The best games to play this Christmas now you’ve finally got a moment’s peace

Santa playing games this Christmas
(Image credit: Shutterstock / Roman Samborskyi)

“... and we were talking about rolling that out agency-wide…” somebody at work says to you while you look at rechargeable hand warmers on your phone, sat on a Zoom call, camera off, mic muted. It’s 4:15pm on the Friday before everyone stops for Christmas and you’ve all completely run dry of the ability to care.

Ahead of you is a magical few days where all the rules go out of the window. You end up sleeping in your own spare room because Dad and Fiona are staying in yours. You buy a Radio Times, and genuinely consult it on a daily basis. Breakfast? Absolutely weapons free mate. Reheated pigs in blankets and a Curly Wurly out of a selection box. What day of the week even is it? You neither know, need to know, nor particularly care. Hang on – “Would you be able to sort that?”

Oh no. The Zoom call. They were asking you something just then. What was it? Something about… Curly Wurlies? No, that was your daydream, you fool. “Should be doable – let’s chat offline about it” you say, hoping it’s never followed up on or mentioned ever again in human history.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter, because tomorrow you’ll be on your time. And now that you’ve finally got a few moments of peace in this crushingly insistent list of chores called life, you’re going to play a very particular type of video game. The reserve label title, the slow-aged, Taste The Difference games you save for a treat every year because you know they’re best enjoyed when you can sink a few hours into them at a time, ideally with a glass of port somewhere nearby.

Basically: play these games and I personally guarantee you’ll have a banging Christmas. (Ed’s note: Phil’s personal guarantees are not legally binding).

Assassin's Creed Valhalla

Eivor in Assassin's Creed Valhalla with her back to a man

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

It came out two years ago and you haven’t even touched it yet. A couple of post-work sessions during the November lockdown when you weren’t really listening to the story, and then you set it aside for later. Well, it’s later.

Somewhere around Origins in 2017, Assassin’s Creed became an all-out RPG with peerless historical depth and detail, reviving a franchise that was starting to carry a bit of cynicism. The Viking-themed Assassin's Creed Valhalla succeeds absolutely on both fronts - it’s a wonderful RPG with heavy combat and the kind of character depth you can only truly conceive of during the Christmas holidays.

It’s also frighteningly big. Its seven world maps chart a huge swathe of Scandinavia, the UK, and France, and Ubisoft has become formidably good at creating a sense of time and place in all that space. The dour lighting hanging over Viking-era England is perfect for this time of year, when it drops dark at half two before all the visiting relations have even finished in the shower.



(Image credit: FInji)

There’s a bit of magic about Tunic, which was released this year to plenty of acclaim but was soon lost in Elden Ring’s wake. You might call it ‘Zelda, but you’re a fox’ if you were looking for a pithy description, and you’d be notionally correct, but the journey it takes you on without needing to utter a word of dialogue is spellbinding.

Tunic’s environments morph between clean, minimalist woodland and cosmic prismatic displays in a way that has you sitting back in your chair and just nodding in stunned appreciation. The puzzles and combat are familiarly Link-like, but designer Andrew Shouldice has pitched the escalating challenge just right, making you feel awfully smart for besting the next screen full of foes and locked doors.

That childhood favorite you were given one Christmas


(Image credit: Square Enix)

We’ve all got one. For you it might be Final Fantasy 7 or Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. For me, it’s Half-Life. They’re perfect little time capsules of happy memories, these games, so we save them for the occasions when we can really enjoy them again. It’s crucial not to overdo them. Significant time needs to pass before you go back into Black Mesa.

If that period of time has been significant enough, you might even have a small human man or woman to look after now, and you can show them your favorite childhood Christmas game. Their reaction will never be what you’re looking for (would you have been bowled over by Skool Daze in 1997 when you first got FF7?) but it’s just nice to pass the torch on.

Disco Elysium

Disco Elysium

(Image credit: ZA/UM)

There’s a lot of reading in Disco Elysium. More than we’re used to now, unless you’re a real isometric RPG aficionado for whom reams and reams of dialogue are par for the course. But When you can get your head in the zone for its demands on your attention, this malleable and chaotic detective story becomes an all-timer.

It’s effortlessly funny, in ways that constantly surprise you. It shouldn’t be allowed that you can die of a heart attack just trying to reach your tie down from the ceiling fan in the game’s opening minute. There are probably rules against it in design manuals.

But there Disco Elysium is, doing it, and there you are, respecting it for it. And that’s the prevailing feeling for the next thirty hours – sheer wonder at how human beings managed to write and construct such a detective tale, with so many funny nonsequiturs, so much player agency, and yet such a clear voice of its own.

Total War: Warhammer 3

Total War: Warhammer 3

(Image credit: Sega)

Have you ever tried to conduct a Total War: Warhammer 3 campaign over the course of a few weekday evenings? An hour here and there? It’s impossible. Every time you load it back up, you wonder why you sent that Battle Mage over to Ubersreik, what the next building you needed to construct was, and why your Fealty with Nordland is so low. Baffling.

No, you need to take a good long run at it, and that’s what the Christmas period’s for. Only now can you fathom the strategic 5D chess involved to win the Immortal Empires campaign, which sets all the factions from all three games against each other. It’s absolutely epic, and you will want to talk about it to people who don’t know or care about the Tomb Kings and their dastardly plot to take your lands.

Need For Speed Unbound (and then the golden oldies)

Need for Speed Unbound, a tricked out ride

(Image credit: EA)

Need For Speed is back in fine form after a few years in the wilderness, aided by an A$AP Rocky appearance and an eye-catching new art direction. But it doesn’t occupy the place it used to every Christmas, when the new NFS would trot out and hit number one in the charts. It was an annual tradition up there with the aforementioned Radio Times and pretending to like cranberries in a savory dish.

Bezzing about in some tuners in Need for Speed Unbound is a good laugh in its own right, but sooner or later you’ll want the nostalgia hit of Underground, Most Wanted, or Pro Street. You’ll find yourself singing along to their nu-rave and emo soundtracks, and nodding in appreciative recognition at liveries you were once in awe of. Remember that white M3 in Pro Street with all the arrows? Beautiful.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

(Image credit: Activision Blizzard)

Another perennial Christmas chart-botherer since Disturbed were getting airplay, Call of Duty’s been on a journey so convoluted in the intervening decades that it’s become impossible to follow now. Seriously, don’t ask anyone for this as a present because they’ll never get it right.

You’ll either get the original 2009 game from the local store’s pre-owned shelves, or the 2020 remaster of that original game, all of which share the same name. At this point, even I don’t know which one I’m talking about. 

Regardless, all three are good, honest bits of shooting, snarling, exchanging gruff witticisms, and staring at absurdly spectacular action sequences. If you used up all your brainpower on Total War and Disco Elysium, load this one up as it gets closer to New Year’s Eve and let your left mouse button do the thinking.

Phil Iwaniuk

Ad creative by day, wandering mystic of 90s gaming folklore by moonlight, freelance contributor Phil started writing about games during the late Byzantine Empire era. Since then he’s picked up bylines for The Guardian, Rolling Stone, IGN, USA Today, Eurogamer, PC Gamer, VG247, Edge, Gazetta Dello Sport, Computerbild, Rock Paper Shotgun, Official PlayStation Magazine, Official Xbox Magaine, CVG, Games Master, TrustedReviews, Green Man Gaming, and a few others but he doesn’t want to bore you with too many. Won a GMA once.