Thanks to the new consoles still being in their relative infancy, many of the best Xbox Series X games (and Series S games) are cross-generation ones. But the new ones are beginning to trickle through, and thanks to that full backwards compatibility - and the huge range of next-gen-optimised games that Xbox has assembled - there's plenty of choice. If you want that full backlog taken into consideration, take a look at our best Xbox One games list, which has some lovely picks, from major classics to hidden gems, and our lists of the best Game Pass games and all Xbox backwards compatibility games are probably of interest to you, too.
For this list, like our best PS5 games list, we're focusing purely on actual Xbox Series X/S games. What does that mean? Well, we've defined that here as games that are either: exclusive to the consoles (of which there are only a couple at present), new cross-gen games that arrived on Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S simultaneously, or earlier Xbox One games that have been updated with significant Xbox Series X/S patches, which Microsoft handily labels as "optimised for Xbox Series X/S".
Because of the much greater number of "optimised" games that the Xbox Series X/S has compared to the PS5, we've expanded this list slightly to 17 games, but you can expect this list to grow quickly as the library for Microsoft's latest machines is fleshed out.
Microsoft Flight Simulator
Last year's triumphant return of Microsoft to flight simulators on PC might be on the more accessible end of this fearsomely nerdy genre, but the odds were still against Asobo being able to pull off a persuasive version on Xbox. And, yes, it is a little clunky trying to do anything more than basic controls on the pad - but if you're going to get serious, you'll want peripherals anyway. In every other respect, this is a stunning achievement, nothing less than an awe-inspiring photorealistic celebration of the entire planet we live on. It's also perhaps the single most truly next-generation game out there and looks stunning on Xbox Series X.
Genesis Noir is a dream video game: Ralph Ellison meets Albert Einstein in a world that looks like a forties New Yorker cartoon. Poke, prod, strum and glide through a toylike landscape as a love story and a murder mystery converge with visual jokes about expansion theory and ruminations on universal heat death. This is a cerebral videogame, then, but it's never just that - its greatest victory may lie in its playfulness, born of curiosity and an unwillingness to settle into an established framework. Wow.
007's on the horizon for IO Interactive, but before all that the studio has unfinished business with Agent 47 - and Hitman 3's as considered and creative a thing as the most meticulously planned kill in this deliciously macabre series. For the final installment of this modern trilogy, IO doesn't overload the player with new features (the boldest addition, VR support, is currently limited to PSVR), but instead packages up all the playgrounds offered so far in the series with some next-gen thrills.
Head to one of the new levels, such as Dubai, and this can be a seriously pretty game. It's a seriously detailed one, too, its levels full of surprises that actively encourage creative play, and a murderous toolset that can be applied in so many different ways. It's the dream Hitman game, essentially, and the perfect send-off for 47.
Is Honey, I Shrunk the Kids even a reference that works these days? Regardless, being shrunk to the size of an insect, in a back garden, is a powerful set-up for a game. And it's a ridiculously charming place to be. It's a survival game so you need to eat and drink, but you eat adorable aphids, and slurp drops of dew you knock down from blades of grass that tower up high above you. The small-made-big world of Grounded is a constant source of wonder.
And terror. Because, yes, those tiny insects you find a bit creepy in real-life are actually terrifying when they're much bigger than you. Spiders, particularly. Or wasps. Or a bird the size of a helicopter, or a fish the size of The Meg. Don't let its cute exterior deceive you: here be very real danger. But therein lies the thrill, and a thrill you can enjoy with friends. Plus, Grounded has only grown - and will grow - over time, so it's better now than ever.
Forza Horizon 4
The best racing game of the last generation? Sure, why not. Playground Games' homecoming to the dales and lazy afternoon drives of the UK was pretty much as good as it gets on the last generation, an open world racer with a spring in its step and a wealth of brilliant diversions to boot. Perhaps it's fairer to not think of it as one of the best racing games of recent years, but one of the best open world games too.
Panic Button's decent if not quite perfect port more than does the trick on Xbox Series S/X too - play it on an X at 4K60 and you've got what remains one of the most visually striking experiences available on Microsoft's most powerful console.
A mini-masterpiece that riffs on vintage Legend of Zelda as well as the Souls games and the surreal worlds of Hayao Miyazaki, Death's Door casts you as a crow doing the everyday work of reaping the souls of the dead in a bureaucratic kind of afterlife. It's funny, a little bit macabre and a little bit sad, with gorgeously precise combat and world design that are simple on the surface but reveal wonderful depth and subtlety as the game goes on. Developer Acid Nerve's last game was the 2015 boss-rush Titan Souls: that game was great, but this is a step up.
Tetris Effect: Connected
Tetris Effect was already great of course. Tetris wasn't bad by itself. But then Mizuguchi covered the whole thing in glitter and stardust and loosed the whales and that level about travelling into space. Horses and jewels and Prohibition Chicago. And the tempo changed and went back and forth rather than merely getting faster so it was like Lumines, and you could go into the zone and stack and stack and stack your way to Ultimatris!
And then Connected added multiplayer and in amongst multiplayer is this beautiful riff on Monster Hunter of all things, three of you against one of them, blocks and blocks and then these magical instances where you work together to defeat your enemy, all three of you playing the same game of Tetris. And it's covered in the zodiac, of course, and there's that wonderful music and the whole thing is just completely transporting. Wow.
Rainbow Six Siege
The most incredible thing about Ubisoft's Rainbow Six: Siege? Maybe it's how it's grown so, so much in the five years since its launch, and how Ubisoft's smartly managed to maintain the momentum over all that time so it still feels remarkably fresh. Maybe it's how the next-gen update introduces 4K and 120fps - the latter the perfect way to highlight this slickest, smoothest and most suspenseful of shooters.
Really, though, one of the most remarkable things about it all is how few imitators there have been since. Rainbow Six Siege isn't like other online shooters - it's uniquely tense and tactical, with depths you won't find elsewhere. It's a modern classic, essentially, as playable now as it's ever been.
It Takes Two
Co-op, particularly local (sofa) co-op games, seem to be a dying breed. Not only is It Takes Two enormously welcome for being one of them, it may be the best we've ever played. This is a joyously imaginative and energetic adventure entirely for two players. In fact, you can't play it alone (which is why it comes with a free online code for a friend if you have no one at home to play with).
The result is everything designed for two: the puzzles, the special weapons you get every level, the set-pieces, the surprise mini-games. The story, which we're not so keen on. Regardless, this is another small-made-big world filled with toys that will keep you happy for hours. It's beautifully made and flies along, revelling in a sense of movement and speed. If co-op in any way appeals to you, it's, quite simply, a must.
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 + 2
Cor, Tony Hawk has always felt like a bit of a tech-pusher to me. Back then I couldn't believe a game could feel this human, have this much gravity kicking around inside it. With the remakes/remodels/remasters, it's that same joy in animation and texture, environment and surface detailing and the sheer simple pleasures of what you're up to.
Play this because it's one of the best games about moving ever made - an absolute delight in the matter of getting from A to B and what you choose to do in between. Its progression system encourages curiosity and experimentation and its tricks are absolutely stellar. What an absolute treat: in 2021, the sheer design of the thing still feels like it has stuff to teach us.
It's not that unusual for one game to sweep every game of the year award going, but it is quite unusual when it's a smaller-scale indie production - as happened with Supergiant Games' Hades in 2020. Carefully honed during a long early access period, this stunning, sophisticated and downright sexy dungeon crawler cast a spell on everyone who played it - and now it's available on Xbox.
As Hades' son Zagreus, you must try to escape the underworld over and over again, facing randomised challenges - and bonuses - as you go. The action is fantastically well balanced and the character builds are deep and interesting, as is the seemingly bottomless well of story you experience piecemeal each time you progress through the game. It's a modern classic.
Fortnite is a treat on Series X/S, smooth and tangible with truly lovely lighting effects. But in truth, Fortnite is a treat on anything, a game that looked decent running on a phone and still has a certain charm on the Switch.
This is a Series X standard for me - the game I play most often, I suspect. And you know what, Fortnite's actually wonderful. A shooter and Battle Royale, yes, but also a weird blend of Animal Crossing and RPG and make-your-own-game software. It's surprisingly deep, endlessly generous, and far more charming than a mega-hit of this size should be. Even if you've been keeping away from it, maybe give it a cheeky go now.
One person made this game! It's not the reason you should play it of course but it is a remarkable achievement. And, actually, it's from it the game's super-power comes. This is a deeply personal game disguised as an aerial combat game. Yes, you fly around on the back of a giant falcon, and yes, it's endlessly fun, but it's what lurks beneath that really stays with you.
It's the meaning in the world, this strange world, this dark and stormy - and sometimes golden and tranquil - archipelago world which will pull at you. What does it mean? What is the mythology getting at? What do the actions of the warring factions equate to? What is the game trying to say? And it's when you tackle some of this that the real magic of The Falconeer emerges.
There have been so many Destiny imitators over the years that sometimes it's refreshing to go back to the source. Like its predecessor, Destiny 2 hasn't been short of problems, but like its predecessor it's overcome them to become a shooter of remarkable scope. It's a shooter with remarkable shooting, too, as you'd probably expect from the gunsmiths behind Halo, and of course the next-gen update helps in that regard too.
If you're intimately familiar with Bungie's console past, as I'm sure most of us are, there's something almost sacrilegious about playing one of them at 60fps, but after a period of adjustment there's no denying the weight and momentum of these firearms has only been helped in the process. Oh, and the best skyboxes in all of video games have never looked better, either.
Control: Ultimate Edition
Control is such a console game at heart - its lineage lies with Remedy's earlier games, sure, but also with consoley delights like Stranglehold and Psi-Ops. It never really worked that beautiful on last-gen consoles, though. On the latest machines, it feels like coming home.
And weirdly, given this entire game is set inside an office building, upgrades matter. A lovely framerate gets the best out of your magical powers as you take on eldritch nightmares, and the world of Control has never looked better either. Polished concrete, Bakelite, anti-matter blobs all over the place, Control is a game of textures and surfaces. Finally console players get to see what a gorgeous thing this is.
Sea of Thieves
Sea of Thieves is just magic. How many "hobby" games are there, these days? That is a rhetorical question but there are a lot. How many of them would you say are "healthy?" I am going to say not a lot. Sea of Thieves is that: this is a hobby game, a game you can put all of your spare time into, learning to improve, grinding to progress, forming or joining like-minded hobbyists in its many communities - and it is also a game that makes you feel good.
It is gorgeous, more gorgeous thanks to the X/S upgrade obviously, but that is slightly besides the point. Pastels, sunsets, sounds. The sounds are the thing, really - I maintain this is the best sounding game there is. Listen to the whoomph of a sail as you catch the wind. The creak of the bow. The ticking turns of the wheel. The ocean. Just listen to it. I could play nothing else.
Halo: Master Chief Collection
Here we go again! An Xbox, you say? Have you heard of Halo? You have? Well, still. The Master Chief Collection is all the good Halo games plus Halo 4. Some of them have fancy campaign remasters where you can toggle between old and new versions with the press of a button, which is a fascinating but also very ageing experience. All of them are essential. This is history, right here: it's the throughline from the first Xbox to the Series X, the Duke to the wonderful current-day controller that's too perfect to have a nickname. It's Microsoft's entire marketing strategy in a box: the good old days, at 4 whole Ks, in 120 slippery smooth frames - if your TV can even handle it.
But it's also more than that. Halo is no joke. It's total mastery of craft, an oddly gravitational shooter about momentum, physics, weight, kinetic energy stored in a suit and discharged through a clonk to the back of the head. It's unafraid of making your core weapon feel terrible, if it means you're more likely to try something else new. Unafraid of feeling slow, if it means it's more deliberate. It's the original multiplayer playground. It does not get better.
For more curated best-of lists like this, meanwhile, feel free to argue in the comments section of the following, too:
- The 10 best PS5 games
- The 20 best PS4 games
- The 20 best Xbox One games
- The 20 best Nintendo Switch games
- The 20 best Game Pass games
- The 25 best VR games
- The 20 best racing games
We've also got the latest updates on Xbox Series X stock and where to buy it, if you're still hunting down a next-gen upgrade!
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