The Xbox One has slowly come into its own this year, with a strong games lineup throughout 2015. Several of these titles are available on other platforms, but nevertheless, they help bolster Microsoft's lineup, and as 2015 comes to a close, Xbox One owners have access to excellent sequels, immersive RPGs, and fine-tuned platformers.
Ori and the Blind Forest is one such game. On the surface, its vibrant color palette and detailed 2D world are gorgeous. Beneath its aesthetics, though, Ori is a brutal platformer with fluid controls and a sense of precision. It also uses a metroidvania design that sweeps you along, as newfound abilities grant access to secret areas, making exploration a key aspect of the platformer's appeal. Ori and the Blind Forest is beautiful, but through its mechanics and engaging overall design, it has also cemented itself as one of the best releases this year.
Then came The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Many RPGs present massive worlds with secrets worth finding, but CD Projekt Red's newest title places us in a world rife with deep stories. Despite its grand ambition, The Witcher 3 is at its most powerful when it narrows its focus on characters. We follow Geralt of Rivia through swamps, into dark alleyways, and across massive plains, developing relationships with other people. They're characters worth listening to. And as the credits close, it's how we interact with them, and how those interactions shape the Northern Kingdoms, that leaves a lasting effect. The RPG has experience gains and gear discovery, but it's the writing, and the stories we stumbled on, that make it an exceptional experience.
In Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, series creator Hideo Kojima uses melodrama to delve into themes such as loss, betrayal, and nationalism, asking us what it means to be a part of the human race. We trek through the expanses of Afghanistan and Africa in the shadows, rescuing prisoners and extracting intel before the enemy knows we're even there. Metal Gear Solid V's layered mechanics create a world in which we're always working toward a goal, whether it be new equipment, new allies, or the means to expand our home base as the story marches forward. In the end, though, The Phantom Pain excels because it reminds us that everything is fleeting, and we could be moments away from losing it all.
Fallout 4's inhabitants, on the other hand, already know that. They wake each day to a decaying world and pale sun, eeking out a living amid the post-nuclear wastes of Boston, Massachusetts. Bethesda's story is one of moral choices, and in this world, survival often means forgetting your principles. Fallout 4 is superb because its gameplay aligns with its setting: we roam its wastes, forming alliances and scavenging for materials in the interest of staying alive. And often, like many survivors, we're faced with terrible choices. Not just which weapon to use, or what armor to wear, or where to travel next--but whether we would sacrifice our friends for the good of the human race.
This brings us to Rise of the Tomb Raider, a game also steeped in moral ambiguity. Lara Croft is a video game icon, but developer Crystal Dynamics molds her here to great effect, in a story where people's motives aren't as they initially seem. On a gameplay level, Rise of the Tomb Raider's refined mechanics feel superb, and the pacing creates momentum throughout the entire game. Exploration leads to resources, which lead to new equipment, which leads to new secrets in previous areas. Then we have the titular tombs, which house some of the more clever puzzles this year. And like everything else in Rise of the Tomb Raider, they're worth doing, as their completion leads to items that make Lara's trek easier. In short, Crystal Dynamics has created an action-adventure game with almost no added weight, and it's propelled by an excellent story in a gorgeous, detailed world.
2015 was a great year for games across every platform, and the Xbox One reaped the benefits. It served as a home for one of the year's best platformers. It played host to some of the best open-world games ever made. Microsoft's console has come into its own, all thanks to a stellar lineup of games, and it inspires optimism as we head into 2016.