This is not Microsoft’s greatest generation. The Xbox One has a serious exclusive games problem. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t compelling reasons to buy the console.
In fact, being an underdog seems to have convinced the team at Xbox to get scrappy and creative. Microsoft is blurring the lines between console and PC gaming, while offering services that its competitors simply can’t. And the Xbox One X is the most powerful console available — something Microsoft has worked tirelessly to communicate to the world.
The future looks bright, too. At E3 2018, Microsoft announced the acquisition of five studios — The Initiative, Undead Labs, Playground Games, Ninja Theory and Compulsion Games. Its situation looks to be improving. Whether or not Microsoft’s adjustments will buttress the Xbox One or whatever comes next, we’ll have to wait and see.
Against the backdrop of an underperforming console generation, Microsoft bolstered the Xbox One with backward compatibility, bringing millions of people’s Xbox and Xbox 360 libraries to the modern hardware at no added cost. A handful of the hundreds of backward-compatible games go a step further, benefiting from the upgraded power of the Xbox One X with improved resolution.
The following list is a living document that compiles our favorite Xbox One games — games we recommend to everyone, both old and new, all worthy of playing or watching. We’ll be updating this page as we play new and noteworthy games or reflect on titles from the past.
If you’ve just purchased an Xbox One, this will help you start your collection. If you’re looking for something new (or something you missed), this will point you toward what to play next.
We begin with a swerve — and the kind of product that legitimately differentiates Xbox from its competitors.
No, Xbox Game Pass isn’t a game. It’s a service, more or less like Netflix, that offers ton of games for a reasonable price. For $9.99 a month, you get access to an ever-growing catalog of Xbox One and Xbox 360 games, including major Xbox exclusives like Forza Horizon 4 on the day they launch.
As of this writing, Xbox Game Pass has more than 100 games, some of which you’ll read about below. This is a deal you can’t get on any other console, and it’s a relatively inexpensive and compelling way to grow your game catalog (as long as you’re a subscriber, anyway).
Get it here: Microsoft Store
It’s difficult to overstate the impact that Halo has had on Xbox. In fact, it’s reasonable to argue that Halo: Combat Evolved ensconced Microsoft as a viable competitor to Nintendo and Sony in the video game market.
When developer Bungie moved on from Halo to Destiny (and from being a Microsoft-owned studio to an independent developer), Microsoft kept the Halo franchise and created a new studio, 343 Industries, to keep the series alive. 343 has produced its own Halo games, along with porting and remastering Bungie’s entries for this collection.
Halo: The Master Chief Collection is largely a celebration of the Bungie era: bringing Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, Halo 3 and Halo 4 (made by 343) to the Xbox One. (Halo 3: ODST’s campaign is available to purchase and was also a make-good offer to those who experienced The Master Chief Collection’s rocky launch.)
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Bungie’s Halo games is that every iteration added something that fans didn’t know they wanted until they experienced it. It felt like Bungie was a step ahead of the genre. And The Master Chief Collection is a testament to how well its games have aged as a result. Developer 343 updated the game in late August 2018 to fix long-standing problems and enhance the games for the Xbox One X.
Cuphead arrived in 2018, four years after its announcement, to critical acclaim. In the years between its announcement and release, Cuphead became known for its unique art direction, rendered in the style of Disney and Fleischer Studios cartoons from the 1930s. Created by a pair of brothers, Chad Moldenhauer and Jared Moldenhauer, with the help of animator Jake Clark, Cuphead mashes hand-drawn art with classic side-scrolling shooter mechanics.
It’s a notably challenging game, though as we wrote in our review, it’s also adept at teaching players how to overcome its fundamental difficulties.
Moon Studios — an international group of collaborating developers — released Ori and the Blind Forest in 2015, and the game has been a favorite Xbox exclusive ever since.
It’s part of a renaissance of the Metroidvania genre of games, where your character explores and unlocks chunks of a large and tantalizing world. You can trace the core design principles back for decades, but it creators couple the familiar structure with a presentation afforded by modern hardware. As a result, it feels both fresh and timeless.
Gears of War 4 seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle between console generations. It still has an audience of hardcore fans, but it seems to have fallen out of the pop culture conversation. That’s a shame. If you cut your teeth on shooter campaigns in the early to mid-2000s, then this is a game for you.
Gears of War 4 combines the concepts that Epic Games created — cover-based shooting, chainsaws on guns, gore — with the talents and ideas of a new developer, The Coalition. It’s a game about family, about friendship, and (despite some melodramatic beats) about having fun. Gears of War 4 excels at the latter.
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 game in progress. 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.
As we mentioned in the introduction, we’re collecting the games we feel everybody should play or watch. 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.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is console-exclusive on Xbox One. Sure, it launched in Early Access on Steam, where it became a nearly instant hit. It wasn’t the first battle royale-style game, but it brought the genre — in which 100 players enter and only one leaves the winner — from relative obscurity to the forefront of popular consciousness.
It is aesthetically bland and technically janky, a combination that could sink other games. But the secret of PUBG’s success was never about lush environments or buttery-smooth frame rates. It was about a novel concept executed accessibly. Everyone begins a round of PUBG with nothing. Everyone faces the same mad scramble for weapons and items. Everyone is corralled by the giant blue ring of death, pushing them all slowly into combat. Everyone must stay alive. Only one does. It’s as fun to watch as it is to play.
PUBG also deserves credit for having an enormous influence on its contemporaries. Fortnite, which is almost certainly the biggest game in the world right now, was cooked over the ashes of a very different game. It’s not an exaggeration to claim that it exists because of PUBG. And this year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 — the de facto competitive multiplayer standard-bearer for years among console first-person shooters — will launch with Blackout, a battle royale mode of its own.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds didn’t invent the battle royale genre, but it evolved and popularized it — the game brought it to the masses. And the only console on which you can win a chicken dinner is Xbox One.
You can play Fortnite pretty much anywhere you want, but there’s an argument to be made that it’s best on Xbox One because of how it plays nice with other consoles. Yes, Sony recently had a change of heart, but developer Epic Games’ play-anywhere philosophy has been alive and well on Xbox One since the biggest game of 2018 arrived on the console. On Xbox, it’s open, it looks great and it pairs well with the Xbox controller — elevating it above its PS4 and Switch counterparts.
Like PUBG, Fortnite is a battle royale game that pits 100 players against each other. But unlike PUBG, Fortnite takes a lighthearted approach — and adds on-the-fly crafting to the skill set you’ll need to win. Also, it’s free and updated constantly.
Get it here: Microsoft
Sunset Overdrive is the weirdest AAA exclusive of this 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.
The Xbox One X is the best place to play Nier: Automata, besting the notoriously messy PC port. 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 had one of the best soundtracks of 2017.
Developer Respawn Entertainment’s original Titanfall was a Microsoft platform exclusive, and even though Titanfall 2 took the franchise to multiple platforms, the series still feels at home on Xbox consoles.
At first, Titanfall 2 is what you’d expect from a sequel — a refinement and expansion of the ideas and potential in the sparse first game. The core conceit remains: a mix of mech, movement and first-person shooter mechanics from veterans of the studio that birthed the Call of Duty sensation. And it elevates the original game’s multiplayer with a new progression system.
Less expected is the quality of Titanfall 2’s single-player campaign, the first in the series. It is a master class of the last decade of FPS design. It gleefully apes everything from GoldenEye to Half-Life to Unreal. And though the story isn’t revelatory, it has enough heart to win over skeptics. The combination of refined mechanics and narrative twists defines Titanfall 2 in a way that sets it above its contemporaries.
Resident Evil 7 pulled off something that seemed, at the time, impossible: It took an old (and frankly stale) franchise and reinvigorated it with a single new entry.
The transition to a first-person perspective is the most obvious example of its evolution, but the game’s real genius lies in its ability to learn from the mistakes of its immediate predecessors. Resident Evil 7 retains the terror inherent in the survival horror genre it helped to popularize, but cuts away the franchise’s bloat. Gone are worldwide romps, replaced with a personal story of loss and desperation that is confined within a still-large but self-contained location. You can’t lose the plot because you’re always part of it, intimately. The grotesqueness of the Baker family, mirrored by the overlapping design of the Baker family compound, helps to keep the story and its inherent tension grounded and easy to follow.
The creatures you meet, the weapons and items you find, the slow and steady progress that you make, the inventive boss fights that you overcome — they combine for an impressive, terrifying whole that sets the stage for a new, brighter future for Resident Evil.
Like with Fortnite, you can play Minecraft pretty much anywhere. But a few years ago, Microsoft acquired Mojang, the studio that created the game, and Xbox feels like the de facto home of the franchise, at least on consoles.
Minecraft is something of a strange game. Its core: bashing and placing blocks at your discretion in a gigantic sandbox environment. In Creative mode, you can build pretty much anything you want with simple and unlimited materials. If you’re into something more gamey, there’s the monster-infused Survival mode.
Because it doesn’t have prescriptive goals, Minecraft is what you want it to be, given the easy-to-understand tools at your disposal. You can play alone, with friends, with strangers, across platforms. You can play it as a relaxing and casual, or dangerous and stressful. YouTube is filled with videos of people just exploring the game for hundreds of hours. It’s a bona fide, constantly updated cultural phenomenon — and one of the best-selling video games ever.
The Forza franchise alternates annually between the simulation-focused Motorsport series and the open-world Horizon series. While Forza Motorsport continues to serve hardcore racing fans, Horizon has become the most accessible, inventive and fun racing game for everybody since the Burnout series. Its many social features, along with persistent weather and seasonal effects help give the British setting of Forza Horizon 4 even more depth and a sense of shared experience.
We started with a swerve, and we’re ending with a swerve. Backward compatibility allows Xbox One owners to play hundreds of Xbox 360 and original Xbox games on Microsoft’s current console. Some of those games, like Red Dead Redemption, are even enhanced for the Xbox One X. And if you already own a game on a previous-generation console, you can access it on Xbox One if it’s on Microsoft’s list of compatible games. They may not be new, but games like Alan Wake and Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 are as good today as they ever were. And the function is a great excuse to try games you have missed, like Crimson Skies, Driver: San Francisco, Earth Defense Force 2017 and Skate 3.
Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.