What's an Orange Box you ask? The obvious answer would be somewhere that you keep your tasty oranges locked away. Perhaps you only take this orange box of yours out on special occasions like Christmas or Easter. The real answer though is that the Orange Box is one of the best "bang for your buck" sack of goodness to come along in awhile, stuffing 5 chunks of gaming magic into one beautiful package. Included in the package you get Half Life 2, Half Life 2 Episode 1, Half Life 2 Episode 2, the class based multiplayer shooter Team Fortress 2, and to top things off the brand new world of Portal. Its hard to know exactly where to start so lets crack open the box and see what we find.
The first nugget in the package is the multiple game of the year 2004 award winning Half Life 2. For the uninitiated, Half Life 2 continues the adventures of the stoic Gordon Freeman and his adventures at the black Mesa research facility from the original Half Life. The story opens with little fan fare, as you awake and find yourself on a train full of refugees on your way to City 17. Nothing is really explained as to why you are there or what to do next and that is part of the mystery of the story to come. As you work your way through the initial part of the game you cant help be overwhelmed by an eerie sense of doom. The story unfolds via a series of brilliantly timed events and real time cut scenes that take place from your first person perspective. In fact, you never see Gordon Freeman in third person, as you actually become him yourself. The pacing of half life 2 is brilliant, and just when you think youve caught your breath from one encounter, along comes another. And then once you get the Gravity gun a few levels into your adventure, things get really fun. The excellent physics engine at work in Half Life 2 has you throwing saw blades through the air to cut zombies in half, and moving around chunks of wood on a sandy beach to form platforms as you avoid weird aliens known as ant lions.
Another great part about Half Life 2 is the expansive environments you will navigate throughout your adventures. The game world is so well crafted you might actually think City 17 is a real place. Graphically the game is 3 years old, but still holds up well. It certainly looks better than the its Xbox port released a few years ago, although Valve may have taken the easy way out and just cleaned up some textures, and added a few lighting effects. The bottom line though is that many a gamer who never had the chance to play Half Life 2 due to a sub standard gaming PC or just missed this little gem altogether, can now see what all of the hype was about. The only real downside to finishing the game is that it kind of has a cliff hanger ending. Fortunately, unlike back then, there are two more episodes of the story waiting for you in your Orange Box.
Episode 1 and Episode 2 are the result of Valves original plan to continue the Half Life story in bite size and regularly released chunks. Well, with years between both episodes, the whole episodic thing didnt end up working out too well. Thankfully though, now you can dive right into them back to back because its all on one disk. Episode 1 essentially begins a few moments after the events in Half Life 2. Due to certain story elements, Gordon Freeman finds himself with no weapons except the gravity gun. The 5 or so hour episode starts off with you infiltrating the City 17 citadel. The first two chapters, with no real weapons at hand, have a heavy focus on using your gravity gun and its ability to toss enemies, move energy balls, and generally cause mayhem. The rest of the episode has some frantic battles back through the city that are even more epic than what you experienced in HL2. This means more fights with striders, more encounters with zombies, and a lot more environmental puzzles to solve. The graphics have also been given a shot in the arm, as the game was finished up quite a while after HL2. The pace of this episode builds gradually, until you reach yet another stunning conclusion.
Perhaps the real gem of the Half Life story so far, Episode 2 again continues where the previous episode left off. Finally free of City 17, the main premise of this episode has you fighting through forests, and open expansive areas as you delve further into the terrific story. There is a very heavy focus on the use of a vehicle in these large open spaces. While good in theory, driving around with precision can prove a tad tricky. Episode 2 also features the mother of all physics puzzles, as the gravity gun is still a key weapon in Gordons arsenal. New weapons and ways to play Half Life will also be introduced, and the stunning conclusion should only make the wait for Episode 3 that much harder. Again, both of these episodes look amazing, control for the most part like a dream, and have such a riveting story that you wont want to stop playing until there is nothing left but the credits.
If single player isnt your thing, fortunately valve also has you covered with the long awaited debut of Team Fortress 2. To many people out there, Team Fortress 2 has been in development for almost as long as Duke Nukem forever. Valve has been teasing gamers with a sequel to their ever popular Team Fortress classic for what seems like eons. It has gone through many iterations and game engines, but now that it is here, the wait has been well worth it. Take Pixar inspired cartoon and over the top visuals, and mix that in with 9 different and unique class types on 6 maps, and the recipe is there for a great game. You can have up to 16 players in a match, and each map has a unique game type associated with it. 6 overall maps may not seem like a lot at first glance, until you consider how carefully balanced each one really is. One map has you playing standard capture the flag, another involves base capturing, and yet another had you planning and defending bomb drop locations.
The real star of TF2 though is the various classes, and how they counter-act and add that extra layer of strategy rarely seen in online shooters. There are three different class types; offensive (scout, soldier, pyro), defensive (demoman, heavy, engineer), and support (medic, sniper, spy), and each of these types has three types of players. From the mini gun toting, slow moving Heavy, to the frail yet nimble scout each character type has both a unique advantage and disadvantage depending on the opposing team. The medic class for instance, is weak offensively, but in the company of a Heavy and acting as his healer, the duo can wreak havoc. Part of the fun is finding these various team load outs in order to dominate your opposition. A key player is the Engineer class, as the can set up automated turrets as well as teleporters. To counter them, the spy class has not only the ability to disguise himself as an enemy team mate, but also the ability to sap and destroy engineer turrets.
Another great thing about the various class types is the hilarious personalities Valve has imbued into each of them. Rarely does a shooter have you laughing out loud while playing, but Team fortress pulls this off. The class types are clearly distinguishable from far away, so its easy to assess the situation and adjust accordingly. There is no mistaking the frail sniper in his cowboy hat from the rocker toting soldier. This humour and variety only serves to embellish one of the deepest multiplayer games of the year. Give it some time to learn the nuances, and you too will be glad to have this in your Orange Box.
Onto the final tasty morsel found within the Orange Box, its time to take a look at Portal. This game will bend your mind and warp your soul. It will change the way you think about what a first person "shooter" can be. At its core portal is much more than your run of the mill FPS. Part puzzle, part action, part comedy, Portal blends together these elements into a seamless package like you've rarely seen. It starts out simple enough; you are a human test subject and find yourself trapped in the Black Mesa wanna be Aperture science labs. No instructions on where to go or what to do next, Portal is played almost by instinct. As you are let out of your cell to run through a lab is when you first meet the robotic voice that will guide you through the various levels. Essentially each level is a puzzle, and your goal is to reach the exit. In most games, this would be accomplished by some menial tasks such as stacking some crates, leaping up onto a platform and then climbing up a ladder to an exit.
But most games don't have the portal gun, and this changes the very approach to solving each quirky level. The basic concept is this: your portal gun can create either an orange or a blue portal (you get this later on as an upgrade). Whatever surface they may be on, be it a wall, a floor, or the roof, you can enter the blue portal and emerge from the orange one and vice versa. The laws of physics apply to the portals as well, so if you enter at a high velocity from jumping you shoot out the other end carrying the same velocity. Space altering solutions like this though are abound in portal, and what at first seems impossible to solve will turn into a "cake" walk once you figure it out. For some fun try placing a portal directly above you and then shoot the other one below your own feet. Hold on and enjoy the ride. No game would really be complete without a motive or goal, and what you strive for in Portal is, interesting, to say the least. At no point in your 2 to 4 hour journey (depending on how smart you are) will you become bored, although until you wrap your head around bending physics, you may be confused. Its a short and sweet trip, but some advanced levels and challenges are unlocked after finishing it once and surely you will go back for more. In fact, Portal just by itself would almost make the Orange Box a worthy full price purchase.
So what else can really be said? The contents of the Orange box have finally been revealed. Included in the box, you will find an engaging single player adventure broken out into several episodes, a brilliantly balanced and class based multiplayer shoot-fest, and an original game that will bend your mind. Its almost not fair to other developers out there that going forward we might always expect 5 great games for the price of one, but perhaps thats the cross the Orange Box and Valve have to bear. So please, dig in, and enjoy the tasty oranges. Who knows when we may ever see such a treat again.