Photo-Illustration: Top: Courtesy of Microsoft, Bottom: Courtesy of Nintendo
Xbox Game Pass is a no-brainer. For $15 a month, anyone with an Xbox or PC gets access to a vast library of video games, pulled from a variety of different publishers, which can all be downloaded for free. These aren’t budget titles, either. Microsoft plans on releasing Halo Infinite, easily the biggest name on its docket, to Game Pass on the same day it’s released at retail in 2021. That day can’t come soon enough, because this insurgent console generation has already been marred by a lack of content. Both the Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X are technically impressive and tastefully designed, but neither have much of a launch lineup to speak of. This is particularly egregious on the Microsoft side of things: The Series X costs $500, and currently it doesn’t boast a single exclusive that can’t be played on other platforms. For now, early adopters are spending their time playing a souped-up version of an old Tetris game, waiting for the future to arrive.
Thankfully, Game Pass does a great job filling the void. Microsoft has gone all-in on the Netflixication of gameplay, so your first few hours with your brand new Series X, or Series S, will likely be spent trolling through the offerings, deciding what you want to add to the drive. That can be pretty overwhelming for a newcomer. There are more than 100 games on the service, including, like, six different Maddens alone. Don’t worry, we’re here to help. Here are 25 games you should consider downloading once you get your hands on an Xbox Series X.
You can sign up for Xbox Game Pass here.
Gears of War isn’t the hottest franchise in the world anymore. Gone are the Xbox 360 heights in the mid-2000s, when Epic’s saga of grim meatheads in a world gone wrong ruled the roost. That’s a bit of a shame, because there’s a solid argument to be made that Gears 5 is the best game in the pentalogy. Centered around a surprisingly moving storyline about frayed family bonds, and featuring a cast of characters far more diverse and empathetic than the Marcus Fenix cadre, Gears 5 proves that even the most reprobate of space marines can someday grow up too.
Dead By Daylight has evolved from a gory, goofy multiplayer romp to a shockingly nuanced esports-adjacent platform. The basics remain the same; four players take control of survivors attempting to escape a dingy hellhole, while a fifth takes the role of a roaming psychopath trying to kill them. But amidst a rapidly thickening cast of characters, and a wide variety of different perks to build out your stat-sheets, Dead By Daylight almost resembles something like League of Legends in terms of competitive complexity. The good news is you can avoid all of that, take the reigns of Michael Myers or Ghostface, and have a blast as a complete noob. Dead By Daylight contains multitudes.
Halo Infinite was intended to be the Xbox Series X’s killer app. Unfortunately, the game was delayed into 2021 over the summer, leaving a Spartan-sized hole in the middle of the new console’s catalogue. Thankfully, first adopters can still cop the Master Chief Collection, which remains one of the best deals on the market. You’ll get access to the campaigns for Halos 1, 2, 3, ODST, Reach, and 4, as well as their corresponding multiplayer ouvres. It’s a fascinating history lesson; you can go from the primitive Blood Gulch duels of 2001 to the Big Team Battles of 2012 in an instant. The glory days are right in front of you.
Straight up: Celeste is the greatest 2D platformer of the last 10 years. Each level presents a fascinating new puzzle, navigable through a precise combination of air-dashes, double jumps, and a world-specific wrinkle built into the architecture. It’s beautiful — taking place on a psychedelic nordic mountain in a permanent 16-bit magic hour — and somehow also manages to unfurl a powerful narrative about the debilitations of a panic disorder.
Most strategy games are necessarily detached from any emotional calculus. Nobody really considers the human toll in Civilization or Age of Wonders as they subdue a rival empire into their orbit. Frostpunk brilliantly turns that on its head. You’re in charge of one of the last bastions of humanity in the middle of a brutal ice age. The only chance of survival is to forage for supplies and stay warm, fed, and sane. Within minutes, the game starts asking some brutal questions. Are you willing to send the camp’s children into the workforce? Euthanize those who are old, sick, and can’t pull their weight anymore? That’s the power of Frostpunk; it asks you to stare into the void lingering just under the curtain of any tidy management sim.
Countless games have attempted to recapture the magic of Dark Souls since its auspicious release in 2012, but none have gone about it quite like Hollow Knight. The game has all the trappings of the FromSoftware universe — a gloomy backdrop of a decrepit empire, a pile of eldritch lore, nooks and crannies that are intentionally difficult to discover — but all of that is wrapped up in an action platformer. Hollow Knight plays like DuckTails with BloodBorne’s scope. The more you dig, the more you’ll be rewarded.
Pandemic is one of the great board games of all time, and it has a spruced-up adaptation on Xbox and PC. The premise is simple and eminently relatable; you and your friends are doctors fighting against a wave of diseases carving through the world. Victory is achieved by developing the vaccines while keeping chaos in the cities at bay. Maybe Pandemic hits a little bit too close to home right now, but as someone who just enjoyed a round with my friends a few weeks ago, we found the gameplay strangely cathartic.
Imagine crash-landing into a planet entirely made up of wild, untamed ocean. That’s the situation that Subnautica puts its hapless traveller in. From there, you must scrounge together an underwater base — travelling far into the benthic currents, harvesting metal, coral, and edible fish — proving to any and all doubters that it is possible to survive a permanent life at sea. So many games deal within the survival sphere, but none are quite as cinematic as Subnautica.
Long ago, well before Bethesda gobbled up the IP, Fallout was a top-down isometric RPG with a lot of blood and guts and even more sardonic humor. The Wasteland series does its best to honor that tradition, now that Fallout has been expanded into a variety of open-world adventures that are good on their own merits, but don’t quite scratch the original itch. The latest, Wasteland 3, might be the best of the bunch. The combat is as satisfying as ever, as we explore the arcane reaches of this bizarre, post-nuclear America. (There are Reagan cultists to find.)
Yakuza is one of the most storied franchises in the history of the games industry, encompassing several 100-hour epics fleshing out the life and times of Kazuma Kiryu and his misadventures in the Japanese crime underworld. Over time, the series has hardened into an indecipherable canon — akin to the late seasons of Lost — but Yakuza 0 is the ideal entry point. It’s a prequel to the rest of the games, and is sitting pretty on Game Pass. You’ll witness the full wackadoo expanse of Yakuza; one minute you’ll be unfurling a sinister sedition conspiracy, and the next you’ll be getting reps in at the batting cages. No game in history has a more gloriously inconsistent tone, and that’s what makes us love it.
Screw Cyberpunk. The best game CD Projekt Red ever made is available for free on Game Pass. The Witcher III is a gorgeous RPG that puts more thought into its side quests than most games have their primary narrative. Each of its characters are painted with an exacting precision that other open-world RPGs — Skyrim, Assassin’s Creed, whatever — never pin down in the same way. A modern classic, even if the combat takes some getting used to.
Game Pass has a strong catalogue of classic PC adventure games, all of which have been tastefully remastered to fit the era. (Though personally, I enjoy them in their native, grainy 16-bit state.) If you’re new to this world, I recommend starting out with Full Throttle. Like most other games that came from LucasArts in its prime, the storytelling shines with an immediately charming, Disney-ish flair. You control a greasy biker caught in the middle of a conspiracy, and it’s up to you to point-and-click your way to freedom. Best of all, Full Throttle can be wrapped up in about eight hours, significantly shorter than some of the other games in the genre that tend to outstay their welcome.
Remedy has made wonderfully weird games for decades, but I think Control is the most cohesive interpretation of their worldview yet. On paper, this is a third-person shooter with some fun, physics-y telekinetic abilities. But the game is at its best when you’re exploring the bizarre corridors of The Oldest House and the inner workings of the Federal Bureau of Control — a highly secretive US intelligence division dedicated to paranormal events. You’ll commune with a transdimensional being in the Astral Plane, investigate the case of a haunted fridge, and power through the mind-boggling Ashtray Maze. By the end, you’ll be a believer.
Ever since Bungie wrested itself away from Activision and became an independent studio all over again, it’s become clear that Destiny 2 is the established, persistent MMO players hoped it’d be. (More directly, it looks pretty clear that there is no Destiny 3 on the immediate horizon.) The base game, and two of its expansions, are sitting peacefully on Game Pass, which means if you ever want to explore this peculiar space odyssey — and potentially get sucked in right alongside your friend who’ve already been seduced — now is the time.
Fallout 3 is great. Fallout 4 is fine. And some people claim that Fallout 76 has fully resuscitated from its disastrous launch. But the consensus critical opinion remains that New Vegas is the best game Bethesda has ever published under the name. It takes the franchise back to its first setting, the radiation-scarred west coast, and engages in a heavier dose of RPG elements that started to atrophy away from the series the longer it’s been under the Bethesda umbrella.
Resident Evil 7 ditched the encroaching action game monotony that has dominated the franchise in recent years. Instead, you go back to basics; a dude in a haunted house, with no real recourse against the demons who want you dead. As Jack Baker chases you down with his axe, you’ll remember why Resident Evil was once called a horror game. Turn the lights off, if you dare.
Oxenfree was crafted in deference to wistful teen cinema and the paranormal, and yes, that means it does have a lot in common with Stranger Things. You and your friends are on a small island in the middle of the night, and slowly things get weird around the campfire. It’s a game to be experienced, rather than solved, which makes Oxenfree a great narrative to watch for any non-gamers in the household. The soundtrack is killer, too.
Many games claim to be open-ended sandboxes, but Arkane Studios actually fulfills that promise on Dishonored 2. I spent an hour scaling a clockwork tower, dispatching a series of bloodthirsty automatrons, en route to assassinate an evil inventor waiting in his high office. Later, I discovered that it’s possible to eschew all of those challenges entirely, and instead take him out while he’s enjoying an afternoon tea on the balcony, completely oblivious to your entry. Dishonored 2 is full of those moments of misdirection, and it certainly deserves your attention.
Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Farming Simulator is innately easy to mock with its stately recreation of pastoral life, its nerdy fascination with tractor technology, and its rudimentary graphics. But get past the exterior, and you might just discover an intoxicating experience; dampening all your anxieties by simply seeding your fields. Many players have fallen under Farming Simulator’s spell. You might be its latest victim.
Microsoft bought Rare in 2002, which means that a number of the company’s classic Nintendo titles can be found on Xbox platforms. There is something uncanny about playing Banjo-Kazooie in HD graphics on a machine that’s built to render gigantic game worlds in glistening 4K, but personally, I’m grateful for the opportunity. Nearly 30 years after release, Banjo-Kazooie still runs circles around so many contemporary platformers with its charm.
If ancient Rare games aren’t your thing, consider taking Sea of Thieves for a spin. It first arrived on Xbox’s shores in 2018 with a killer Pirates of the Carribean conceit and a disappointing dearth of window dressing. Since then, Rare has primed the game with a bounty of new features, making it one of the best co-operative experiences on consoles. You haven’t lived if you and your friends haven’t run your frigate aground on a desert island.
I mean, it’s Minecraft. This game took over the world in 2011 with an enduring core concept; carve your way through a world made of blocks, and build your own universe with what you find. The fundamental experience, in which the player slowly assembles an empire of stone and survives the Creepers, still works beautifully. But these days, people come to Minecraft for its community and the things they wrought — be that rinkydink multiplayer mods, or a pixel perfect recreation of Mordor.
Titanfall 2 deserves more respect. Yes, the folks at Respawn Entertainment adapted a number of its ideas to Apex Legends, which is a great game in its own right. But for my money, there is nothing quite like the quicksilver thrills in the company’s 2017 effort. Where else can you play as a gigantic mech equipped with a sniper rifle? Years later, the game still has a dedicated multiplayer community. Enjoy it, but don’t expect to survive for long.
Slay the Spire is extremely simple. Players start an adventure equipped with a mediocre deck of cards, and by progressing through the chambers in the dungeon before them, they’ll slowly upgrade the power level of that collection. This mechanic can be found in board games like Dominion and Thunderstone, but it wasn’t fully popularized on consoles until the game made landfall last year. If you ever want to scratch a Magic: The Gathering-type itch but only have about 20 minutes to spare, Slay the Spire is your game.
There are a lot of competitive first-person shooters on Game Pass, but only Rainbow Six: Siege offers the thrills of scoring a headshot through plaster. Ubisoft’s long-running tactical series got a fresh coat of paint in 2015, complete with a smart synergy of character powers and gadgets. (One operator has a grenade that specifically mutes the other team’s hearing.) The selling point is how modular Siege’s maps are. Doors can be kicked down, walls can be shredded, ceilings can be blasted through. Most multiplayer games ask its competitors to fight on a purely east-and-west scale. Siege asks you to stay frosty from every possible direction.