Half-Life 2: The Orange Box

October 23, 2007

The Orange Box is no ordinary game. Technically, it’s not a game at all but a collection of three games and two pieces of episodic content. But it’s still a great deal for $60, even if you’ve already played two of the five included titles. The Orange Box comes with Half-Life 2, Half-Life 2: Episode 1, Half-Life 2: Episode 2, Team Fortress 2, and Portal (what, no 2?). PC gamers have probably already experienced HL2 and Ep1, but those same PC gamers probably purchased the game through Steam anyhow. If the only way you’ve ever experienced Half-Life 2 was via the original Xbox port, you’re in for a treat. Valve has pulled out all the stops and really taken advantage of the Xbox 360 platform and its high-definition output.

Half-Life 2
HL2 is already a classic. It’s not often that a three year old game looks this beautiful and controls this well. If Valve is to be applauded for one thing in its port of HL2 from PC to 360 (don’t worry, there’s more) it’s control. Half-Life 2, Half-Life 2: Episode 1, and Half-Life 2: Episode 2 all control wonderfully, feature user-modifiable controls, and feel like they were designed with the Xbox 360 control pad in mind when the game was truly designed around the PC’s keyboard and mouse. The games’ only tell of their PC roots lies with the use of rumble. It’s a console standard that the controller vibrates when the player is injured. Players have come to expect this tactile response, and its absence in the Half-Life games is glaring.

Half-Life 2 definitely adheres to the old school. The game is very linear, and there is not only a best solution to each obstacle, but often times there is an only solution. Health is represented by numbers in the HUD, enemy AI feels basic, and why can’t I see my hands and arms when I’m driving a vehicle? Despite these small flaws, Half-Life 2 is fun to play, and it tells an engrossing story. It’s important to know the events of the original Half-Life (I’m still unsure why this wasn’t also included), but it’s easily available via Steam on PC and even easier to find a plot synopsis if you don’t want to play the excellent original. I won’t spoil the story for you, but by the end of HL2:Ep2 you’ll have a new-found respect for scientists and red crowbars. And Valve knows how to write an ending: as soon as the credits roll, you’ll be ready for Episode 3.

Team Fortress 2
Online team-based FPS gameplay is tricky to get right. More often than not you end up with one red team, one blue team, and everybody acting like they’re playing a free-for-all match. With only six maps it would be easy to write Team Fortress 2 off as just another bullet point on the back of The Orange Box‘s… um… box. Don’t do it. Long after you’ve escaped City 17, realized that all FPS escort missions should be based upon Half-Life 2‘s example, and conquered Portal you’ll still be booting up Orange Box and playing TF2. Six is a small number, but TF2 also features nine distinct classes, and they all play differently. On offense there is the soldier, the scout, and the pyro. On defense you have the heavy gunner, the engineer, and the demolitions men. And rounding out the support roles are the sniper, the medic, and the spy.

Halo 3‘s team slayer is to TF2 as addition is to calculus. The game’s matches will be won and lost via teamwork or the lack thereof. It doesn’t matter how badly you want to lie as a sniper; if your team already has two, your time would be better spent as a medic, and engineer, or other underrepresented class. It’s obvious that class balance was of paramount importance in TF2. The medic compliments the heavy gunner, for example. Apart, neither class is particularly useful, but as a team they are a force to be reckoned with. TF2 is meant to be played as a team, and a team full of snipers is going to lose every time to a team featuring one of each class. TF2 is a giant game of Rock-Paper-Scissors; each class has its place, and it’s important to know what class is good for each task.

Team Fortress 2 does have a downside, and it’s there because of the breadth of classes available to the player. It’s impossible to have fun playing a small game of TF2, and it’s difficult to learn the ropes in a large game of anything. 3-on-3 just doesn’t work when there are nine classes to choose from and the maps are designed to take advantage of all of them. As long as you can find a well-populated lobby to play in, TF2 may just be the most played game in The Orange Box. Just remember to shoot the doctor. It doesn’t matter how many times you shoot that heavy gunner if his medic has made him invincible.

TF2’s multiplayer is a completely different beast from what you’re used to. TF2 multiplayer is wildly different from, say, Halo 3’s. Here, teamwork is king. There is no free-for-all game type, and it’s better for it. You need to talk, you need to function as a team, and when you fail to do so the other team will absolutely annihilate you. Much like Halo 3, however, TF2 would benefit from a clan system. TF2 encourages you to form a team and work well together with them. Lack of clan support (which is in no way, shape, or form Valve’s fault) really stings.

Portal is short. That’s its only negative point. Everything else about the game is great. Puzzles are inventive, the technology is astonishing, and your host at the Aperture Science facility is hysterical. Portal starts off slowly, but it does so for a good reason. It isn’t normal to be able to jump into the floor and land across the room on a moving platform. It’s even less normal to jump into the floor, emerge from a wall, fall into the floor again, and be catapulted across the room by your own momentum. Portal is a physics nut’s dream come true (just forget about conservation of energy; that one was never any fun anyway).

This is what puzzle games are supposed to be: fresh, entertaining, and challenging without being frustrating. Every puzzle is solvable and adheres to the game’s internal logic. The story portion of Portal can be completed by most gamers in three to four hours, and you should all finish it: you’ll get the best ending credits I have ever seen. After the main game is completed there are six advanced maps to tackle that made the final rooms of the story look like child’s play. If you master those there are also time challenges, step challenges, and portal challenges. How low can you go, how few steps can you take, and how few portals can you use to complete a room? Like Halo 3‘s campaign metagame, the low-cost challenges turn Portal on its ear and change the focus from A

Score: 5/5

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