The Christmas season is upon us, and Xbox Game Pass might be the best game you can give. Look at it this way: You’re not going to get an Xbox Series X. You may be able to get an Xbox Series S in time for Christmas, although it's not the right system for everyone, as we discuss in our Xbox Series S review.
But Xbox Game Pass is a digital product. Stock won't — and, in fact, can't — run out, and you can start using it immediately on devices you already own.
Unlike Google Stadia, you don't have to buy games à la carte. Unlike Nvidia GeForce Now, you don't have to bring your own library with you. Unlike PlayStation Now, you can play brand-new, first-party games on release day. While Xbox Game Pass isn't flawless by any means, it is, without a doubt, the most comprehensive and versatile cloud gaming service available right now.
While games journalism requires critical distance from its subjects, it also requires honest and forthright appraisals when a company does something right. Microsoft has done something very right with Xbox Game Pass. If you're exhausted of trying to hunt down Xbox Series X restocks, or simply looking for some new games to play this month and don't know where to start, let me lay out the case for Microsoft's cloud gaming contender.
Xbox Game Pass: $1 for first month, then $9.99 a month
Xbox Game Pass gives you instant access to over 400 games on your PC or console, and you get Xbox Game Studios titles the same day as release. Plus, you'll enjoy member discounts and deals. Xbox Game Pass Ultimate ($15 monthly) supports consoles, PCs and mobile devices.
What is Xbox Game Pass?
We've discussed what Xbox Game Pass many times before, most recently in our Xbox Series X restock alternative piece. Rather than give an exhaustive breakdown of the service (Microsoft has one, if you're interested), here are the key points:
- Xbox Game Pass is a game subscription service from Microsoft
- You can download games to Xbox consoles or gaming PCs
- You can stream games to consoles, non-gaming PCs, Android and iOS devices
- There are more than 400 games available
- Prices range between $10 and $15 per month, depending on your subscription
There are three different subscription tiers: Xbox Game Pass ($10 per month), PC Game Pass ($10 per month) and Xbox Game Pass Ultimate ($15 per month). Xbox Game Pass lets you download games for Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S. PC Game Pass lets you do the same for gaming PCs (exact specs vary by game).
Xbox Game Pass Ultimate is where things get interesting. For $15 per month, you can download Xbox and PC games, just as the separate Xbox and PC passes allow you to do. But you can also stream hundreds of games to Android and iOS devices, as well as to non-gaming PCs via Web browser. You can even stream to Xbox consoles for instantaneous play. The functionality is still in beta, and it's not perfect. But it works well enough for everyday play.
Why Xbox Game Pass is a great deal
If you're waiting for some kind of big catch, you'll have to keep waiting. I've been using Xbox Game Pass for years, and I've yet to hit any kind of significant snag with it. Playing downloaded games works perfectly; playing streamed games is a work in progress, but it's much better than you might expect from a beta program. (Whether Microsoft should charge users for a beta is another issue, but that battle appears to be lost.)
The biggest downside I can think of is that you won't own any of the games you play on Game Pass. As such, when games leave the service — or when you do — you'll have to buy those games outright to continue playing. But you'll usually get a discount on them, and you may not want to keep every single game.
The Xbox Game Pass library is also rich and diverse. Microsoft releases all its big games on Game Pass right when they launch, meaning you can play Halo Infinite, Forza Horizon 5, Microsoft Flight Simulator and a variety of other Xbox exclusives for less than retail price (assuming you can finish them within three months).
In general, cross-save compatibility is excellent, too. This means you can start playing a game on your Xbox, shift over to your PC when your spouse needs the TV, and finish up on your smartphone just before bed, and all you'll need are a few seconds to sync the saves.
Remember, though, that Xbox Game Pass isn't for everyone. You may hate the idea of renting games indefinitely rather than just buying them, or you might find that even the impressive Game Pass library doesn't have exactly what you want to play. If that's the case, you can simply cancel your subscription. You won't even be out $15, as Microsoft frequently offers $1 Game Pass promotions for new subscribers.
In short: Xbox Game Pass offers hundreds of great games across a variety of platforms, whether or not you own a dedicated gaming machine. And if you don't like it, there's no difficulty in canceling your subscription. If the service has a significant fault, it's hard to discern what it is.
Xbox Game Pass: Trade-offs and concerns
This brings me to my one major caveat about Xbox Game Pass. At its current rate of growth, the price doesn't seem sustainable. The subscription service launched with 100 games on a single platform, the Xbox One. Now both the number of games and the available platforms have more than quadrupled. While $15 is expensive as monthly streaming subscriptions go, it still doesn't seem quite right for hundreds of products that usually cost $60 apiece.
One of Microsoft's greatest strengths this console generation is that it's building an ecosystem rather than a single console. Compare and contrast this to Sony's approach: all PS5, all the time. On the flip side, if Xbox Game Pass can offer parity with a gaming console, it may make gamers wonder why they need an Xbox Series X at all — and it may make Microsoft wonder how much those gamers would be willing to pay for a full-blown console replacement.
In the meantime, a dedicated Xbox Series X or one of the best gaming PCs can still offer a smoother gaming experience than Xbox Game Pass's streaming component, as well as higher resolutions and better frame rates. But streaming technology has made great strides in the past few years, and we have to imagine that the next few years will bring similar innovations.
Xbox Game Pass bottom line
For now, Xbox Game Pass is a thing of beauty, particularly if you're willing to spring for the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate variant. And, if it ever gets too expensive or unwieldy in the future, you can simply cancel your subscription and go back to buying games the old-fashioned way.
Update: Microsoft has announced it will buy Activision Blizzard further boosting its suite of developers and publishers. And that means Game Pass is set to get even more games once the acquisition is completed.
Get the BEST of Tom’s Guide daily right in your inbox: Sign up now!
Upgrade your life with the Tom’s Guide newsletter. Subscribe now for a daily dose of the biggest tech news, lifestyle hacks and hottest deals. Elevate your everyday with our curated analysis and be the first to know about cutting-edge gadgets.
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.