Anyone out there claiming that gaming has become stagnate over the years is blind. There I said it, if I have to hear one more self-proclaimed hardcore tell me that gaming was so much better back in the “good old days” I am going to lose my sanity. After two outstanding releases in the past month with Halo 3 and BioShock the Xbox 360 is slowly garnering a collection of must-own titles and thanks to Valve they just acquired one more in the form of the Orange Box; which some might argue is the greatest bargain for your gaming dollar this holiday season.
This massive compilation includes five titles all of which could easily stand on their own two feet, well maybe not full-priced two feet, but I digress. Of course you get the staple center piece with the original Half-Life 2, which until now had only been available in console form on the original Xbox. In addition to that you get both of its pseudo sequel expansion packs Episode One and Two. Then there is the quirky puzzle game Portal and of course the quintessential multi-player offering Team Fortress 2. It will be much easier to break these down one by one so let’s begin at-well the beginning.
There is no doubt in my mind that most gamers have at least heard of Half-Life 2. It did happen to win multiple game of the year awards, and is heralded by some as the greatest FPS game ever created. However, up until now console gamers without an original Xbox have yet to experience this masterpiece. The Orange Box version is still the same game it was three years ago and surprisingly enough is still just as damn good as it was when it first came out. Valve’s award-winning game is still incredibly fun to play on top of being extremely well paced and visually competent. There haven’t been many upgrades worth noting so if you have been through City 17 more than once this outing will do little more than garner you a few Achievement points, but just having the ability to experience all three games in succession is worth having this one on the disk.
The rest of this citrusy-filled box is new to console gamers starting off with Half-Life 2: Episode One. Instead of making a full-fledged sequel to their coveted FPS Valve decided to release episodic content for the game to progress the story. These short, bite-sized games are what would essentially be Half-Life 3, but releasing them in small doses shortens development time and gives gamers content more frequently. Episode One is easily the weakest portion of the Orange Box in both length and pacing. Visually you will definitely notice a difference between HL2 and Ep. One, especially in the facial animations.
The storyline follows Freeman and Alyx immediately following the events of HL2 as they attempt to escape from City 17. Unlike the other parts of this amazing tale Ep. One gives players a lot more breathing room between the action and focuses more on the story. While not necessarily a bad thing it does leave the giant wow moments out of the picture and more or less serves as a catalyst between HL2 and Ep. Two. Episode One is far from a travesty, but when coupled with the rest of this amazing package it stands out as the most disappointing addition.
The final piece in this trilogy of greatness comes in the form of Episode Two. With this second chunk of episodic content Valve seems to have found the sweet spot between the epic battles found in Half-Life 2, the claustrophobic combat, and the intense story progressions from Episode One. The events pick up right where Ep. One leaves off and all of the environments are outdoors and really show off what the Source engine is capable of. Much like Ep. One you will be accompanied by Alyx, but you will also find yourself mowing down antlions solo as well as the game splits you up much more than the previous outing.
It is also worth noting that Episode Two is by far the best looking of the three chapters and really makes you appreciate the subtleties of facial animation when characters convey emotion. There are also quite a few vehicle segments much like HL2 and even a brand new enemy known as Hunters. Hunters are basically smaller versions of the enormous Striders sent in to clean up what their big brothers missed. Their AI is outstanding and their tactics brutal and you will encounter them frequently throughout Episode Two. While it only clocks in at 5-6 hours Episode Two is easily the most enjoyable of the three titles and definitely worth the price of admission.
Granted the aforementioned titles would be more than enough to satisfy you’re gaming needs, not to mention being one hell of a bargain, the action doesn’t stop there. Also contained within this brightly lit box is a clever puzzle game built around the Half-Life universe called Portal. We won’t spoil anything outright, but this game does tie into the main story and it involves a lab rat (this would be you) as they attempt to complete a series of tests using a brand new weapon known as the Aperture Science Handheld Portable Device.
Think of Portal as the next evolution of Tetris as it is the first game that I have played that has me constantly thinking and trying to solve these exigent obstacles. Your portal gun can create different holes on various surfaces that allow you to travel from one side of the room to the other, or even the ceiling and floors. Think of them as ACME portable holes from the classic cartoons and you get the idea. It is literally possible to create a never ending tunnel that has you slowly gaining momentum as you fall forever. You can then use this momentum to accomplish long jumps which is really what sets Portal apart from other games like it.
On its own Portal could easily go from being highly inventive to boring fairly quickly if it not for the AI voice directing you through each level. The writing is genuinely funny, a tough accomplishment in gaming today, and the small nuances and references to past test takers is absolutely classic. While it is a short romp, the entire experience can be solved within one sitting, the journey is an absolute must. There is so much innovation and possibility in this game it only makes me dream about the possibilities with this engine. Oh and did I mention best end credits song ever!
The final stop on this gaming tour de force is the follow-up to one of the best team-based multi-player games ever created: Team Fortress 2. Now we all know that FPS games on Xbox 360 usually come with a multi-player component, in fact without them gamers usually cry foul at the developers for being lazy. The difference here is that Team Fortress 2 really has no relevance to the Half-Life universe outside of the engine it is built upon. TF2 is easily the most stylish online game to grace the system to date featuring unique character designs, nine different classes to choose, and some immaculately crafted maps.
There is no standard deathmatch in TF2, which will likely turn off some players, and each of its six maps is tied directly to a game type, but if you can accept that and learn to work as a team (which is nigh impossible on Xbox Live) you will discover a truly engaging experience unlike any other on the system. While there is plenty of fun to be had on any of the maps and game types you have to wonder how long the appeal will last. The best part about Halo 3’s multi-player was its seemingly infinite customization options. Team Fortress 2 is a solid, if not limited addition to this already incredible package. The light at the end of the tunnel is of course that Valve has promised free DLC in the Orange Box’s future, question is by that time will gamers still care?
Valve’s Orange Box is unlike anything we have ever seen on a console, and while Half-Life 2 is a three year old game, it is much better than a lot of the mess found on the console. With five stellar chapters to dive into there is a little something for everyone to enjoy, not to mention being able to finally play the Half-Life 2 saga in succession on one disk truly is worth the price of admission. You will be hard pressed to find a better deal this holiday season and to those who think gaming was better back in the glory days, enjoy your 8-bit sprites while I continue to indulge life as a Freeman!