Essential Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S Games for the 2020 Holiday Season

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The holiday shopping season is here, which means it's time to stock up on games — or buy them for other people, of course. 2020 marked the launch of Sony's PlayStation 5 and Microsoft's Xbox Series X and Series S, all of which are backwards compatible with their respective prior platforms.

Although Halo Infinite was delayed out of the Series X|S launch window, leaving the consoles without a launch exclusive title, there are tons of great games ready to fill the void, some third-party, some first-party. 

In making this list, we tried to avoid overlap with our other list marking the essential games for the PlayStation 4 and PS5. Maybe it's a misguided endeavor because so many great games launched for both platforms, but we had to draw the line somewhere for each list or both would go on and on. 

Here's that list so you can find even more great Xbox One and Series X|S titles, like FUSER, Assassin's Creed Valhalla, Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time, Doom Eternal, Resident Evil 3, and more. 

Here we're focusing on some of the other essential titles for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S owners to pick up this season and into 2021, from shooters and space flight sims to everything in between. There's something for any sort of gamer in this list, so let's get started.

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Ori and the Will of the Wisps

ESRB Rating: E
MSRP: $29.99
Platforms: XB1, Series X|S
Get it on:

  • Microsoft Store (XB1, Series X|S Digital)
    • Currently included in Game Pass Ultimate

Ori and the Blind Forest is one of the best platformers to launch on any platform in recent memory. Released in 2015, it currently has an 88 on Metacritic and a commanding 90 on OpenCritic. So how would Moon Studios and Microsoft Studios follow that? With a sequel that's just as good — if not better. 

Ori and the Will of the Wisps takes most everything fans love about the original game and improves upon it. It's draw-droppingly gorgeous world is only rivaled by its tight platforming mechanics and fulfilling Metroidvania design. There's a lot to do in Will of the Wisps, making it a game fans can come back to again and again. 

In our review of the game, we said "Ori and the Will of the Wisps is another triumph return for the series — a beautiful game with only the smallest blemishes to its luster. If you want to play a beautiful, often difficult Metroidvania with some of the most satisfying combat and traversal mechanics the genre has to offer, Ori and the Will of the Wisps will give you plenty to be excited about."

Gears Tactics

ESRB Rating: M
MSRP: $59.99
Platforms: XB1, Series X|S
Get it on:

  • Amazon (XB1, Series X|S Physical)
  • Microsoft Store (XB1, Series X|S Digital)
    • Currently included in Game Pass Ultimate

Xbox One actually has a surprising number of good tactics games in its catalog: XCOM and XCOM 2, Wargroove, Battletech, Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, Mutant Year Zero, Battletech, and Into the Breach are just a few. But fans can add Gears Tactics in as one of the best entries. 

As with other similar genre games, there are squads, there are over-head perspectives, there are action points, and there are abilities like overwatch. Since Gears Tactics is a prequel to the original Gears of War, the story gives Gears fans another look at the franchise's universe, 12 years before the first game. 

We played the game when it released in early 2020, saying "Gears Tactics takes the intense third-person action of the console game into the realm of PC-centric turn-based tactical strategy. Thanks to intuitive controls, Gears Tactics is easy to get into even for players who have never played a turn-based tactical squad game before. It’s just a shame there’s not more here."

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Grounded

ESRB Rating: T
MSRP: $29.99
Platforms: XB1, Series X|S
Get it on:

  • Microsoft Store (XB1, Series X|S Digital)
    • Currently included in Game Pass Ultimate

If you've ever wondered what it would be like to play in the backyard of Honey, I shrunk the Kids, you'll want to give Grounded a look. It's a survival adventure game where you're small and the world is big — literally. 

Grounded may only be in Early Access through Xbox Game Preview with its story and systems still in development, but it already has a lot to offer. You'll craft spears and shovels, hunt bugs, build shelters, and survive myriad dangers — all while trying to get un-shrunk. 

On top of what's currently available, Obsidian has been dutifully adding new elements and mechanics to the game since it released in July. The extensive development roadmap can be seen over on the Grounded website

In our Early Access review, we said that "Grounded proudly reveals its unique take on the well-tread survival genre by injecting familiar mechanics with a youthful spirit. With Grounded, Obsidian walks back years of survival games moving ceaselessly toward dreary post-apocalyptic worlds and instead imagines a colorful little-big sandbox where insects are intimidating behemoths."

Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War

ESRB Rating: M
MSRP: $59.99 - $69.99
Platforms: XB1, Series X|S
Get it on:

This year's Call of Duty should be a given for any FPS player with an Xbox Box One or Xbox Series X|S. The perennial first-person shooter's newest offering brings with it a ton of multiplayer gameplay and plenty of weapon customization options to keep any fan busy. There's a sizeable campaign mode, to boot, not to mention the always-popular Zombies mode. 

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is on both Xbox One and Xbox Series X natively, though owners of the Xbox One version is backwards compatible with the Series X, or it can upgrade to the Xbox Series X version at no additional cost. So it's really a win, win, win. 

In our review of Black Ops Cold War, we gave it top marks for a "tight, high-action campaign mode, tons of weapon customization options in multiplayer, [and for having] plenty of content right away." We also said that, unsurprisingly, "zombies mode is hard to put down."

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Watch Dogs: Legion

ESRB Rating: M
MSRP: $59.99
Platforms: XB1, Series X|S
Buy it from:

Watch Dogs: Legion is the third installment in the Watch Dogs franchise that began back in 2014. While it features similar gameplay and world-building as its predecessors, the most interesting mechanic Watch Dogs: Legion brings to the table is the ability to recruit any character in London to the grander cause. Such an ambitious addition works extremely well, too, adding a sense of depth unseen in the first two games and a whole heck of a lot of character types to dive into.

Never before has being a part of a rebel hacker group been so slick, so much so in our review, we said that WDL "throws out a decade of Ubisoft's cluttered-map open worlds in favor of exciting systems that deliver unique emergent moments consistently."

It's not perfect — as of this writing, there's still a pesky game-breaking bug near the end of the game in the Series X version that Ubisoft is working to fix — but it's a solid entry in the series all fans should check out. 

Star Wars: Squadrons

ESRB Rating: T
MSRP: $39.99
Platforms: XB1, Series X|S
Get it on:

  • Amazon (XB1, Series X|S physical)
  • Microsoft Store (XB1, Series X|S Digital)
    • Part of EA Play through Game Pass Ultimate on console

Star Wars fans have waited a long, long time for a proper space-flight combat simulator — since the days of the legendary X-Wing and Tie Fighter series. Star Wars: Squadrons delivers (in spades) a thoughtful and respectful modern take on that classic gameplay. recent updates to the game have added the much-requested B-Wing, custom multiplayer matches, and new starfighter armaments. 

Between a campaign worthy of the storied series and the intensely immersive flight and combat to the blood-pumping multiplayer that serves as a nice middle ground between the old games and Battlefront 2's Starfighter Assualt mode, Squadrons is not to be missed by any fan.

In our review of the game, we said "Star Wars Squadrons is an instant classic and an ode to the space combat sims that came before it. It's the closest thing to a new X-Wing or Tie Fighter we're going to get."

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Journey to the Savage Planet

ESRB Rating: T
MSRP: $29.99
Platforms: XB1, Series X|S
Get it on:

  • Amazon (XB1, Series X|S Physical)
  • Microsoft Store (XB1, Series X|S Digital)
    • Included with Game Pass Ultimate

You may not have heard about Journey to the Savage Planet since it had a relatively quiet launch way back in the beginning of 2020, which was about 624 years ago at this point. But that doesn't mean it isn't a 3D action-adventure game well-worth checking out. 

Zany, satirical, and totally bonkers, Journey to the Savage Planet sends you to planet AR-Y 26 as part of an exploration expedition meant to find a habitable planet for humanity. It's a tale we've played through before, but the character behind Journey to the Savage Planet — not to mention its creative design choices and fun gameplay — make it stand out. 

Players can explore and conquer solo or in co op, though co op is relegated to a purely invite-only system. There's unfortunately no couch co op or online matchmaking here. 

We gave the game an 8 for getting "exploration and traversal" right, as well as it's "colorful and light-hearted" world. We said that "Journey to the Savage Planet is an amalgam of many genres in a single 15-20 hour experience" that stands as a "charming debut from a promising new studio."

Immortal Fenyx Rising

ESRB Rating: T
MSRP: $59.99
Platforms: XB1, Series X|S
Get it on:

Immortals Fenyx Rising may look like just another open-world Ubisoft game, and while it may share certain aspects with games like Assassin's Creed Odyssey, such as its Greek mythology trappings, it takes some of those elements and flips them on their head. 

As expected, there's a lot to do here, with plenty of places to explore, myriad items to discover, and tons of skills to unlock. There's "breezy combat and excellent writing," and the art style is inviting. It helps that the game is funny too. 

For us, "Immortals Fenyx Rising has undeniable charm." It's well worth the price of admission for fans of Ubisoft, open-world games, or just plain ol' well-made games.  

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Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 + 2

ESRB Rating: T
MSRP: $39.99
Platforms: XB1, Series X|S
Get it on:

There's no series that does skateboarding better than Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. Sure, there's the Skate series, which has received favorable marks over the years, but nothing holds a candle to the prolificness of the THPS franchise, or its grip on the cultural zeitgeist 21 years after the launch of the first game. 

This faithful remake of the first two games in the series can't be beat — even compared to more recent entries. it makes you forget that 2012's Tony Hawk's HD ever existed. 

Featuring absolutely no cut content from the first two games in the series and even some new additions (skaters, boards, and online multiplayer), as well as tricks from later games, Pro Skater 1 + 2 isn't to be missed.

That doesn't mean it's perfect, but we gave it high marks for its graphics, faithfulness, and old-school arcade feel. Read more about it in our review.

Cake Bash

ESRB Rating: E
MSRP: $19.99
Platforms: XB1, Series X|S
Get it on:

There's nothing better for the soul and bad for your interpersonal relationships like a good, old-fashioned party game. Cake Bash doesn't just make you compete with friends in its minigames, campaign, and multiplayer modes  it makes you hungry too! You are trying to become the tastiest treat around, after all.

Our review for this indie darling perhaps says it best: "With a variety of entertaining games, some lively stages, and good replayability, it’s a fun experience, especially with friends. We only wish there was more of it on offer. Though some minigames feel a little finicky, it’s otherwise a sweet treat all around." Read more about Cake Bash here

Ghostrunner

ESRB Rating: M
MSRP: $29.99
Platforms: XB1, Series X|S
Get it on:

Ultra fast-paced and brutal, Ghostrunner can put even the highest skilled players to the test with its cutthroat swordplay and silky smooth maneuverability. An action-packed platformer set against a neon cyberpunk futurescape, Ghostrunner is part Mirror's Edge, part Ninja Gaiden where precise timing and movement a strategic keys to success. Get hit, and you die. You'll have to start from the checkpoint. 

This is a solid buy for anyone who's all about gameplay and isn't too worried about story, at least in the traditional narrative sense. If you pay attention, there's a lot to learn from its world.

We gave Ghostreunner a solid 8, saying, "it's fast, frenetic, and, even in the face of its weaker moments, endlessly satisfying."

Dirt 5

ESRB Rating: E
MSRP: $59.99
Platforms: XB1, X|S
Get it on:

Dirt 5 isn't to be overlooked if you've got the itch for a good racing game, especially if you enjoyed its predecessor, Dirt 4. It improves on many of that game's mechanics and systems, even if the Xbox versions aren't able to use the awesome haptic feedback features available in the PlayStation 5 version. 

Dirt 5's varied terrain, comprehensive career mode, and lush visuals are a feast for anyone who enjoys the genre even a bit. But don't go into this thinking it's Gran Turismo: this is a rally racer through and through. 

You can read more about Dirt 5 and all it has to offer in our review, where we said it's "a huge racer with tons to do," has "gorgeous presentation," and comes packaged with "tight, responsive controls." 

Maneater

ESRB Rating: M
MSRP: $29.99
Platforms: XB1, Series X|S
Get it on:

Maneater may be one of the most surprising games of the year, and if you like action-packed chaos and mayhem, one of the best.  

Fans of Jaws and Shark Week will revel in the chum-filled waters of Maneater, which follows an orphaned bull shark out for revenge. As your growing shark swims from the alligator-filled swamps of Fatwick Bayou to the sailboat-clogged harbor of Prosperity Sands and beyond, you'll chomp down on everything from fish and turtles to swimmers and bounty hunters. 

You'll even unlock new skills, evolutions, and deadly shark skins along the way, giving you extra bones to rip your prey to shreds or electricity to shock them when they fall in the water. 

We gave Maneater a 9 because of all of the things it does so well, with our review saying "In a time of global crisis, however, a game where you can turn your brain off and eat anything and everything in sight is just the kind of detachment we need. Even if it wasn’t on your radar at all, Maneater is a title that will gobble you up for a few hours of blissful escapism."

Streets Of Rage 4 

ESRB Rating: T
MSRP: $24.99 - $34.99
Platforms: XB1, Series X|S
Get it on:

  • Amazon (XB1, Series X|S Physical)
  • Microsoft Store (XB1, Series X|S Digital)
    • Currently included with Game Pass Ultimate

They say you can't keep a good fighter down, and with Streets of Rage 4, developer Dotemu proves that one of the best beat em' ups of the 1990s is still one of the beat em' ups of 2020s. 

The most obvious change is the game's updated coat of paint, which looks absolutely gorgeous on last- and current-gen consoles. Peel back the surface just a bit, and you'll find a game that pays respect to the franchise but makes enough thoughtful changes to forge its own path. Combat is as you'd expect it, though that doesn't mean it's any less effective. 

After playing Streets of Rage 4 earlier this year, we said "Streets of Rage 4 is the best kind of revival. It absolutely revels in the franchise’s roots, but the designers have put a lot of thought into what does and does not work in the old arcade beat-‘em-up formula." Read more here

Wasteland 3

ESRB Rating: M
MSRP: $59.99
Platforms: XB1, Series X|S
Get it on:

  • Amazon (XB1, Series X|S Physical)
  • Microsoft Store (XB1, Series X|S Digital)
    • Currently included with Game Pass Ultimate

After waiting for a sequel to Wasteland 2 for six years — and suffering through a few delays along the way — fans finally got their hands on Wasteland 3 earlier this year. Luckily, it was all well worth it. Mixing tried and true CRPG mechanics with modern sensibilities, Wasteland 3 is an unmitigated success. 

There's no surprise that there's a lot to do in Wasteland 3, a game that can take upwards of 71 hours to beat for those looking to uncover everything. Sure, a single playthrough isn't as long as some other RPGs on the Xbox platform, but there are so many different builds and ways to play the game, that multiple playthroughs are almost essential. 

There's story, there's strategy, there's combat. It looks absolutely fantastic, and it's funny, to boot. 

We said that "Wasteland 3 is, without a doubt, one of the best games of the year. Despite its dark, gloomy atmosphere, it manages to shine through humor and characterization. The world-building is second to none, with a wide range of locales to visit, creating a sense of epic-scale and adventure. It’s a game where your choices have real consequences as you play judge, jury, and executioner."

Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning

ESRB Rating: M
MSRP: $39.99
Platforms: XB1, X|S
Get it on:

Kingdoms of Amalur didn't get the fairest shake with its original release on the Xbox 360, but the Re-Reckoning version of the game on modern platforms brings this much-talked-about RPG to life  and with a wealth of additional content on top of the original version's already robust world and gameplay.

This is one of those re-releases that original fans dream of, but also one that's accessible to new fans. Thankfully, many of the hiccups from the original game have been ironed out here, so it's both faithful and the best way to play the game. 

If you're a loot hound — or know someone who is — and like RPGs, Re-Reckoning is a no brainer. 

In our review, we said that "Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning feels like a breath of fresh air. Just like the game's protagonist, it rises from the ashes, with a blank slate and zero expectations, to deliver a powerful story, addictive gameplay, and a shockingly stylish world that's pulsing with personality and is ripe for exploration."

Control

ESRB Rating: T
MSRP: $39.99
Platforms: XB1, Series X|S
Get it on:

  • Amazon (XB1, Series X|S Physical)
  • Microsoft Store (XB1, Series X Digital)
    • Currently included in Game Pass Ultimate

Control may very well be on of the greatest games of the last generation. Developed by Remedy Games — who also brought us the incredible Alan Wake, as well as Quantum Break and Max Payne — Control wows with super slick gunplay and super power usage.

It's a game that pulls players into an engaging world with engaging combat.  The Federal Bureau of Control is under siege and supernatural abilities are commonplace. Fans of the X-Files or sci-fi horror should not miss out on this action-adventure game.

We couldn't help but gush about it in our review, saying that "Control is undoubtedly Remedy's biggest and weirdest game yet. In many ways, it's also their best, all while it paves the way for a Marvel-like connected universe." Yeah, it connects to all of their previous games in some fashion, creating a video game universe unlike any other. 

Published Dec. 4th 2020

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