7 games on Xbox Game Pass that are actually worth playing

There are over 100 games on Microsoft’s newly minted ‘Netflix for games’ service, Xbox Game Pass, and of those, there are plenty that, frankly, aren’t much to write home about. Also, many of the titles have been featured in Xbox’s Games with Gold initiative, meaning if you’ve made use of the paid subscription service over the last couple of years (and if you’ve played any multiplayer, you will have) you might already own many of these titles.
 
That said, there are a number of titles that absolutely deserve to be played. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of dipping a toe into any of the following gaming experiences, then what are you waiting for? Take the 14-day free trial, and give yourself a treat. You’ll thank me.

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Bioshock - 1, 2 and Infinite

 

These get lumped together, as they’re all worth your time for different reasons, and to varying degrees. The original was a true watershed moment in gaming, with the incredibly realized undersea setting of Rapture, in particular, becoming instantly iconic, and going on to influence countless games since, right up to the present. The Bioshock series is also credited with bringing a strong narrative back to the fore in a AAA title, something that is very apparent in Bioshock 2, a more linear, less systemic effort which, though not as trailblazing as the original, improved on its predecessor’s combat significantly. Bioshock Infinite certainly has its flaws, and could never quite recapture the series’ early magic, but still, features top-tier art direction and an interesting alternate history/sci-fi story.

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Braid


 
For many, the game which kick-started the mainstream indie revolution (especially on consoles) that still rumbles on to this day, Braid snuck some surprisingly complex gameplay ideas into a deceptively simple package and set the precedent for beautifully realized 2D platformers. It’s neat time-bending mechanics still feel dynamic and fresh, and there’s a real emotional heft to the allegorical story which has a lot to say about the nature of relationships. Is it pretentious? Of course. Is it worth playing? Absolutely.

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Gears of War - 1, 2, 3, Ultimate Edition, and (if there’s time) Judgment


 
Microsoft’s other flagship action series (we’ll get onto a certain green-armored Spartan soon) Gears of War ushered in not only a new era of console graphical fidelity when it premiered way back in 2005 but popularized the cover-shooter sub-genre. The Ultimate Edition remaster brings that original game’s graphics up to date, but can’t paper over the storytelling, which feels thin by today’s standards. It’s still a blast though, and worth playing if just to become familiar with the characters. Gears of War 2 ramps up the story considerably, offering perhaps the most varied narrative, while Gears of War 3 has the most complete suite of content, with a huge wealth of multiplayer options to try (if there are still players to jump on with, that is). I’ve included the People Can Fly developed Judgment, because if you’ve played the other games you’ll probably want to complete the set, but in all honesty, the quality doesn’t quite match up with the original trilogy, or indeed the more recent Gears of War 4 from The Coalition, which isn’t included in the Game Pass (at least not yet).

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Halo 5: Guardians

 

Yes, the single player is kind of patchy, but as we’ve covered recently, this game has the best version of the series’ online play since fan-favorite Halo 2, and possibly even the best version ever if you remove nostalgia from the equation. Developers 343 Industries have been incredibly generous with content for this release, with new game modes, a huge selection of both new and improved weaponry, and a lavish selection of maps (seriously—make sure you’ve reserved plenty of hard disk space if you plan to download this one). Best of all, Halo 5 is still absolutely packed with players, making this easily the most attractive of all the Game Pass titles from a multiplayer standpoint.

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Spelunky


 
Don’t make the mistake of dismissing Spelunky as merely another quirky indie to make up Game Pass’s numbers. This game had a huge role in ushering in the current craze for roguelite platformers, and it still held up by many as the most successful version of that formula. Be warned: despite the at-times punishing difficulty, the game’s expansive procedurally generated underworld is endlessly re-playable, making this one of the most addictive indies of recent years.

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XCOM: Enemy Within


 
Strategy games are still somewhat of a rarity on consoles, so when one is released, it probably doesn’t need to be that great. Luckily XCOM was a fantastic rebirth of the series which was sympathetic to the limitations of console hardware and controls, whilst also managing not to dumb down the overall gameplay, which is just as deep, and satisfying as the PC version.

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Resident Evil 0


 
One for Resi fans, this. Before the series went a little off-the-rails with 5 and 6 (and eventually found its way back to a winning formula with 7), Capcom remade the original Resident Evil with updated graphics, then followed it with Resident Evil 0 using the same engine. This was a new take on the origin of the series and is thankfully far from the action-movie leanings and genre-pandering the series suffered from as the years went on. It was updated recently with a fresh coat of paint, and while it’s not quite the definitive Resi game (the quality of the remaster, in particular, can be a little inconsistent—especially the dated-looking cut-scenes), it still serves as a lovely window into the classic survival horror gameplay that was synonymous with these games for so long. And old or not, play with the lights off, and, it can still be just as chilling as modern horror games.


 
Also worth a try…


 
Terraria
– 2D, pixel-art Minecraft with less focus on creation and more on adventuring.
 
DMC: Devil May Cry – Fun semi-reboot of the stylish hack-and-slash combo-building classic.
 
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons – Surprisingly touching family-themed indie puzzler.
 
Soul Calibur 2 HD – The pinnacle of pick-up-and-play beat-’em-ups, now with updated graphics.
 
Pac-Man Championship Edition DX+ – The definitive version of one of the most iconic video games of all time.
 

Is Prey really the new Bioshock?

Some of Prey's early promotional art.

Some of Prey's early promotional art.

Quite a bit has been made of the shared DNA between the upcoming Prey and the Bioshock series. After spending time with the game, it's obvious that Prey’s developers Arkane Studios have been inspired, at least in part, by that legendary game and its sequel. Perhaps it’s not that surprising: take a look at Arkane’s previous projects, and you’ll see they collaborated with 2K Marin on design, animation, and art for Bioshock 2.

Arkane have been open about the similarities, even calling Prey a spiritual sequel to Bioshock’s granddaddy, System Shock (Raphaël Colantonio, one of Arkane’s co-founders, was a part of EA’s quality assurance team for System Shock in the early part of his career). But with the Bethesda drawing attention to the Bioshock comparison even in its own marketing, how similar are the two games, really? And could comparing this new game to what many consider to be an untouchable classic wind up being a surefire route to disappointing your audience?

Let’s go through the most obvious similarities and judge exactly how closely related Prey is to the Bioshock series.

The Look

One thing evident even from static screenshots of Prey is that this game is very much inspired by Bioshock’s visual style. The initial look of Prey’s setting, the moon-orbiting station Talos I, is dominated by a sleek, art-deco influenced aesthetic which can be seen in everything from the grand, opulent staircases, to the clean lines of protagonist Morgan’s Yu’s desk. While not identical in style to the more overtly period flavor of Bioshock’s deco-dominated Rapture, it still conjures up memories of exploring that unforgettable undersea dystopia. Now I’m not suggesting the Bioshock series has the monopoly on the deco art style in video games. But I think it is fair to say that there are few games that employ this look, so, when coupled with the other similarities I’ll detail, a comparison is only natural, especially when Bioshock’s setting is so embedded in the gaming culture.

The Setting

Yes, Bioshock and its sequel had one of the most striking, impressively constructed environments ever to feature in a video game. But Prey doesn’t just take cues from that setting’s look. Rapture was a large but enclosed environment that the player explored in a somewhat freeform manner, unlocking new areas as they progressed in the story. Prey’s space station setting looks to be replicating this single location approach, with players’ directing their own exploration to a large extent, opening doors that lead to new areas off of previously unlocked ones and gradually revealing the extent of the setting as they go.

The Narrative

The Bioshock games are remembered as being strongly narrative-driven, and Prey looks to be taking this approach, too. In both Prey and Bioshock, the protagonist is partially led through the game’s main story by voices who communicate with him via his radio – voices whose stake in the overarching plot are far from entirely clear. In both games, the protagonist is exploring a location where a catastrophic series of events have taken place of which they have no prior knowledge of, and in both games, the player can gain a deeper understanding of what exactly went down by reading the material that can be found throughout the world. As with pretty much every other element on this list, these narrative similarities perhaps wouldn’t be enough to draw a comparison on their own but combined with everything else, they’re hard to ignore.

The McGuffins

Where the Bioshock games have their Plasmids, genetic modifications that messed with your genetic makeup and gave you unique powers, Prey has its Neuromods, a potent technological advancement that lets you advance your skills through the memories of others. The effects of each of these game mechanics are quite different, but their procurement in-game is incredibly similar: find a canister, inject it into yourself, feel more powerful.

The Approaches

Prey allows you to tackle situations in a number of ways, and you can augment your play style by investing your acquired Neuromods in the particular skills that suit you. The Security side of the skill tree is where you improve your combat skills, whether you’re going gung-ho, or favor a stealthy approach. Here’s where you’ll find weapon damage bonuses and boosts to your overall health, as well as ways to make you less detectable to enemies, and a sneak attack bonus for damage done to enemies unaware of your presence. Scientist skills affect how capable you are at healing and your hacking prowess, while Engineer skills are more practical, governing stuff like how far you can throw and carry heavy objects, plus your repair effectiveness. These three game styles broadly mesh with the ways you can play Bioshock, although that game was notably less developed in how it employed its stealth mechanics, and this template was largely thrown out of the window for Bioshock 2.


Looking at the bigger picture and including the entirety of gaming in our comparison, it's clear that many of the elements common to both Prey and Bioshock aren’t just limited to those games, but have featured in other games too. So it’s perhaps not entirely fair, and a little reductive to say one game is lifting wholesale from the other.

Having said that, though, it’s fair to say there are definitely comparisons to be made here, due to a number of key elements in Prey that are so utterly reminiscent of Bioshock that comparison would have been made, whether attention was drawn to it or not. I do question, though, Bethesda’s marketing department and their decision to emphasize quotes from the media directing comparing Prey to Bioshock. They’re playing a dangerous game. They obviously feel the risk is worth the reward (i.e. the millions of Bioshock fans that will be tempted to buy Prey), but I’m wondering whether any game, even a particularly good one, can live up to those expectations. I’m hopeful that Prey will stand on its own merits as a great g game, but I’m also fearful that those buying the game are being conditioned to expect a very particular thing. This new game, even if it’s the best game this year or even turns out to be superior to Bioshock, could still never be Bioshock. It won’t matter how good it ends up being because it’ll end disappointing gamers anyway.