Today marks the fifth anniversary of Xbox Live. Breathe it in. Has it really been that long? It doesn't feel like half a decade ago we were rubbish on MechWarrior deathmatch and always last at MotoGP, but it really was.
Microsoft's online service has come a long way in five years. Sure it's not free, but Xbox 360 boasts the best online console gaming service ever with the regularly updated Marketplace and Xbox Live Arcade. It also made its rivals and third-party publishers take online seriously for consoles.
To celebrate the service's fifth birthday, we've compiled a list of what we think are Xbox Live's greatest feats. None of them will be a surprise to PC gamers, but this is about Xbox 360. We promise we don't drive backwards in MotoGP anymore too; that was just an age thing.
We'll get the obvious one out of the way first; Xbox Live has done a great job of actually letting us play console games over the internet. Developer support (with plenty of Microsoft backup) has ensured that the majority of Live titles feature solid game modes, ranks and leaderboard systems. Lag will always be an issue to some degree but the experience of playing against people around the world is usually top notch.
Making Live broadband-only was a controversial move back in 2002, with most chugging away on dial-up connection. But one of the benefits (or negatives, depending on who you're playing with) of banishing slow-pokes from the network was that each and every XBL gamer could chat away via voice chat. The occasional rapping 12-year-old aside, it's made games of Rainbow Six and Halo far more interactive. And you don't have to stop playing and type messages like "behind u!!" either.
As the bane of PC gaming you can see why most people weren't too keen on the idea of bringing game patches to console. But the truth is Microsoft has done a fantastic job of regulating the size and roll-out of Xbox game updates. If there's ever a game-breaking problem it often swiftly gets fixed, and updates are rarely big enough to keep you downloading for longer than a minute. Just look at how Bungie changes its Halo play lists on the fly due to fan feedback.
With the launch of Xbox Live, downloadable content became a staple of every upcoming Xbox game almost overnight. Not every downloadable has been free and certainly not everything is worth it (we're looking at you, Oblivion horse armour). But stuff like new Gears multiplayer maps and Crackdown expansion packs have been a fantastic demonstration of how developers can inject new life into their games over XBL.
Xbox Live Arcade
Xbox Live Arcade is arguably the Xbox 360's greatest online achievement of all. Releases have quickly ramped up to one or two every week and the quality is seeing a rise too; Sensible World of Soccer (at some point), Rez and Quake Arena are all on the horizon, on top of the decent games already up for download. Some could do with a price drop, but with full Xbox games soon appearing on Marketplace we could well see a slash somewhere down the line.
You only have to look at competing services on PS3 and Wii to appreciate the speed in which Xbox Live Marketplace updates its content. It's clearly the leader of pack from day one. New game demos, videos and other, less important goodies are added every week. Soon we'll be able to download full-on Xbox games and HD video content as well. Five years ago we cried out for downloadable demos, and now we take them for granted.
Every gamer's Xbox identity, the 360 Gamercard, has done a great job of spreading love, hatred and massive rivalries across the Xbox 360 online community. While Xbox Live as a whole is an aggressively closed network, you'll still see people's Gamercards complete with gamerscore and recent games plastered across the internet and community sites like Facebook. If anything this makes us want to brush up on our Achievements some more.
Console game betas are still very much in their infancy, but early demonstrations on Xbox Live have yielded positive results for what we might see more of in the future. Call of Duty 4 had a bumpy but enjoyable run of testing, but the Halo 3 beta is easily the most famous of the lot. Bungie's online experiment definitely shifted enough copies of Crackdown to persuade Microsoft to do it all again with another game.