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The best Xbox Series X games in 2021

Assassin's Creed Valhalla
(Image credit: Ubisoft)

The selection for the best Xbox Series X games is trim at the moment, but as the year goes on it's only set to grow, with a bountiful amount of titles on the horizon. 

If you’re lucky enough to have found where to buy the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S, then you have a small clutch of games that can really take advantage of the new hardware. But the real ace in the hole is the plethora of backwards compatible games that the new Microsoft games consoles can not just run but also boost. These improvements range from snappier load times to improved graphics and the application of smart HDR. 

There are some 30 optimized games to choose from right now, with a lot more to come. We’ve rounded up our selection for the games you should try on the Xbox Series X or Series S. And keep checking back with Tom's Guide, as we’re sure to build out this list as more games come out for the new Xbox models.

1.  Assassin’s Creed Valhalla 

Assassin's Creed Valhalla is the latest entry in Ubisoft's long-running historical action/stealth series. This time around, you'll take control of Eivor: a Viking warrior, who must establish a new home for his clan in the wilds of medieval England. All of the usual Assassin's Creed activities are here - scouring the countryside for quests and treasure, hunting down Templar agents, building up your arsenal of stealth and combat tools, and so forth. But this time around, you'll also build a settlement, travel in a longship and raid monasteries, as any good Viking should. 

On Xbox Series X, Assassin's Creed Valhalla loads quickly and aims for a steady 4K/60 frames per second performance. Not only is the game gorgeous, but it runs seamlessly, and never makes you wait long to jump back into the action, whether you're fast-traveling across the map or retrying a difficult combat encounter.  - Marshall Honorof

2.  Gears 5

It could be argued that when Gears of War 4 came out, the Gears franchise was running out of a bit of steam, at least on the single-player side. But Gears 5 is a triumphant return to form for the series. Naturally, it comes with flashy cutscenes full of the bombast one expects from a Gears game. But it also dips its toes into the realms of horror, teasing out a creeping dread between bouts of frenetic action. The fundamentals of a Gears game are still present, with the satisfaction of nailing a quick reload still tickling the action game glands. 

Gears 5 is also a very pretty game, as in "bite-the-back-of-your-hand" pretty. The extra power of the Series X ramps up the texture and shadow details, as well as adding a form of "lite" ray tracing. Running at 4K with a pretty stable 60 fps is basically the only way to play Gears 5. And it’s on Xbox Game Pass, so you can get ahold of it easily. - Roland Moore-Colyer

3. Forza Horizon 4

What do you get if you combine the leafy, quiet countryside of Britain with high-octane supercars and hot hatches? The answer is Forza Horizon 4: an open-world racing game based in the land of tea and quiet tutting. 

As a flagship 4K game for the Xbox One X, Forza Horizon 4 runs even smoother on the Xbox Series X, with it easily hitting 60 fps. And the game looks even better too, with boosted reflections, shadows, and particle effects. (The latter is particularly noticeable when you overcook a corner and go flying off into an impeccably farmed field or flowing river.) Forza Horizon 4 was a stellar racing game on the Xbox One, and now it's even better on the Series X. - Roland Moore-Colyer

4. Sea of Thieves  

Have you ever wondered what it might be like to fill the boots of a semi-cartoon pirate sailing the open seas with four fellow shipmates, plundering islands and sinking other ships just for the sheer joy of it? If the answer is yes, then Rare’s Sea of Thieves is the game for you. 

What started out as a bit of a thin experience on the Xbox One and PC has matured into a much deeper game full of secrets, including a gigantic kraken to take on. The optimized version for the Xbox Series X will run at 4K and a smooth 60 fps, making the whole experience plain sailing on Microsoft's new flagship games console. - Roland Moore-Colyer

5. Ori and the Will of the Wisps 

Following on from the critically-acclaimed Ori and the Blind Forest, Ori and the Will of the Wisps is another fantastic chapter in the sumptuously detailed 2D platform game. What you get here isn’t just a generic platformer, but an open world based in a forest made up of multiple regions, styled to come alive in 2D. The game is stuffed full of attention to detail, from the way background art shifts as you move Ori through the world, to the creepy movements of enemies. And it’s all punctuated by a soaring music score that almost tells a story by itself. 

This game already ran well on the Xbox One X. But on the Series X, and indeed the Series S, Ori and the Will of the Wisps will run at a super-smooth 120 fps, if you have the hardware to take advantage of the frame rate. As it’s part of Xbox Game Pass, there’s very little excuse to miss out on Ori and the Will of the Wisps. - Roland Moore-Colyer

6. Gears Tactics 

If Gears 5 and XCOM: Enemy Unknown were to have a child, Gears Tactics would be it. The game merges the characters, antagonists and weapons of the Gears series with a top-down turn-based strategy game. It sounds like a tricky proposition to pull off, but Gears Tactics manages to do it, cleverly translating third-person action into a strategy game. 

However, Gears 5 isn’t about the subtle moves of XCOM, but rather about maximizing your kills to extend your "turn" as much as possible, thereby conveying that Gears action feeling, despite the lack of a third-person viewpoint. On the Xbox Series X you’ll get better textures, performance and load times, again making the new console the best place to play a Gears game. - Roland Moore-Colyer

7. Dirt 5

If you’re a fan of rally racing, then Dirt 5 is well worth a look. Codemasters returns with yet another racing game, and does a solid job at delivering a game that has a lot of fun elements, without tying players down too much with technical information. You can read our full review to get a deeper idea of what to expect. 

On the Xbox Series X, Dirt 5 looks very nice, with graphical enhancements and the ability to play the game at 120 fps, if you have a compatible TV or monitor. It makes good use of the new Xbox Wireless Controller's rumble triggers, providing a nice bit of feedback when you skid round a dirt-covered corner. And thanks to the Xbox Series X’s SSD, Dirt 5 loads very fast. - Roland Moore-Colyer

8. Hitman 3

The final entry in the World of Assassination trilogy, Hitman 3 is a cumulation of all developer IO Interactive has learned from its previous Hitman games. While Hitman 3 doesn't introduce much to the game, it’s basically the finest iteration and implementation of all the systems the reboot of Hitman brought in from 2016 onwards. 

As such you’re looking at a game with a suite of near-perfectly constructed missions, filled with interesting ways to dispatch various targets. These range from clever deception to simply shoving someone off the world's largest building. Stand-out missions involve infiltrating a warehouse rave in Berlin and exploring the neon and rain-soaked streets of China’s Chongqing, to infiltrating a country manor house in a wind-swept and bleak segment of England’s Dartmoor. But beyond the locations, the structure of the missions are rich and deep. You can follow a variety of opportunities that arise to carefully kill a tricky target, or you can switch off a load of hints and figure things out for yourself. Either way, you’re in for one of the finest stealth experiences on the Xbox Series X. 

9. Halo: The Master Chief Collection 

Halo: The Master Chief Collection

(Image credit: Microsoft)

While it's not an Xbox Seires X game — none of the games here are Xbox Seires X exclusives — Halo: The Master Chief Collection is a must-have for Xbox fans. It has all the Halo games up to Halo 4, which arguably means it has all the best Halo games, though 4 is a tad lackluster. And that means access to a series of brilliant first-person shooter campaigns, as well as a mix of multiplayer options for what was and is still one of the best multiplayer experiences on game consoles. 

The optimized version for the Xbox Series X and Seires S means you get a boosted frame rate and 4K resolution, as well as the benefit of super-fast loading times. It's also part of Xbox Game Pass so there's no reason not to give the Halo games a go if you've somehow missed them so far. 

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