The first Xbox Series X game you should buy isn't a game at all

Xbox Series X console
(Image credit: Phil Barker/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

If you've just received an Xbox Series X for the holidays, the first thing you should do is thank the kind soul who got it for you. (Even if that kind soul is yourself!) The second thing you should do is set up the console, which is a pretty foolproof process if you just follow the prompts. Once that's done, though, you may find yourself staring blankly at the home screen and wondering which Xbox Series X game you should play first.

Unlike Astro's Playroom on the PS5, the Xbox Series X doesn't have a free pack-in game that teaches you all the ins and outs of the system and the controller. As such, unless you have a particular title in mind, choosing your first Xbox Series X gaming experience might seem a little daunting. Thanks to extensive backwards compatibility and a robust indie library, the system supports thousands of games, and it's a lot more fun to simply dive into one than sift through endless descriptions or reviews.

Luckily, Xbox consoles offer a subscription service that obviates the need to choose a single starter game. Xbox Game Pass lets you play hundreds of different games, and its introductory price is ridiculously low. While the service has pros and cons, just like any other subscription, it's well worth a look from new Xbox owners, particularly since you can cancel it once you've found what you want to play.

Be aware that this advice also applies for the Xbox Series S. If you've already had an Xbox Series X for a while, this piece won't tell you anything you don't already know. Check out our list of the best Xbox Series X games instead, or 10 hidden Xbox Series X features you need to try.

What is Xbox Game Pass? 

xbox game pass

(Image credit: Microsoft)

If you own an Xbox Series X, you've probably heard about Xbox Game Pass, if only because it occupies some prime real estate on the console's home menu. For the uninitiated, Xbox Game Pass is a game subscription service with a relatively high monthly fee.

In the standard Xbox Game Pass subscription, at $10 per month, you get access to a library of more than 400 games. From there,  you can download them to your Xbox console and play them as much as you like.

Alternatively, you could subscribe to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate for $15 per month. In addition to the features described above, you can also download games to your PC, or stream them to a smartphone or Web browser. Your save data syncs across all platforms, so Ultimate is an excellent choice if you want to game across multiple systems.

Whichever one you pick, the bottom line is that you'll have access to a huge, ready-made, curated library of games. You can see the full list on Microsoft's website, but here are the highlights:

  • First-party Microsoft series (Halo, Forza, Gears of War, etc.)
  • Third-party hits (Doom, Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, etc.)
  • Backwards-compatible Xbox and Xbox 360 games (Dragon Age: Origins, Psychonauts, Viva Pinata, etc.)
  • Indie darlings (Donut County, Hollow Knight, Stardew Valley, etc.)
  • Family-friendly fare (Banjo-Kazooie, Minecraft, Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, etc.)

In other words, there's something for everyone, no matter what genre you like, or how many hours you intend to sink into your gaming schedule.

Normally, the biggest hurdle to Xbox Game Pass is its subscription cost. Ten dollars per month isn't cheap, and $15 per month is downright expensive. However, Microsoft offers a promotion where you can get your first month of Xbox Game Pass for just $1. That should be all you need to find the perfect game.

How to pick your first Xbox game 

Psychonauts 2 review

(Image credit: Double Fine Productions)

At the time of writing, Xbox Game Pass offers just north of 450 games. That's less than a few thousand, but still more than you could reasonably play in one month. As such, there are a few ways you can narrow down the selection, and hone in on a few that you really want to try.

Once again, the Xbox Game Pass library website is your friend here. You can browse by genre (Action, RPG, Sports, etc.), recency, multiplayer features, age rating and more. That should knock the choices down from a few hundred down to a few dozen. You can also rely on a handful of curated collections, including "Take a Break & Recharge Your Way," "Favorite Games of 2022," "Optimized for Xbox Series X/S" and more. Microsoft put a lot of work into curating its game selection, so you may as well take advantage of it.

The Tom's Guide staff doesn't have any sweeping recommendations for a "best" first game, since we can't account for every reader's taste. We did gather up a list of our favorite Xbox Series X/S games from the console's first two years, though, we can at least personally vouch for a handful of titles. Of those games, you can get Halo Infinite and Psychonauts 2 on Game Pass.

In any case, we imagine that 30 days should be enough time to find something to your taste. After that, the only question is whether you want to continue your Game Pass subscription, or buy a handful of games outright. I don't have a strong recommendation either way. I personally prefer owning games to renting them indefinitely, but I've also discovered some truly excellent titles via Game Pass that I never would have found otherwise.

Let's do some back-of-the-napkin math, however. New big-budget games cost $70 apiece. As such, you could get 12 months of Xbox Game Pass for less than the price of three new games. However, if your tastes skew toward older, smaller games (or finding them on sale), you could conceivably get some excellent titles for $20 apiece, or less. There's also something to be said for having a game you love forever, rather than having to resubscribe to Xbox Game Pass anytime you want to play it.

Remember, too, that Xbox Game Pass is a subscription service. As such, games come and go every month. There's no guarantee that your favorites will stick around forever, or that you'll like the new games Microsoft adds. If you have extremely specific tastes, it's probably better to use Xbox Game Pass just to pick out your first few titles, then buy à la carte after that.

In any case, the whole conceit of the Xbox ecosystem is to find the games you enjoy, and play them in the manner that best fits your lifestyle. It's a little more chaotic than the "unmissable exclusives" PlayStation approach, but potentially much more liberating, too. If you're an Xbox newcomer and find a great game through Game Pass, be sure to let us know which one in the comments.

Marshall Honorof

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.