It was bound to happen eventually, but Microsoft’s approach to the Xbox ecosystem forced our hand a little bit. The Polygon Essentials lists for Xbox One and Xbox Series X (and Xbox Series S) consoles will now be brought together into one master list for the entire platform.
This switch was really the only way to move forward. Xbox Series X can play all Xbox One games — at least for now — and true Xbox Series X exclusives are rare. If you can play almost all these games on both systems, who needs two lists?
So no matter which Microsoft console you own, this is the list for you.
Whether you’re an existing fan of the Xbox platform or you just recently bought an Xbox One, Xbox One X, or Xbox Series X, here are the 22 best games for the platform to get your collection started, or give you some new ideas about what to play.
Why 22 games, though? Round numbers are boring, and any more might be overwhelming. 22 games is solid number of titles, spread across many genres, with selections for adults, children, or families to play together. We wanted to focus on the best of the best for this guide to the Essential releases on the Xbox family of consoles, and we think you’ll be able to find something you like. When possible, we’ve included a link to our guide for each game, just in case you need a little help.
And if the list of 22 games up top isn’t enough, check out the extra recommendations we threw in at the bottom. There are plenty of great experiences on the Xbox platform, so let’s get started.
Outriders is a little bit of an odd duck on this list, especially since it wasn’t given the “Recommends” badge in the original review. But there are some extenuating circumstances here, including the fact that I just cannot stop playing this game. It looks amazing on Xbox Series X, and it’s included with the cost of Game Pass.
The story is a bit of a mess, so I’ve chosen to ignore it completely, which hasn’t harmed my enjoyment a bit. The technical issues at launch have been either fixed or at least mitigated in most cases, and as a Game Pass game, this pastiche of Gears of War, The Division, and Diablo series is at least worth a try. You may find, as I did, that this is one of the most satisfying shooters to be released this year. —Ben Kuchera
Get it here: Microsoft Store
I don’t want to overstate the degree to which Hitman 3 is a departure from its predecessors. The moment-to-moment gameplay remains focused on Agent 47 sneaking past people (or donning disguises to hide in plain view) so he can put himself in position to commit murder. In some sense, it is a sequel very much like Hitman 2, with new targets to take down in six new locations, and some additional toys and tactics with which 47 can accomplish his goals. But I very much appreciated the twists and wrinkles that IO threw into the Hitman formula this time around, many of them steered by the story.
That’s a clear sign that in concluding its beloved trilogy, IO felt it necessary to exert a stronger degree of narrative control and prioritize its own story over the open-ended nature of Hitman. The studio put a heavier hand on the wheel, but the trade-off is absolutely worth it.
Deciding the answers to these big game design questions is the kind of thing you can do when you return to being an independent studio, and gain the self-determination to tell the story you want to tell while staying true to the franchise you’ve been working on for more than two decades. I’m amazed that IO pulled off that delicate balancing act in Agent 47’s finest adventure to date. —Samit Sarkar
Watch Dogs: Legion
I’d worried that Legion’s be-anyone approach might turn its characters into the game’s loot — valued only for the skill or perk they bring to the team, and robbing us of anyone worth caring about. You might be left with that feeling if you play without the game’s permadeath option, which has to be activated at the start of a campaign (it can be later turned off, but not reactivated). I recommend users turn the permadeath option on. It feels like the ‘right way’ to play.
I’m glad I restarted Watch Dogs: Legion’s campaign very early in my playthrough, after finding the guards’ and thugs’ oblivious AI triflingly easy to exploit at standard difficulty. Only permadeath and hard difficulty forced me to plan out and solve each level as a puzzle — which should be the enjoyment of a game built around hacking, after all — rather than blunder through an impromptu shooting gallery out of impatience or a bad decision. Experienced gamers, or anyone familiar with how Ubisoft handles the stealth business, should play on these settings.
I didn’t find any nasty difficulty spikes waiting for me as the story advanced through the Ubisoft formula of taking down a series of bad actors and discovering how they’re linked, before the big reveal and concluding showdown. Watch Dogs: Legion’s story may be templatized, but it benefits considerably from a richly illustrated, believably near-future London, and plot lines that are unafraid to tackle troubling subjects or put a subtle opinion on them. —Owen Good
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
Much of [Black Ops Cold War’s campaign] leans into this polished, if artificial, one-dimensional feel. Rather than taking place as naturalistic beats along a linear narrative, Cold War’s missions feel more modular, represented as stacks of photos, scribbled code sheets and newspaper clippings pasted up on a wall in your safe house. Hidden in most missions are collectible evidence items which you can bring back to the safe house and use to solve the small, escape-room style puzzles on the evidence board, which are necessary to complete a series of side missions (of which, sadly, there are only two).
The members of your clandestine team will pace around the safe house on pre-programmed routes, sometimes going up to each other and engaging in hushed conversations, like actors on an immersive set. One of them might answer a phone call and hold the receiver in place, saying nothing and staring out into space until you interact with him. Little distinguishes them from the cardboard figures of Amerika Town. Within missions, they’ll belt out sardonic quips and jingoistic inculcations, all with the same emotionless reserve–‘We don’t sit back and hope for the best, we make the best happen’ or ‘Some of us have crossed the line, to make sure the line’s still there in the morning’–each entreatment meant to draw the player into the game’s ideology and which belie the truth that the game doesn’t seem to believe in its own ideology. It’s all theater that knows it’s theater. —Yussef Cole
The secret heart of Treyarch’s Call of Duty games since 2008 has always been Zombies. The wave-based survival mode is equal parts silly, challenging, and endlessly repeatable… in Black Ops Cold War, Treyarch has brought the focus all the way back to zombies and how you kill them.
Black Ops Cold War doesn’t reinvent the Zombie-mode wheel. It keeps most of the basic ideas that Treyarch has added to the mode over the last 12 years, but simplifies them down to their most fun elements.
The best example of this comes from Black Ops Cold War’s map, which takes the original Nazi research lab from the first World at War Zombie map and expands it into a modern, much larger, Zombies experience. […] Everything I do in the map now feels like it’s in service of my survival. —Austen Goslin
Devil May Cry 5 Special Edition
Devil May Cry 5 Special Edition isn’t a new game like many of the others on this list, but it is one of the first examples out the gate that put the promises of next-generation hardware on full display. The world of Devil May Cry always seems to be slick with something — water, demonic ooze, slimy roots of a world-sized tree filled with blood. All of that dazzles with easily accessible ray tracing, even if it’s a little stomach-churning. Some of the most memorable set piece battles look better than before, and having a higher frame rate makes the constant action much easier to follow.
Capcom stuffed the game with characters on the first go-round, switching the campaign between three heroes with their own distinct, over-the-top fighting styles. (And the special edition adds big bad Vergil as a playable option, letting you replay the entire campaign from a new perspective.) All these options offer variety that makes the campaign — which embraces demonic camp as well as any great CW show — worth experiencing all over again. This was an excellent game when it came out in 2019, but hopefully its special edition treatment means more people will appreciate its campiness and stellar action. —Chelsea Stark
If you’re only a sometimes-fan of professional basketball, NBA 2K21’s offerings verge on overkill. But there’s no denying that this series offers the most complete immersion of the NBA, as a game, a business, and a lifestyle, in ways rival FIFA doesn’t.
The staple modes of a team sports title are all here, but MyCareer is where most should spend their time. In NBA 2K21 on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, MyCareer’s hub world of pickup basketball, socializing, and even shoe shopping gets a robust expansion into ‘The City.’ Players are now transported to a larger environment where their co-operative competitive play supports one of the four factions they join, somewhat like an MMO. Don’t worry, there’s still a ton of basketball to be played here, whether that’s with others or as you practice for and play the next game on your single-player career schedule.
Visual Concepts brought NBA 2K21 to launch determined to show what they can do with all this new power. Visually, the game is sharper than ever, with even more detail in the arenas to help it mimic a real-life broadcast. There are gameplay upgrades taking advantage of beefier processing, like players’ contextual awareness of the three-point line, taking a step back if necessary to attempt the shot. There’s even a dedicated career mode for the WNBA, though it’s not that much to crow about. Still, everything in NBA 2K21 on PS5 and Xbox Series X makes what launched in September 2020 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One already seem stone age. —OG
Dirt 5, by Codemasters, steps into the time-honored role of offering the racing showcase to a new console generation. The series and Codemasters are both known for a demanding brand of simulation racing, but Dirt 5 moves strongly for mass audience appeal and accessibility, staying true to visual fidelity and physics.
Dirt 5 is a racer more in the MotorStorm mold, which fits considering how many Evolution Studios alumni now work for Codemasters. It’s pack racing at heart, with lots of contact and not much technical know-how necessary to win. Experienced drivers will probably need the very hard difficulty setting to get much of a challenge, particularly in the early goings of the Career mode.
Career offers the most depth, showing the player all of the events (point-to-point rallies; circuit races; hill climbs against a clock; and even ice racing) in all of the exotic, no-way-you-could-actually-race-there locales. There’s a fleet of 64 vehicles, some fictional, among 13 classes. Those looking for a serious, you-against-the-timer rally simulation should look to KT Racing’s WRC 9, also on Xbox Series X and PS5. For every other racing itch on the current console generation, Dirt 5 can scratch it. —OG
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Valhalla is securely a role-playing game with a stealth influence, instead of the other way around. It allows the player to enact both large-scale battles and quick assassinations while hidden within a crowd. The Vikings, too, introduce their own expression of stealth in their raids, where narrow longships sneak up to encampments to attack without warning.
Eivor has an assassin’s blade, a gift given to her from Sigurd. Hers, though, is not hidden — she wears it atop her cloak, because she wants her foes to see their fates in her weapon.
Valhalla’s most intriguing story is one about faith, honor, and family, but it’s buried inside this massive, massive world stuffed with combat and side quests. That balance is not always ideal, but I’m glad, at least, that it forces me to spend more time seeking out interesting things in the game’s world. —Nicole Carpenter
Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Ori and the Will of the Wisps already appears on our list of Xbox One game recommendations, but it’s worth highlighting its Xbox Series X optimization. Players who own a compatible television will be able to experience the eye-popping visuals of Ori at 120 frames per second in 4K and HDR.
In a post on Xbox Wire, Gennadiy Korol, co-founder and lead engineer at Moon Studios, explained that the team also designed a 6K Supersampled Rendering Mode for the Xbox Series X version of the game, as well the option for players to switch between the 4K mode (which runs the game at 120 frames per second) and the 6K mode (60 frames per second). The developers also did another pass on the game’s sound design, including more dynamic range and reverb in certain parts.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps was already worth playing in its original form, with its lush environments and poignant soundtrack allowing it to stand out from the crowded 2D platformer genre. The Xbox Series X upgrade makes it stand out even more. —Maddy Myers
Destiny 2: Beyond Light
Destiny 2: Beyond Light’s most impressive feat is how it takes Destiny’s first step into a new era — the Era of Darkness — without being a full sequel.
Beyond Light isn’t a new golden age for the franchise like Destiny: The Taken King and Destiny 2: Forsaken were. Beyond Light is something different. It’s more Destiny, but it’s actively stepping into a new generation of powers, performance, and design.
The game loads faster. The menus are snappier. The Director is cleaner. And the new tutorial experience is actually useful for new and returning players. So is this Destiny 3? Not exactly.
Beyond Light avoids the pitfall of a fully rebooted sequel by making strategic, targeted improvements rather than sweeping ones. —Ryan Gilliam
I knew I’d love The Outer Worlds as soon as I stumbled into a cave and met a bleeding, dying gentleman.
I offered to help, but he hesitated. Was I using Spacer’s Choice health care products? His contract clearly states that he can’t use a competing product. This was my first real introduction to the weird, corporate dystopia of the Halcyon system, where giant, sprawling conglomerates have the final word on just about everything, and everyone is simply trying to get by.
But maybe I can help with this whole mess, if I decide to try. The game begins with Phineas Welles — a guy who’s a little like a nicer Rick, sans Morty — waking me from cryosleep aboard the colonist vessel the Hope. The Hope was lost in space, I’ve been frozen for 70 years, and the entire system went straight to hell while I was on ice.
So I’m emerging into a space-capitalist nightmare, and Welles is asking me for help. I’ve just got to murder some robots and raiders, meet the locals down on some of the nearby planets, and try to figure out whether I’m down with Welles’ vision of eating the rich.
And I gotta admit, I’m a little hungry. —Cass Marshall
The Super Mega Baseball games have always been bursting with charm, delivering the trappings of semipro sports with a goofy sandlot spin. The series drew me in with its silly fictional athletes and ballclubs, a world of lovable chuckleheads that I got to know over the course of two terrific video games. I never expected that Super Mega Baseball 3 would weaponize those emotional ties in the best way, turning my attachments to my favorite teams and players against me in its excellent, demanding franchise mode.
With the original Super Mega Baseball in 2014, and its 2018 follow-up, Canadian indie studio Metalhead Software brilliantly captured the spirit of the simple, fun sports games that many of us remember from our childhoods. But rather than reviving the exaggerated power-ups of NBA Jam and NFL Blitz, this series blends the cartoony essence of Backyard Baseball and Power Pros with a sound baseball simulation. Where else can you play as a team called the Sirloins, and mash home runs with a mutton-chopped slugger named Hammer Longballo?
Of course, the Super Mega Baseball games wouldn’t have succeeded without a foundation of rock-solid baseball mechanics beneath the surface. But it was the combination of the action on the field and the humor infused into everything else that turned Super Mega Baseball from a novelty series into one of the best success stories in sports video games. There’s nothing quite like it on the market these days.
Now, Metalhead has upped its game once again. Super Mega Baseball 3 is a capstone for the acclaimed series, the fulfillment of a mission that the studio embarked upon almost a decade ago, when it began working on the first game. That’s partly because Metalhead further refined its simulation of baseball this time around. But the new feature that ties everything together and elevates Super Mega Baseball 3 into a complete package is a proper franchise mode, the centerpiece of any long-lasting sports title. —SS
Get it here: Microsoft Store
It’s surprisingly difficult, because the more you describe it, the less mysterious it becomes, and keeping the mystery alive is an enormous part of the game’s appeal.
Here’s how Colin Campbell began Polygon’s Outer Wilds review:
Outer Wilds is a nonviolent, first-person exploration-puzzle game set in a solar system that’s sprinkled with delightful mysteries. Its secrets are scattered among a whirling orrery of planets, which I probe and investigate.
That’s the stone-cold truth of Outer Wilds, from a helpfully mechanical point of view. It’s an important, incomplete part of the description. You ought to know what you do.
Thing is, the magic in Outer Wilds is as much philosophical as it is mechanical, which is why Chelsea Stark began our game of the year essay like this:
Games have long fixated on humanity’s quest to play colonist, conqueror, or anthropologist, learning about and usually seeking to control everything beyond our own horizons.
But Outer Wilds delivers one of the most ambitious tales of discovery I’ve ever seen in gaming, without a focus on violence or domination. It’s a triumph that we at Polygon are happy to declare our game of the year for 2019.
So, yes, Outer Wilds tells the story of an alien species with adorable wooden spaceships, with which you explore the solar system — and in the very process of doing so reveals a mystery that would be a tragedy to spoil. —Polygon Staff
Get it here: Microsoft Store
Sea of Thieves
Sea of Thieves arrived on Xbox One and Windows in 2018 to a mixture of oohs, ahhs, and ughs. The first several hours in the game are a blast, particularly with friends. Learning how to sail, navigate, plunder — basically, how to be a pirate — is challenging and hilarious. The hours after that, at least at launch, were less exhilarating than repetitive.
But Sea of Thieves is a living game. Since its March 2018 release, developer Rare has expanded the game with new areas to visit, loot to chase, and group activities to enjoy. Microsoft appears committed to this adventure, rewarding players who’ve chosen to stay on the ship and finding new ways to attract those who leapt overboard. Its anniversary update was a big demonstration of that commitment.
Even if you don’t find yourselves on these beautiful seas, you should make time to stream a couple of quests for buried treasure. The game is nearly as fun to watch as it is to play. —BK
Control is a wonderfully weird game. It’s also gorgeous.
Its story and its characters are equal parts challenging, confusing, and intriguing. None of them is offensive enough to remain off-putting. Each makes you want to explore deeper and learn more — and it helps that Control looks and feels great while you unravel the mysteries of the Oldest House.
Control manipulates light and shadow not just to look great, but to serve the very foundation of the narrative. Aspects of the game can seem weird or disjointed, but everything in Control is deliberate, which you’ll see if you stick with it. Uncertainty is a feature, not a bug.
Developer Remedy Entertainment fully committed to Control’s pulpy, surreal premise, and that made Control as much a technical marvel as an artistic achievement. —DT
Much like Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Gears 5 is a last-generation game that received a makeover for the Xbox Series X. The Coalition’s entry in the long-running Gears of War franchise looked good when it first came out in 2019, but now it has new and improved 4K visuals on the Xbox Series X, and can run in 120 frames per second in Versus multiplayer.
Gears 5’s optimized version also makes some changes to input latency. In a post on Xbox Wire, The Coalition’s director of communications Dana Sissons ran down the stats: “In campaign, input latency is reduced by 40% and in Versus MP, this latency is reduced up to 60% over Xbox One X, meaning that player inputs translate to movement on screen much faster, allowing for an incredibly immersive and competitive experience.”
The upgraded version of the game includes the option to replace Marcus Fenix with Dave Bautista (formerly of the WWE), but it’s worth playing the campaign the ordinary way first if you never have. In his review for Polygon, Dave Tach put it this way: “Gears 5 has, shockingly enough, competent open-world elements and a much more affecting story than the games that came before. I find, to my everlasting surprise, that I enjoy the quieter moments more than the big action spectacles. That’s the nucleus of Gears 5 in my mind — the areas and hours where I set my own pace, riding the skiff to something shiny over the horizon.” —Maddy Myers
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a fitting capstone to developer FromSoftware’s peerless decade of development, during which it created games that dared players not to die. FromSoftware’s games are, by design, difficult — borderline antagonistic, in fact. And yet they’re also incredibly popular and influential.
How to they do it? By being damn good games. As I wrote in our games of the year 2019 essay, if you’re going to be weird, then you’d better be good — and FromSoftware and Sekiro are both.
In 2019, the painful, rewarding journey was about a bodyguard and young royalty, about duty and honor, about overwhelming odds and survival with little more than a hook and a sword. Die, and you may feel like a fool. Survive, and you may feel like a god. No other studio has ever been able to so deftly walk the razor’s edge between shaking, sweating frustration, and pure elation, and you’ll feel all that and more as you play Sekiro. —DT
Red Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2 ladles an astonishing amount of game over a meticulously drawn world that begs to be sipped and savored.
Part action game, part cowboy simulator, part lament on steamrolling progress, part exploration of American ideals real and imagined, developer Rockstar Games created a sprawling — and at times shocking, or frustrating — epic every bit as grandiose as the Western films and novels that inspired it.
Open-world sandboxes are nothing new to Rockstar Games, but Red Dead Redemption 2 plants a flag in the ground, declaring that the studio isn’t limited to a single, high-profile franchise. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a declaration that its quasi-Western epic stands toe-to-toe with its studio sibling, Grand Theft Auto.
The staggering amount of human effort required to bring this game to fruition shows through in every vista, every dimly lit street corner, every bespoke animation for human and animal alike. That effort also, shortly before the game’s release, became a story unto itself. Reports of crunch demonstrate that games like Red Dead Redemption 2 often don’t ship without exacting a toll, voluntary or otherwise. —DT
The Xbox One X may be the best place to play Nier: Automata, besting the notoriously messy PC port at launch. If you need to be sold on the action RPG from Square Enix and PlatinumGames, it won’t take more than a few seconds of Googling to find dozens of odes from its devotees.
That includes Polygon, as Nier: Automata landed a spot Polygon’s game of the year 2017 list. We praised it not just for being a good action-RPG-shooter hybrid, but for using its mechanics to comment on what makes games so beautiful, nasty, fun and complicated.
If you need more convincing, Nier: Automata also had one of the best soundtracks of 2017. —Polygon Staff
Sunset Overdrive may be the weirdest AAA exclusive of the last console generation, tossing together a self-aware and silly story (an energy drink hastens the zombie apocalypse), superhero abilities, and a beautifully gaudy open world that can be traversed in a variety of playful ways. Developer Insomniac Games’ adventure feels like the artwork painted onto an old arcade cabinet brought to life.
It’s unusually bright, colorful, and light. Its weapons are jokey weapons; its enemies are filled with neon orange goo. It doesn’t get in the way of itself with gloominess or a heavy dramatic twist. Sunset Overdrive is pure, unadulterated fun.
As an exclusive, it’s also a bit of history now, given that Sony acquired Insomniac in 2019, folding the developer of Ratchet & Clank, Spyro, and Marvel’s Spider-Man into the PlayStation family. —Polygon Staff
Xbox Game Pass
When we put Xbox Game Pass on our list of the recommended games on Xbox One, we acknowledged the weirdness of its inclusion in the lineup. After all, it’s not a game. It’s a subscription service. But, even back then, it was worth it, because Xbox Game Pass had over 100 games on its service.
Now, the value add is even better. Xbox Game Pass now includes over 200 games. It still costs the same — $9.99 per month. The current lineup includes picks from this list, like Destiny 2, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, and Gears 5, as well as critically acclaimed older games like Hollow Knight, Celeste, and Alien: Isolation. All of the old Gears of War games are on there, as well as three Yakuza games that will help you catch up on story before playing Like a Dragon — and that’s barely scratching the surface.
The bang for your buck is undeniable. Xbox Game Pass is the most logical purchase of this entire list. —Maddy Myers
Get it here: Microsoft Store
Other notable games:
Get it here: Microsoft Store
Get it here: Microsoft Store
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