, there’s endless hours of competitive fun to be had in this half of the game too.
Unpacking (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
A deceptively simple concept sits at that heart of this indie gem: you unpack the protagonist’s belongings each time they move into a new space over a number of years, choosing where to put the pixel art clothing, crockery, books, toys and sentimental keepsakes, all to the accompaniment of a soothing retro soundtrack.
That’s satisfying, calming and nigh-on therapeutic in itself (Marie Kondo aficionados will embrace that zen feeling of creating a tidy, well-organised home), but there’s something almost profound going on too: the player discovers more and more about this person through these objects and locations, gaining a level of empathy and intimacy you seldom feel for a game character, particularly one who never speaks or is seen.
Forza Horizon 5 (Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC)
Admittedly, Forza Horizon 5 plays a lot like Forza Horizon 4, only rather than tearing a supercar with a SpongeBob SquarePants paint job through Edinburgh and Ambleside, you’re doing it in a decidedly sunnier Mexico. But when Playground Games’ open-world racing formula is as damn near perfect as it is, the last thing we want is a dramatic series shakeup. Which isn’t to say the fifth Horizon game doesn’t do anything new. The new “adventures” that you play through to unlock a fresh series of races not only give you the full Horizon experience, but also add a narrative element that works surprisingly well. And as if the ludicrously generous amount of races and events already built into the game aren’t enough, Playground now lets you design your own, too. Best racing game ever? You could make a strong argument for it.
Exo One (Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC)
Exo One is the perfect example of a unique indie gem you could so easily miss altogether if it wasn’t sitting there on Game Pass. You play as the titular tiny alien craft, built by humans and monitored on its interplanetary journey through space. The game is all about movement, as you learn to use gravity to gain momentum and send Exo One bouncing and then soaring across stunning alien landscapes about which almost nothing is known. If you ever played the mobile classic, Ting Wings, imagine that but in 3D, and with a lot more atmosphere. In its latter levels the game occasionally gets too mechanically ambitious for its own good, but this is still a thrilling sci-fi joyride.
Sable (Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC)
Made by a small studio in London, Sable is an open-world game that bucks the trend. Rather than littering the map with overwhelming go-there, do-this icons that are often only there to suck hours away without you noticing, Sable’s approach to the genre is far more minimalist. As Sable, you’re sent out into the vast desert to complete your Gliding, a rite of passage into adulthood for members of your tribe. Once you’ve acquired a hoverbike you’re free to go anywhere you like, and as you travel this mysterious but refreshingly friendly sci-fi land you’ll pick up quests from the chatty characters you meet along the way. Gameplay is a combination of light puzzling, chilled-out exploration and some Breath of the Wild-inspired climbing, but Sable is never hurrying you along, there’s no combat to speak of and you get out of the experience what you put into it. We really fell for its stunning cel-shaded visuals and Japanese Breakfast-scored soundtrack, but more than anything else we just really appreciate how it respects your time.
Knockout City (Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC)
Arena shooter, but make it dodgeball. That’s pretty much the setup for Knockout City, and it’s as fun as it sounds. In this brightly coloured multiplayer game two teams face off in large urban environments, but rather than guns, your weapon is your arm, and more importantly the dodgeball it’s launching at the opposition. The brilliance of the game lies in its simplicity. Anyone can get to grips with it after playing through a short tutorial, but after a few frenetic matches you’ll start to learn different techniques that can be used to gain an advantage on the battlefield. If you play games with a group of people and are looking for something a bit different, Knockout City is really worth a look.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon (Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
The Yakuza games are all brilliant, but there are so many games in the mainline series that it can be difficult to know where to jump in at. Which is why we’re very grateful for Yakuza: Like A Dragon, the series’ breakaway from the story of Kazuma Kiryu, which spans a whopping seven games. It introduces a new character, Ichiban Kasuga, who is released from an 18-year prison sentence for a murder he didn’t commit and faced with a world he doesn’t recognise. Like all the Yakuza games, Like A Dragon is a violent and frequently hilarious soap opera packed with mini-games and bizarre side quests. Once it gets its claws into you, there’s no escape. And while not everyone will like the transition from beat ‘em up combat to very deliberately JRPG-inspired turn-based battles, this is a great entry point into a beloved series.
Hades (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
Quite possibly the best game of 2020, this action rogue-like sees you take control of godling Zagreus (the rebellious son of Hades, ruler of the Underworld) as he attempts to escape his father’s domain and track down the mother he never knew. Starring an entire pantheon of Greek gods, mythical monsters and legendary heroes, the game’s elegant systems, breakneck pace, range of weapon options and procedurally generated levels mean no two escape runs are alike, while its cracking writing and softly-softly approach to storytelling makes your downtime between these attempts genuinely meaningful. A must play for anyone who loves video games.
Psychonauts 2 (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
A full-blown sequel to Double Fine’s underrated (or perhaps underpromoted) 2005 debut release, this 3D platformer sees you delve into characters’ psyches – which not only makes for engaging, inventive gameplay mechanics but allows the developers to explore themes of mental health and psychology in a genuinely new way. Generous, funny and heartfelt, this is another great Game Pass day-one release, and serves as a real credit to the platform and concept.
Enter the Gungeon (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
This deceptively simple dungeon crawler sees you battle through increasingly challenging procedurally generated rooms in an effort to find the fabled gun that can kill your past. With cutesy pixelated retro graphics and a straightforward twin-stick shooter approach, it’s easy to pick up but tricky to master. The rogue-like design (level layout, bosses and rewards are largely randomised, so each run through the Gungeon is unique) keeps it endlessly replayable with a heavy “just one more go” vibe that’ll have you blasting away into the wee hours in search of that one perfect combo of guns and gear that’ll let you progress all the way through.
Lonely Mountains: Downhill (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
Sometimes, less is more. In Lonely Mountains: Downhill, there’s no soundtrack, there are no opponents to race, and no pyrotechnics to admire as you cross the finish line. It’s just you, your mountain bike, the occasional chorus of bird sound, and a series of masterfully designed mountain ranges to tackle. To unlock new gear and harder tracks, you will need to ride fast and purposefully in Lonely Mountains, but the game is at its best when you’re taking things at your own pace, admiring the gorgeous low-poly graphics and deliberate absence of, well, most things. Here it becomes an almost meditative experience. This is a game about enjoying the tranquility of nature, something everyone has come to appreciate in recent times, and it’s probably the most relaxing experience you’ll find on Game Pass – even if you are smashing into a fair amount of trees.
Dishonored Definitive Edition and Dishonored 2 (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
Cheating a bit, we know, but both Dishonored games are utterly fantastic and neither sold as well as they deserved to, so we’ll fight anyone that objects. A lot of games champion freedom in how you approach your objective, but rarely is this freedom as well realised as in this first-person stealth action series. Do you charge around murdering everyone in sight with an array of specialised weaponry, or sneak about in the shadows so nobody knows you were there? Either approach is welcome, and no matter your playstyle, it’s impossible not to appreciate Arkane’s ingenious level design and steampunk worldbuilding. The second game arguably sees Arkane at the peak of its powers, but the original is still as fun to play today as it was in 2012. And with the studio’s next game, Deathloop, just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to get stabbing.
Fallout: New Vegas (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
Developed not by publisher Bethesda (who made Fallout 3) but third-party developer Obsidian, New Vegas feels much closer in tone to the original 2D Fallout games – and it’s all the better for it.
Plunged into a post-apocalyptic Southwestern US, the player becomes embroiled in a three-way power struggle between opposing factions, but is pretty much left alone to explore the world – which, yes, includes the revitalised city of Las Vegas – at their own pace, advancing the story as they see fit and making choices which feel like they matter. Graphically and mechanically it might be showing its age now, but if you’re going to delve into a Fallout game from the franchise’s second gen, we think it should be this one.
What Remains of Edith Finch (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
Short enough to play through in a single sitting, this brisk interactive adventure is perfect fodder for a spare evening. Playing as the last surviving member of a family that may or may not be cursed, you explore a strange, labyrinthine old house, periodically jumping into the skins of your deceased relatives to experience their (usually untimely) demises first-hand. If it sounds morbid and creepy, the surprising thing it that it doesn’t really feel that way – but if you’re looking for a grown-up game that doesn’t shy away from such complexities, why not download it and find out for yourself?
Sea of Thieves (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
Assemble a crew of your mates and venture out into a fantastical world of sea monsters, skeletal pirates, buried treasure and some of the most beautiful sunsets ever seen on a screen in this diverting cross-platform MMO. Striking a balance between relaxing, casual fun and involving action, Sea of Thieves is perhaps the perfect title for our current times: when we’re mostly stuck at home, unable to socialise, games like this really come into their own – especially if you can find a regular group to team up with.
Crusader Kings III (PC)
The long-awaited third entry in Paradox Interactive’s medieval ruler simulator is polished and feature-rich right out of the gate. Paradox has constructed a giant sandbox that runs from Iceland to India, allowing players to dive into the boots of pretty much any count, duke, king or emperor they choose, steering that person’s dynasty through the ages.
When your ruler dies, the game doesn’t end: you instead take control of their dynastic heir, shaping their rule through warfare, diplomacy, intrigue and more. Want your dynasty to rise from a lowly earl to the throne of England? Conquer Iberia as a Muslim warlord? Carve out your own fiefdom in the Holy Land? Or simply seduce your way around the court of your liege, littering the kingdom with your bastard offspring? It’s all possible, and it’s brilliantly engaging.
Microsoft Flight Simulator (PC, Xbox Series X/S)
The latest in a series of “games” Microsoft started almost 40 years ago, 2020’s edition of Flight Simulator (which launched on PC only but is now available on Xbox Series X and S and working like a charm on console) is a technical marvel. Tapping into Bing’s vast vault of map data and some clever terrain algorithms, this version essentially allows you to fly to any point on the globe. Some places look more detailed and convincing than others, true – but the ability to spot your neighbourhood from high up in the air (where you’ll hopefully be) is undeniably appealing. The downside to all this is data: the base game is a huge install, and much of the map data will need to be downloaded prior to each flight, which means a superfast broadband connection is pretty much a must-have.
The flight simulator itself is reassuringly flexible and granular. If you want to go all-in, you can set it to ultra-realistic and spend ages prepping for flights, tweaking each individual setting and enjoying what seems like the ultimate in cockpit recreation. Alternatively, set everything to the simplest mode and it becomes more akin to an arcade game, with the bulk of operations taken over by the AI.
Skate 3 (Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
It’s true that Tony Hawk has reclaimed his skateboarding game crown in the last year or so, but if you prefer a more simulation-based (but no less personality-filled) take on the sport, then the Skate games remain the gold standard.
Both the original Skate and Skate 3 are on Game Pass, and while first game still plays like a dream, the third entry is the series at its best. As a skater of your creation, you’re tasked with starting your own board company and building a team known to everyone in the skateboarding paradise of Port Caverton. Skate 3 introduded a host of team-based multiplayer features, but at its core it’s still about the thrill of landing tricks using the innovative stick-based control system. With a new Skate game officially in development, now is the perfect time to discover why this series has such a devoted following.
Dead Cells (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
This fast-paced 2D platformer forces you to restart the entire game every time you die. If Dead Cells sounds challenging, it is – but thanks to its finely-honed roguelike mechanics each foray you make into the game’s dark and mysterious fortress is different, and each one goes towards unlocking new gear and abilities that will aid you in future runs. The tight controls, procedurally generated levels, satisfying combat and straightforward presentation make it a joy to play, and you’ll be girding your loins for “just one more go” mere moments after your current run comes to an ignominious end.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
The idea of escaping to a fantasy land of endearing forest spirits and amiable furry friends is pretty damn appealing right now, which is why you’ve probably already bought and played the hell out of Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
An alternative well worth considering is Ori and the Will of the Wisps, a 2.5D platformer that casts you as the eponymous Ori, a sprite set adrift far from home, seeking a lost friend and a way to restore balance to a woodland beset by vicious beasts and bugs. If it sounds cutesy as hell, it’s actually a demanding Metroidvania-style experience with a beautifully realised interconnected world and much more of an emphasis on tight, tough combat than its predecessor Ori and the Blind Forest (also on Game Pass, and also well worth playing). All in all, it’s a rewarding adventure that’ll give you some merciful respite from real-world goings-on.
Alien: Isolation (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
This first-person survival horror adventure puts you on a decrepit space station populated by a handful of sane survivors, several more murderous ne’er-do-wells, dozens of dead-eyed androids (also murderous) and one perfect killing machine. It’s a recipe for scares all right.
For our money the best on-screen depiction of the film series’ xenomorph menace since the 1980s, this beast stalks you through the stations corridors and ducts, making any journey a fraught cat-and-mouse game that’ll have you hiding in lockers, ducking under desks and attempting improvised distractions in order to avoid having your insides ripped out. If it’s tension and atmosphere you’re looking for, look no further.
Frostpunk (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
Part city builder, part morality tester, Frostpunk casts you as the mayor of what might be the last living settlement on the planet.
Following the arrival of a new ice age, the Earth is undergoing the big freeze – and you’re in charge of keeping your citizens alive for as long as possible. In doing so you’ll collect resources, build homes and workplaces, send scouting parties out into the frigid wastes to scavenge technology, research new methods of keeping your people warm, fed and happy, and face a succession of tough choices that’ll test how far you’re willing to go to hold everything together. Do you rip up the child labour laws to get more coal dug today, or instead concentrate on educating the younger generation to ensure a brighter future? The chilly choice, as they say, is yours.
Halo: Master Chief Collection (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
Microsoft is gradually working through the entire Halo series, remastering the classic first-person shooters for today’s machines. Whether you’ve already ploughed countless hours into the Master Chief’s adventures or are a relative newbie when it comes to taking on the Covenant, the Master Chief Collection is a great way to experience the titles without having to rub up against the rougher edges of the original versions.
Slay the Spire (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
You might think the only card game that has a place on your PC is that free version of Solitaire that comes with Windows, but Slay the Spire will change your mind – and likely sap hundreds of hours out of your life.
You’re tasked with ascending the titular Spire – a many-levelled fantasy fortress populated with deadly monsters, strange but sometimes helpful citizens and covetous shopkeepers – over a three-act structure, with a boss fought at the end of each act. As you progress through the randomly generated quest, you build a deck of cards and collect magical relics in order to both survive the journey and beat the final boss. This indie gem’s mixture of RNG, roguelike and deck-building gameplay is beautifully elegant, while its brisk pace gives it a just-one-more-go feeling that’ll have you battling beasties until the early hours.
Gears 5: GOTY Edition (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
One of Game Pass’s flagship titles, Gears 5 is that same old Gears of War gameplay you know and love, given a little bit of an open world twist. The sci-fi shooter’s brutal third-person cover-based combat is now tempered with more exploration and a smattering of optional missions, all rendered with gorgeously gory visuals and buoyed along by an intriguing story.
If you’ve enjoyed Gears games in the past, you should definitely download this one. Oh, and PC and Xbox players can also engage in cross play here.
Hollow Knight (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
Hollow Knight asks the question: what if Dark Souls was a cute Metroidvania platform game? The answer is: it would be brilliant, addictive and challenging – and one of the finest indie titles you can download on Xbox Game Pass for PC!
Explore a vast interconnected world as a mysterious silent protagonist, fighting monsters, negotiating devilish challenges and learning new skills as you uncover the story behind a civilisation’s decline and fall. With its pixel-perfect controls, melancholic presentation and superbly designed environments, Hollow Knight is a game that every fan of old-school platformers should try.
Subnautica (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
Crash-landing on a water-covered alien planet, you’re forced to plunder the local flora, fauna and geology to survive and thrive for as long as possible. That’s the simple premise behind Subnautica, in which food, fresh water and shelter are constant concerns – and don’t get caught ogling the beautiful undersea environments, or you’ll run the risk of being snapped up by a passing finned monster…