This was a year of low lows and high highs for Xbox.
On one hand, Microsoft’s Activision Blizzard acquisition faced a whole lot of scrutiny and Bethesda’s Redfall was a bust. On the other, Xbox Game Studios finally started to release first-party games more consistently in 2023, some long-awaited games finally released, and the Activision Blizzard deal eventually went through. Microsoft now looks to keep that momentum going into 2024 as it integrates the Call of Duty publisher into its organization and tries to keep up the first-party consistency with games like Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II and Avowed.
Before moving forward, it’s a good time to look back and analyze the best games on Xbox this year. Some were made internally, while others secured day one Xbox Game Pass releases. If you owned an Xbox Series X or Series S, or simply use, there were finally quite a few notable games for you to play this year. Here are seven of our favorites from a packed year for Xbox.
Starfield was the biggest story of the year for Microsoft, giving Bethesda its first truly new IP in decades. While it can be too ambitious for its own good sometimes, it retains the magic that made games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim special. There’s a vast universe to explore, and in many corners of it, there’s an opportunity to find new quests and characters that make each playthrough feel emergent. Combine a surprisingly well-written sci-fi narrative and a level of character and ability customization commonplace in Bethesda Game Studios’ titles, and you have one of the most ambitious RPGs of the year. Microsoft needed Starfield to be great to change the tide of the conversation surrounding Xbox — and it delivered, even if it wasn’t the very best game of 2023.
While Starfield might be the most notable Xbox console exclusive Microsoft released this year, Hi-Fi Rush was the most surprising. This rhythm-action game is unlike anything The Evil Within developer Tango Gameworks had done before, so it was shocking when it surprise released in January following a Developer_Direct livestream. Even more impressive? It’s one of the best games of 2023. Tango Gameworks found the perfect way to meld the action and rhythm genres together, creating an experience that’s as rewarding to play as it is to listen to. It features a wealth of accessibility options that make it more approachable, so players of any skill level can give Hi-Fi Rush a shot. This should be the gold standard for Xbox exclusives going forward.
Turn 10 Studios finally delivered a mainline Forza Motorsport this console generation, and it’s everything the racer needed to be. It’s one of the best-looking games on Xbox Series X and S, as every car and track is realized in stunning detail. Although it’s more simulation-focused than the free-roaming Forza Horizon 5, Forza Motorsport is still engaging because of how it consistently doles out experience points, even during races, depending on how well one zips through certain track segments. While there might not be much room for simulation racers to innovate or change things up anymore, Forza Motorsport executes the concept at such a highly polished level that I’m content with this being a foundation that Turn 10 can build on for the rest of this console generation.
Those looking for a standout indie on Xbox can’t go wrong with Cocoon. This is the latest project from Jeppe Carlsen, who was the lead gameplay designer of the classic Playdead titles Limbo and Inside. The unique flair that made those games special is fully present in Cocoon, a unique adventure where players must solve puzzles by pushing orbs around. The twist: the orbs can contain worlds within them, and players will have to leap between the worlds in these orbs to solve some of the puzzles. Cocoon explores this concept to the fullest, presenting a singular and precise vision that’s a rarity in games nowadays. Playdead hasn’t released anything new since Inside, but Cocoon triumphantly carries that legacy on its back like an orb.
If you’re more of an action player, El Paso, Elsewhere might be more your speed. A modern interpretation of the gameplay formula established by the first two Max Payne games, Strange Scaffold’s latest uses its retro gameplay and aesthetic to reinforce this vampiric adventure’s otherworldly setting and narrative. Come for the badass combat against hordes of supernatural enemies, but stay for the gripping emotional narrative about moving on from relationships and abuse. This top-notch indie may have gotten overlooked at this year’s Game Awards, but that shouldn’t stop you from checking out El Paso, Elsewhere on Xbox (or PC) if you haven’t already.
Mojang continues to show how Minecraft can be much more than just a survival crafting game, and that was apparent this year with the real-time strategy spinoff Minecraft Legends. Developed with Blackbird Interactive, Minecraft Legends combines the base building of a game like Age of Empires with the unit-commanding of Pikmin to create a strategy experience that feels uniquely Minecraft. In multiplayer, it’s fulfilling to see your base dynamically built, destroyed, and rebuilt over a match. In single-player, raids on massive Piglin bases feel grandiose. This is likely an entryway into the RTS genre for many young gamers, and it’s honestly a solid starting point. It’s not an Xbox exclusive, but it is from an Xbox studio, so it just feels right to play one of the year’s best strategy games on the Xbox Series X or S.
The idea of a Soulslike based on Pinocchio might sound stupid, but Neowiz made it work with Lies of P. The peculiar action-RPG understands what makes FromSoftware’s best titles work and is the closest thing to a Bloodborne successor that we have gotten since its release in 2015. The ties to Pinocchio are bizarre, but they also give Lies of P’s world a unique flair as this demented take on a childhood classic unravels. You’ll look forward to seeing which element of the classic story get twisted next. Soulslikes can be hit-and-miss, so for Lies of P to work with such an odd concept is a testament to the talent of its developers. It’s been on Xbox Game Pass since day one too, so that’s the place to check it out if your interest is piqued.
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