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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Game Review:The Orange Box

5 great ingredients for an outstanding dish.

You know you are having a good deal when you are paying for 5 games with the price of 1. No, it isn’t some dream you’re having because such a brilliant package does indeed exist. For your money’s worth (and mine), The Orange Box packs in the original Half-Life 2 that was released 3 years ago on PC and 2 years ago on Xbox, its 2 expansions – Episode One and Episode Two, first-person puzzle game Portal, with multiplayer game Team Fortress 2 wrapping up the package. A haphazardly-planned package this isn’t for it contains 5 outstanding games, including Half-Life 2, which is the BEST game I have played to date.

The Orange Box impresses on first sight. Before you even decide on what to start playing with (yes, there is no order as to which game you must play first), you will be facing the slickest menu interface yet ever since Colin Mcrae DiRT, providing easy access to any of the 5 components. At any time during a game, The Orange Box will also allow you to bring up Valve’s self-developed achievement list, which shows you more details about the achievements available, say the number of achievements already unlocked or the progression of a particular achievement. Let’s say a certain achievement requires you to kill a number of a specific kind of enemy, and if you have already reached a third of the given quota, the game will notify you of your progression or you can simply bring up the achievement list to check for yourself how many more enemies you have to kill before you are able to unlock the achievement. For sure, that’s a nice touch, and all the more pleasing to achievement addicts.


Let’s get started with the first game in the package, shall we? Half-Life 2 is the direct follow-up to 1998’s hit game Half-Life, where a scientist by the name of Gordon Freeman accidentally opened up a portal between an alien world called Xen and the Earth at Black Mesa, a research faculty, while at work. In Half-Life 2, you are again being put into the shoes of Gordon and sent to City 17, where it became known that the world has been overtaken by an extradimesional military force simply acknowledged by the name of the Combine. Don’t fret if you can’t see the connection there between the premises because despite having played all Half-Life games before, I can’t see that too. But some of the aliens from Xen are in City 17 as well, so you can be sure that in some way or other, the plots in both games are inter-connected.

Like the original Half-Life, Half-Life 2 fuses lots of element seamlessly into each other. There also seems to be a fathomless charm to keep you feeling compelled to continue playing the game. Throughout the epic adventure that will probably last you 18 hours or so, fatigue is nowhere to be felt. That’s not surprising, really, because the fact stands that Half-Life 2 offers an incredible amount of diversity in its missions. You will be challenged to evade the antlions in a mission that is essentially a self-contained puzzle. You will be fighting in a zombie-infested mine. You will enter an eerie town where the game suddenly resembles a survival horror game in the shoes of Resident Evil. You will have massive vehicular sections where both your driving and survival skills will be subjected to the acid test. In fact, the list just goes on and on - you will be hard-pressed to ever find a chapter that you won’t like. Each mission has been designed excellently with the intent to provide thought-provoking puzzles, intense action and moments of contemplation, and that’s discounting exploration.

Perhaps one of the more impressive aspects of Half-Life 2 is its physics-based gameplay, made possible by the Gravity Gun, on which the entire world of the game has been built around. It is innovative, to say the least. You will never see grenades the same way again after playing the game. With the Gravity Gun, you can snatch grenades out of the air and hurl them back at your enemies who threw them at you first. With it, there is a better way to save ammo by pounding a zombie with a wooden bed repeatedly. With it, you can hold a barrel in front of you to protect yourself from auto-turret fire. The possibilities are truly endless and it is this physics-based gameplay which has totally reinvented the world of Half-Life. And if for whatever reason the Gravity Gun isn’t your thing, there are a handful of other brilliant weapons at your disposal.

Half-Life 2 is a tour de force, and rightfully so. It is one game that cannot be simply expressed in words – it is one game that you MUST experience for yourself. And yes, if I must mention it again, Half-Life 2 is BEST game I have played to date.

The second game that you will come across in The Orange Box is Half-Life 2: Episode One. The game was released on PC in 2006, but if you are purely a Xbox 360 or Xbox gamer, this would be a fresh experience for you. Episode One tells a contiguous story to that of Half-Life 2’s (which you would tell by now, ended on a cliffhanger), but for the most part, Episode One is considerably different from its predecessor in many ways. For one, you now fight alongside a partner, Alyx Vance, who often made cameo appearances in Half-Life 2.

The pace of the game is also much slower (and boring) as compared to Half-Life 2 and that’s partly due to the fact that for exactly half of the entire game, which is very short at about 4 hours, you will be wielding the Gravity Gun and only the Gravity Gun. Now, I aren’t saying that the Gravity Gun’s one uninteresting piece of weapon, but for the first half of the game, there isn’t really much combat – all you will be doing actually is snatching energy balls out from their flow to insert them into another place. It doesn’t help that the missions aren’t any much varied either. If you are expecting vehicular sections in Episode One, you’re out of luck. There is also only a single new enemy variation and no new weapons to toy with. Considering that Episode One is a third of what is supposed to be Half-Life 3 (which has been broken up into Episodes One, Two and Three), it is hard to forgive the lack of the aforementioned.

The story in Episode One is pretty shallow as well. Basically, all you know is that some monolithic building known as the Citadel is going to explode and take down the whole city with it and that you’re going to have to escape it. It’s just another one of those generic storylines belted out by any other game in the market today. It’s very straight-forward and the unlike Half-Life 2, there is no mystery to it or whatsoever.

Overall, I feel that Episode One is disappointing, a shadow of what Half-Life 2 is. Coincidentally, it is also the weakest link among the 5 games in The Orange Box. But if it means that Episode One needs to be had because it is essentially a bridge from Half-Life 2 to the goodness of Episode Two, I will accept it.

Episode Two picks up where Episode One left off when Alyx and Gordon escaped from the exploding City 17 in a train. Of course, things never go well and that’s why the train crashed. Right from the start, you will notice that Episode Two improves on both Half-Life 2 and Episode One in a couple of ways. The graphics are better, for sure. They look sharper and more polished and the lighting effects impressive.

And after hours spent on the streets of City 17, you are finally in a new environment – well, which means you now have new areas and locales to explore. Besides, the familiar diversity of the missions present in Half-Life 2 has returned, and that includes huge vehicular sections. In one moment, you could be fighting in the antlion’s nests, and the next moment, you could be up against a Combine chopper. Episode Two also feels like it’s part of what is Half-Life 3 by having 2 new enemies in the game, namely toxic antlion, which is a variation of an antlion that spits poison at you and Hunter, which is a smaller version of a Strider – meaning it’s dangerous and challenging. And there is a new weapon as well, but pity that the weapon only appears towards the end of the game and will only be used in a particular mission. In addition, Episode Two is longer at about 7 hours. While it’s short, the experience as a whole is certainly very satisfying.

If you can recall from a few paragraphs back, I mentioned that the story in Episode One is shallow. Well, no more in Episode Two. Instead, what you now have is a more sophiscated and mysterious story that may induce moments of pondering. Without doubt, the pacing of the game is better than Episode One. A massive battle awaits you at the ending of the game (and I mean really massive) and just as I thought that the credits were about to roll out after I have defeated all the enemies, the climax in the story kicked in. Told through the gameplay and a cut-scene, the ending is one of the most emotional in videogame history and one that is on par with that of Halo 3, such that you can actually feel for the characters. It will leave you screaming, “OMG! I can’t wait for Episode Three!” And that’s what I did.


There is a hidden rule that says multiplayer shooters don’t need deathmatches to be good and that’s very true in the case of Team Fortress 2. In fact, Team Fortress 2 is one of the finest multiplayer shooters ever produced on Xbox 360. What sets it out from the me-too crowd of shooters are its unique class-based gameplay with an emphasis on teamwork and objective-based maps and coupled with the surprisingly refreshing and pleasant cartoonish visual style, Team Fortress 2 has just the right mix of ingredients.

Before entering any multiplayer match, you will be able to select your desirable class from a total of 9 classes. These classes are incredibly varied, with each taking different strategies to the battlefield. Some are built for combat like The Heavy. While he’s slow, his health is high and he carries a chain gun around, dishing out almost instant death to anyone unfortunate enough to walk into the line of sight. And there’s the Engineer, which is a support class. While you wouldn’t want him on the frontlines, he is useful because he can build teleporters and turrets. For those who just want to hang out in the far corner and put a bullet through the heads of others, there’s the sniper class. Between the stealthy Spy and the flame-thrower equipped Pyro and the other classes, there is bound to be a class that you will like. I like the way Valve has designed the classes such that none of them is particularly powerful nor weak. That’s when teamwork comes into crucial play. In order for success to preveal, members of a team must work with each other to complement the strengths of each class.

As mentioned earlier, there is no deathmatch in Team Fortress 2. In its place are several objectives like Control Points, Territorial Control and Capture the Briefcase (which is the game’s version of Capture the Flag). 4 maps are made around Control Points, 1 fixed with Territorial Control and the remaining 1 attached with Capture the Briefcase. The problem is that each map has a pre-defined match type and these cannot be swapped, seriously limiting the variety of ways in which multiplayer matches can be played. For example, 2 Forts is a Capture the Briefcase map, so you can’t play a Control Points match in 2 Forts. Simple as that. 6 isn’t a big number either, but I believe there would be more downloadable maps coming in the future.

Despite its shortcomings, Team Fortress 2 is an entertaining game nonetheless and one that will keep you playing for a while.

Final Comments
The Orange Box packs in more value than imaginable. And in it are 5 great games that everyone should check out. In Half-Life 2, The Orange Box possesses one the BEST games of all time. Episode One and Two expand on the Half-Life universe by continuing the tale from Half-Life 2. While Episode One may be a little disappointing, Episode Two compensates for that by improving on both its predecessors in a couple of ways. Play all three together for a really really epic adventure. First-person puzzler Portal and a unique and enjoyable multiplayer game Team Fortress 2 add in more content and replayability into The Orange Box.

* This review was done without the full completion of Portal.

Individual scores:
Half-Life 2 – 10/10
Half-Life 2: Episode One – 7.9/10
Half-Life 2: Episode Two – 9.7/10
Portal: Uncompleted
Team Fortress 2: 9.0/10

TOTAL SCORE: 9.7/10 (not the average)


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