"PC Gaming is dying," the analysts tell us. "The Massive genre is the only viable business model left," websites report. That they're off the mark is obvious to anyone that's actually played a PC game in the last few years; games like Sam and Max , Battlefield 2 , or any of the numerous puzzle titles available online prove the flexibility and strength of the PC platform. Then, every once in a while, you get an offering like the Orange Box. A value-packed storm of content from Valve, this single sku offers five complete games at an amazing price. That would be great, even if the games weren't any good ... but they are. They're very, very, very good. Read on for my impressions of Half-Life 2: Episode 2, Team Fortress 2, and (the cake is a lie) Portal.
- Title: The Orange Box
- Developer/Publisher: Valve
- System: PC (360, PS3)
- Genre: Story Based Shooter/Team Multiplayer Shooter/Shooter Puzzler
- Score: 5/5 - These games are all classic titles. They transcend genre, and are worth playing by almost any gamer. Certain to be a part of many serious gamers' collections, definitely worth purchasing, and a great value for your dollar.
Half-Life 2, Valve now effectively sees these episodes combined as Half-Life 3. That new focus is evident in Episode Two, in terms of storytelling and pacing. It picks up just a few moments after Episode One left off, with Gordon and Alyx picking their way out the wreckage of a train in the forest outside of City 17. The story almost immediately kicks into gear, hooking you up with members of the resistance, pitting you against an antlion hive, and forcing you to drive through trackless wastes on the way to your ultimate destination. Though there is plenty of action, the storyline of the Half-Life tale is greatly advanced over the course of the game. There are a few answers handed out but, as with any middle child in a trilogy, there are many more maddening questions raised by the events of the game.
More than a year has passed since the release of Episode One, and as a result numerous promises about Episode Two's gameplay have been muddied as a result. Many of the most-discussed new gameplay elements (Strider-busters, open environments) only come into play at the game's climax. Primarily, you'll be following the same sort of well-crafted (but very much walled-in) path seen in previous entries in the series. For some, this may be a disappointment - a more open environment was a much-discussed element of this title during its development. Personally, I was pleased by the game's focus. A Valve hallmark has always been tightly crafted progress, measurable movement through the gamespace. That focus is sharpened to a knife's point in Episode Two, with the intermingling of action, story-based downtime, and quick puzzles being better than ever before. And that climax ... it's essentially a race against time, putting every skill you've learned over the course of three games to the test. It's fantastic.
From an audio/visual standpoint, Episode Two more than meets expectations set by the previous chapters in the series. The new Hunter designs are deadly works of art, and carry a sound design to match their menacing appearance. The imagery of the portal storm left in the wake of Episode One dominates the skyline for much of the game, providing not only a visual landmark but a very concrete reminder of what has come before. The voice acting, as always, hits a high water mark for emotional resonance; and there's quite a bit of emotion to convey in this title. Once again, you're left with a very high opinion of Alyx Vance and the other members of the resistance against the combine.
Team Fortress 2
Valve has chosen to apply the same kind of design directives to online combat that it applies to the single-player experience of games like Half-Life 2. Playing the game online (there is no single-player component) is like a moment-to-moment tutorial. Nuances of play become obvious as you progress through a match in your chosen class. The Medic profession is the best example of this philosophy. The character's healing gun links him to a particular character, creating a bond between two players who (in all probability) don't know each other. Learning to play the Medic is an interplay between your positioning vs. your partner, your positioning vs. opponents, and deciding when to use the 'invincibility charge' that slowly builds up as you apply healing. As a member of another class you learn the nuances of keeping your healer protected or (if you're on the opposing team) that shooting the medic first is often the best approach.
This 'tutorial-as-you-go' experience applies to every one of the nine classes. The complete team roster is a balanced array of strengths and weaknesses. Assuming that your team can agree to not all play the same class, they should allow either effective offense or defense as the scenario allows. The other Valve hallmark shows up in these classes: they're all fun. Each offers a substantially different play experience, but you can have an amazingly good time with each of them. Whether you're dropping turrets into play or wielding a fast-firing heavy machine gun, you'll have the opportunity to participate and make a dent. And if you're not having fun, it's a matter of a few moment to switch to a different class.
Words are ill-suited tools to describe the sheer amusement value of Portal. At about three hours long, it's one of the shortest games you'll play this year. You have absolutely no offensive weaponry, no special powers, and for most of the game your only real opponent is yourself. It's still, bar none, one of the best games I've ever played. You likely already know the basic premise of the game: you have a gun that makes holes in space. The Portals connect two points in reality and allow movement through them. You'll be using the device to solve puzzles, move through levels, and generally keep yourself alive in the face of the game's environment.
That said, more than just fun gameplay makes this title stand out. Aside from the Portal gun, you have but two companions on your journey. The voice from the ceiling, telling you what to do while lying out of one side of her face, is an artificial personality. The other companion is a lifeless cube. If that sounds sort of grimly funny, you're already getting the joke, and the point. Portal is hilarious in an Edward Gorey-meets-Douglas Adams sort of fashion, dark humor mixing with futurism for the sake of futurism.
Portal, then, is funny and intelligent in equal measure. It's wholly unlike anything else released this year, and on its own validates the entry price for Orange Box purchasers. It is, in point of fact, well worth buying all on its lonesome if you are interested by the rest of the offerings Valve has here. It also has the benefit of having the one of the best game songs ever made as its finale track.
Valve's Orange Box is easily one of the best offerings available for any platform this year. It's an amazing value and variety, offering story, online play, and intellectual challenge in equal measure. Every component of the piece is so strong that it could stand on its own - together it's an unstoppable force of gaming goodness. It's worth noting that reality intrudes on every element of perfection - lag has been a problem for Xbox 360 Team Fortress 2 players, but a patch is on the way. Otherwise ... there's really very little to complain about here. It's boring and unfunny to say "the whole thing is terrific" and leave it at that.
gnome-style, and I fully expect Portal to be supported by fan-created rooms for a long, long time. It's well worth buying for anyone that enjoys the first-person perspective on gaming, regardless of what kind of gamer you are. Now if I could only get that song out of my head ...