Nov. 21, 2013 at 1:20 PM ET
Microsoft put the emphasis TV-style offerings over actual game play when it first announced the Xbox One —a marketing move that angered many gamers. So critics (including yours truly) were pleasantly surprised this week when the company showcased a strong starting lineup for its next-generation console. After two weeks of testing the device, here are the best games we found.
Ryse: Son of Rome
"Ryse" is a brand-new game created by the German developer Crytek — the studio behind a number of gorgeous but largely braindead shooters like the original "Far Cry" and the "Crysis" series. The Roman Empire-era hacking-and-slashing adventure depicts all the hallmarks of a Crytek game: It's visually stunning — hands down, the best-looking next-generation game I've played — incredibly violent, and more than a little stupid in its attempts at constructing an actual story. The buckets of blood and dismembered limbs don't always manage to conceal the fact that "Ryse's" gameplay is incredibly repetitive, but the game is still pretty enough to keep itself from becoming stale.
Dead Rising 3
"Dead Rising 3" is basically "Ryse" but with zombies instead of Roman soldiers and barbarians. Sure, there are some subtle differences that game critics will parse out—"Dead Rising" is technically an open world game and have more customizable weaponry than "Ryse," for instance. But both are basically high-tech excuses to kill lots of things over and over again. And while "Ryse" is braindead because of its many over-somber intonations about honor and what it means to be a soldier, "Dead Rising" is equally braindead thanks to its gleefully campy approach to zombie killing.
Speaking of mindless entertainment, remember fighting games? They seemed to disappear from the mainstream of gaming around the same time that arcades did, but they're making something of a comeback with next-gen systems. The PS4 launched last week with an excellent upgraded version of "Injustice: Gods Among Us." This week, the Xbox One will debut with "Killer Instinct," a gorgeous reimagining of the 1994 arcade classic. I'm pretty sure this is the only next-gen game where you can shoot fireballs at your opponent and play as a giant blue wolf monster. It was also easily the best time I had playing a next-gen game competitively against a friend.
Here's an adorable exercise in base-building and resource management for fans of any of the "Sims" or "Tycoon" games from back in the day. The interface is a little clunky on a console (the original "Zoo Tycoon" series was for the PC and the complexity of many of the game's actions feels like it still warrants a mouse-and-keyboard rather than a gamepad), but the sheer joy one gets from playing with all the animals more than makes up for any of the game's shortcomings. Better yet, "Zoo Tycoon" offers the most intriguing use of the new-and-improved Kinect I've seen so far by letting you hold your arms out to feed animals or simply play with them. The new motion-tracking camera even lets you make faces at the critters and, yes, they will make faces back at you.
Forza Motorsport 5
There's something I just don't get about driving games. Without the gleeful exploration (and wanton destruction) of "Grand Theft Auto" or the cartoonish joy of "Mario Kart," all you really have is a bunch of pretty-looking cars moving really fast in a straight line. Usually that's enough to please only the kind of automobile fetishists who lust after new episodes of "Top Gear," but "Forza Motorsport 5" is different. It's visually stunning, sure, but it's also just engaging to play even for the non-driving fanatic such as myself. The game uses a revamped version of its ridiculously named "Driveatar" artificial intelligence system to emulate the behavior of you and your fellow gaming friends on Xbox Live so that even single-player sessions feel dynamic and human.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.