This is the last Xbox One Essentials guide we’ll ever publish. It feels like the end of an era.
But let’s not get too sad about it, because the monthly updates will soon incorporate both Xbox One and Xbox Series X games, due to Microsoft’s devotion to the idea of putting its ecosystem above its hardware. The systems share games, and will continue to do so for at least the near future, and it just makes sense to keep a single running list of the best games to try on the Xbox platform moving forward.
You can find that list right here if you want to keep up with the best, newest games on the Xbox family of consoles, and we’ll be keeping this post online for posterity.
Super Mega Baseball 3
The Super Mega Baseball games have always been bursting with charm, delivering the trappings of semipro sports with a goofy sandlot spin. The series drew me in with its silly fictional athletes and ballclubs, a world of lovable chuckleheads that I got to know over the course of two terrific video games. I never expected that Super Mega Baseball 3 would weaponize those emotional ties in the best way, turning my attachments to my favorite teams and players against me in its excellent, demanding franchise mode.
With the original Super Mega Baseball in 2014, and its 2018 follow-up, Canadian indie studio Metalhead Software brilliantly captured the spirit of the simple, fun sports games that many of us remember from our childhoods. But rather than reviving the exaggerated power-ups of NBA Jam and NFL Blitz, this series blends the cartoony essence of Backyard Baseball and Power Pros with a sound baseball simulation. Where else can you play as a team called the Sirloins, and mash home runs with a mutton-chopped slugger named Hammer Longballo?
Of course, the Super Mega Baseball games wouldn’t have succeeded without a foundation of rock-solid baseball mechanics beneath the surface. But it was the combination of the action on the field and the humor infused into everything else that turned Super Mega Baseball from a novelty series into one of the best success stories in sports video games. There’s nothing quite like it on the market these days.
Now, Metalhead has upped its game once again. Super Mega Baseball 3 is a capstone for the acclaimed series, the fulfillment of a mission that the studio embarked upon almost a decade ago, when it began working on the first game. That’s partly because Metalhead further refined its simulation of baseball this time around. But the new feature that ties everything together and elevates Super Mega Baseball 3 into a complete package is a proper franchise mode, the centerpiece of any long-lasting sports title. —Samit Sarkar
Get it here: Microsoft Store
Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Ori and the Will of the Wisps invites you to dance inside a beautiful world. There is combat, sure, and there are threats, but the dance, and the beauty of your surroundings, are always the focus.
Moon Studios’ first game, Ori and the Blind Forest, was notable for the same reason. Here was a striking 2D platformer that staked out the visual middle ground between a Pixar short and an oversaturated photograph of a fantastical forest. Will of the Wisps is even more sumptuous and varied in its aesthetic, filled with delightful details that make so many frames look more like paintings than a video game. Screenshots and trailers don’t do it justice. —Andrew King
The Outer Worlds
I knew I’d love The Outer Worlds as soon as I stumbled into a cave and met a bleeding, dying gentleman.
I offered to help, but he hesitated. Was I using Spacer’s Choice health care products? His contract clearly states that he can’t use a competing product. This was my first real introduction to the weird, corporate dystopia of the Halcyon system, where giant, sprawling conglomerates have the final word on just about everything, and everyone is simply trying to get by.
But maybe I can help with this whole mess, if I decide to try. The game begins with Phineas Welles — a guy who’s a little like a nicer Rick, sans Morty — waking me from cryosleep aboard the colonist vessel the Hope. The Hope was lost in space, I’ve been frozen for 70 years, and the entire system went straight to hell while I was on ice.
So I’m emerging into a space-capitalist nightmare, and Welles is asking me for help. I’ve just got to murder some robots and raiders, meet the locals down on some of the nearby planets, and try to figure out whether I’m down with Welles’ vision of eating the rich.
And I gotta admit, I’m a little hungry. —Cass Marshall
Journey to the Savage Planet
My first encounter with an alien life form in Journey to the Savage Planet establishes the game’s tone in no uncertain terms.
I spot a rotund, featherless, and mostly harmless Pufferbird minding its own business in a cave near my crashed spaceship. My ship’s AI helpfully points out that the bird contains resources I need, and the on-screen hint urges me to try a melee attack. I hit the indicated button, and slam the big-eyed creature with an unexpectedly savage backhand. It explodes into a puddle of neon green goo, covering the ground, walls, and my hands with slime.
I do not come in peace, it turns out. —Jeffrey Parkin
Some of the campaign is designed for sipping, mulling, and savoring, like the hours we spent slowly and deliberately exploring large, open-world areas, discovering secrets and learning about the Gears of War universe along the way.
Other parts are as rumbly and explodey as an Avengers movie, like every time we shot our way yard-by-yard through small corridors, big rooms, and enormous factories, peeking out from cover to reduce monsters into meaty roast-sized pieces.
And sometimes it’s a bit of both, like when we discovered a credible stealth sequence (in a Gears of War game!), botched it, and the cerebral calm transformed into a rumbling firefight.
These shifts in tone and pacing shouldn’t work, and yet they do. This is what makes Gears 5 so remarkable — and we’ve barely discussed the multiplayer options! —Dave Tach
It’s surprisingly difficult, because the more you describe it, the less mysterious it becomes, and keeping the mystery alive is an enormous part of the game’s appeal.
Here’s how Colin Campbell began Polygon’s Outer Wilds review:
Outer Wilds is a nonviolent, first-person exploration-puzzle game set in a solar system that’s sprinkled with delightful mysteries. Its secrets are scattered among a whirling orrery of planets, which I probe and investigate.
That’s the stone-cold truth of Outer Wilds, from a helpfully mechanical point of view. It’s an important, incomplete part of the description. You ought to know what you do.
Thing is, the magic in Outer Wilds is as much philosophical as it is mechanical, which is why Chelsea Stark began our game of the year essay like this:
Games have long fixated on humanity’s quest to play colonist, conqueror, or anthropologist, learning about and usually seeking to control everything beyond our own horizons.
But Outer Wilds delivers one of the most ambitious tales of discovery I’ve ever seen in gaming, without a focus on violence or domination. It’s a triumph that we at Polygon are happy to declare our game of the year for 2019.
So, yes, Outer Wilds tells the story of an alien species with adorable wooden spaceships, which which you explore the solar system — and very process of doing so reveals a mystery that would be a tragedy to spoil. —DT
Get it here: Microsoft Store
Control is a wonderfully weird game. It’s also gorgeous.
Its story and its characters are equal parts challenging, confusing, and intriguing. None of them is offensive enough to remain off-putting. Each makes you want to explore deeper and learn more — and it helps that Control looks and feels great while you unravel the mysteries of the Oldest House.
Control manipulates light and shadow not just to look great, but to serve the very foundation of the narrative. Aspects of the game can seem weird or disjointed, but everything in Control is deliberate, which you’ll see if you stick with it. Uncertainty is a feature, not a bug.
Developer Remedy Entertainment fully committed to Control’s pulpy, surreal premise, and that made Control as much a technical marvel as an artistic achievement. —DT
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a fitting capstone to developer FromSoftware’s peerless decade of development, during which it created of games that dared players not to die. FromSoftware’s games are, by design, difficult — borderline antagonistic, in fact. And yet they’re also incredibly popular and influential.
How to they do it? By being damn good games. As I wrote in our games of the year 2019 essay, if you’re going to be weird, then you’d better be good — and FromSoftware and Sekiro are both.
In 2019, the painful, rewarding journey was about a bodyguard and young royalty, about duty and honor, about overwhelming odds and survival with little more than a hook and a sword. Die, and you may feel like a fool. Survive, and you may feel like a god. No other studio has ever been able to so deftly walk the razor’s edge between shaking, sweating frustration, and pure elation, and you’ll feel all that and more as you play Sekiro. —DT
Resident Evil 2 (2019)
Released in early 2019, it’s part remake, part reimagining. It’s not just better textures and prettier graphics. Resident Evil 2 is complete rethinking inspired by the 1998 PlayStation game that first held the title. And it does all of that within the context of a franchise that sometimes nails it, and sometimes whiffs.
The developers at Capcom behind Resident Evil 2 understand what makes a Resident Evil game good — some combination of puzzles, resource scarcity, a self-contained setting, a horrific, thudding monster of a man always somewhere chasing you — and delivered it all in a package that’s simultaneously modern and retro. —DT
Return of the Obra Dinn
Return of the Obra Dinn begins with a superb mystery about a 19th-century merchant ship that arrived at port five years late, long after being presumed missing. It’s your job to figure out what happened.
Its striking visuals evoke the days when consumer hardware wasn’t beefy enough to manage much color, and visuals were at their best when the most anyone got were clever dots. If you had access to a PC in the ’80s and even the early ’90s, just looking at the screenshot above will inspire instant nostalgia.
But Return of the Obra Dinn offers much more than an evocative aesthetic. As we wrote in our review, it “poses a complex mystery, layered with personalities, motives, secrets and lies. But it supercharges whodunit conventions by infusing misdirection into every nook and cranny of its intricate, gorgeous murder scenes.” —DT
Get it here: Microsoft Store
Red Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2 ladles an astonishing amount of game over a meticulously drawn world that begs to be sipped and savored.
Part action game, part cowboy simulator, part lament on steamrolling progress, part exploration of American ideals real and imagined, developer Rockstar Games created a sprawling — and at times shocking, or frustrating — epic every bit as grandiose as the Western films and novels that inspired it.
Open-world sandboxes are nothing new to Rockstar Games, but Red Dead Redemption 2 plants a flag in the ground, declaring that the studio isn’t limited to a single, high-profile franchise. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a declaration that its quasi-Western epic stands toe-to-toe with its studio sibling, Grand Theft Auto.
The staggering amount of human effort required to bring this game to fruition shows through in every vista, every dimly lit street corner, every bespoke animation for human and animal alike. That effort also, shortly before the game’s release, became a story unto itself. Reports of crunch demonstrate that games like Red Dead Redemption 2 often don’t ship without exacting a toll, voluntary or otherwise. —DT
I don’t want to overstate the degree to which Hitman 3 is a departure from its predecessors. The moment-to-moment gameplay remains focused on Agent 47 sneaking past people (or donning disguises to hide in plain view) so he can put himself in position to commit murder. In some sense, it is a sequel very much like Hitman 2, with new targets to take down in six new locations, and some additional toys and tactics with which 47 can accomplish his goals. But I very much appreciated the twists and wrinkles that IO threw into the Hitman formula this time around, many of them steered by the story.
That’s a clear sign that in concluding its beloved trilogy, IO felt it necessary to exert a stronger degree of narrative control and prioritize its own story over the open-ended nature of Hitman. The studio put a heavier hand on the wheel, but the trade-off is absolutely worth it.
Deciding the answers to these big game design questions is the kind of thing you can do when you return to being an independent studio, and gain the self-determination to tell the story you want to tell while staying true to the franchise you’ve been working on for more than two decades. I’m amazed that IO pulled off that delicate balancing act in Agent 47’s finest adventure to date. —Samit Sarkar
Xbox Game Pass
Xbox Game Pass Ultimate is one of the best deals in gaming right now, offering a large variety of games across the Xbox One and Xbox Series X ecosystems as well as PC, along with Xbox Live Gold, EA Play, and xCloud, for $15 per month. No other competitor has anything like it, although PlayStation Now comes at least somewhat close.
This is going to be something a meta entry, since we also have guides about some of the best games to download from the service, linked below, but the service itself is absolutely one of Microsoft’s killer apps for its console and PC gaming strategy. —DT
Get it here: Microsoft Store
Halo: The Master Chief Collection
It’s difficult to overstate the impact that Halo has had on Xbox. In fact, it’s reasonable to argue that Halo: Combat Evolved made Microsoft 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.
The collection keeps growing, too: In early December 2019, Halo Reach arrived in the collection on Xbox One and PC. —Polygon Staff
Sea of Thieves
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 living game. 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. Its anniversary update was a big demonstration of that commitment.
As we mentioned in the introduction, we’re collecting the games that 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. —BK
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds began its console life as an Xbox One exclusive. And yes, it’s been available on PS4 for more than a year now, but somehow Xbox still feels like PUBG’s home.
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.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds didn’t invent the battle royale genre, but it evolved and popularized it — the game brought it to the masses. —DT
Sunset Overdrive may be 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.
As an exclusive, it’s also a bit of history now, given that Sony acquired Insomniac in 2019, folding the developer of Ratchet & Clank, Spyro, and Marvel’s Spider-Man into the PlayStation family. —Polygon Staff
The Xbox One X may be the best place to play Nier: Automata, besting the notoriously messy PC port at launch. 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. —Polygon Staff
Creaks stars an unassuming everyman who, at the beginning of the game, is just trying to get some reading in before bedtime. The overhead light in his bedroom flickers and then dies, as a loud thud rattles the entire house. The disturbance jolts the wallpaper, a piece of which peels off to reveal a metal door leading to a secret passageway. Our hero does what anyone would: He crawls in and starts investigating what lies beneath his home.
He’s been sleeping above a wonder, as it turns out. He quickly finds himself exploring a vast subterranean structure lying in a massive cavern: a dilapidated mansion that’s the size of a small town and is home to a variety of eldritch beings, including bird-people and some deadly mechanical monsters. There are a few different types of this latter group — the eponymous “creaks” themselves — such as menacing robot dogs and metallic jellyfish-like creatures, and all of them will kill our friend with a touch.
The hidden mansion, with its vaguely Victorian architecture and steampunk-sans-brass aesthetics, feels like a lived-in space that was gradually, perhaps over centuries, hewn out of colossal stalagmites in the cavern. It also seems like it could crumble at any moment due to seismic activity, whether natural or caused by the mysterious giant creature that you occasionally see glimpses of. The main character is animated in an immediately endearing way: He perpetually wears an anxious expression, eyes wide, eyebrows raised, as if he could melt into a bundle of nerves at any moment.
His only salvation in this underground setting is, of course, light: The creaks are terrified of it, which makes sense, since light transmogrifies them into harmless furniture if it touches them. Well, harmless, but helpful in completing puzzles. —SS
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. —DT
Forza Horizon 4
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. —Polygon Staff
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 the original 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 backward-compatible games.
These 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. Microsoft has also stated that it will continue the trend of backward-compatibility with its upcoming Xbox Series X console. —DT
Other notable games:
Get it here: Microsoft Store
Get it here: Microsoft Store
Get it here: Microsoft Store
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