- Reviewed on: Xbox 360 (viewed in 720p mode on a 42-inch plasma television) and Windows PC (Running on a Windows Vista box with a 3.0 GHz Intel Dual Core processor, 2GB of RAM, and a 512MB ATI Radeon X1900 XT graphics card; displayed at 1920x1200 on a Dell 2407FPW 24-inch LCD)
- Also available for: PlayStation3 (to be released December 11th)
- The Good: Comprised of three Half-Life 2 titles, a fun and fast-paced online game, and one of the most innovative first-person puzzlers ever made, it's an unbeatable value
- The Bad: Not much, save the fact that many of us have already played Half-Life 2 and its first mini-sequel, Episode One
- The Verdict: You'll come for the Half-Life, but stay for the brain breaking puzzles of Portal and manic multiplayer fun of Team Fortress 2
Most people are likely going to pick up The Orange Box, Valve Software's enigmatically titled value pack consisting of five separate games, to play Half-Life 2 and its mini-sequels, Episode One and Episode Two.
And, to be sure, these are three fantastic first-person shooter games. The story of Gordon Freeman, a scientist turned freedom fighter who is seemingly destined to save the Earth from malignant alien forces, is a compelling and enduring video game drama. Half-Life 2 and Episode One have been around for a while, but it's the first time either game has appeared on the Xbox 360 or PlayStation3. And Episode Two, an adventure packed with plot twists that picks up right after the train wreck ending of Episode One, is making its debut in The Orange Box. These three games alone give this multi-title bundle, which sells for $59.99 - the price of a single game - tremendous value.
I suspect, though, that many players are going to spend even more time with The Orange Box's two lesser known games: Team Fortress 2 and Portal. The former is a terrific update of Valve's classic class-based multiplayer fragfest, while the latter stands out as the most memorable experience in The Orange Box - indeed, as one of the most memorable games of the year.
Portal's puzzles perplex
It's been a long time since I've used much body English while playing a PC game, but I'll be damned if Portal, a first-person puzzler, didn't have me twisting my torso and tilting my head as I attempted to navigate through its devilishly clever, physics-bending mazes.
Set in the Half-Life universe, the game places players in the skin of a captive test subject wandering through a labyrinthine complex. The atmosphere is vaguely reminiscent of that old British television show The Prisoner or perhaps the Canadian cult film The Cube, though infinitely more funny than either thanks to the nearly non-stop teasing of a Stephen Hawking-like computer voice that guides (and misguides) you through each experiment.
We're provided a gun that can create portals from one place to another. Just shoot it at the wall, floor, or ceiling and a doorway will open to someplace else. The gun can create two portals at a time, allowing you to control entry and exit points.
This seemingly simple mechanic is basically all there is to navigating through the laboratory's many experiments, but the concept has been brilliantly executed, often leading to brain-breaking results.
For example, if you place an entry portal on the floor of a platform several metres below you and then jump into it, your momentum will be carried forward as you pass through. That means that, if, say, you've strategically placed the exit portal on a wall facing a wide gap, you might find that the breakneck momentum from your fall is enough to carry you horizontally over the gap. It's bizarre and disconcerting but, in a world in which portals are possible, the physics seem sound.
At one point in the game I experimented by placing two portals on the floor beside each other. I jumped down through one and popped up through the other. That in itself is an odd experience, but weirder still was watching my avatar's feet, legs, and body coming through the other end before my head passed through and my view changed to a strange new (that is, upside down) vantage.
Experiencing such unconventional shifts in gravity and perspective really screwed me up-hence the body English mentioned above. But it was incredibly engaging. I couldn't stop playing. I was glued to my seat for four hours, unwilling to do anything but find the next portal puzzle and figure it out.
The lighter side of war
If you've grown tired of hyper-realistic combat titles and are looking for something that strives simply to be a fun multiplayer game, Team Fortress 2 fits the bill.
With its playful cartoon soldiers, the visuals in this sequel to the decade-old PC favourite help foster a light-hearted atmosphere that allows players to take things a little less seriously than they're apt to while playing shooters of the hardcore variety.
And it's easy to get into. I was instantly at home with both the Xbox 360 and PC versions. First-person shooter controls standard for both platforms let me jump into the action right away, and the recognizable game modes, which involve simple capture-the-flag or hold-the-control-point objectives, are a piece of cake to figure out.
But there's depth here, too. Players choose one of nine different classes of soldiers each time they re-spawn, and each class has distinct strengths and weaknesses: Engineers can build turrets and teleportation points but aren't great fighters, and spies can blend in with enemy armies and sabotage enemy structures but are easily killed.
Over time I learned to choose my character based on the stronger players on my team. For example, if we had a skilled Heavy-a big guy with an even bigger gun-I'd choose to be a medic and simply spend my time healing him so he could cause as much mayhem as possible.
And then there are the touches of recognizable Valve humour. Once, after being blown to pieces - one of which was pointed out by an arrow and a bit of text that read "Your hand!"- I was given a little consolatory message that went something like this: "But on the bright side, you healed more team-mates than you ever have before." It's nice to be appreciated.
Game bundles = good business
So while most gamers will be drawn to The Orange Box out of an urge to play a little Half-Life 2 , they'll probably find themselves getting just as much or more fun out of Portal and Team Fortress 2.
And it seems as though this might slowly be turning into Valve's modus operandi. Last year saw the release of Episode One, which, while fun, lasted only a few short hours. Players ended up spending most of their time with the two death match games that came bundled with it.
The business model is idiosyncratic, to be sure, but it seems to be working. Valve has sold more than 20 million games across the globe, and it seems likely that The Orange Box will be one of the developer's greatest successes to date. The rock-solid quality of all five games will appease long-time fans of the studio's work while their delicious diversity will help attract new players to Valve's fold.