Happy fourth birthday 360!

Following on from my celebrations of the PS3’s third birthday, I must raise a glass to the Xbox 360 who turned four yesterday. However, the achievements of the 360 are somewhat different to that of Sony’s now-gen beast. Microsoft was able to build on the success of Xbox Live from the original Xbox and launched with a credible online service that, after four years of tinkering, still bests Sony’s efforts. We may have to pay £40 for the privilege but it’s money well spent if stability, decent download speeds and other such niceties are what we’re after. Read on!

Other than a favourable online service, most of the 360’s success has come from the PS3’s failings. Such as the initial difficulty to program for the PS3 and being out a year early. Developers chose the 360 as the lead SKU meaning many cross platform games suffered when porting up to the PS3. What it meant for gamers was simple – Xbox 360 versions looked and ran better. With a year of sales under it’s belt, Microsoft’s little white wonder was already settled when Sony decided to finally launch it’s dip into HD and the difference in price made the 360 look all the more enticing – despite the inferior hardware.

Launch titles were plentiful (18 in the US, 16 elsewhere), but not necessarily a huge leap in video game advances. Take Perfect Dark Zero. This was the most successful first-party title yet played like an early Xbox title. Thankfully, Infinity Ward were able to lend their talents and gave early adopters Call of Duty 2 – my first Xbox 360 game. Graphics were sharp but apart from amazing particle effects (some of the best smoke in a video game) it was still very much a ‘quick we need to get this finished’ kind of launch title. What it did do well if not brilliantly was online play. Such a strong online presence helped solidify Xbox Live’s dominance. That and Halo 2. Yes, while Microsoft had all but killed the Xbox when releasing the 360, fans of Halo 2 still battled hard on their newer consoles. It’s the reason why we only able to have 100 friends on our 360’s. The older architecture of Halo 2 has forced the hand of Microsoft, making us be more selective as to who we accept as friends.

As of September 2009, 31 million 360’s have been sold but unfortunately, a startling percentage would have red-ringed. I’m lucky enough to only be on my second 360 but know people who’ve been through considerably more. So much so that Microsoft couldn’t ignore the problem any longer and increased the warranty from one year to three years. A good move on their part but something that should never need to happen in the first place. Another cock-up/masterpiece was the Core system. Unlike the Premium console, Core – which has been replaced by Arcade – came without a hard drive meaning the firmware powered backwards compatibility was simply unable to happen. Not to mention limiting the size of Xbox Live Arcade titles to only 50MB since they had to fit on a memory card for those Core owners. Thank heavens for the Arcade model with it’s 512MB hard drive and Microsoft’s initiative of selling refurbished 20GB hard drives to Arcade owners. This was mainly because the massive overhaul to the 360’s operating system going from the bladed dashboard to the New Xbox Experience late 2008. With the NXE came Avatars – a feature still yet to find its place for many 360 gamers.

With the demise of the HDDVD, Microsoft now fills it’s Xbox Live Marketplace with HD movies, ready to be rented and streamed onto our systems. It didn’t take long for Netfilx – streaming media company – to partner up with Microsoft and offer their services via the console.

After four years of red-ringing, foul-mouthed online players and leading in the HD gaming genre, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 has been able to offer some fantastic ‘must-have’ titles. Halo 3 concluded the trilogy (for now) and satisfied most of the Halo fans who moved onto its online shenanigans. Cliff Bleszinski’s Gears of War looked beautiful and played even better with its stop-and-pop mechanics. Nothing new to video games but somehow perfected. Gears of War 2 in 2008 bettered the original and became a system seller in its own right. My personal favourite of first party (now third party) titles has to be Mass Effect. Glitchy as hell and arguably unfinished, it still won the hearts of like minded gamers who found the escapades of protagonist Shepard hard to ignore.

Despite being almost the same age the the console it replaced, the Xbox 360 looks to have a lot of life left in it. Next year will see the release Project Natal with its advanced motion capture abilities to either help or hinder upcoming titles and the long awaited Alan Wake is rumoured to have a launch date of around May. It has had a fair share of troubles and some lonely months at the start when games were thin on the ground but join me won’t you as I raise my carton of orange-juice aloft in celebration of the Xbox 360’s fourth year. Well done you.

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