Many people will be turning to video games as an escape during lockdown and the gaming industry is set for a booming Christmas as the PS5 and Xbox Series X kick off the next generation. But, as everyone knows, no matter how technically impressive the hardware is, gaming consoles are nothing without a library of games to play on them.
For those invested in an Xbox Series X or Xbox Series S, one thing is for sure; Microsoft’s subscription service Game Pass is essential. It provides hundreds of ‘legacy’ games for a flat fee, a handful of which have been optimised for the new consoles, as well as future proofing your console for any Xbox exclusives that arrive.
For now, those exclusives may be a little thin on the ground, but there is still a strong offering of terrific games to play on your new console. Both brand new and updated; on Game Pass and beyond. So here are our recommendations for the best games to play right now on Xbox Series X. And if you are preparing to start your next-gen journey with the PlayStation 5, then head over to our guide to the best PS5 games.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon ★★★★
Getting Sega’s brilliantly zany Yakuza series onto Xbox Series X ahead of the PS5 has been something of a coup for Microsoft. And Like A Dragon rises to the top of any list with its vivid and surreal facsimile of Japanese city life, a cast of whacked out ‘heroes’ and unremittingly barmy turn-based street fights (as an example, using your smartphone to summon crayfish from the sky to snap away at enemy heels).
A fresh start for the series, Yakuza: LAD casts you as the earnest Yakuza henchman Kasuga Ichiban. Cast out from the game’s usual haunt of Kamurocho, a fictional district of Tokyo, the game’s action moves to Yokohama where he meets and teams up with a ragtag bunch of companions. As ever Yakuza blends brilliant characterisation with a penchant for the weird, all the while setting it against a more serious and foreboding main narrative thread. If you haven’t experienced Yakuza before, it’s unlike anything else and this is a great place to start.
Tetris Effect: Connected (Game Pass) ★★★★
Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s transcendent Tetris Effect was a synaesthetic treat for virtual reality headsets, but its beautiful combination of gorgeous music tracks and light shows with the inimitable puzzle classic was still brilliant on flat-screen TVs. Now it arrives on Xbox (and Game Pass) for the first time.
Tetris Effect is so good that it would find a spot on this list regardless of any extras, but Connected adds a fabulously smart multiplayer component which pairs you with other players as you battle to overcome Tetris-playing zodiac deities. You each have your own game to play as the baddie launches junk into your playing space, but when things reach a climax, your games join together in one panoramic game. That’s where the magic happens, strangers wordlessly co-operating on a giant Tetris board, building lines and clearing space as one. Glorious.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla ★★★★
Ubisoft’s quasi-historical adventure is usually a fine time, but Valhalla’s viking pilgrimage across the rolling hills of 9th century England is the best it has been for a decade. By marrying the series' stealth-action roots with its modern RPG trappings, Valhalla is a confident game that encourages discovery and is capable of surprise. Plus: hitting things with an axe is fun. Optimised for Series X with 4K resolution and smooth 60fps, it is also a gorgeous representation of our fair isle. Even when you are setting fire to it.
Gears 5 (Game Pass) ★★★★★
Released last year for Xbox One, Gears 5 surprised us all with a terrific advancement of the game’s muscular combat. More open levels and a greater depth of character made for fine backdrops for Gears classic and snappy cover shooting. It looked great then and has had a fine makeover for Series X, as if playing the game on Ultra high PC settings. Visuals are sharper, effects more potent and, for the more competitively-minded, multiplayer gives you the option of running the game at 120fps.
Destiny 2: Beyond Light (Game Pass) ★★★★
Bungie’s brilliant and long-running sci-fi shooter doesn’t have any specific upgrades for Series X just yet. Those are coming on 8 December. However, with the introduction of the latest expansion Beyond Light --which introduces a new stasis class, storyline and the brilliant destination of the Europa moon-- it seems the ideal time for first-time players to jump in. Every available mission for Destiny 2 is now available on Game Pass, too, which is a tough invitation to decline.
Watch Dogs Legion ★★★
In Watch Dogs Legion, Ubisoft’s ambitious --if uneven-- hacking thriller, London is the star of the show. Uniformed goons stalk the streets, harassing and beating down its citizens, armed drones patrol the skies, while giant holographic signs warning Londoners to stay in line are projected all over famous landmarks. It's good fun and looks particularly swish on PS5 thanks to next-generation ray tracing, casting impressively wet reflections across rain-soaked London streets.
Gears Tactics (Game Pass) ★★★★
Yes, we realise two Gears of War games is pushing its luck at launch, but Tactics offers something different enough from its cinematic kin. An XCOM style turn-based strategy game, Tactics released earlier this year on PC but makes its debut on console for the Xbox Series launch. It leverages its Gears of War heritage with some terrific set dressing and bombastic visuals, and executes its tactical nous with similar elan. It’s a potent combination.
With FIFA’s next gen debut delayed to December 4, Xbox Series X sports games are thin on the ground right now. (unless you fancy raiding EA's back catalogue on Game Pass, that is). NBA2K21 has its fair share of flaws (particularly the focus on loot boxes and microtransactions) but there’s no denying it brings its next gen A-game. Thanks to the incredible added realism of ray traced reflections, the only noticeable visual discrepancy between its virtual match-ups and TV broadcasts of the recent NBA bubble series is the presence of spectators at the games.
Halo: The Master Chief Collection ★★★★
Oh what we’d have given for Halo Infinite on launch day. But with Microsoft deciding their flagship FPS needed more time in the oven, you can indulge yourself in the increasingly generous Master Chief Collection. Every mainline entry of the groundbreaking sci-fi shooter, now given a Series X lick of paint; 4K resolution, 120fps in both campaign and multiplayer, improved split-screen and new field-of-view options. It might not be Infinite, but it is splendid preparation.
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War ★★★
There might not be anything particularly revolutionary about this year's Call of Duty entry. But Cold War's campaign blockbusting ferocity flexes its next-gen muscles as you hunt down a Soviet spy. Add in a pleasingly old-school multiplayer and the co-op silliness of Zombies and there is plenty there for Cold War to give your console a warm-up.
Forza Horizon 4 (Game Pass) ★★★★
Another Xbox One game given the Series X glow-up, Forza’s joyous brand of open-world racing, this time across the verdant British countryside looks particularly splendid at 4K and locked 60fps. Horizon particularly benefits from lightning-fast load times, pitching you onto Edinburgh roads and rolling Yorkshire hills in seconds.
Dirt 5 ★★★★
Codemasters’ latest rally sim offers a frantic variety of racing styles as well as a way of showing off your new console. You can flip between highly-detailed visuals and resolution and, for the purists, blistering 120fps. Either way, the ferocious, filthy racing is both enormously fun and absurdly gorgeous.