The Xbox One Generation.
Seeing as today marks the end of the “current gen” of Xbox One, I wanted to take a look at the games that I’ve played over the years on the console and shout out some of my favorites. Going down my list of achievements, I honestly couldn’t believe that so few of them made an impact on me. (Wow, that’s a hell of a sentence.) What I mean by that is, the peaks and valleys are very distinct throughout this console, although I did consider this console my preferred of the generation (controller style? comfort? aesthetic?), I am surprised at how many games I saw on the list that I said, “that was okay.” These are the games I played on the console that really impacted me since I got the console on day one. I don’t plan on getting an Xbox Series S/X right away, so I still plan on catching up with the excellent library, especially using Game Pass. In fact, I’m currently playing Need for Speed Hot Pursuit: Remastered, which I wouldn’t consider this generation necessarily and I’m still loving it. I’m not going to shy away from playing games from across all of the generations. It’s so easy to miss some good ones along the way, especially when, for so many years, I had the newest, latest and greatest right in my face and even given to me for free.
This was a great indie title that I believe I picked up for $5 based solely on the reputation it had built. What a fantastic little narrative that spun itself outward from a very homely and human core. Following the day to day life of a forest worker felt utilitarian in the best of ways, like I was contributing to something a bit bigger in scope. It gave me “something to do” that allowed me to explore while on my way to jobs, but kept me timely and focused as well. The world is painted in a very distinct and beautiful art style which also left a lasting effect on me. When I think back to the game, sure, the revelatory and suspenseful story left its mark on me, but what I will always remember are the gorgeous sunrises and sunsets I got to experience from one day to the next, along with the beautifully analog sounding communications I shared with a coworker in the park.
Hyper Light Drifter
This one didn’t really show off the next-gen marvel that the Xbox One was capable of, but I think most of the genuine internal excitement I felt for games came from titles just like this. Independent, small studios putting together passion projects. Perhaps it wasn’t the console hardware specs and capabilities that impressed me most about this generation, but instead the infrastructure that allowed smaller titles to really thrive and make their ways to the masses. This game had a lot in common with the original Legend of Zelda title, as it threw you into an open world with little to no context or plan. You were coughing and bleeding out and you needed to find a way to struggle and adventure back to wellness. This was another one whose art style stood out in a major way with its pixelated beauty on display. Not only were the temples marvelously crafted in the language of dots and dashes, but the animations were spectacular, and the way that enemies felt minimal and drawn in the language of the unique pixel art really felt like the director deliberately made this game to feel the way it looked.
Far Cry 5
I’ll be real with you, Far Cry games are an easy way to my heart even though ultimately there is nothing that really stands out about them in terms of innovation or creativity. You have an open world where you play a rebel/revolutionary/escapee and have to fight cults/soldiers who are terrorizing the innocent land you’ve found yourself in. While you’re at it, the natural order of things wants you dead, whether it’s panthers or leopards or badgers or wolverines. You shoot things forever and heal deep bullet wound hemorrhaging with a hold of a button and a bandage animation. For open-world shooters, this game is worth every single moment. There is something about games like this that really make me happy to get lost within. My hands shoot and explore and collect, make traps and foil the larger army. But as I’ve mentioned many times, the best part about this game is that its audio palette is often tossable, so I elect to play new albums or playlists on Spotify, or if I really have the run of the house, I put on a record and set up a whole mood in my game room. Far Cry 5 boasted a coming apocalypse which I thought would never really fulfill its own prophecy (but sort of does), and the way that it broke the entire map into separate factions for each of the siblings was brilliant, keeping each section fresh with different combat types and different obstacles to fear. Getting kidnapped with sleeping darts is certainly one of the laziest ways to progress the story into places that it wanted you to experience, but accepting that this is a Far Cry entry, I grew to appreciate the attempt. Number Six comes out this coming February (maybe) and even if I don’t have an Xbox Series or PS5 at that point, I’ll be glad to pick that one up and get just as deeply into it.
I’m a huge Mega Man fan. Give me a sidescroller that is miserable to play and impossible to survive in and I’ll play it until it’s done. Replaying the Ducktales game that initially released on NES in the past six or seven years is one of my most vibrant video game memories since moving to South Carolina. Cuphead fits right in that beautiful nook, straining your button pressing and twitch response to the very brink. It creates impossible bullet hell scenarios and muscle memory labyrinths that you will play again and again. And while the game is infuriating to beat, I don’t think that’s the point, after all is said and done. Playing through the short levels or straightforward boss battles feel like riddles all on their own, almost like puzzles you have to deconstruct and then send the neuron message to your fingers to untangle the problem. Utterly gorgeous throwback art style kept me captivated along with the pulse-pounding jazz soundtrack that not only motivated you but taunted you as well. The way this game looked is definitely the hook that brought me in, but the challenge and timeless “video game” personality of it made it legendary in my mind. Even though this is a one-way street, it’s one I want to traverse over and over again, a game that I often think about revisiting.
I picked this game up because I like shooters. End of story. I wasn’t thinking about what it might be. I liked Doom and Doom 2 on friend’s old computers. I loved Doom 3 when they released that very different iteration. I assumed this would be somewhere in that vein. And sure, it sort of is. There is certainly familiarity there. But the way this game turns violence into sport, the way that your bloodthirst is summoned from you by Mick Gordon’s soundtrack, the way that your reflexes are doing amazing things before you are able to think about it, this game not only plays like a masterpiece, but makes you feel like a genius for doing so. The game begins in a facility and that really was about the speed I expected. Find a gun, open a door, blast the things inside. Move on. But this game brings you to a Hell built of molten rock, archways of teeth and gums, bleeding tunnels and temples from Lovecraft’s orgying mind. The action is so fast and big and bloody, and not only are you standing 30 yards away from things, choosing a weapon and triggering, but the game requires you to inject a neanderthalic skill to it, shooting the target until it is weary from its pain, and then approach it and punch it until it explodes to refill your ammo and health. This shooter is one of the most fun I’ve had in a game, and aside from one other game on the list, one of the only ones that I purchased for friends, saying simply “You absolutely have to try this.”
Shadow of Mordor/War
I combine these two because there simply isn’t enough of a difference between them to merit distinction. The game takes place in the Lord of the Rings universe, which I expected to feel like a cameo-driven cashgrab on a fanbase. And while you do get some cameos (from many unlikely heroes and villains), none of it feels shoehorned in. You get a good story from within the world of Mordor which, if you’re a fan of the Tolkeinverse, was a nice place to visit and make an impact within. However, the biggest takeaway from this game was the Nemesis System, a brilliant piece of work that I am actually shocked was not implemented in more games. I still hold out hope for it to show up in other games. As you fight sergeants, generals, lieutenants, warlords, etc, there is an always evolving hierarchy within the orc army that these individuals are striving to rank up within. When you kill one of these guys, another soldier takes their place. They remember you, they know your name, they know what you’ve done. Your reputation becomes cause for bloodbounty. And when one of these orcs finally kills you, their renown increases in a massive way. They move up the ranks and become even more powerful. You genuinely build a rivalry with some of these enemies. It takes away the throwaway sentiment of what otherwise could have had mindless, massive Dynasty Warrior style battleground. There is so much personality in the individual enemies that it makes their brief dialogs worth hearing. And that, for me, is a substantial compliment. In terms of the system being implemented outside of the series, I really wanted EA to take this system and run with it. I would have loved to see it taken to the NHL series (but other sports would have been cool as well). Score on a goalie in a filthy way? You will always live in his head. Throw a crosscheck after the whistle? You’ve now got a rivalry for the rest of your career. Injure a team’s star player? Let that team trade for an enforcer (or your rival!) to headhunt you whenever you play. Beat a team in the playoffs? There’s a new rivalry and storyline for each and every time you play. Still could be amazing, and with sports games (especially the NHL franchise) getting staler by the year, I feel this could really inject some life into these games. Also, with a brilliant combat system (blatantly stolen from the Batman: Arkham series), it made it fun to challenge yourself to build massive combos with the insane amount of moves you’d amass by the end of the game. There were times when I would invade a fortress and not be able to stop the alarm from ringing, and having to fight upwards of 30 enemies at once, and was able to hold my own simply from getting so familiar with the language of the controller in those tight battles.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
This was the first game that turned me into a slouching, slothing, zombie to a video game since Fallout 3. I would wake up with my wife at 7:30 or 8 when she would go to work and begin playing this game until I would have to pick her up at 5, hoping to get back to the game for an hour or two before bed. It was sickening how much I wanted to be into this game. The open-world is a beautiful place to look at, galloping from village to village on your horse Roach, or simply by running. Every character you speak to, although they have that strange cockney accent that feels like a leftover from the peasants in Warcraft 2, feels like they have an active life that you’re involved in. The world seems like a place better off with you in it, but a world no less had you not come to influence it. One thing about the game that really impacted me as well is that, similar to Star Wars, there is a depth to the enemies, a lore to them all, an ecosystem that simply makes sense. Hexes and demons lie right beside creatures that live in spaces that “just work” for the type of animal they are. The same way that you wouldn’t be shocked to find a bear in a forest surrounding a cave system, you accept the fact that drowners lurk around the shores of most bodies of water. The storyline is exquisitely written like any classic fantasy novel, so if that’s your thing, this game is an absolute must-play. The combat system definitely took me some time to learn how to swallow, and I did put the game down a couple of times early on because I wasn’t convinced I’d be able to understand what the hell I was doing. But slowing down and not overthinking it really became an ally to me and I’m glad I took the time with it. Geralt is a cool character, but basically a simple adventurer who is slaying evil for coin. The real standout for me is Ciri, a character who is lost and then found, and begins to wield an unimaginable power. I’m not sure where it would fall in the pantheon of Witcher games, but I would love a Ciri spin-off, for sure.
Assassin’s Creed: Origins
The same way that The Witcher pulled me in with a massive world that slowly built an aura of goodies just on the outskirts of the area I was exploring, Origins did the very same thing, but in ancient Egypt. Sand, pyramids, villages, outposts. Eventually, I was able to explore beautiful cities as well, getting inside of these ornate libraries, to climb giant fountains, to reach the tops of spires and buildings that allowed me to see the world around me for what felt like miles around. The game itself was, in a way, nothing new. It gave me points of interest around a map that I would hike towards, murdering anything in my path with a variety of weapons and skills, and once I got to the question mark on the map, I would either collect the hidden item, kill the distinct enemy who was meant to be killed, or talk to the person who had an important piece of dialog or me and I would move forward in the story or, in a bulk of the time spent with the game, I would conquer a “meaningless” side quest, maybe giving me a 1–3% uptick in the damage my weapon would do, or the damage my armor would absorb. That being said, I think this game did what The Witcher 3 did, but better, if only because it followed in a well-worn stencil to follow. The Creed series never interested me, but Egypt did, so here I found myself. The character in the center of it all was a man named Bayek, one of the earliest Assassins within the entire timeline of central Assassins in the game series. His story was one of vengeance, one of love, and one of betrayal. These things are all staples in the medium, but by the time I rounded out the end of the game itself, the main story really hit me in a way that I didn’t expect, especially when there are so many games that attempt to get deeply into your heart and attempt to manufacture a love story that has any semblance of believability. At least, I believed it. With the loss of his son, his relationship with his wife, also on her own quest for vengeance along her own path, becomes something wholly different, and they find themselves in different situations, different circumstances, different forms of themselves than they were when their son was alive. And the way they part ways, the way that they move onward from each other, is one of the purest forms of timeless love, one of the most well composed reality checks of how something like this might play out. This isn’t Romeo and Juliet, this isn’t some massive fireworks explosion. This feels like modern love in the aftermath of the death of a child. The more I think about it, the more I love the game, and the playground they let me explore around that core was just as entertaining as any other game in this generation, if only because it is comprised of all of its best ideas.
Of all the games I played this generation, regardless of the console, I think this is the one that really wowed me the most. From the very onset of the game, you’re in a strange headspace. Motivations are presented to you almost in the middle of its own trajectory, with intentions set up for you in the way that a dream will. When you aren’t in some kind of Purgatory Motel, you are inside (and below) a massive office building which shifts and grows and expands. This building, called The Oldest House, is the home to an agency which studies, captures and is at the mercy of mystical objects, possessed manifestations, vortexes and ancient energies. Few of these things are explained or given grounds for existing. And I love this. Instead of bogging down the narrative with indulgent explication, instead, the game lets you live within it, hopefully finding dossiers and folders which explain just as much as someone like yourself could have found about these objects at any given time. There just isn’t enough time within these phenomena to truly get the answers they hope for, so they stare deeply at them until they’re driven past the point of the human limit or the tension gives or the object just returns to its purest form. At its center, this game is a Metroidvania, an exploration game that invites you to explore it even if you don’t have an objective you want to accomplish. There is enough free reign that you can have a blast running, walking, shooting and hovering through the corridors constantly finding new things, new information, new ways to understand how you’ve come here and why. The lack of context of this universe really made me fall in love with it. It was a horror game without needing to be in your face, or even really all that “scary”. The sound design was remarkable, always making you feel on edge, but never giving you that feeling that “something was around the corner,” but instead creating an expanding fissure that grows and grows inside your calming nerves. Something is always amiss. This was one of the most creative pieces of media I was able to submerge myself into, and is the best experience I had on my Xbox this generation.