IGN Review of Half-Life 2: The Orange Box
Certainly, Valve established itself in a number of ways when it originally released Half-Life many years ago. Not only did it design refined and creative gameplay mechanics that inspired a number of other developers in the years that followed, but Valve also told an interesting, admittedly intense story. Perhaps more than that, they told it well. Extremely well. So although many people today regard Valve games as pillars of fun, physics-based gameplay (which they are), we've always been most fond of Half-Life's narrative and how it plays out before the eyes of the now iconic, crowbar-wielding MIT graduate: Gordon Freeman.
So now we have The Orange Box, a collection of Valve's recent software that includes the original Half-Life 2, Half-Life 2: Episode One, Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Portal and Team Fortress 2. In case you're completely unfamiliar with these games -- which we doubt, considering their now rabid popularity -- we can assure you that all five games are excellent. If you can't play Orange Box anywhere else, you may want to consider picking this one up. The amount of content (five whole games) you're getting for a standard price is almost astronomical.
However, all five titles are essentially first-person shooters, though Portal -- while told in the first-person -- is actually a puzzle game. Thus, if you're not a fan of FPS games, you may actually want to sit this one out, but you're missing out on an awful lot. With that said, let's examine just exactly what we have here, for those who are more than ready to enter the fray.
The Half-Life 2 games follow Gordon Freeman several years after the events at Black Mesa, events that unfolded in the original Half-Life. The Earth has been completely overrun by a collection of suppressive alien forces known as the Combine, and mankind is dwindling along with Earth's resources. It's up to you to help the resistance overthrow this horrifying and hostile regime.
Half-Life 2 has been available for a while now, but playing through it is still a treat. The game is magnificently paced and just about everything you do from start to finish is not only fun but equally exciting. The arsenal at your disposal, including more standard weapons like the pistol and shotgun, is enhanced by some very enticing tools -- the gravity gun being the most enjoyable. This singular device seems to represent a great deal of Valve's approach to gaming: free environmental manipulation.
If you haven't played any of the Half-Life games, it takes a while to get used to this idea. You can launch a nearby gas tank at an enemy to blow him away, as opposed to wasting precious bullets. Or why not snag that loose saw blade on the ground and send it slicing through the rotting flesh of a zombie? The possibilities are many and the results are satisfying. It's all good fun to use a gun, but interacting with the world is even better.
Episode One and Episode Two follow this dynamic and serve as continuations to the same narrative. As many of you may already know, the majority of the weapons, enemies and your companions remain the same throughout all three Half-Life games on the collection, which may discourage some. Fortunately, both episodic segments bring something really appealing to the table to make up for the absence of new stuff.
Episode One places you alongside the incredible Alyx Vance whom you meet in Half-Life 2. While this Episode is easily the shortest of the three, you're fighting alongside Alyx for pretty much the entire time, and we have to say that having an AI controlled companion works miraculously well here. Alyx really takes care of herself, and more often than not, she takes care of you too. She'll take down enemies left and right, cover you with a sniper rifle and (ultimately) she keeps you company in a world filled with desperation and loneliness.
Episode Two picks up right where Episode One left off and still places Alyx by your side, just not for the whole adventure. The brilliance of Episode Two comes more from its execution of story than anything else, though it's level design deserves a great deal of praise as well. As we said previously, the Half-Life 2 games, above all else, tell their story so well that it's almost impossible not to be immersed in the experience. The reason for this is undoubtedly due to your continuous foundation in Gordon Freeman's perspective. The camera is never pulled away from Freeman's eyes, and thus you will always view the world through this first-person view. Without ever saying a word.
It's incredible to us that Valve can tell a story -- filled with luscious, pointed dialogue -- without ever giving the main character a spoken line. It takes some ingenious writing to keep you riveted in such a precise way. This is most clear when observing one's attachment to your main companion: Alyx. If you're a guy (or, granted, a girl keen on other girl folk), you're going to end up with a crush on Alyx. Not only is she a beautiful character, but she strikes a brilliant balance somewhere between being utterly strong and sympathetically fragile. Whether she's moaning like a zombie to scare you in the dark, or whispering in fear as the deadly Hunters stalk the forest, you'll be attached to Alyx by Episode Two's conclusion (if not sooner).
But all this great gameplay and emotional narration comes from just three of the five items on The Orange Box. Portal provides a much more laid back experience (at least at first) and forces you to solve puzzles that revolve around portals. As a test subject at Aperture Science's "Enrichment Center," you must progress from room to room by using the portal gun which fires two portals that will always connect, regardless of their location.
Say, for example, you shoot the first portal on the wall next to you. Then you shoot one at the ceiling. If you walk through the portal on the wall, you'll soon find yourself falling from the ceiling -- all in the name of science! While the beginning puzzles you must solve are all pretty easy, some of them truly require a stretch of the imagination.
Despite it's very short length (we beat Portal in one sitting, you can probably do the same), Portal has a surprising amount of replay value, because many of the tasks you must face can be approached from a number of different perspectives. Part way through the game, you'll begin to face small, automated turrets that open fire on sight. When we first played, we would often use portals to sneak behind the turrets and then just pick them up and drop them to the ground, which causes them to malfunction when tipped over. However, we also found that if you place a portal right underneath a turret, and then set the second on the ceiling, the little killing machine will just fall right through the floor without you even having to get close. Splendid.
You won't realize how bizarre things can get until you actually play Portal, so we encourage you to do so. It's one of the most creative (and witty) titles in the collection, and its atmospheric, dark humor is something not to be missed. Of course, many of you already know this, because Portal's ending song has become the stuff of legends.
Finally, we have Team Fortress 2, a fantastic multiplayer-only experience that lets you choose a class and jump in with other like-minded gamers on six different maps. Each map is objective based, so don't expect the same sort of customization that a game like Halo 3 offers. Team Fortress 2 is much more strict in that way, but generally this plays to the game's advantage, because each map is highly refined and a lot of fun.
As you may expect, the real joy of this title comes from playing as different classes. Each class has a set of three weapons and a very specific role to play in the battle. For example, the Scout has immense speed and can capture Control Points twice as fast as other characters. The Heavy Weapons Guy has a massive chain gun at his disposal but moves like molasses.
Some of the classes are much more complex, like the Engineer who can build turrets and teleporters for the team to use. The Spy, on the other hand, can cloak to sneak behind enemy lines and even disguise himself as a character on the other team. Trust us: you can have a lot of fun with this title just from experimenting with the different play styles, let alone the complexities of the combat itself. Team Fortress 2 is a rare multiplayer experience that offers incredibly balanced gameplay where every class is as important as the next.
So now that we've spent some time describing this package, we imagine you're pretty pumped about running out and purchasing this sweet deal. We don't blame you, but even great games can't avoid imperfections. As fun as the Half-Life games are, the driving segments can be a real chore. This is not to say that they are unplayable -- far from it. Rather, driving in Half-Life 2 (and subsequent episodes) just doesn't work well on a controller, which is a shame because it could have been fixed so easily. Instead of placing the acceleration and brake on the triggers -- which makes much more sense -- both acceleration and turning are handled with the left stick, which means that driving can get very difficult when precise navigation is required.
The second gameplay problem is really more based on personal preference. If you're more into open worlds teeming with motion and filled with populated battles, the Half-Life 2 games may disappoint. They have epic battles, but the overall tone of the games is far more isolated than a shooter like Resistance: Fall of Man or Halo. Be weary of this, because you'll be fighting a lot inside, in dark areas or lifeless locales, which can be pretty shocking (and depressing) if you were expecting something else.
Unfortunately, our complaints don't stop there. The remainder of our criticisms are to blame for the discrepancy in scores between the PlayStation 3 version of the game and the 360 version (the PS3 version, after all, wasn't handled entirely by Valve). The PlayStation 3 Orange Box performs far worse, and this fact just isn't up for debate. While framerate issues aren't as problematic in Half-Life 2 and Episode One, Episode Two suffers a great deal, especially during the episode's larger battles. We regret to say that some sections border on being unplayable because of the stutters, which often cause your aim to be thrown off and timing shots to be very difficult. The problem isn't persistent throughout, but when it hits, it hits hard.
More troubling still is the difference in load times. Almost all the PS3 load times are at least five seconds more than the 360, but loading a saved game/loading after death is particularly awful. These clock in at about two to three times as long as the 360 version, which slows down the gameplay considerably. Even though the PS3 Orange Box sports a quicksave feature, any benefit of this option is lost considering the overall abundance of loading.
Even in Portal, a short title that often requires a little trial and error, this problem is massive. The 360 version takes about three seconds to load your last checkpoint if you die. The PS3 version takes seventeen. It hurts.
We must also mention that during all of our Team Fortress 2 play sessions, there was a very startling delay when using explosive weapons like the Soldier's rocket launcher or the Demoman's grenade launcher. When you pull the trigger to fire, there's a very brief but noticeable delay between the recoil of the weapon and the actual delivery of the explosive. This can seriously screw up your timing when trying to lead a rocket shot, or similar attacks.
Furthermore, a few of our play sessions were laden with so much lag that they became completely unplayable. We were told that this was the result of a European server being used accidentally, as opposed to a US one which will be up and running when the retail version hits shelves, but be wary that this problem may pop up again.
Less dire but perhaps more puzzling is the difference in color throughout the games. While this may just be a result of using our particular monitors, the PS3 version seems darker than its 360 counterpart. The difference is slight and, again, could be an isolated incident, but it's worth noting nonetheless.
So is the PS3 Orange Box still good? Of course -- considering the content alone -- but these issues, especially in Episode Two, drastically hurt the gameplay. If you can tolerate these problems and work around them, we still recommend picking up a copy -- the overall experience is enjoyable. It's just sad to see such a wonderful game hurt so badly by the porting process.
©2007-12-11, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved