In today’s age of gaming, there’s rarely a time where players could be convinced a sixty-dollar product is worth twice of what they have paid for, doubly so when it comes to the FPS market. Valve, the most audacious “big-name” developer/publisher in the business, set to change that with this satiable collection of past and present titles that either innovate—or reinvigorate—storytelling, puzzle solving, or team-based combat. The list of compliments for this vague title are long and have probably been stated a thousand times over, which makes it even more insulting if you haven’t played any of the games found within The Orange Box.
Before I go any further, it’s best to fully explain what this collection contains. One way for me to compare it would be like a great music artist releasing a new album attached with two extended playlists exploring a different genre and sub-genre. They may all have similar constructs (all in first-person view and you use a gun in each game) but some differ exponentially beyond that comparison. In this case, I believe it’s fair to separate the game(s) of the three separate franchises included into their own mini-reviews. Enjoy!
Half-Life 2 Collection:
The Orange Box contains three—and as it stands, all—of the separate stories created in the Half-Life 2 chronology: the full game, Half-Life 2: Episode 1, and Half-Life 2: Episode 2. While Half-Life 2 and Episode 1 were released prior, with HL2 even being an Xbox/PC release, this is the first time console gamers have a chance of playing both episodes. Many have already formed their own opinions of both HL2 and Episode 1, but I wish to recant all three entries together because this was my first time getting into the series.
After starting in—seemingly—another dimension greeted by a blue-suited businessperson of sallow complexion known only as “G Man,” theoretical physicist Gordon Freeman (your character) is materialized into a train arriving at City 17. Freewill does not exist here. After getting to understand more about this Orwellian dystopia as a result of events from Half-Life, Gordon is soon on the run from Combine forces with the help of the resistance movement, many of which former colleagues from Black Mesa (location in Half-Life).
Any “FPS historian” can tell you the influence Half-Life had on videogame storytelling. By implementing all dialogue and plot progression solely in-game, rather than with any cut scenes, there’s never a sense of losing that sense of immersion. The fundamental ‘silent protagonist’ scheme executed for Gordon is arguably the best-implemented one thus far (for shooters). As this has been preached time in memorial, the trick in giving Gordon dialogue bits of his physical characteristics and allowing the player to fill their emotions/feelings/etc. into the mental side, players are incessantly compelled to move forward because of the self-discovery of your importance in this story, rather than because an objective marker is guiding you along (in fact, there isn't even one in the game by default). Since this was all revolutionary for Half-Life’s release, Valve wisely decided to re-implement this strength and improve upon the technology.
HL2 through Episode 2’s plot involving trans-dimensional beings, tripods straight from War of the Worlds, and zombies can sometimes move too fast for its own good. The Half-Life story and storytelling is constructed on one penchant: vagueness. This can be a great advantage and disadvantage: in one hand, there’s the constant sense of discovery and amount of plot layers left to unearth; in the other, there’s a slight demand of the player to be “in the know” when it comes to past events. Granted, they do dive into the history through dialogue, but it’s a bit difficult to instantly grab hold of everything without some sort log book. This complaint doesn't necessarily hold much weight on its own, but combine it with the fact of the entire story feeling like a continuation rather than a closed chapter (even opening up a possible connection between Portal’s universe and Half-Life’s) makes this a complaint I need to raise.
Even when considering any problems with the story, likable characters and the resolute stance of holding to past innovations still prove the Half-Life series is one of the best examples of minimalism on all fronts of first-person storytelling.
The artistic and technical visuals of this collection face quite a few lookers that released in 2007, and before that. For its 2004 release, Half-Life 2 was one of the best looking games. But seeing the great push in stylized realism from other shooters, which also happened to release in 2007, shows that others are marginally ahead in some categories. It’s so easy to overlook other complaints, like obtrusive loading screens during gameplay, because of how involving this world feels. By keeping all action scenes, character interactions, and impressive world-building during gameplay, everything feels much more fluid. The only major complaint would be the sameness of Episode 1. While HL2 explores a plethora of different environments and Episode 2 brings expansive swards and wooded environments, Episode 1 just circles through similar avenues of City 17.
The Half-Life series rarely falters when it comes to sound design. Firstly, voice acting is top notch, with much credit going to the euphonious Alyx Vance and her soft-spoken father. Secondly, this series has some of the best videogame soundtracks—bar none. This strange cacophony of harsh synth sounds perfectly resonate with each situation at hand. Thirdly, although serviceable, combat/environmental sound design would be the weakest aspect; but even then, small meticulous details to various enemies are unexpected and pleasant, such as the raucous, mechanical tones of a Combine soldier or the ear-ringing effect upon killing one. Overall, the similarity in arsenal won’t overwhelm the outstanding qualities elsewhere.
Gameplay consists of several different elements: shooting, platforming, puzzle solving, and driving. Initially, these components seem like pieces of a whole; in actuality, the shooting and puzzle solving form a symbiotic relationship because of one weapon: The Gravity Gun. This weapon is able to attract (LT) and fire (RT) a plethora of random objects with amazing velocity. This gravity well device also creates a new meta-structure for infantry-based fighting. Low on ammo shouldn't cause frustration because switching over to a weapon that can pick up and shoot rusty saws on demand never gets tiring. On the puzzle side, this marked the first time for the series to introduce psychics-based dilemmas, like stacking objects to create a path. With this unique implantation on top of the expected arsenal for a first-person shooter, the Half-Life 2 series retains qualities exclusive to its franchise.
When speaking of the Half-Life games’ combat outside of the simplistic nature of the Gravity Gun, there’s some more inventiveness to be found. Uncustomary to today’s shooters, Freeman keeps all of his weapons. His collection contains mostly typical armaments, such as a pistol and shotgun, but also has one that can summon a group of a certain wildlife animal to do his bidding. Regardless of it being enemy aircrafts, foot soldiers and more, the enemy AI can be relentless. The most notable enemy would be the Hunters, maneuverable tripods that use explosive flechettes. Their amazing accuracy and flanking ability makes them one of the most formidable enemies in the series; fortunately, you don’t directly encounter them until Episode 2. Overall, the combative arsenal may typically be what you expect, but the careful placing of enemy varieties demands a great amount of weapon experimentation.
Light platforming and driving sections are what you’d expect. During HL2 and Episode 2, Freeman obtains a hovercraft and different automobiles. Although controls in every case is exceptional (hovercraft’s handling is a tad loose), the amount of time spent in both instances of HL2 slightly harm the game’s pacing. In all occasions, the only vicissitudes in these driving segments involve opening a locked water passage or force field and then restarts the process over. This repeated course of action can begin to ware soon, but the action during these vehicular sections provide an excellent adrenaline rush.
All of the Half-Life entries found in The Orange Box are engaging to play. Praise for Episode 1 is more reserved because of how much the other two vary what’s been seen in the series before. In HL2, the introduction to the Gravity Gun redefines psychics-based combat; in Episode 2, rural scenery with much more expansive areas felt like a looking glass of what to expect of the series’ future. When looking back five years at the inception of the brazenly envisioned focus of modern warfare in 2007, it’s remarkable to note just how much more engaging an FPS series without all of the today’s fads.
“A puzzler that deserves Game of the Year awards on its own.” That’s the best way to describe Portal. You play as Chel, a test subject who wakes up in a monochrome room and is tasked with completing a number of ever-increasing challenges guided, and sometimes misguided, by Aperture Science’s AI construct: GLaDOS.
The typical level structure found in most games (namely platformers) with enough exposition in between shouldn’t dissuade you from thinking Portal doesn’t have an interesting story. In fact, that’s just the opposite. Like that of its Half-Life counterpart, Chel retains the silent protagonist role. Her only semblance of “human” connection throughout this adventure is GLaDOS’ constant derogation and blocks known as Weighted Companion Cubes. This strange amalgam of supra-hygienic labyrinths, some hidden areas giving gloomy warnings about this setting, and pitch-black monologues all mesh together perfectly. This synthesis of different elements can be funny, ambiguous, and exciting—often all at the same time.
Visual and sound design keep to a typical pattern: all test chambers maintain a sanitary set of mazes with GLaDOS chiming in. The obvious attention goes to GLaDOS’ voice actor Ellen McLain. Never have I known an AI who constantly weighs a human life so lightly yet remains so affable. Along with some good soundtrack beats, most importantly the “Still Alive” song played during the credits, Portal is able to constantly surprise. The only quibble foreseen against Portal’s visual design would be the sameness of these bleach-white test chambers. Sure, the redundancy may feel a bit tiresome, but it’s within the context to exaggerate this sterile setting to offer a heightened engagement that slowly pulls the rug out from under you.
“One idea with immense possibilities” is the best way to adequately describe Aperture Science’s Portal Gun. The idea is simple: create two portal openings in three-dimensional space to reach new areas. The portal gun can create two distinct portal ends, orange (LT) and blue (RT). Neither of these is specifically an ‘entrance’ or ‘exit’ portal but rather a visual and physical threshold for Chel to pass through. You, and any objects that can fit through it, go in one end and out the other. This also accounts for the player’s or object’s velocity: gaining speed from falling down towards a portal is maintained after exiting the other end. This innovative puzzle structure constantly whets the puzzler palette as all of these laws for portal placement, velocity, and timing ratchet up immensely before the excellent conclusion.
The only two complaints towards Portal’s gameplay would be the languid pace to take off the training wheels and an average run time of about three hours—that could be much shorter if you grasp the concept quickly. It’s rather tough to try and replay the whole game once you’ve mastered this technique, but six advanced puzzles provide some biting challenge. There are also three unique challenges for six campaign test chambers: least portals, fastest time, and least amount of steps taken. These extras may not sound like much but don’t be so quick to shove them off as such; they really are genuine challenges.
Overall, this title works on so many levels. Although the brevity of the main campaign is disappointing, there are hardly any other games out there that can dexterously mash the same level of mind-bending conundrums and deadpan humor into such a refreshing concept. Portal is deserving of an adjective I don’t use lightly: sublime.
Team Fortress 2:
Another entry in FPS history, Team Fortress is credited with being “the granddaddy of class-based multiplayer gaming.” The reason for this game seeming like such an obscurity to many gamers is that it was in development for approximately nine years. With a fresh coat of paint and a healthy dose of personality, TF2 (Team Fortress 2) meets and exceeds expectations in gameplay and visual design.
After languishing on a final art design, the developers ended up giving TF2 a cartoonish style that fits perfectly with its individuality. Characters are composed of soft textures and typically have unnatural body compositions while maps are composed of picturesque venues that typically contain color-coded warehouses for each team. The pronouncement and chiaroscuro found within each map can almost make them look like impressionist illustrations. Not only for style but for function, the ability to manipulate each map with visual cues makes it much easier for players to traverse the environment and instantly understand their location.
Even the goofy beat played for the TF2 option in The Orange Box’s main menu adequately captures the jovial mayhem in this game. From the very beginning, it’s easy to spot the wonderful personality of the game by adding simple touches like different taunts and silly voices for each class. The combative side of sound design for the superfluous arsenal of all classes often retains an ACME-like appeal: comedic clangs and smacks of melee weapons, over-the-top whooshes of nearby rockets, and more. What’s great about the sound design is going against the demands of what it should sound like on the latest and greatest surround-sound system. Disregarding today’s expectancies is what fashions TF2’s behavior to come to life solely through its outlandish eccentricity.
TF2 sticks to its class-based system but adds a few new ranks. The entire class list is as follows: Scout, Soldier, and Pyro compose the offensive classes; Demoman, Heavy, and Engineer make up the defensive classes; and Medic, Spy, and Sniper comprise the support classes. Each class has at least three weapons: a unique primary weapon, a common or unique secondary weapon, and a distinct melee weapon in keeping with the character. These two teams (RED and BLU) composed of the same classes fight across six different maps—each of which is shackled to one objective-based mode.
The best praise to any class-based game would be balance, which TF2 delivers on all fronts. There’s such a demand for the entire match to be a team effort. Meticulously-constructed maps all exude pronounced buildings and colors for anyone to understand where they must go, yet the tactics for pushing forward or halting an advance are in constant motion. This reviewer’s personal favorite for seeing these tactics come into play is on 2Fort. Yes, it’s the expected symmetrical map composed of…two forts but there’s such a rush in witnessing a well-oiled machine break through an opponent’s defenses—that are probably situated the same way as your own—and regimenting your next move. By having such a great disparity of strengths and weaknesses between each class, you’re constantly implored to either stick with opposite classes or experiment on your own after dying.
At this point, there’s no chance TF2 won’t be considered a timeless classic. While it’s a shame to see only six maps tied down to only one game mode, they’re all so well-composed that it doesn’t seem like it could work any other way. I must also note that there is now an immense disparity between TF2 on PC and on consoles. On PC there are constant patches, a superfluous amount of new modes/maps/items, a much larger community, and it’s now free-to-play. Since this title has been out for over five years, I don’t foresee any more extras being brought over to this version, which is a shame because it absolutely deserves great post-launch treatment.
You’ve more than likely heard a multitudinous amount of compliments be paid towards separate entries in The Orange Box and the collection itself, all of it probably deserved. Valve’s penchant for excellent game design shines brightly in almost every title included. For the sake of putting an end to any more redundant praises, I’ll just finish with this: if you like to play anything in the first-person perspective, purchase it and don’t look back.
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Portal: coolbeans' 2007 Game of the Year Nominee