If you managed to brave the online hordes and snag yourself a next-gen console, now comes the fun part: playing games. New consoles typically aren’t known for killer launch lineups; the Nintendo Switch releasing alongside The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the exception rather than the rule. But even still, both the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X have a handful of titles that are worth checking out on day one.
I’ve been playing far too many games on both consoles over the last two weeks to solve this very problem: finding the games that are worth playing on your new machine. There are games that look incredible from a technical perspective and titles that show off some new technology or feature, like the PS5’s wild DualSense controller. And then there are just great games, the kind that are a good time no matter what hardware you’re using.
It’s not a huge list, but hopefully it helps you find a game or two that will make the new console feel worth the effort.
(Note: while I’ve been able to play plenty of games ahead of the console launches, there are still some titles to which I haven’t had access. Because of this, this list may be updated if any of those games turn out to be worth a recommendation.)
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla – PS5 and Xbox Series X
Also available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One
Over its last few iterations, the Assassin’s Creed series has steadily been evolving into an open-world RPG, and that trend continues with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. The new release is very similar to 2018’s Odyssey, which is to say that it’s a sprawling, detailed, and engrossing world, and one with less focus on the stealthy assassinations that defined early entries in the franchise.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And if you’re only able to grab one game at launch, Valhalla will certainly keep you busy. It’s absolutely huge. The game follows a group of vikings as they leave their home in Norway to carve out a new life in England, and it has all of the elements you’d expect, plus some new oddball features like drinking competitions and rhyme battles. Who knew being a viking was so similar to living in a fraternity?
My favorite feature, though, is a change to the map. Assassin’s Creed games are infamous for covering their maps with all kinds of distractions, but there are more secrets here: instead of specific icons, you’ll see glowing colors, which give a hint that treasure or mystery is nearby.
Astro’s Playroom – PS5
This is an easy game to recommend because it actually comes bundled with every PS5. But its cute and cuddly nature also makes Astro’s Playroom easy to overlook. You shouldn’t, though: this game is the best showcase for the console’s DualSense controller. It utilizes haptic feedback to simulate sensations like walking on sand or the feel of blowing wind, while the adaptive triggers create a new form of feedback, with tension to mimic things like pulling the string on a bow or stretching out a spring.
These small details add up to create an incredibly immersive experience. And it turns out they’re attached to a great game, too: Astro’s Playroom is the kind of family-friendly platformer that would make Nintendo proud. You can check out our full review right here.
Bugsnax – PS5
Also available on PC and PS4
Bugsnax’s adorable exterior hides a dark side. This is a game where you play what looks like a muppet, exploring an island full of tiny creatures that look like fast food. Your job is to catch them and feed them to various other island residents.
If you can get past that disturbing premise, the game is actually a lot of fun. Bugsnax has a Pokémon-like feel, with a huge variety of creatures to find — from angry hot potatoes to flying Cheetos to spiders made of fries — each of which requires a different strategy to capture. Outside of hunting bugs, you’ll be rebuilding a town, which involves solving all kinds of surprisingly emotional problems. Come for the cute creatures, stay for the drama.
Bugsnax is also a great showcase for the DualSense controller, with subtle vibrations to simulate weather effects like thunder, along with the satisfaction of clicking the rear trigger every time you take a photo. Even better: PlayStation Plus subscribers get the game for free.
Dirt 5 – PS5 and Xbox Series X
Also available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One
Sometimes you just want a game to show off the power of your new console, and racing games are ideal for that. Dirt 5, in particular, might just be the best-looking next-gen launch game. It’s an off-road racer with tracks that span the globe, which means you get to drive photorealistic cars across all kinds of landscapes: foggy wetlands in China, a blinding snowstorm in Norway, a painfully beautiful sunlit afternoon in Brazil. It looks and runs incredible, and it’s backed up by gameplay that feels straight out of an arcade cabinet. Really, though, it’s all about the weather: I keep crashing because I can’t keep my eyes on the road.
Gears Tactics – Xbox Series X
Also available on PC and Xbox One
Gears Tactics isn’t technically a new game, as the strategy spinoff debuted on PC earlier this year. But the game has now been adapted for a controller — and it works surprisingly well. It may seem strange at first, but the Gears universe, with its beefy soldiers and grotesque aliens, is actually a great fit for a turn-based strategy experience. You control small teams of soldiers, making their way through war-torn urban landscapes crawling with baddies. You still get the satisfaction of using a chainsaw or tossing a grenade, but now you have a little more time to decide on your plan of action. The gamepad controls take some getting used to, but they work well enough, and the game’s animations look particularly great running at 60fps.
The Pathless – PS5
Also available on PC, PS4, and Apple Arcade
The Pathless’ influences are clear; playing it feels like running through a mashup of Journey and the works of Fumito Ueda, with just a little bit of Breath of the Wild thrown in. Even still, it has its own distinct feel that’s worth checking out. The game puts you in the role of a young adventurer tasked with eliminating a mysterious darkness that’s covering the land, but the way you do so is pretty novel.
The Pathless is all about movement: you shoot arrows at diamonds littered across the sky, which give you energy to zip across the desolate landscape in search of towers and ruins that house useful artifacts. Just getting around is fun. But that focus on momentum is buoyed by some clever environmental puzzles, absolutely gorgeous landscapes, and heart-pounding boss battles. These elements are good enough to ignore its less inspired moments.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales – PS5
Also available on PS4
It’s technically a smaller spinoff, but in a lot of ways Spider-Man: Miles Morales is a better game than its predecessor. It has a more likable lead, a more engaging story, and all kinds of new powers to mess around with, like invisibility. Plus, its relatively small size — you can beat the game in under 10 hours, though there are lots of side activities to extend that — also makes it more manageable.
And while it’s a cross-gen title, Miles Morales does a great job of showcasing the PS5’s power. It loads incredibly fast and offers you the option between smooth 60fps gameplay or beautiful visual effects like ray tracing. If you buy the “ultimate edition” of the game, you’ll also get a remastered version of the original Spider-Man, with all of the same technical upgrades. For more on Miles Morales, check out our full review.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon – Xbox Series X
Also available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One. A PS5 version launches on March 2nd, 2021
The latest Yakuza is something of a fresh start. The previous entry was the swan song for beloved protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, and so Like a Dragon introduces a new character called Ichiban Kasuga. He’s still a criminal with a heart of gold, but Kasuga also happens to be a giant nerd, one obsessed with RPGs like Dragon Quest. He’d probably love to play this game: Like a Dragon swaps out Yakuza’s iconic brawling battles for more streamlined turn-based combat.
Aside from those two big changes, though, the game is classic Yakuza. That means you’ll spend a lot of time exploring an immaculately rendered version of modern-day Japan, while beating up thugs, slurping down ramen, and generally saving the day. The series has a distinct blend of sweet and silly that’s on full display here. And with the new lead character, Like a Dragon also serves as an excellent introduction to this strange but lovable series. Read our full review right here.