Reviews

The essential Xbox Game Pass games

Microsoft changed the tenor of the console wars when it introduced Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, its subscription service that gives you access to a huge selection of games you can install and play on your Xbox consoles and Windows PC, and even stream to your phone or tablet in many cases.

If you’re a new Game Pass Ultimate subscriber and want to know where to start, we have you covered. The following 15 games are all available on Game Pass, and there’s nothing stopping you from downloading each and every one of them the moment your subscription is active. Well, hard drive space would probably be an issue, but there’s not much we can do about that.

Unlike most of our lists, this one isn’t ranked. What does it matter which order we think these games should go in if you don’t have to worry about budgeting for each one?

Outriders (Xbox One, Xbox Series X)

Image: People Can Fly/Square Enix

Outriders was released at the beginning of April, and it was available on Game Pass from day one. The game has suffered from connection and performance issues since its launch, making Outriders hard to recommend buying right now. It’s much easier to recommend trying for “free” if you have a Game Pass subscription.

Related

In Outriders the cover is for your enemies, not you

Outriders is a third-person, class-based loot-shooter in which three-player squads upgrade their base, keep their community safe, improve their gear, and explore the game’s pseudo-open world. The setting, characters, and even the powers of each class seem like they were lifted from other popular games of the past 10 years, but that’s not a knock against it.

Outriders delivers the satisfying action and loot management gameplay loop that has kept me hooked on games like Destiny 2, The Division 2, Gears of War, Fortnite, and all the other titans in the genre for this long.

Halo: The Master Chief Collection (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X)

Image: 343 Industries/Xbox Game Studios

The Xbox brand might never have taken off without the Halo series, the first-person shooters that helped to popularize local competitive multiplayer on consoles before taking the party online after the launch of Xbox Live. The Master Chief Collection package includes multiple Halo games, with more still being added, all of which have been updated to keep them enjoyable for modern audiences.

But what’s so striking about the collection is how many ways there are to play. You can go through the campaigns by yourself. If you want to play with a friend but don’t want to compete, there is co-op, allowing you to share the games’ stories with a partner, either online or through split-screen play. If you do want to compete, you can do it locally against up to three other players on the same TV, or take things online to challenge the wider community.

These are some of the best first-person shooters ever released, and they’re worth revisiting and enjoying, no matter how you decide to play them. Sharing these games with my children through local co-op has been an amazing journey, and this package includes so many games, each of which is filled with different modes and options. It’s hard to imagine ever getting bored or uninstalling the collection once it’s on your hard drive.

This is a part of gaming history that continues to feel relevant, and very much alive.

Slay the Spire (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X)

https://youtube.com/watch?v=9SZUtyYSOjQ%3Frel%3D0

In Slay the Spire, I play as one of three unique characters, in order to fight my way through a randomly generated map filled with battles, treasure chests, and RPG-like encounters. Combat is similar to that of a turn-based RPG, but instead of selecting attacks and spells from a menu, I draw cards from each character’s specific pool of cards. These cards allow me to attack, defend, cast spells, or use special abilities. Each character has their own set of cards, making their play styles radically different.

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Slay the Spire beginners guide

… I also learned to buck my expectations for the kinds of decks I should build. The key to deck-building games is constructing a thematic deck where each card complements the others. In card games like Magic: The Gathering, this is easy enough to do, since you do all your planning before a match — not in the moment, like in Slay the Spire. Since I’m given a random set of cards to build a deck from at the end of each encounter, I can’t go into any run with a certain deck-building goal in mind. I have to quickly decide on long-term deck designs based on what cards are available to me after a battle. The trick with Slay the Spire is to think more creatively and proactively than the typical card game requires. —Jeff Ramos

Alan Wake (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X)

Image: Remedy Entertainment/Microsoft Game Studios

Control has been hogging all the attention in Remedy’s loosely connected game universe, but the studio’s original Stephen King-inspired third-person suspense game is available on Game Pass. Alan Wake does an amazing job of tapping into the rich vein of ’80s and ’90s-era horror and mystery tropes that made Stranger Things such a potent hit for Netflix.

Alan Wake is a love letter to anyone who has ever dreamed of waking up inside of an inexpensive horror paperback with beautiful typography on the cover. Its story is separated into chapters, complete with closing music credits that mimic prestige dramas. Also, Alan Wake has one of the best soundtracks in modern gaming, and I’ll be accepting no comments about this claim.

The ability to play Alan Wake so easily through services like Game Pass shows the power of Microsoft’s strategy of making older games easy to access, even without purchasing them again. If you’re interested in Control and want to set the stage for that game before you jump into it, or you’ve already beaten Control and would like a little more context for the DLC, that’s just another reason to give this a shot.

Desperados 3 (PC, Xbox One)

Image: Mimimi Games/THQ Nordic

“Tactical stealth” isn’t exactly a booming genre, but developer Mimimi seems to have the format perfectly dialed in. After the success of Shadow Tactics in 2016, the team took those same design tenets — small squads of specialized units tackling armies of soldiers with precision and quicksaving — to the Wild West with Desperados 3.

Desperados 3 changes very little about what made Shadow Tactics great. It’s still an isometric stealth game filled with vision cones and seemingly impossible odds. But small tweaks, like being able to cue up your entire squad’s next action to all play out at the same time, make it a much more satisfying experience than its predecessor.

The adventure is made up of stellar levels that look more like dioramas brought to life, each filled with charm and detail, from the rainy streets of New Orleans to the dusty byways of a sun-beaten desert town. Picking these levels apart, piece by piece, using each of your squad members’ specialized abilities, is tremendously satisfying, like a sudoku puzzle with more knife throwing. Fans of the classic Commandos series will feel right at home here. —Russ Frushtick

Carrion (PC, Xbox One)

Image: Phobia Game Studios/Devolver Digital via Polygon

Carrion is a game for anyone who has ever stopped at a mirror to glance at that screaming flesh prison we call a body and thought, “Ugh, I’m a monster.”

A pixelated side-scrolling “reverse horror” game, Carrion puts players in the role of its own anomalous creature: a cartilaginous mass of mouths, teeth, and tendrils that moves like a sentient wad of spaghetti meat possessed by some eldritch horror. It looks like it should be the end boss of this sort of adventure, not the hero of it.

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The ‘roar’ button makes Carrion ten times better

The plot itself is fairly straightforward: You’re an extraterrestrial entity that was discovered by agents of a shadowy biotech corporation and subjected to a battery of invasive and humiliating experiments.

But one day, you break free of the containment chamber and immediately begin to rip and tear through everyone and everything in your single-minded pursuit of escape. Imagine, if possible, a version of Ape Out filtered through the body horror of John Carpenter’s The Thing. —Toussaint Egan

Among Us (PC)

Image: InnerSloth

Among Us was originally released in 2018, but it took the events of 2020 to make it a phenomenon. You can play with up to 10 players, running around each level trying to finish tasks while an imposter (or several) tries to kill everyone else without being found out. It’s basically a goofy take on The Thing, but weaponized as a social game with multiple levels of strategy. How the imposter tries to get away with it, and talk their way out of it when emergency meetings are called, is half the fun.

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On Among Us’ Airship, Impostors need their dead allies

There’s something amazing about the idea that there are so many games out there, so many titles across so many platforms, that the near-perfect game for every situation seems to already exist … somewhere. In this case, it was found and rescued from relative obscurity, and there’s even a free-to-play iOS and Android version that can connect with PC players if you want to get a crew together.

The thought of all those hidden gems, just waiting to be given a second chance, is comforting in a time when so many people are finding it hard to continue to be creative, or have hope at all.

Among Us helped show us that relief may come from unexpected places, and the game has been keeping players occupied, and laughing, ever since it took off in the summer of 2020.

Train Sim World 2020 (PC, Xbox One)

https://youtube.com/watch?v=ZpNgxgEXIRs%3Frel%3D0

Train Sim World 2020 is a surprisingly satisfying simulation of a job that sounds incredibly boring on paper.

You’re given control of some commuter train routes, some very basic training on the operation of commuter trains, and then you take over. In one early mission, I watched my son take part in the amazingly complicated task of waiting until 9:46 to leave the station, because that’s when the schedule said the train was to leave.

The first tutorial explains the basics of in-game movement, so even folks who aren’t comfortable with games won’t be in too deep. Once you’ve learned the basics of moving around, you’ll learn how to start a train, how to keep it moving at the right speed, and how to safely brake. You can sit in one of the seats and just watch the countryside pass by, if you’d like. You can also use an external camera, if you want to see more of the train itself.

Train Sim World 2020 is a very detailed and capable reproduction of tasks and experiences that many might find dull. But reader, my family is hooked. This is like having the world as your personal train set, while still being bound by the rules and restrictions of the real thing. For example, you have to keep your passengers safe. You have to learn to drive by feel and by numbers, getting a sense of how fast you can go and when to begin slowing down. So many games let you do anything, but the many limitations of Train Sim World 2020 make it attractive in another way — asking you to learn how to do a series of very specific tasks consistently and well.

If the first hour bores you, the rest of the game won’t convince you. But if you’re anything like me or my children, the first hour may hook you, and convince you to keep going.

Which is why Train Sim World 2020 is the perfect proof of concept for the entirety of Game Pass. This is a game my children and I never would have tried if we’d had to buy a copy, but since it’s just kinda there to check out, we stumbled upon it and have been playing for days. Game Pass is not about having more games than you can play, although that’s certainly nice; it’s about having the freedom to explore genres you’d never think you’d love.

Tetris Effect: Connected (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X)

Image: Monstars, Resonair/Enhance Games

Tetris Effect: Connected is another game that offers so many ways to play, and it’s also one that’s easy to match with folks who might be intimidated by most other games.

The core game is pure Tetris: Flip the pieces, create solid horizontal lines across the board, and watch them disappear as you try to deal with the falling shapes before your tower reaches the top. But the campaign brings in beautiful music and pulsing, shifting visual effects that help bring the experience to new heights of relaxation and satisfaction. It’s Tetris with a pulse, both literally and figuratively.

This version of the game comes with a suite of online modes so you can play with or against others to prove your skill or practice your fundamentals. You can play purely for the relaxation of the music and visuals if you’d like, or you can adjust the game’s options until the experience is pared down to pure ability and reaction time. How you play, and what you get out of it, is up to you. Tetris Effect: Connected is a platform as much as a single game, giving you many ways of enjoying one of the best puzzle games ever created.

Tetris Effect: Connected can show off what your home theater can do in terms of image quality and sound system, sure, but it also teaches that truly inspired game design doesn’t have an expiration date. There may be better versions of Tetris released in the future, but it’s going to be hard to top this one.

Moving Out (PC, Xbox One)

Image: SMG Studio, Devm Games/Team17

Moving Out is a game for up to four players who all have to go from job to job, getting objects moved out of each house in a set amount of time.

Certain items require two people to pick up and move if you’re playing in co-op, and you’ll have to learn how to safely throw larger items onto the truck or even out a set of windows with the help of another person. Couches just barely fit through doors. Teamwork and communication are crucial, and the jobs themselves become stranger and stranger. But the main idea remains the same: Move things, as quickly as possible.

Moving Out shines when it comes to its difficulty options, which allow players to make things as tricky or as simple as they’d like. The chaos is part of the fun, especially with a big crew of experienced players, but younger children don’t have to be frustrated. You can loosen some of the game’s rules about the weight of objects and the time limit for each job, and skip levels you struggle with finishing.

Moving Out makes the confusion of a rapid, nearly violent move as fun as possible, and the stakes feel low, since failure is often more enjoyable than success. That silliness also makes it feel easier for anyone to pick up a controller and give it a go, and the game’s sense of play and shameless goofiness means it’s even fun to spectate and not play.

Forza Horizon 4 (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X)

Image: Playground Games/Microsoft Studios

Forza Horizon 4 is an open-world racing game that benefits greatly from the extra graphical power of the Xbox Series X, but it plays and looks great no matter which Xbox system you own. Horizon 4 is one of those great “chill out” games that’s just as much fun to explore in the entry-level cars as it is to climb the ladder of success to unlock, purchase, and drive a wide variety of beautifully rendered vehicles across a ridiculously scenic landscape.

It all looks great, sure, but the extra-smooth frame rate while playing on Series X or Series S hardware, even at 4K resolution, means that it feels just as good as it looks.

It’s a showcase for the consoles and for the new TV you may have picked up during quarantine, and it’s an absolute blast to see what kind of trouble you can get into on the open road, whether you’re racing against other humans or the computer. Or you can just go for a leisurely virtual drive in a car most of us could never afford in a place most of us will never visit.

Fuzion Frenzy (Xbox One)

https://youtube.com/watch?v=ijAoBUYVTGY%3Frel%3D0

I’m not going to pretend that Fuzion Frenzy is a great game, but the facts are that you can try it for free with Game Pass, it was released with the very first Xbox, and after 20 years, it’s still just right there for you to play. Again, that all points to the power of Microsoft’s current game strategy.

While you won’t be blown away by the graphics, many of the arena-style minigames are fun, and it’s an easy way to take a quick trip to the past without having to worry about stepping on a butterfly and making Dreamcast 8 the most popular console on the market.

Although, on second thought …

Minecraft (Xbox One)

Image: Mojang/Xbox Game Studios

Minecraft is a game in which everything looks like it’s made out of large, square blocks, and you can harvest materials and use them to build whatever you’d like out of those blocks.

There isn’t much left to say about Minecraft that hasn’t already been said, but the game remains popular online, and it has the ability to keep my children occupied in a way no other game can match, in my experience. They ignore the survival mode and go straight for creative, treating it like a split-screen world in which they can build anything they’d like, without worrying about whether they’re going to run out of Lego bricks.

It’s a game that can be meditative when played alone and social when shared with others, and there are mountains of user-created content to sift through and explore. Like the rest of the games on this list, Minecraft is very easy to get into, but you may find it tricky to leave.

Goat Simulator (PC, Xbox One)

https://youtube.com/watch?v=79xjgsBzFcE%3Frel%3D0

Goat Simulator is absolutely filled to the brim with janky physics and controls, but barely working is part of the game’s charm. You play as a goat who is there to get into as much trouble as possible, and finding all the strange and surprising interactions in the game is part of the joy.

There are challenges to take on around the world, and plenty of ridiculous options to unlock, but Goat Simulator is very much a game in which the player is expected to make their own fun. So it’s lucky that there’s a lot of fun to be found.

It’s all about wrestling with the ridiculous interactions between the titular goat and its environment, trying things and messing around with everything you find to see what happens. It’s a game of pure fun and exploration, and you can almost see the outline of games like Human: Fall Flat and yes, Supraland, while playing.

The goat is a pure, relentless agent of chaos, and there’s nothing in the world you can’t improve by freaking out, as a goat.

The whole thing really opens up with the jetpack, though.

Supraland (PC, Xbox One)

https://youtube.com/watch?v=DLIX9VLj8mU%3Frel%3D0%26%253Bstart%3D1%26start%3D1

Supraland was released on Steam in 2019, and has since earned more than 5,700 positive reviews on the service, giving it an “overwhelmingly positive” rating. It hit Game Pass in 2020, but it didn’t seem to make as much of a dent, which is a crime. This is one of the better first-person, open-world puzzle games in recent memory.

There are few new ideas here, though. The characters are squishy little blobs of human-shaped plastic, and you have to earn new abilities and find coins to unlock more of the game’s world. The title doesn’t tell you much, and it only looks OK in screenshots.

Supraland sets itself apart with brilliant puzzle design, set in an ambitious world with so much to do and see that the few moments of frustration are easily forgotten once you find something else to do or try. There is very little story and next to no direction, but I never stay lost for long; there will always be another NPC to give me a hint or something else to work on, if it turns out that I don’t have the necessary powers for the current next step.

This is one of those games where the best course of action is to relax, explore, figure out what you can and can’t do, and not stress too much about making progress. Supraland rewards play and curiosity, which is fitting for a game that takes place under the gaze of a human child watching his toys interact with his imagination. It introduces new ideas and puzzles at a relentless pace, but somehow isn’t overwhelming.

Supraland is almost like a Minecraft Dungeons version of Breath of the Wild: It’s definitely simplified and more welcoming for younger players, but it’s so damn good that adults will have fun helping with puzzles, or even playing by themselves.

This was one of the biggest surprises I found when putting this list together.

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