Gaming is for everyone, and Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass service actually has something for everyone to install in time for Christmas morning … even if you just have the day off but don’t celebrate the holiday.
Playing the games is the treat, even when the console itself is often the present. That’s why we’ve selected the 10 essential games to install on your gaming PC, Xbox One, Xbox One X, Xbox Series X, or Xbox Series S if you’re also a subscriber to Game Pass Ultimate, Microsoft’s Netflix-like service that gives you access to over 100 games for one monthly price.
Christmas morning isn’t the time for wrangling cables, downloading patches, and waiting for the games you want to play to install. It’s the time to play those games.
So crack open the new hardware — or maybe just the new subscription — cue up the downloads ahead of time, and get ready to enjoy these 10 games.
Train Sim World 2020
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.
Halo: The Master Chief Collection
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, especially for Christmas morning, is how many ways there are to play. You can go through the campaigns by yourself, if no one else wants to play or if you’re stuck quarantining alone during the holidays. 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.
Tetris Effect: Connected
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 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
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 just picked up, 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.
This is one of the best games to show off new hardware, but even without that hook, it’s one of the most enjoyable titles on Game Pass, no matter how competitive or laid-back you’d like to be with your driving. At a time when so many of us are feeling claustrophobic due to COVID-19, the freedom of this huge network of environments, roads, and challenges may just be the hint of freedom your family could use on Christmas morning.
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 this year, 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, and I can’t wait to introduce my children to it.
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 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.
Ticket to Ride
The “standard” board games you find in the closet growing up tend to be horrible. Monopoly is bad, folks. I’m sorry, it just is. Luckily, Ticket to Ride is great, and this digital version of the popular board game will teach you how to play and get you going without any fuss. You don’t even need to clean up the board when the game’s done!
Ticket to Ride is a game of railroads, routes, and lines, with each player competing to build the best railroad system. It’s a race to connect cities and dominate the field of getting freight and folks from one place to another. You get to feel like an old-timey master of the universe while trying to crush your friends and enemies, and this virtual version is the perfect way to get started.
I’m not sure if I’m breaking my own rules here, since this isn’t a game, but Game Pass Ultimate subscribers get a free month of Disney Plus right now, which is a great excuse to watch a family movie together on Christmas morning, or any time during that free month. You can cancel your subscription before the month is up if you don’t want to be charged, but be warned: Disney Plus is a hard service to let go of you start.
There’s an entire Baby Yoda situation.