Eleven Years Of Xbox - Part One - Grand Theft Auto IV

Hey there folks, and welcome to the first instalment in a series of blogs I'm calling 'Eleven Years of Xbox'. It's intended to be a celebration of the time I've spent within the Microsoft gaming ecosystem, having decided earlier this year to part ways with my Xbox consoles and streamline my video game collection. You can read more about it in the introduction to this series by following this link.

One thing I didn't explain in the introduction is that I'll be reminiscing on these games in the order that I played them, starting with the furthest back and working my way up to the present day. There is no hierarchy or ranking inherent in the order of these posts, it's simply a chronological recap of my time with the Xbox 360 and Xbox One. With that minor point out of the way, let's begin. And where better to begin than where it all began? The first game of Eleven Years of Xbox is none other than Grand Theft Auto IV.

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Fresh Off the Boat, Fresh Out the Box

To begin this series, I'm turning the clock back just over eleven years, to the spring of 2008. I'd not long turned eighteen, I was on a gap year between secondary school and university, and was working a part-time administration job at my local doctor's surgery - the same doctor's surgery where I now work full-time as a dispenser, as it happens. Back then I was working fifteen hours a week doing data entry, spending my mornings in an office adding information to patient records from hospital letters, and passing my afternoons at home playing a ton of video games. At this point I was still entrenched in what was then the outgoing generation of consoles, splitting my time between the PlayStation 2, GameCube and Nintendo DS. I was itching to make the leap to current-gen hardware, and had been saving some of the disposable income from my job towards that very goal.

I had initially intended to remain firmly within the Sony wheelhouse and pick up a PlayStation 3, but the exorbitant price they were still charging for their hardware a year after its European launch meant I'd need to keep saving for quite some time before that could become a reality. My alternative choice was picking up Microsoft's Xbox 360, a console I felt a natural bias against due to my previous loyalty to Sony and Nintendo, but which promised to be significantly kinder to my wallet. When Microsoft announced a £50 price drop for its 20GB model in March 2008, bringing its price down to £199 (a full £100 less than the cheapest PS3 on the market at that time), I finally decided to pull the trigger and earmarked the 360 for purchase with my end-of-April paycheck. I ordered my console through Amazon on Wednesday 30th April, and came home from work to receive the parcel containing it on Friday 2nd May.

Initial impressions were, I'll be honest, a little underwhelming. The console itself was the stock white model with the grey 20GB hard drive bundled in, and I have to admit I was a little bit put out that this ivory monolith was going to spoil my gaming set-up, as it looked very out of place next to the sleek black aesthetics of the PS2 slim and GameCube. I was still in possession of a fourteen-inch CRT TV back then, so high-definition gaming was a distant dream at this point - my Xbox 360 started its life hooked up with a SCART cable, outputting a mere 480p to a minuscule screen. Even so, it was immediately apparent that the graphical fidelity was a major step up from the capabilities of my PS2 and GameCube. I quite liked the simplicity of the original 'blades' interface, something I came to miss as subsequent updates like the New Xbox Experience and the next generation of consoles started flooding their UIs with advertisements and links to their respective digital stores. While my Xbox 360 was connected to the internet through WiFi, I didn't have an Xbox LIVE Gold subscription, and therefore wasn't able to sample online multiplayer for quite some time.

But I didn't buy an Xbox 360 to critique its appearance and interface. I bought it to play video games. And one video game in particular...

The Rise of a Criminal Empire

My history with the Grand Theft Auto franchise goes back a very long way. Back to before the series found its third dimension, when Rockstar North was still known as DMA Design, and way before I was actually old enough to be playing those sorts of games. I got my first taste of the series when I was around eight years old, when a friend of mine brought his dad's copy of the original Grand Theft Auto over to my house after school. We can't have played more than twenty minutes, but that was enough time to cause a serious amount of chaos in that top-down original render of Liberty City. Presumably attracted by our hysterical laughter, my mum came to investigate. She turned off the PlayStation in horror, confiscated the disc and forbade us from playing anything else for the rest of the afternoon. I didn't stay in touch with that school friend, but I forged a strong relationship with the GTA series from that day onward.

About a year and a half later, with my mother's blessing (although I'm not sure what caused her stance to soften), I received a copy of Grand Theft Auto 2 for Christmas. I spent hours playing this with my younger sisters, never seriously engaging with the missions or story, but instead entering every crazy cheat code we could find and causing unprecedented levels of mayhem with maximum ammo on all weapons and almost infinite lives. To this day, GTA2 remains the only entry in the series that I've never played to completion - something I hope to rectify one day.

When Grand Theft Auto III launched in the autumn of 2001, I didn't yet own a PlayStation 2. Instead, my first taste of the series in three dimensions came at a (different) friend's house. He invited a group of boys from my class over to his place about a week after the game came out, and we all took it in turns to play it on his brother's PS2. He loaded up his brother's saved game, punched in the All Weapons cheat, and we spent about two hours terrorising the streets of Liberty City, passing the controller whenever one of us got Busted or Wasted.

Vice City came a year later, and by then I'd acquired a PS2 of my very own. Unfortunately I didn't have enough disposable income to pick up a copy of Rockstar's latest, but the same friend was kind enough to loan me his copy for about a week and a half at the start of 2003. This was my first experience of actually engaging with the mission-based content of a GTA game, and I loved every minute of it, becoming totally absorbed in that sun-drenched approximation of Miami and the characters that inhabited it. I didn't manage to finish the game in those ten days (I'm pretty sure I got stuck on that mission where you have to save Lance from the scrapyard), but it was an experience that elevated my relationship with the series from respect to pure admiration.

Later that year I picked up second-hand copies of both GTA III and Vice City and played through their stories back-to-back. When the hotly-anticipated San Andreas released in the autumn of 2004, I convinced my mum to accompany me to our nearest Argos and pick it up for me on launch day. I was blown away by its size and scope, not to mention the technical feat it represented with its seamless open world devoid of load times (something neither III nor Vice City could manage on the PS2 hardware despite having substantially smaller game worlds). By this point I'd fallen in with a different (and much nicer) group of kids at school, and we would meet up on weekends to play San Andreas's limited but still fantastic two-player mode. It was our go-to game for the best part of three years, and provided some of the best moments of my gaming adolescence.

All this history with the franchise conspired to make Grand Theft Auto IV my most-hyped video game release of 2008. In all the time since, I don't think I've ever been as excited for the release of a game as I was about the launch of Rockstar's next open-world offering. In my eyes, it was a guaranteed system seller. And when it launched on 29th April 2008, it sold me on the Xbox 360 and began a relationship with Microsoft consoles that would last the next eleven years...

Taking It To the Next Level

The last nine paragraphs have been my incredibly convoluted way of saying that Grand Theft Auto IV on the Xbox 360 was my first experience of a 'seventh-generation' console. I'm sure for a great many people here, that wasn't the case. A lot of you probably cut your teeth on other major titles that released earlier. Perhaps 2006's Gears of War had already provided you with your first taste of high-definition graphical fidelity. Maybe 2007's Assassin's Creed had already redefined your expectations of what open worlds in video games could be. But I'm also sure that there are others out there like me, who waited for Rockstar to grace the next generation of consoles with something other than a table tennis simulation before taking the leap themselves. And for those of us who did, I think I speak for almost all of us when I say that Grand Theft Auto IV blew my fucking mind.

The first thing to strike me on launching the game was its incredible visual presentation. As someone who'd spent the last six years playing PS2 and GameCube games, the level of detail present in absolutely everything in the game was earth-shattering to me. The fidelity of the character models and their facial animations, the meticulously detailed interiors of the vehicles and the way they realistically deformed on impact, the individual bricks in the textures on each building, the windswept detritus on every sidewalk - everything I saw on screen almost defied belief because I had never seen anything like it before. And not just the graphical detail, but the quality of the animations as well - the way protagonist Niko Bellic's feet fell realistically on the steps of every staircase, or how shooting different parts of an enemy's body yielded different reactions, all thanks to the complex Euphoria physics supporting Rockstar's own RAGE engine. This was all stuff that would have been categorically impossible on the previous generation's hardware, and helped me to feel justified in my purchase of an Xbox 360.

This visual upgrade was supported by a multitude of enhancements to the series' gameplay. Combat got a major overhaul, adopting cover-based mechanics and shoulder-button controls akin to third-person shooters like the aforementioned Gears of War. The new physics engine and increased weight of vehicles contributed to a more realistic driving model, again supported by a more modern shoulder-button control scheme for acceleration and braking. At the other end of the spectrum, an insane amount of attention to detail was incorporated into the gameplay on a micro level. It was possible to hail a taxi cab and have it take you to a preset destination, an equivalent to fast-travel that didn't break the player's immersion within the game world. Mini-games ranging from darts and pool to bowling and arcade games were sprinkled throughout the map. The televisions in Niko's various apartments broadcasted a wide variety of TV shows and adverts created specifically for the game. It even featured its own version of the internet which could be accessed and browsed in a number of internet cafés. All these touches, big and small, helped to make GTA IV feel like a significant step up from anything I'd played on the PS2, and further vindicated my decision to upgrade.

This shift towards realism and attention to detail was also echoed in the game's story and tone, both of which eschewed the overblown action movie pastiches of the PS2 trilogy in favour of an original narrative supported by satirical social commentary rather than overt parody. Niko's story wasn't one of a meteoric rise to the top of a criminal empire akin to Tommy Vercetti's, but instead a much more grounded tale rooted in a bastardised version of the American dream. "From rags to slightly better rags" is how I believe one Rockstar figurehead put it (unfortunately a quick Google search doesn't reveal exactly who), and I think that best sums it up. Grand Theft Auto some growing up in the three-and-a-half years between San Andreas and IV, and while a lot of people came to view that as being to the game's detriment, for me personally it was a huge step forward - another indication that I'd truly taken a bold leap into a new generation of video games.

While I wasn't willing to pony up for an Xbox LIVE Gold subscription to play the online multiplayer, Grand Theft Auto IV did serve as my introduction to another online phenomenon of the seventh console generation - downloadable content. Released in the spring and autumn of 2009, The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony (later marketed collectively under the title 'Episodes from Liberty City') gave players the chance to revisit Liberty City from a different perspective. The Lost and Damned was my personal favourite of the two, mainly because its grittier tone and grounded characters and story felt more in keeping with the whole GTA IV package. The Ballad of Gay Tony, while enjoyable in its own right, seemed to be trying too hard to appease the vocal part of the player base clamouring for another dose of San Andreas's kitchen-sink craziness. Nonetheless, Episodes from Liberty City served as a pretty incredible introduction for me to what DLC could be, and set a precedent for size, scope and quality that very few games have managed to reach with their downloadable offerings in the years since.

Finally, although it's not exactly in keeping with this blog's theme of making a generational leap, I'd like to reference the soundtrack in a little more detail. While licensed soundtracks were par for the course in the Grand Theft Auto franchise by this point, GTA IV was the game where the music got its hooks into me more than any other. The synth-drenched 80s soundtrack of Vice City and the hip-hop-driven radio stations of San Andreas did a fantastic job of creating a sense of time and place in their respective games, but they didn't resonate with me on a personal level, being a nineties child whose tastes lie firmly within the boundaries of rock, indie and blues. Vice City's V-Rock was alright, but more hair-metal than out-and-out rock, and San Andreas's K-DST had some great tracks but didn't feel in keeping with the early-90s California atmosphere the game was trying to portray. In GTA IV's Liberty Rock Radio, however, I finally found a home in the in-game radio of a GTA game - especially when The Lost and Damned expansion virtually doubled the station's track list. Most notably, it introduced me to The Black Crowes, a band who went on to become one of my all-time favourite artists, through their track Remedy. The moment when that track came on the radio and I was able to use the in-game phone's Shazam-style 'ZiT' service to identify it was the starting point of an ongoing love affair with the music of the Robinson brothers, and I'm sure it will stick with me forever.

I'm aware that time has not been kind to Grand Theft Auto IV's reputation as a video game. Where it was met with universal acclaim upon its release, public opinion has soured on it significantly over the last decade. People deride it for its more serious tone, its drab colour palette, its archaic gameplay and mission structure, and its problems with ludo-narrative dissonance. It very much occupies the black sheep role in the GTA family, an awkward cousin sandwiched between its zanier forebears and its more refined successor, the immeasurably successful Grand Theft Auto V. And yet, eleven years since its original release, it remains my personal favourite game in the franchise, and without a doubt the most memorable and important in terms of its impact on my gaming history. It was the game that ushered me away from the PS2 and into the next generation. It was the perfect vehicle for demonstrating what the new hardware was capable of. And it was the catalyst for an eleven-year relationship with Microsoft and Xbox that has brought me thousands of hours of joy and entertainment.

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If you've made it this far, thanks very much for sticking around to the end of this blog post. Next time I'll be jumping forward a couple of months to the end of 2008, when I'll be talking about a collection of games that helped define my interpretation of the phrase "value for money", and taught me the inherent value of first-person gaming experiences. Until then, thanks very much for reading. Take care folks, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled (PS4)

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