While many publishers these days have no compunction about charging $60 for what amounts to a 10 hour experience with limited replayability, Orange Box developer Valve bucks that trend by offering gamers 35 hours of single player gaming and an outstanding multiplayer component that goes far above and beyond what gamers have come to expect for their gaming dollar. What’s more, each and every one of the five games that comprise The Orange Box is extraordinary, making it one of the best overall deals in the history of video games.
Half Life 2
Although it’s no spring chicken, the 2004 sequel to the seminal FPS title Half Life remains one of the best FPS games ever made. It has an engrossing narrative, well written and characters, amazing tech, and is well paced despite being rather lengthy (coming in just under 20 hours.) Half Life 2 tells the story of Gordon Freeman who has returned to Earth after several years in stasis only to learn that the Combine aliens he released in the first game have now taken over the earth. Gordon meets up with some familiar faces who have now formed a resistance against their evil opressors, and the plot centers around their attempts to destroy the Citadel, the Combine’s base of operations on Earth.
The facial animations are incredibly life-like, adding a depth to the frequent interactions with NPCs. The lighting is hauntingly realistic and the physics system robust enough to provide the basis for the game’s numerous clever puzzles. Audio also impresses with heart felt voice acting and extraordinarily realistic sound effects. About a third of the way through the game, players are given the gravity gun, a physics-based weapon that allows players to fling various objects around the world with lethal abandon, creating a unique twist on standard FPS conventions. The gravity gun is the heart and soul of Half Life 2, and actually manages to make smashing crates fun, which is no mean feat. You can use it throughout the game to hurl objects at enemies in lieu of shooting them if you wish, and it’s just a great way to toy around with the SOURCE engine’s rich physics environment.
Thanks to your botched teleportation experiments in Half Life, the Combine have now taken over the earth. Way to doom humanity, buddy.
However, as it is a port of a 3 year old game, Half Life 2 does contain some chinks in its armor. The textures don’t look nearly as impressive as they once did, and the fairly regular load times compromise the player’s extension of disbelief. Nevertheless, visual quality is nearly as good if not better than most of Half Life 2’s current competition on the Xbox 360, a testament to Valve’s expertise in the field of game design. Anyone who missed out on this title when it was released on PC and the Xbox owes it to themselves to experience one of the most solidly constructed shooters ever made.*
Half Life 2: Episode One
Picking up right at the cliffhanger ending of Half Life 2, Episode One takes the Gameplay into new directions by pairing the player with sidekick Alyx Vance. Aside from her companionship Alyx will offer help in fights, provide hints and point out areas of interest for the player to explore. Alyx’s constant vigil doesn’t really change much in the way of game play, but her AI is generally impressive and it’s nice not to be alone as you were for the majority of Half Life 2.
Alyx will be your constant companion in Episode One, and thanks to the SOURCE engine’s robust AI she can really hold her own in combat.
Episode One features some improvements that go above and beyond Half Life 2 from a technical perspective, although it does generally re-use assets from the original title. Enhanced enemy AI and a few new challenging enemy types help keep the tension up while players struggle harder than ever before to stay alive. The game piles more enemies on you than in Half Life 2, but thankfully Alyx really carries her own weight and kills many of the baddies without the player’s assistance. Episode One’s inclusion of High Dynamic Range (HDR) lighting, (which simulates the player’s pupil dilation when moving from dark to light areas) adds eerie realism to an already convincing presentation, and environments look slightly better than they did in Half Life 2.
Although it’s a short four to five hour campaign, Episode One does a good job of addressing the loose ends from Half Life 2 while giving players more time to enjoy the wonderful NPC interaction from the previous title. It’s not long enough to feel like a game unto itself, and it has players covering ground they’ve already become familiar with in Half Life 2, but it still comes across as a high quality expansion pack.
Half Life 2: Episode Two
Easily the most exciting entry so far in the Half Life saga, Episode Two takes the series in some exciting new directions that involve lengthy and satisfying vehicle segments and some brilliant puzzles sure to please fans. Without spoiling the plot, Episode Two is a heart-wrenching continuation of the story that has Gordon and Alyx spending a little quality time with the Vortagaunts, the now-friendly aliens that assist humanity in their efforts to thwart the Combine. On several occasions, elaborate and lengthy battles ensue in which the Vortagaunts must unleash their super-powerful energy attacks as they fight by your side, adding depth to the previously downplayed creatures. The story will pull at player’s heartstrings more than the previous chapters in the series, and provides great incentive to keep on going just to see what will happen next.
Episode Two takes full advantage of the SOURCE engine’s wonderful physics.
The action is intense and unrelenting, and its clear Valve created tons of new content for Epside Two rather than just rehashing old textures and set pieces from the previous outings as was the case with Episode One. Although there are numerous new enemies and challenges in the game, the frightening new Hunters are really stand out from the pack. Think of Hunters as little mini-Striders capable of shooting explosives and knocking back players with powerful bull-like ram attack and you’ll understand why these bad boys are some of the toughest opponents Gordon Freeman has ever faced. Although it only takes around six or seven hours to beat, every minute of Episode Two a white knuckled thrill ride that never lets up and should have players chomping at the bit to complete the trilogy when Episode Three sees release in a few years.
*If you really want to experience Half Life 2 in the correct context, I recommend checking out the original Half Life: Source, available to download for $10 through STEAM. While its graphics are dated by modern standards, this critically acclaimed classic features enhanced physics and textures, making it a wonderful history lesson for FPS enthusiasts. Thanks to its strong game play, Half Life is one tile that’s actually still fun to play despite its age.
The most unique experience packaged with The Orange Box is a puzzle game named Portal that not only pushes the genre in exciting new territory, it’s easily one of the most humorous experiences gamers will have this year. As a straight up puzzler, players who don’t fancy themselves as FPS fans will find much to enjoy in this offbeat, ingenious take on puzzle gaming. Set in the Half Life universe, Portal requires players to complete a series of challenges (basically getting from one end of a room to another) using nothing more than a portal gun and their wits. This gun opens up entrance and exit portals that allow players to navigate the game’s numerous rooms in ways never before seen in 3D gaming.
Portal throws situations at you that you’ve never seen before.
Portal does a good job of teaching you all the trippy-dippy things you are able to do with your portal gun gradually, which is good because things aren’t as easy as just opening a couple of doorways then simply proceeding through them. For example, if one portal is at the bottom of a tall precipice, and a player falls down into it from a great height, they will shoot out of the exit portal they have placed at the speed they were moving when they were free falling. So when you need to get over a tall obstacle, you may find yourself shooting a portal on the floor and jumping in from the top of a stairwell in order to come speeding out of an exit portal you have placed near the ceiling. In short, the developers were able to create puzzles that have honestly never been seen before, and that’s something you can’t say about the vast majority of games. I’m certain Portal will inspire hundreds of imitators, as it is one of the freshest game mechanics I’ve ever seen.
Although Portal is not technically a story driven affair, a robotic woman’s voice leads the player through the series of challenges for research purposes, and her deadpan tone and comical lack of empathy will have players sincerely entertained. It’s probably the first time in your life that a puzzle game will make you laugh, which just goes to show how much of a difference quality writing can make. Portal is a real treasure, and although it’s not terribly lengthy, it will blow you away with it’s elegance and creativity.
Team Fortress 2
Team Fortress 2 is an online only class-based shooter with wonderfully stylized graphics that look like they were ripped straight out of a Pixar cartoon. Having spent nine years in development, Team Fortress 2’s classes are all superbly balanced, offering every kind of play style imaginable. Players choose from a wide range of character types, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
Much of the fun to be had in Team Fortress 2 comes from experimenting with the variety of available play styles.
For example, run and gun types will prefer the Soldier with his rocket launcher, the Heavy with his Gatling gun, or the Pyro with his powerful flame thrower. Defensive players can choose between the Medic, who is capable of healing team mates and granting temporary invulnerability, the Engineer, who can build turrets, supply stations, and teleporters, and the Spy, who can go invisible, disable turrets, and disguise himself as a member of enemy team. Rounding out the list is the Sniper, with his powerful ranged attacks, the Demoman, who is weak in close quarters, but capable of laying down tons of explosives at a moments notice, and the Scout, who is the speediest of the bunch, but has limited weapons. In a refreshing twist none of the classes save the Demoman have any grenades whatsoever, making all the classes play far more distinctly than other games of this sort.
The classes rely on one another to accomplish the team’s goals, so expect a lot more team play and communication that one gets from less cooperative shooters like Halo 3. There are six maps that are all cleverly constructed and offer a great deal of variety of play styles, but sadly only one of them, the excellent 2Fort, is capture the flag. The other five maps involve capturing, and in some instances holding, various control points. Team Fortress 2’s only real shortcoming is that there are too few maps, but given Valves track record, gamers can almost certainly look forward to downloadable content on a fairly regular basis.
In short, Team Fortress 2 is excellent, but there just isn’t that much of it or many ways to customize your experience. It doesn’t breaks new ground in the multiplayer front as far as game play is concerned, but everything it comes with is so well balanced and thought out that players will find themselves able to succeed no matter which class they choose. This quality over quantity approach is fine for some players, but many people will wish they didn’t have to play the same six maps ad infinitum, despite the remarkable amount of care that went into their creation.
The Orange Box is an unprecedented value for console gamers: Not only does it include five games for $60, each and every one of those games is a polished gem that will provide you with hours of high quality entertainment. Although technically Half Life 2 and its subsequent two follow up episodes could be viewed as one long game, together the entire Half Life package is 30 hours of superbly crafted game play that no self-respecting gamer should miss. Combine this massive dose of first-persony goodness with the short but outstanding puzzler Portal and the perfectly balanced online action in Team Fortress 2, and you’ve got an absolute must buy for every 360 owner. Really the only reason to pass on this excellent deal is to get the cheaper PC version which, depending on your hardware, has the potential to look a bit better. But either package is an incredible deal that will look great and is sure to please anyone who has the slightest interest in FPS games.