If Xbox Live Games with Gold was facing an existential crisis at the turn of a new console generation, the service’s catalog didn’t reflect it over the course of 2021. Players, subscribers, and games press like myself still may have rolled their eyes and wondered how long Microsoft could continue balancing the free-games obligation of a Gold membership with Xbox Game Pass, clearly the subscription the company would prefer everyone buy.
But Xbox Live Games with Gold soldiered on, status quo. Most of its bigger names were Xbox 360 (or even Xbox) compatible titles, and the tone and quality of its smaller Xbox One offerings was too uneven to suggest Microsoft views that as an indie showcase.
In other words, exactly what one would expect after 2020.
The average Metacritic score of Games with Gold’s 49 titles in 2021 is 0.8 points lower than PlayStation Plus’ games (73.8 to 73). But Sony’s catalog shows higher highs (10 80-rated games, to six for Games with Gold) and greater product diversity than Microsoft, which leaned into dated fighting games, city-building sandboxes, and Konami and Capcom’s rummage sales.
Again, the disparity between Games with Gold and PlayStation Plus can be explained by the origins of both services: PlayStation Plus started in 2010 as an attempt to convince PS3 owners to sign up for a subscription service. Having already given away multiplayer access, Sony had to offer strong games to spin up that kind of audience. Microsoft answered with Games with Gold in 2013, plainly a reaction to PlayStation Plus, which now set the player’s expectation that people should get some kind of kickback for paid multiplayer access.
Games with Gold had a very strong run when the Xbox 360 catalog was still fresh (and when backward compatibility was introduced in 2015). But it’s struggled as that has timed out and as major partners like Ubisoft and Electronic Arts created their own subscription services — the latter of which is now paired with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate.
So Microsoft finds itself in somewhat of a conundrum. The best and most current games, especially from the company’s sizable first-party operation, should be found on Xbox Game Pass. How, then, do they bring quality to Games with Gold while still incentivizing the $4.99 upgrade to Game Pass, without simply mimicking or cannibalizing its catalog?
I haven’t figured it out. Neither has Microsoft, by the looks of 2021’s Games with Gold roster. And perhaps they’re fine with that. After all, Sony’s problem is the inverse: PlayStation Now is the second banana, with many folks satisfied by what they receive through PlayStation Plus. It may be that there is no way to have both a streaming/subscription service, and a free-games subscription, at parity.
2021 in review
In all, there were 49 titles in Xbox Live Games with Gold for 2021, with an average Metacritic score of 73 and a combined retail price (at the time of the offer) of $1,074.51. The Metacritic average is down two points from 2020 and the combined MSRP is only $8.51 less.
We’ll start breaking down, month-by-month, the offerings. All games are playable on Xbox One. Three games are from the original Xbox and are compatible on Xbox One and Xbox Series X. Two games were listed as enhanced for Xbox Series X. Xbox 360 subscribers only have access to titles listed for that platform.
The games are listed by platform, where applicable, then Metacritic score, and age (at the time of availability).
- Little Nightmares (83 Metacritic, 3.7 years old)
- Dead Rising (78, 4.3 years)
- The King of Fighters 13 (Xbox 360, 79, 10.5 years)
- Breakdown (Xbox, 71, 16.8 years)
Little Nightmares, the best game here (and second-best, by Metacritic score, overall) is a compact puzzle-platformer delivering “about five or six hours max” of gameplay, according to our review. It’s perfect for this type of service — give players a free game they’d otherwise not seek out or try — it just comes a little too late to seem like that was Xbox’s intent here.
- Gears 5 (Xbox Series X, 84, 1.4 years)
- Resident Evil HD (82, 6 years)
- Dandara: Trials of Fear Edition (73, 3 years)
- Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb (Xbox, 73, 17.9 years)
- Lost Planet 2 (Xbox 360, 68, 10.8 years)
Well, be careful what you wish for, I suppose. In last year’s analysis, I said Xbox could stand to loosen up on some of the Xbox Game Pass catalog and let a few of its titles go out to Games with Gold, maybe as an inducement that more is in store for an extra $4.99. Microsoft appears to be doing that here with Gears 5, so I can’t ding them for double-dipping.
- Warface: Breakout (66, 0.8 years)
- VALA: Vicious Attack Llama Apocalypse (74, 3.0 years)
- Metal Slug 3 (Xbox 360, 78, 13.1 years)
- Port Royale 3 (Xbox 360, 56, 8.5 years)
Vicious Attack Llama Apocalypse gets my “Manholes of Venus” award (see above) for the title that most exemplifies a game’s bargain-bin obscurity. Port Royale 3 is the lowest-rated game among the Games with Gold picks; even as a fan of Kalypso’s city-builders, a console isn’t the best place for something like that.
- Vikings: Wolves of Midgard (64, 4 years)
- FIA European Truck Racing Championship (73, 1.7 years)
- Dark Void (Xbox 360, 59, 11.2 years)
- Hard Corps: Uprising (Xbox 360, 75, 10.2 years)
Capcom stepped in this year to dump its catalog from the very early teens, when it was publishing all kinds of pitches and experiments from third-party studios, most of which didn’t work out. That brings us Dark Void, which was outperformed critically by a DSiWare adaptation originally conceived as an April Fool’s stunt. All this draws a useful comparison: Both PS Plus and Games with Gold can get big publishers to contribute to their libraries. PS Plus gets their commercial and critical successes; Games with Gold gets their mistakes.
- Armello (80, 4.7 years)
- Dungeons 3 (72, 3.6 years)
- Lego Batman (Xbox 360, 76, 12.6 years)
- Tropico 4 (Xbox 360, 77, 9.6 years)
Again, I’m a fan of Kalypso Media’s city-builders, and I enjoyed Dungeons 3, but console is really not their best medium. Furthermore, two in one month reeks of last-minute desperation to fill out May’s lineup sheet. Finally, dumping Tropico 5 and Lego Batman 2 at the end of the year sort of comically moots the month, Armello notwithstanding.
- The King’s Bird (71, 2.3 years)
- Shadows: Awakening (69, 2.8 years)
- NeoGeo Battle Coliseum (Xbox 360, 64, 11 years)
- Injustice: Gods Among Us: (Xbox 360, 81, 8.2 years)
Microsoft is aware that there’s an Injustice on Xbox One that’s half as old, right? All Injustice: Gods Among Us on Xbox 360 is doing here is reminding folks that it didn’t get an Ultimate Edition or port to Xbox One (but did to PS4). It’s a good fighting game, just conspicuously outdated.
- Planet Alpha (72, 2.8 years)
- Rock of Ages 3: Make & Break (74, 1 year)
- Conker: Live & Reloaded (Xbox, 78, 16 years)
- Midway Arcade Origins (Xbox 360, 61, 8.7 years)
Midway Arcade Origins is the better game here, its Metacritic notwithstanding, which mainly relates to using the Xbox gamepad for 35 year-old arcade games. It’s not ideal for a game like Super Sprint, but they still work. Paired with Conker: Live & Reloaded, July is a decent nostalgia month.
- Darksiders 3 (69, 2.7 years)
- Yooka-Laylee (73, 4.3 years)
- Lost Planet 3 (Xbox 360, 58, 7.9 years)
- Garou: Mark of the Wolves (Xbox 360, 77, 12.1 years)
Garou: Mark of the Wolves has been on Xbox Game Pass since September 2017, but it fills in nicely as an Xbox 360 representative for this month. Darksiders 3’s appearance here means all three Darksiders have been offered by both Games with Gold and PlayStation Plus. Well, PlayStation Plus got the “Deathinitive Edition” of Darksiders 2 at the end of 2017, I suppose we could still see it on GwG some day.
- Warhammer: Chaosbane (Xbox Series X, 73, 2.3 years)
- Mulaka (73, 3.6 years)
- Zone of the Enders HD Collection (Xbox 360, 75, 8.8 years)
- Samurai Shodown 2 (Xbox 360, 72, 13.0 years)
Warhammer: Chaosbane was better than its score suggests, and is an enjoyable hack-and-slash dungeon-crawler, even if it lacks the depth you’d expect from a Diablo or its clones. It’s not the kind of game that makes a year’s sub to Xbox Live Gold pay for itself, but it is good to see Chaosbane get a second chance with this kind of exposure.
- Aaero (80, 4.5 years)
- Hover (75, 3.1 years)
- Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (Xbox 360, 67, 11.2 years)
- Resident Evil Code: Veronica X (Xbox 360, 67, 10.1 years)
Harmony of Despair here means there are just two currently compatible Castlevanias for Xbox left: Anniversary Collection and Advance Collection. So this may be the end of the line for Konami, which also excavated its Xbox-compatible Metal Gears for Games with Gold between 2015 and 2019.
- Moving Out (78, 1.5 years)
- Kingdom Two Crowns (70, 2.9 years)
- Rocket Knight (Xbox 360, 72, 11.5 years)
- Lego Batman 2 DC Super Heroes (Xbox 360, 79, 9.4 years)
Konami may have emptied the clip, but not TT Games! Lego Batman and its sequel this year still make just eight of their licensed Lego titles, all of them coming since May 2017. There are still 15 Xbox-compatible Lego titles left, and at a rate of one per 7 months, Games with Gold is good until September 2030.
- The Escapists 2 (77, 4.3 years)
- Tropico 5 — Penultimate Edition (75, 5.6 years)
- Orcs Must Die! (Xbox 360, 79, 10.2 years)
- Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (Xbox 360, 76, 10.4 years)
The Escapists 2 has been on Xbox Game Pass since 2019. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet was a Summer of Arcade (remember that?) selection that Microsoft published in 2011. I pumped a couple hundred hours into Tropico 5 on PlayStation 4, so of all the Kalypso city-builders, it’s probably the best for a console. Some Tropico fans preferred 4 to 5, but, of course, both are superseded by 6, which launched in 2019.
By the Numbers
Average score: 73
Average MSRP: $21.93
Average age: 7.13 years
Published by Xbox Game Studios: Three titles (Gears 5, Conker: Live & Reloaded, and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet)
Publisher with the most titles: Capcom and Kalypso Media both contributed six games; Dead Rising, Resident Evil HD, Lost Planet 2, Dark Void, Lost Planet 3, and Resident Evil Code: Veronica X from Capcom, and Port Royale 3, Vikings: Wolves of Midgard, Dungeons 3, Tropico 4, Shadows: Awakening, and Tropico 5 — Penultimate Edition from Kalypso. Konami, SNK, Team17, and Warner Bros. Games each contributed four games.
Appeared on Games with Gold or PlayStation Plus earlier: None were offered on Games with Gold before. Eight were offered on PS Plus earlier: The King of Fighters 13 (October 2012), Resident Evil HD (October 2016), Port Royale 3 (May 2017), Tropico 5 (May 2016), Hard Corps: Uprising (June 2012), Zone of the Enders HD Collection (September 2019), Darksiders 3 (September 2019), and Injustice: Gods Among Us (December 2014).
Appearing on Xbox Game Pass: Three currently, five formerly. Garou: Mark of the Wolves has been available in Xbox Game Pass since September 2017; Gears 5 has been in Game Pass since September 2019; The Escapists 2 has been in Game Pass since November 2019. All are still available there. Resident Evil HD, Dandara: Trials of Fear Edition, Kingdom Two Crowns, Injustice: Gods Among Us, and Lego Batman 2 DC Super Heroes were all on Xbox Game Pass between 2017 and 2019 but have since been removed.
Appearing on PlayStation Now: Eighteen of the 49 titles are also currently available on PlayStation’s streaming/downloading service.
Total value: $1,074.51 (MSRP declared by Microsoft at the time they were offered.)