What are the best games on the Xbox Series X? If you’re among the lucky few who’ve obtained one of Microsoft’s new consoles, you’ll be wondering what to play. This is a living list of the best video games available on the platform, to be updated as more games come out.
Our console recommendation lists here at Polygon ordinarily contain 22 games, because it’s a solid number that can encompass many different kinds of games. This list doesn’t have 22 picks, or at least not yet, but the Xbox Series X and Series S boast excellent backward compatibility with Xbox One and Xbox 360 games. Several last-gen games have specifically been “optimized” for the Xbox Series X and Series S, meaning they’ve been upgraded to take advantage of the new hardware. With all of that in mind, our list of the 22 best Xbox One games will serve you well.
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
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
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
Destiny 2 will get a next-gen upgrade on Dec. 8. Owners of the Xbox One version will receive the Xbox Series X upgrade for free.
Devil May Cry 5 Special Edition
Devil May Cry 5 Special Edition isn’t a new game like the others on the 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
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 new console generation of consoles, Dirt 5 can scratch it. —Owen Good
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 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One already seem stone age. —Owen Good
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
Yakuza: Like a Dragon
Gameplay in Like a Dragon is vastly different from before. Ryu ga Gotoku Studio has hung up the more action-oriented combat of previous titles to usher in a real-time turn-based system. […]
The writing for [the protagonist] Ichiban is superb, especially where he has moments of deep self-reflection where you can see his character grow into something that fills the shoes Kazuma Kiryu left behind. I cannot wait to see what Ryu ga Gotoku Studio will have in store if it chooses to move forward with Ichiban as the main protagonist from this point onward.
What Ryu ga Gotoku Studio has created is an ambitious new entry in a franchise that has managed to endure for over 15 years. Series veterans might be turned off by this new direction, but it manages to retain the same essence as its predecessors. And by the end, Ichiban Kasuga and Yakuza: Like a Dragon both prove to be a worthy successor to the franchise. —Kazuma Hashimoto
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 including here as well for 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
Much like Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Gears 5 is a last-generation game that has 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 also 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
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
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