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Mark Buckingham is many things: freelance writer and editor, gamer, tech-head, reader, significant other, movie watcher, pianist, and hockey player.

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PC Review - 'The Orange Box'

by Mark Buckingham on Nov. 20, 2007 @ 5:34 a.m. PST

The Orange Box features three new games by Valve: Half-Life 2: Episode Two, the second installment in the Half-Life 2 episodic trilogy; Team Fortress 2, the sequel to the game that put class-based, multiplayer team warfare on the map; and Portal, the game that blends puzzles, first-person action, and adventure gaming to produce an experience like no other.

Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: EA Games
Developer: Valve Software
Release Date: October 10, 2007

Games don't exist in a vacuum. Time passes, technology improves, new ideas emerge and when dealing with the PC as a platform, the bar can move more subtly and frequently than the gap between console generations. The competition on the PC is fierce, particularly in the FPS genre; if you don't stay relevant, there are dozens of similar games ready to steal your thunder. The contents of The Orange Box span perhaps 10 years' worth of development, starting with 2004's Half-Life 2 and last year's continuation, HL2: Episode 1, then moving to the newer games in this package, HL2: Episode 2, quirky-but-brilliant puzzler Portal and stylized online fragfest Team Fortress 2. Their value individually and as a compilation will vary, depending on what you already own. Here, however, they're being weighed against today's games. Does a title that garnered 9s and 10s three years ago still warrant that kind of praise?

Almost three years ago, we gave Half-Life 2 a 9.7. In a year studded with the likes of Unreal Tournament 2004, Far Cry, Doom 3, Painkiller, Star Wars: Battlefront and Tribes Vengeance, it wasn't without competition, but it was more than able to hold its own and best these worthy adversaries for Game of the Year awards left and right. The Source Engine's visuals and physics wowed onlookers, and rightly so. I guess it's only fair that The Orange Box's competition this holiday season will be follow-ups to games that ran against it originally, including Crysis and Unreal Tournament 3, and id's Enemy Territory: Quake Wars could be considered a spiritual successor to Doom. The difference is that Valve is still polishing Source to a glistening sheen, while other developers have gone back to the drawing boards and built entirely new engines. Despite showing a little age here and there, Source still holds its own.

Half-Life 2 is the oldest game in this package, so if you don't have all of the effects turned up to 11, it starts to look a little aged, but by no means ugly. If you don't have a video card that can handle it at full throttle, well, get with the times. A Geforce 7950GT had HL2 for breakfast and asked for seconds, giving me at least 30 frames per second at max detail, though it was usually closer to 60 fps. This performance may simply not have been possible at the original release time.

If you haven't gotten around to playing this one, it starts you out in completely unfamiliar surroundings; a train pulls into a station in City 17, a place run by the extraterrestrial Combine, who want nothing more than to taser you till you pee. I know this because I picked up a can and threw it at one of them, hitting him in the head and prompting the aforementioned attack, pee optional.

For the first half of the game, I was annoyed that no one gave me more information about what was going on or where I was, other than what I had reasoned on my own. This is apparently all part of the plan of that suited agent you were always two steps behind in the original Half-Life, who can drop you into the timeline at any point he chooses, explanations and justifications be damned.

Without realizing it, I grew to like the characters and their causes, due in large part to the eloquent handling of animation, facial expression, stellar voice acting and interactions. Though you spend most of Half-Life 2 alone, and the firefights serve more as a reprieve from the environmental and physics puzzles, by the end of it all, I felt as if I'd been somewhere important and memorable, even if I hadn't felt that along the way. Given the millions of copies of the base game that sold over the last few years, many have been here and done this already. While still a solid title in its own right, Half-Life 2 doesn't feel quite as revolutionary today. It still looks, sounds and controls among the best of them, and it's certainly worth playing but isn't the sole reason for picking up The Orange Box.

Score: 8.9/10

By now, I should be used to the cliffhanger endings this series can't seem to stay away from, but that doesn't mean they're any easier to take. At least I had HL2: Episode 2 right here on hand to jump into when the credits rolled at a suitably inopportune time. Probably the shortest of the games in the HL series proper, HL2: Episode 1 didn't have the diversity of either the previous or the following entries. Getting to spend most of your time side by side with Alyx was a nice change, though, and with you shining the light on targets while she filled them with lead, it felt like a uniquely co-op game. The largely claustrophobic nature of trying to get out of the crumbling city made me anxious to get through this as quickly as possible, and according to Steam, it took me just shy of seven hours, bearing in mind I do like to check every corner of every room.

HL2: Episode 1 takes you through what's left of City 17 during the resistance that emerged upon detonating the Citadel at the end of the prior game. The companion AI sometimes left a bit to be desired in terms of taking cover or staying out of my way (though they do apologize afterwards), but other times, they went above and beyond, grabbing empty turrets or swapping weapons on the fly. It's not a bad way to spend a few hours, if for no other reason than to prepare for HL2: Episode 2. It looks and plays largely like HL2 without too much refinement, which isn't bad, but it also isn't a giant step forward. Again, this is not the reason to buy The Orange Box.

Score: 8.4/10

When viewed as the sum of its parts, ups and downs abound in HL2: Episode 2. To make the inevitable Star Wars comparison, it's definitely the trilogy's "Empire," with bad things happening to good people and thinking we've made headway when we're still the hunted rather than the hunters. If the ending doesn't leave you somber, you'd better see about getting that new heart, Tin Man.

You start out on the train wreck where things left off in Episode 1, once again missing your gravity gun and your compatriot, but you're soon reunited, then separated again and so on. The main theme in this chapter is definitely that no one is invincible — even Alyx's mighty, metallic tagalong Dog, who takes a tumble when he tries to go one-on-one with a Strider.

Braving the bug hives to get a larva salve was impressive-looking and pesky at the same time, much the way dealing with a swarm of real bugs would be, but when the Vortigaunt does his thing and lights up the whole hive, it's really a remarkable sight. The firefight preceding this descent brought to mind Starship Troopers, both in frantic pace and how overwhelming the odds seemed.

In contrast to these portions, the driving sequences are a lot like they were in Half-Life 2, but you instead pilot an unarmed and largely stripped-down muscle car across the wilds toward White Forest Base and, supposedly, salvation. Without a doubt, defending the base from the Strider assault using the car, gravity gun and Magnusson bombs was one of the most nerve-wracking and exciting pieces of gaming I've ever played.

What's more, HL2 Episode 2 features a few new things that also turn up in Portal and Team Fortress 2, like a new motion blur effect, more shiny objects, more splatter and generally more polish in every facet of the game. The characters are just as memorable, the minimal music is still excellent, and the animation and texturing are phenomenal, especially at high-res.

Also new and welcome are the Achievements and Developer Commentary to go along with each leg of the game. Achievements are a lot like what you'd see on Xbox Live these days, offering up special acknowledgement for feats like running over 20 enemies, taking down the attack chopper without missing a single shot, taking out a Hunter with its own flechettes and helping stave off the overwhelming Antlion attack. More obscure ones, such as sending the gnome into space, are much more tricky to accomplish, but a quick Internet search will show you not only that it is possible, but also how to do it. The Developer Commentary is placed at specific points in the game, allowing you to choose a calm moment to listen to some interesting facts about revisions, design challenges and some more technical aspects of how they went from rough drafts to final, playable code. These become especially interesting in Portal, given the design, execution and physics challenges that game posed.

I found Episode 2 to be the best in the series so far, the most satisfying and the most emotionally involving. I'm just hoping the Vortigaunts find a way to work their magic a second time in Episode 3.

Score: 9.7/10

Portal is the reason to pick up this anthology. Since the first videos of Portal surfaced on the Internet, I've been dying to get my hands on it, and while it certainly could be more robust, I have no problem coming back to what little there is in this so-called "tech demo" because it is as clever a game as I've ever seen. The idea of stitching a doorway between nearly any two points in an area not only creates numerous head-scratchers for the player, but also must have been a bear to design, figuring out how to limit the player's options with this sort of power to make the game challenging (as noted in the in-game Developer Commentary tracks).

Shoot a portal on the ceiling above an automated turret and the other end under a stack of crates, and look ma, no more turret. It plays out in tutorial form since that's essentially what it is, providing other challenges beyond the prescribed testing area once you circumvent your "victory candescence" and find out for yourself that there truly is no cake.

The voiceover throughout the testing process is downright hilarious, warning you of upcoming hazards only by saying that you should attend a seminar to better understand before proceeding, despite that not being an option. From start to finish, witty end credits included, Portal shines. You succeed in an "environment of extreme pessimism," poke fun at Black Mesa, make it through the final section despite the unseen operator giving you faulty directions and discouragement, use the portals to steer balls of electricity into unpowered mechanisms, and taunt a rocket launcher into blowing holes in targets several rooms away via portal technology.

Now, how about integrating the portal gun into a proper shooter, perhaps with multiplayer, or, better yet, co-op modes? These are the only things missing here, but given how novel and fun Portal is, I can certainly be patient for the inevitable sequel, assured the same care and quality will result. I've already played it beginning to end four times and haven't tired of it yet.

Score: 9.8/10

Team Fortress 2 was the weak point of the Box for me, but that bears some explaining. I've gradually lost interest in playing online with others over the years. I ran out and bought Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow the day it came out, solely on its potential and the rave reviews I'd heard of the new multiplayer component of spies versus mercenaries, and it was good. No, it was fantastic … at first. Then everybody else bought the game and turned brilliant, novel, well-tuned gameplay into simplistic deathmatches. Despite the community inventing some other play modes like Predator (one spy plays the alien, using vision modes to hunt mercenary prey in the dark), it boiled down to either getting owned or being stuck with a bunch of jerks on your team. The Orange Box has been out for about a month, and I've already seen both of these camps (pwners and jerks) emerge in large numbers.

Some will take issue with rating a game more based on its audience than its actual content, but when dealing with an online-only, no-bots multiplayer game that doesn't try to break out of the CTF and Domination game types, I can't help but feel a little restriction and disappointment. There's no training mode, there's no one to practice on, and with the landscape of gamers who ignore ideas like teamwork and organization, it makes the game nigh unplayable for me, beyond the LAN. We'd start a Domination match, and before I made it to a single contested control point, the match was over.

The handful of initially available maps is already being improved upon by the community, however, as the more industrious players are making up their own levels, adding new sounds (unique background music and UT announcer vocals among them) and keeping things fresh. The visual style is somewhere between a Pixar flick and Looney Tunes and works to great effect. It's hard to get upset when the guy that owned you looks like an obnoxiously square-jawed jarhead, complete with stubble and a gnawed cigar sticking out from between his radiantly white teeth. The game even highlighted the gibs, labeling "Your Foot" in the background as my own lost appendage.

The in-game stat tracking is robust and includes the time spent on each character class and how many points (not kills) you've scored with each. Specific stats are broken down further elsewhere, and you can read them via Steam for other players, but by and large, I don't feel like Team Fortress 2 did much to balance teams beyond sheer number division. Only a few games out of the dozens I played felt like anything but a landslide for one team or the other. It requires players to take specific roles and communicate, but that just wasn't happening anywhere I was playing. Everybody generally just went big on offense and little else. The levels usually aren't big enough to make a match last more than a couple of minutes. It's difficult to say whether this is a design flaw or dependent on the players, but you have to deal with it either way. If the title had botmatches in which to practice maps and game modes, it would have garnered a higher score.

The character classes are really well balanced if you use them properly, and the game offers tips on the loading screens between matches about how to play your class and which pairings work well. A Medic and Heavy together are supposedly unstoppable, and I got knifed by Spies more often than I'd like to admit but was never able to return the favor. All of the maps are objective-based and cannot be swapped around (CTF maps can only be played CTF, DOM maps can only be played DOM, etc.), and there wasn't an option for straight-up team DM or the like. The inflexibility hurts replayability a bit. How much you end up playing the game largely depends on hooking up with a group of similarly skilled players, something the game doesn't give you out of the box. Without the other players, you don't have much of a title, making the community a crucial element when considering investing time or money into a game of this sort.

Regardless, I'm in the minority here, as there were literally thousands of TF2 servers available to play on at any given time, many with miniscule pings. There's also something to be said for keeping it simple in this era of crazy 64-player battlefields with mechs and vehicles cluttering up the landscape. LAN servers are quick and painless, but if you want to set up your own TF2 'net server, you'll likely need to dig up a how-to on the Internet. Internet servers require serious work and tinkering to get going, so it's nice that those who just want to jump in and play can do so with the multitude of available boxes out there.

Score: 8.4/10

It's only fair to make note of the Steam service, as it is apparently required to play The Orange Box on the PC, and it does create some headaches. I can understand developers not wanting to lose money to piracy, but after seeing the Bioshock debacle with users running out of authentication tokens and not being able to play the game for which they paid good money, I figured Valve would be nicer to the paying customer. Well, they are, but not by much.

See, you need an Internet connection to play all of the games in this box, despite the fact that 80 percent of the games are single-player only. If you start them up once online, you can supposedly play them afterwards without being connected, but that's only partly true. For one, the Achievements are invariably tied to your Steam account, meaning they can't be completed or unlocked unless you're online and connected to Steam. For hermits and homebodies, this is fine, but for those of us who have places to go or play remotely on a laptop, this becomes a pain rather quickly. For another, you must be online when you install the games. It requires authentication right then and there via Steam, and while they do offer you free updates and extra content, if you get this as a gift while away from home, good luck getting it working before you return to the roost.

I had other miscellaneous problems with Steam, since it forces itself to run in the background when doing anything Orange Box-related. Steam consistently created a conflict with a security suite on my laptop, causing one or both to crash. Upon clicking "Install" for the Source Dedicated Server via Steam, I was greeted with a blue screen of death (BSOD) that shut off my desktop computer, dumping everything I was doing at the time. There were other problems, but you get the gist. Honestly, what's wrong with good old CD keys?

Odds are that you've already milked Half-Life 2 and HL2: Episode 1 for all they're worth. Sure, you can get the new games via Steam individually for about the same price as this package, and Half-Life 2 is still on store shelves for around $20 by itself, so whether you pick up five games for $50 or only the three newest is up to you. Are they worth it? Steam issues notwithstanding, the answer is yes, even more so if you're like me and hadn't gotten around to taking the HL2 plunge yet. The once-great are still very good, and the newer titles continue pushing the envelope in terms of quality, narrative and how much you can do within a given genre.

Score: 9.3/10

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