Xbox Game Pass marches on. Over the course of the past year, Xbox Game Pass has added a range of EA titles to the service. It has also added mountains of third-party games, ranging from the smallest experimental indie titles to AAA blockbusters. Microsoft added the ability to stream Xbox Game Pass titles from the cloud to your Android devices.
As we look ahead to 2021 and beyond, I thought I'd cast a lens over the service from the past couple of years, and review its current form.
Here are some thoughts about Xbox Game Pass in 2021, and whether or not it's worth your time and money (TLDR; it is.)
Xbox Game Pass 2021 review: So, what is it exactly?
For the uninitiated, Xbox Game Pass is a Netflix-like all-you-can-eat video game subscription service from Microsoft. The service is available on Xbox One consoles, Xbox Series X and S consoles, PC, and Android devices as of writing, with plans to expand to the web in the near future.
Xbox Game Pass comes in three flavors. "Xbox Game Pass" gives you access to a large library of games on your Xbox console. "Xbox Game Pass for PC" gives you access to a large library of games on your Windows 10 PC. And finally, "Xbox Game Pass Ultimate" gives you access to all the games on Xbox consoles, Windows 10 PCs, and a selection of games to stream from the cloud to Android devices. Xbox Game Pass Ultimate also includes Xbox Live Gold, which is needed for multiplayer gaming on Xbox consoles.
Each tier guarantees day-one access to almost all of Microsoft's own first-party games, which is set to expand by a large amount once the deal with Zenimax closes in the next few weeks. Not only will Microsoft's internal studio titles be accessible instantly on Xbox Game Pass, but presumably, all of Zenimax's too, including Bethesda games like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, id Software games like DOOM, and Machine Games' Wolfenstein.
Game Pass Ultimate is quite obviously the best value if you plan to use every service.
Xbox Game Pass for console and Game Pass for PC are $9.99 respectively, with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate being $14.99. Game Pass Ultimate is quite obviously the best value if you plan to use every service across multiple devices, rather than buying up Xbox Live Gold, Game Pass, and Game Pass for PC separately. Microsoft also has an introductory offer to convert Xbox Live Gold long-term subscriptions directly into Xbox Game Pass Ultimate for those who haven't converted yet.
Once you're subscribed, the attached account gets immediate access to all of the games in the full Xbox Game Pass games list and the Xbox Game Pass for PC games list, as if they were licenses that account owned. On Xbox, you can simply find the games in your library under the Xbox Game Pass section. On PC, Xbox Game Pass exists through the new Xbox app for Windows 10.
Now that you're up to speed, let's dive into what makes Xbox Game Pass really great (and in some ways, not-so-great).
Xbox Game Pass 2021 review: What's great
This first reason will come as no surprise: games. Games, games, games, and more games. Xbox Game Pass, unsurprisingly, is full of video games, of all shapes and sizes, all types and genres, budgets big and small for all sorts of people.
Microsoft adds all of its games day and date to Xbox Game Pass, including their biggest upcoming titles like Halo Infinite. This shows a great deal of commitment and consistency towards the platform, in a similar way to how Netflix and Disney+ build up their service with exclusive "original" content.
There's literally something for everyone on offer here.
A lot of the games Microsoft builds for Xbox Game Pass also enjoy on-going updates. Titles like Sea of Thieves, Forza Horizon 4, State of Decay, Minecraft Dungeons, and others are getting a very large amount of post-launch support. You have to wonder to what extent Xbox Game Pass is funding the budgets for these efforts, given that keeping people engaged in your titles will also keep people engaged with your subscription service.
Outside of Microsoft's own sizeable library of games, the best Xbox Game Pass games include titles from large third-party publishers too. On PC, we have titles like Football Manager from Sega and Crusader Kings III from Paradox. On console, we have a vast library of classic games from EA, including Mass Effect and Dead Space. On mobile devices, you can play games like Streets of Rage 4 and Hellblade without the need for a controller. There's literally something for everyone on offer here, regardless of modality, preference, and attention level. The sheer volume and variety in Xbox Game Pass cannot be understated.
I'm someone in a privileged position where games are concerned. If I don't get them for review purposes, I can often invoice them through Windows Central, and so on. But I haven't been at this gig for that long, and I have very fresh memories of working short hours in a minimum wage job, and struggling to justify dropping £50 here or £40 there on games. The very practice of buying games throughout my life has up until now, been quite a discerning process. How many hours of enjoyment will I get? What's the replay value? What's the resale value? and so on.
I distinctly remember as a child, being told I'd need to use up both my Christmas and birthday presents to get a copy of Majora's Mask for the N64 since it was inexplicably £60 at the time. If I'd have had Xbox Game Pass as a kid, it would've been a godsend. The ability to graze and simply try games without fear of wasting money is a liberating experience. Microsoft even provides you with Microsoft Rewards Points for playing Xbox Game Pass titles, which you can then, in turn, spend on getting free Xbox Game Pass months. In terms of sheer entertainment hours-per-cost value, Xbox Game Pass is unbeatable.
In terms of sheer entertainment hours-per-cost value, Xbox Game Pass is unbeatable.
Some developers have expressed concerns over the value for them when it comes to Game Pass inclusion, but the data seems to indicate that Game Pass inclusion actually helps retail sales, rather than harms them. Sea of Thieves for example remained a best-seller on Steam, despite being part of Xbox Game Pass for PC. The virality of access alone may be a big difference-maker here.
There have been times where I simply decided to try a game on a whim and found something new to love. Star Renegades is one such example for me, among various other indie titles. Accessibility is key for Xbox Game Pass, ultimately. And to that end, Microsoft baked in the ability to stream Game Pass titles directly to any device, no matter where you are (providing you have a semi-decent internet connection). Many of these games even come with touch controls. And if your internet connection is of decent quality, you can discover new games anywhere, at any time.
Xbox Game Pass not only has me falling in love with new games but entire new studios, given that I now want to follow their work and future games. Game Pass isn't just a vehicle for gaming, but also fandom, which is one area of the platform I think Microsoft could improve for developers in some ways.
Indeed, there are a few ways I'd love to see Xbox Game Pass improved, as good as it already is.
Xbox Game Pass 2021 review: What's not-so-great
Xbox Game Pass has a range of idiosyncrasies that hinder the platform in some ways. They range from mild irritations to bigger problems, but I would preface by saying none of it feels really like a deal-breaker. Moreover, this is just a range of things I think Microsoft could add to improve the platform.
The first pain point I often see across social media from those with kids is the lack of family access. If you're using a single shared Xbox, every profile on that home Xbox gains access to Xbox Game Pass. However, if you have multiple Xbox consoles and have a bigger family, you'll need multiple Xbox Game Pass subscriptions to keep everybody online simultaneously. This is a drawback of Xbox Game Pass that seems to have been overlooked at the time of the service's creation.
Netflix and Disney+ both support multiple logins across multiple devices with simultaneous streams at different price tiers. I think it would be within Microsoft's interest to at least consider offering a higher-paid tier for multi-user licensing for families.
Another source of irritation for me at least comes from Project xCloud, or Xbox Game Pass for cloud, across Android (and soon, iOS and PC via the web). Microsoft is among the first and most prolific companies to offer a cloud gaming option in their service at this scale. Sony has PlayStation Now but doesn't consistently offer its own games into the service. Amazon Luna is just starting up, and Google Stadia is arguably winding down.
Microsoft should make some kind of Android-based handheld designed for xCloud.
Naturally, for those who use iOS devices such as iPads or iPhones, you're presently unable to access Xbox Game Pass game streaming entirely, due to Apple's restrictive anti-competitive store policies. Still, that's not exactly Microsoft's fault, and Redmond is working to get around this by offering a web-based version in the near future. However, even on Android, Xbox Game Pass has its annoyances.
Playing console games on a smartphone just kind of sucks. The UI, camera distance, font sizes, and controls are designed for the big screen and rarely translate properly to even the largest smartphones. Even though there are many decent options in our best mobile clips for Xbox Game Pass cloud streaming and there is a range of pretty great tablets for Xbox Game Pass cloud streaming, the usability isn't entirely what I'd describe as ergonomic. The plastic clips and controller solutions are unbalanced, fiddly, and often cheaply-made. Many third-party controllers also fall well-below the official best Xbox controller options out there too.
With the Nintendo Switch exploding in popularity, we have repeatedly made the case that Microsoft should make some kind of Android-based handheld designed for xCloud. It has yet to materialize. But until then, xCloud on phones remains a less-than-pleasant experience, even when you disregard the added latency.
Other parts of Xbox Game Pass that are a bit messy pertain to the Xbox platform as a whole, rather than Xbox Game Pass itself. There are some obvious ways Xbox Game Pass could be improved, bringing the features more closely in-line with Steam, for example. Microsoft hasn't added features or improvements to the Xbox achievement system in years. There are dozens of games flooding the platform with intentionally-easy achievements to try and convince people to play, undermining the system. There is no meaningful way to track rare and exceptionally difficult achievements in games you've earned via Xbox Game Pass.
There's also no easy way to follow a specific developer, or engage with them via Xbox Game Pass on PC. On Steam, developers are able to post updates and engage with the community via their game listings pages. You can click on a developer to see all of their games, but that's about it.
There are a few other minor complaints. Microsoft doesn't have a modding platform that even vaguely resembles the Steam Workshop on PC, although they have added the option to unlock Xbox Game Pass PC games for modding via the Xbox app. It would be nice to see Microsoft support the modding community directly in the Xbox Game Pass PC app too, alongside enhancements to some of the social features which, frankly, suck when compared to the likes of Discord in terms of speed and features.
Either way, Xbox Game Pass is ultimately all about the games rather than the features attached to it. And in that, Xbox Game Pass, right now, is utterly unbeatable.
Xbox Game Pass 2021 review: Is it worth it?
I feel like even the biggest Xbox and Microsoft haters on the planet are hard-pressed to find a reason to dislike this service. For a maximum of $15 a month, you get blanket access to all Xbox Game Studios games, and soon, all Zenimax Media games, all EA games, and various other third-party games, no questions asked.
What it's great for:
- Discovering new games
- Saving money on Microsoft and (possibly) ZeniMax games
- Discovering new games frequently
- Streaming games to an Android tablet or phone
What it's not great for:
- It's not great for those who still enjoy collecting physical games
- The lack of a family plan can inflate costs in big families
- iOS and low-power PC users are locked out of streaming (for now)
- The community aspects are weak compared to other services and platforms
For anyone who wants to game while saving money, for others who simply want all-you-can-eat exploration and discovery, and for those who want to take their games on the go, Xbox Game Pass is simply divine.
There are features and improvements that need to come before I would describe the service as hitting maturity. The Xbox app on Windows 10 leaves a lot to be desired, for example, and the ergonomics of gaming on a phone have a long way to go. But at its core, Xbox Game Pass is all about games. Games, games, and more games. When it comes to that, Xbox Game Pass is a champion.
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