Version tested: PC
10th October finally saw the release of The Orange Box on Steam. What follows is a review of the product as a whole. For individual reviews of the component games, click on the following links.
- Half-Life 2: Episode Two review (PC, Xbox 360)
- Portal review (PC, Xbox 360)
- Team Fortress 2 review (PC)
Retail versions of The Orange Box are expected on 19th October for PC and Xbox 360. The PlayStation 3 version is currently undated, but expected soon. Anyway, read on!
Oh Valve, you're spoiling us. There are only two reasons why anyone with the kit or the means to pay for it would think of not buying The Orange Box. Number 1) You have some pathological aversion to first-person shooters, or, Number 2) You're a bit loopy in the head and like denying yourself the chance to play five of the best games ever released. Gaming masochism if you like. Go and play this if you want to know what real pain means.
Including the three constituent parts of Half-Life 2 in one box, then throwing in the incredible Portal and possibly the best team-based online FPS ever made in Team Fortress 2...it's easily the best value release anyone has ever come up with, and one so rammed with quality it's hard to comprehend. Even if you're one of the many people who have already played HL2 or Episode One, it represents such astonishing value that it ought to shock competing releases into shame.
If you're a 360 or PS3 owner who missed out on the delights of the 2004 original, then The Orange Box represents an amazing opportunity to get right up to date with one of the most beloved gaming series ever made. Three years might sound like a long time for us to still be raving about an old PC game, but Half-Life 2 wasn't any old PC game. Arguably one of the very first truly next generation titles, it still looks wonderful today, and, more importantly is a joy to go back to - even if you've played through it once or twice before.
True, not every chapter in Half-Life 2 is undiluted genius. Some sections feel over-long, others just a lonely set of corridors. But such moments in the context of a large game are pretty rare, and you'll come away with nothing but love for a game with so much variety and changes of pace that you won't mind letting Valve indulge in the gaming equivalent of the ten minute drum solo now and then.
With the arrival of each new enemy, and each new weapon, the flow of the combat totally changes the gameplay dynamic to the point that it almost feels like six different games, stitched together by an engrossing narrative which drives you on. Just as crucial to keeping the player wide-eyed and engaged is the way Valve throws beautifully contrasting environments at you. As gaming tourism goes, this is a one-way trip every self-respecting - or self-harming, we don't mind - gamer should play at some point.
It also makes perfect sense for Valve to throw Episode One into The Orange Box. Not only because it'd be a glaring omission not to include it, but because it's simply too short to release as a standalone episode on consoles. Clocking in at around four to five hours, its tightly constrained levels were a fantastic showcase for Valve's new co-op AI tricks, but it feels a tad claustrophobic after the wide, open spaces that characterised several sections of its forebear. Revisionist criticism aside, it's still excellent while it lasts, and packs in a succession of memorable set-pieces that are well worth a second run-through over an evening. Episode One also provides a more satisfying conclusion to "The City 17 adventures" than the cliffhanger ending of HL2.ever did. Admittedly the weakest part of The Orange Box, playing the 30-hour Half-Life 2 story chronologically is an enormously satisfying experience - if rather demanding back-to-back.
Death by Half-Life
But even if you've played through Half-Life 2 and Episode One to death, Valve's new Achievement system across all formats (but, realistically, most useful on the unified Gamerscore system employed by the 360) presents a surprising incentive to go back and play even the old stuff over again - but in a different way. For example, finding all 45 Lambda symbols in Half-Life 2 becomes a curiously important part of your quest, although with all five parts of The Orange Box sharing the 1000 gamerpoints, this isn't a game with which you can easily boost your total.
Free from the shackles of City 17 in Episode Two, it feels like a relief to be able to get back to nature - of sorts. More expansive than Episode One, and more tightly choreographed than Half-Life 2, it's the best of both worlds. Admittedly, the sense of familiarity can dull the game's appeal to a small extent, new enemies like the Acid Lions and the Hunters provide that all-important novelty factor. And as for the final, frantic chapter - well, it's worth the price of admission on its own.
On a personal level, probably my favourite part of the entire package is Portal. Building on the promise and startling originality of Narbacular Drop, it fleshes out the concept into something very special indeed. Rich with a surprising degree of warm humour, the way the game progresses from being a simple set of perfunctory tasks to a full-on part of the Half-Life story is absolute genius. Far from being the well-designed experiment that it initially appears to be, this is among the best games I've had the pleasure of playing this year.
You could reasonably argue that it's too short, but I'd argue that in the context of The Orange Box, this is spot-on for what amounts to a freebie. Tom 'ninja' Bramwell claims the 19 test chambers will only take three hours on first run-through, but I'd suggest more that it's closer to four hours if you struggle through the last few like I did. The addition of 'expert' versions ought to keep completists happy, and some of the Achievements add a superb challenge element to what is the most compelling 3D puzzle game I've ever come across.
And if all that's not enough then the inclusion of Team Fortress 2 should pretty much blow any residual cynicism away. If you're bored with the online shooter scene, then Valve's wonderful efforts should go a long way to restoring your faith. The best part of a decade in the making, it single-handedly addresses many of the issues that so many of us have had with games of this nature over the past few years. Chief of these is the way Valve's exaggerated cartoon stylings not only give the game a feel-good factor missing from so many of its super-serious (but drearily generic-looking) competitors, but, crucially, make it easy to see what the character class is even from a distance. With so much of your decision-making hinging on who you're facing and who you can team up with, it totally removes that sense of exasperation you might have had when playing other team-based offerings.
Another crucial part of Team Fortress 2's appeal is how much fun it is to play - no matter which character class you decide to plump for. There's no sense of everyone choosing the same set of characters, as every single one seems to boast an exceptionally cool ability that people will inevitably want to experiment with. On top of that, once you start improving and sussing out each of the six maps, real team-work comes into play once the penny drops that certain characters (like the heavy weapons guy and the medic) work exceptionally well together. As deceptively simple as Team Fortress 2 appears to be on the surface, the formula has been honed and refined to perfection. The maps, in particular, warrant a special mention for being easy to memorise, but brilliantly balanced - but after nine year's, you'd damn well hope so...
One thing we haven't discussed so far is how the games fare on their transition to 360 and PS3. The latter we still cannot comment on (Valve couldn't even show it to us when we travelled to its office), but if the former is anything to go by then the answer is this: perfect. In terms of visuals, Valve has managed to get all elements of the package running in full 1080p, with full detail, and no hint of frame-rate loss.
Running on a big HD screen, the game has never looked better or felt more immersive - even more so if you're blessed with a decent 5.1 audio set-up. Load times (or reload times) are minimal, spooling data off the disk for ten seconds every five minutes or so, and reloading the game roughly as quickly after a death. Better still, the game has an excellent autosave system (which even remembers to retain the previous autosave, should the game accidentally autosave itself, say, just as one of you is about to die - as happened once) and there are none of the stutters or hitches that once were the bane of PC owners a few years back.
Pad of joy
The only area some of you might get a bit sniffy about is how the game feels on a joypad. As someone who was forced to adapt to FPS control on a joypad after years of preferring mouse control, I can assure you that Valve has done a fantastic job. Not once does the game cop out by giving you auto-aim, but manages to make every game feel every bit as slick and smooth as it ever did on the PC.
Take Portal, for example. Later in the game when you're rotating in mid-air, diving headlong into the ground and shooting portals from up high, you desperately need a degree of instant precision that joypads don't offer - yet the game felt every bit as playable despite this. It's a case of what you're used to - and fortunately the arrival of the game on three formats caters for everyone's preferences in style, and for a price you can't complain about. A quick search prior to this review revealed that the PC boxed version is available for under GBP 25, and the 360 or PS3 version roughly GBP 10 more. PC owners should also be aware that they can give their CD-keys to friends if they already own Half-Life 2 or Half-Life 2: Episode One, too.
The Orange Box offers everything any fan of first-person shooters could possibly want: some of the best single-player gaming ever in the shape of Half-Life 2 and Episodes One and Two; wonderful innovation from Portal, and the most refined, downright fun team-based online FPS currently available in Team Fortress 2. If that doesn't warrant a 10 out of 10, nothing does. Buy it and enjoy one of the must-have releases of this - or any other - year.
10 / 10