The original Half-Life, released in 1998, started a revolution for the FPS genre, and brought with it a new look at how first person games operated. It became one of the most popular and memorable games of all time, and in 2004, Valve repeated this success with the release of the sequel, Half-Life 2. With its ultra realistic character models, environments and the revolutionary physics based gameplay, the series yet again redefined the genre, creating arguably the best story driven first person game to date. Now a few years later, Valve are at it again with the release of the value-packed Orange Box. This box contains the ground breaking Half-Life 2 as well as two new single player expansions, Episode One and Two never seen before on consoles. On top of that, you also get Team Fortress 2, an over the top multiplayer frag-fest as well as the all new mind-bending title, Portals. It sounds almost too good to be true, and with all of this for the price of one game, you might be thinking “did the truck even stop?” And can the three year-old Source engine still cut it against next-gen juggernauts? Well, let’s find out…
There are essentially three main games that make up The Orange Box. Half-Life 2 and its episodes, Team Fortress 2 and Portal, but I’ll start with the game that they’re all built upon, Half-Life 2.
You play as a silent, gun-toting theoretical physicist named Gordon Freeman. In the first game, he makes a slight screw-up in the test chamber at a mysterious scientific research center called Black Mesa, and accidentally opens up a portal to another dimension. Out of it comes all sorts of strange and exiting creatures, hell-bent on tearing you limb from limb, but that all occurred in the first game. Half-Life 2 begins with Gordon stepping out of a train at City 17, after a chat with the mysterious G-man. It is revealed that earths citizens have been violently oppressed by a separate alien race called the Combine. This, as well as the aliens you unleashed in the first game, goes hand in hand to create the story of Half-Life 2. The story isn’t told through the regular cut-scenes most games offer, that take you out of the action for a few minutes and talk at you as you sit there waiting to start shooting again. Half-Life 2, takes a different approach. You view all of the dialogue and story in game, from the first person perspective. It’s an extremely immersive feeling, as the gameplay doesn’t ever really end or get interrupted.
The action is largely standard for an FPS, and this is no different for the two episodes, but the game is unique as it breaks up this action with superb vehicle sequences and physics-based gameplay. The “standard shooter” part of the gameplay is flawless. With a brilliant, varied array of weapons, intelligent AI and creative environments, Half-Life 2 does not disappoint even the most hardcore of FPS gamers. Weapons include light and heavy machine guns, the shotgun, two different pistols, a crossbow, a laser-guided rocket launcher as well as Gordon Freeman’s iconic crowbar, which was salvaged by his friend Bernie. All of the weapons have their own unique kickback and feel, while not completely realistic they’re certainly a lot of fun. Also, every weapon has a secondary function. For example the grenade launcher on the sub-machinegun and the double-barrel firing mode on the shotgun. The AI is still some of the best in the business, despite it using an ageing engine. The combine soldiers are not pushovers. They’ll find cover, use grenades, melee and take advantage of all the secondary fire options that you have available to you. They’ll also take advantage of the cleverly designed environments, using things such as explosive barrels (the old-school FPS favorite) against you, while also having the ability to execute squad maneuvers and abseil down buildings to get to your position. The environments vary from decayed urban warzones, to cramped sewer type areas to the wide open spaces of coastline highways and forests (which are especially taken advantage of in Episode Two).
As a break from all the shooting, Half-Life 2 also offers some of the best vehicle action available in a first person adventure. For large sections of the game, you use the vehicle to get from one point to the next, stopping, clearing out buildings, collecting loot and moving on to the next point. This sort of gameplay is apparent throughout Episode Two, but disappointingly, vehicles are absent from Episode One. At its most basic level, Half-Life 2 and its two episodes are pretty good games. But what distinguishes them from all the other “pretty good games”, is the physics-based gameplay, which adds a whole layer of possibilities and gameplay options to the “basic” FPS gameplay that Half-Life 2 does so well. With the introduction of the Gravity Gun, Gordon’s other iconic instrument, a whole new form of gameplay is unlocked. Every object that’s not nailed down can be used as a weapon, whether you’re hurling an explosive barrel as a makeshift grenade, or pushing an old shell of a car onto an enemy to crush him into the pavement, the violence it unleashes never gets boring. After a while of hurling random objects at enemies, other uses of the gravity gun are revealed. For example, you could play hot-potato with a combine’s hand grenade, quickly grabbing it with the Grav-Gun and sending it flying back in his direction before it explodes in your face. Another example would be the energy orbs that become available at the end of Half-Life 2 and throughout Episode One, the Grav-Gun makes it possible to snatch them and send them bouncing off the walls and ceiling, allowing you to take out more than one enemy at a time. The Gravity Gun also has a lot of practical uses, when you’re not dismembering combine soldiers, you can use the gun to stack crates to get up to a window or platform that otherwise would have been inaccessible, or use is to retrieve valuable items such as ammo or health from a distance. And it’s loads of fun, no matter what you use it for.
Team Fortress 2 is the multiplayer component of The Orange Box. It’s not a particularly ground breaking game, but it doesn’t try to be. Like the Halo series, it’s based on the principle of reusing and perfecting basic FPS gameplay, rather than jamming in a bunch of gimmicks. It’s this refined gameplay that gives it its incredible depth. It’s based around team objectives such as capture the flag and control point, and it’s always very well balanced. There are six maps in total, it’s not a huge amount, but there is certainly a lot to master. You also have the choice of nine distinctive character types; scouts, soldiers, pyro, demoman, heavy, engineer, medic, sniper and spy. They all have specific equipment and abilities, which are perfectly balanced and made to suit the gametypes, maps and your personal play style. It has a few setbacks. As well as the small number of maps, the gametypes are specific to each map, and there’s no Quake/Unreal style fast paced deathmatch. It does however, set the bar for objective based multiplayer gameplay.
Portals, is, however, another of those ground breaking games. Like Half-Life, it’s put a spin on FPS gaming that’s yet to be fully imagined. The other game I have in mind when I say that it hasn’t been fully imagined is Prey. As you might have gathered from the name, this game is about portals. You’re put in the role of a reluctant female test subject. Like a lab rat in a maze, you have to use your environment and tools to find the way to the cheese. I mean the cake… I mean freedom! Anyway, the game is based around some pretty impressive technology. You have a gun which can cast two portals; you walk through one portal and come out the other, and vice-versa, to solve all of the various puzzles put in your way. The puzzles themselves are incredibly well thought out and clever. Some of them take so much thought to complete, yet after you complete them, seem so simple that it’ll be like a slap in the face when you realize the answer was right there under your nose the whole time.
Others aren’t so un-obviously obvious, and you’ll end up feeling like Einstein after you complete them. I don’t want to go into detail about these puzzles, as figuring them out for yourself is what’s so fun about this game, but I will say that it all escalates to one of the most funny, intelligent and satisfying endings in videogame history. A lot of the fun you get from Portals doesn’t come from solving the puzzles, but by just plain old fashioned screwing around. For example, creating a portal right above you, then one directly below, gets you caught in an unlimited fall between ceiling and floor. Another cool trick to try is turning yourself into a human cannonball, setting up the portals in a way which sends you flying 50 meters or more. Fall damage isn’t an issue thanks to the convenient spring like devices attached to your legs. Figuring out all of the cool little things you can do is almost a game in itself.
The levels are tied together with a very humorous plot. Some of Portals dialogue is laugh out loud funny, and often makes reference to internet related humor, stuff that would go right over the heads of most people, but makes so much sense to us fellow geeks… the humor is funny just because it’s so familiar.
You might have noticed I mentioned Prey a little earlier. Like Portals, it uses the same tech, but it was slightly neutered buy the fact that you can’t put a Portal wherever you want. It does have one thing that Portals is lacking, and that’s complexity in its levels. Portals has very box like levels with no real emphasis on detail, where Prey had some very complex and beautiful areas to explore. There’s a tradeoff between complex environments and the freedom to put portals wherever you want. But that’s also where this game is more impressive than everything I’ve mentioned here, as, once technology gets better, we’ll no doubt be offered the best of both worlds, which is as exciting as it is scary. Either way, Portals and the technology it uses has a very bright future, with no doubt, lots of cake.
The Source engine the engine that powers The Orange Box, is reasonably old as far as gaming technology goes. This is in no way a setback for its incredible gameplay, but it doesn’t have the grunt to stand up against the likes of the Unreal 3 engine, as it was technically designed for last generation technology. The transition has had a few upgrades; a very nice touch is the inclusion of high dynamic range lighting effects which is present throughout the games, as well as an impressive cinematic motion-blur and depth of field. There is a difference between the games, some do look better than others. For example, the newer games, Episode two and Team Fortress look better than the older ones, and while Portals is one of the newer ones, its simplistic environments leave quite a bit to be desired.
Character models and animations are, however a lot better. Characters faces show subtle emotions, feelings and thoughts beautifully, and this adds an unprecedented level or realism as all of the characters have their own unique disposition, humor and personality, and display this through their body language and facial expressions. On a whole, the Orange box may even be a bit of a disappointment for the graphics-whores out there. You know who you are. But truly when you’re playing, like all games, the graphical quality becomes the last thing on your mind, especially when the impressive physics are at work.
The sound effects, voice-acting and music have always been a strong point of Valve’s games, and as always, this level of quality has not been forgotten with Half-Life 2 and the rest of The Orange box. The sound effects are an extremely loud experience, depending on your speaker setup. If you have the volume up a reasonable amount, gunshots are ground-shakingly real. Have it up too loud for too long, and your head will begin to rattle as the floor seems to move beneath you, even after you’ve turned it off. The sound of gunshots goes above everything else, as it should, unlike the disappointingly weedy sounding guns of Halo 3. There are also a lot of very unique noises, such as the health and armor recharge stations, which are recognizable anywhere, and are almost as iconic as Freeman’s trusty crowbar.
Voice acting is an area where this game shines once more, this game is easily up to the standard of Hollywood Blockbusters, and in a lot of ways goes above and beyond through some perfectly executed lip-syncing and facial expressions. Music is a big factor of the game as well, it doesn’t consist of the “epic movie” orchestral scores from a lot of other games, but relies on some very sleek sounding electronic/techno/industrial type music. This gives the game a very adrenaline-fueled, futuristic sound experience, which regular stereo speakers can do absolutely no justice to.
This section speaks for itself. Five amazing games for the price of one, as well as achievements, and a single player experience that will drag you back for years to come, especially if you’re one of the few who hasn’t experienced this game before.
The Orange Box is without doubt the best value for money you’ll see on this generation of consoles. I’d give it eleven out of ten for value if I could. Portals on its own is quite a short experience if you play through it once, but the challenge modes, developer commentaries and like I mentioned earlier, the time-consuming distraction the game provides, makes up for it ten times over. I really can’t speak highly enough of how good value this game is, Valve must have been feeling very generous, and you’d be stupid to pass it up for any other game if you’re a fan of FPS.
The Orange Box is absolutely a once in a blue moon experience. Very rarely does a game offer such an extensive, deep and consistently high-quality experience. Half-Life 2 and its two expansions are an absolute rollercoaster which shouldn’t be missed no matter what your disposition towards the first person genre.
Team fortress, while not completely original, is an amazingly complex and well rounded online game with the emphasis on ‘less is more’. And Portals is really what would make or break The Orange Box, and rest assured, it makes it in more ways than one. Despite some truly incredible gameplay experiences, the engine is dated, but does have some nice new post-processing effects, never seen before in previous versions, and it’s all made up for with the animations and physics. This is once again complimented by the sound effects, music and voice acting, which goes above and beyond your standard shooter.
It falls into place almost too perfectly, offering the best value for money and an incredibly deep experience, with an astonishing amount of replay value. The Orange Box will have you making cake jokes for years to come.