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Move over Master Chief, Gordan Freeman, Demoman, and Chell show how it's really meant to be done...
Let's get it over straight away. Half Life 2: Orange Box is undoubtedly the best value videogame around. Admittedly it may not have the sheer numbers of the dodgy '200-in-1' packs found in car-boot sales across the country during the 90's, but you'll rarely find something of this quality and diversity wrapped in one box.
With Half Life 2 along with Episode One and the long awaited release of Episode Two, Orange Box provides one of the finest single-player shooter experiences you'll find on PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation3. The story of Gordan Freeman's continued efforts to help mankind in its struggle against Dr Breen and the Combine may be lost to people who've never played the original, but that's little reason to miss out on what has deservedly become a timeless classic.
Considering Half Life 2 was released over three years ago, it's testament to Valve and the game's quality that it still manages to provide such an absorbing experience. Subtle touches such as removing cut-scenes completely and portraying the action entirely from Freeman's perspective still manage to ensure Half Life 2 stands out amongst the crowd, with a level of immersion and effortless cinematism beyond anything else in the genre. The balance between action, puzzles, and survival/horror surpasses virtually anything else in the genre. PC gamers should need little reminding of the qualities of Half Life 2 and Episode One, however with a new audience on the next-gen consoles, Gordan Freeman's one-man mission to save mankind should find itself appreciated by an entirely new audience.
Prepare For Unforeseen Consequences
Picking up directly after the cliffhanger ending of Episode One, Episode Two continues Valve's theme of orientating each episode around a different concept. Escaping from City 17 and the destruction of the Citadel as Freeman and Alyx continue to weaken the Combine's weakening grasp on Earth, the focus behind Episode Two is on expansive environments and the trademark HL2 physics puzzles based around larger sequences.
It's a considerable achievement by Valve that they continuously manage to instil such an engrossing plot behind Half Life 2, which urges you to keep playing until the end. Played at a faster tempo with a greater emphasis on high action sequences, Episode Two occasionally stumbles, particularly when it comes to traversing the Antlion's confusing dwellings, but in many ways presents a more satisfying experience than its predecessor. Like Episode One before it, Episode Two is light on content, with only a single weapon, vehicle, and a couple of opponents offering anything new to HL fans. The escape towards Dr Kleiner, Eli Vance and Dog at the White Forest manages to feel suitably different nevertheless to Episode One and Half Life 2 before it, with a handful of entertaining and memorable sequences.
So the bottom line is, Orange Box provides one of the most satisfying and clever single-player first-person-shooters around, particularly if you've never played Half Life 2 before. Littered with nods towards previous games and even the original Half Life, the combination of Half Life 2, Episode One, and Episode Two is an irresistible package in itself for fans of the franchise, but one that makes it essential if you've never caught the adventures of Gordan Freeman before.
9 Years LaterBut Orange Box doesn't just stop there. Bringing an end to the long nine-year wait that Team Fortress fans have had to endure, the inclusion of Team Fortress 2 adds one of the most enjoyable multiplayer experiences you'll find with a first-person-shooter. Announced back in 1998, Team Fortress 2 has been the subject of numerous design changes, engine switches, and as a result, frequent appearances on vapourware lists, with the resulting game considerably different to what was first shown all those years ago.
A class based, team-objective, shooter, Team Fortress 2 hides a layer of strategy beyond its comedic style, with nine character classes to choose between, all of which feature a tremendous range of depth and variety. Beyond weapons and abilities, varying health and movement speed ensures each class has a purpose that brings a strong sense of balance to the proceedings.
Undoubtedly designed as a PC title, Team Fortress 2 (like much of Orange Box) can feel a little twitchy and too frenetic at times for a joypad. More concerning is the lag issues that were a common occurrence during our time with the Xbox 360 version, hopefully it's something Valve can work on to ensure Team Fortress 2 expands its legacy onto the consoles.
With only six maps and only a couple of game types (CTF, Control Point) it seems as though the nine years have been spent arguing about the visual style instead of amassing masses of content. In comparison to the likes of Enemy Territory: Quake wars, Team Fortress 2 can also seem a little dated in terms of its tactical simplicity. Nevertheless, with a visual style that is highly reminiscent of Pixar's work, Team Fortress 2 puts fun and comedy back into shooters, probably something TF fans probably weren't expecting back in 1998.
Half Life Meets Lemmings
Wrapping up an already comprehensive shooter compilation is Portal, one of the most original concepts in the first-person-shooter genre for some time. Initially Portal seems like the curious element of the package, one that will provide a few hours of fun, but lacking in comparison to the heritage of its companions. It's quite surprising then, when you find something about Portal that keeps pulling you back for more.
Beginning in inconspicuous fashion, players assume the role of Chell, an unwitting lab-rat in a series of tests she has to undertake on behalf of Aperture Science Inc. With only the Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System (GLaDOS) as company and guide, Portal's challenge revolves around finding the exit throughout a series of rooms - how hard can it be? Closer to Lemmings than Half Life however, Portal is nevertheless a game that will twist and contort your mind until you're a shivering wreck left to mutter insanely about the "solution".
Armed with little more than the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, or the Portal Gun for short, the solution to each of the rooms revolves around shooting an Orange and Blue portal to create a visual and physical link between any two suitable planar locations. Characterising Portal, the concept leads to plenty of situations that should come with a mental health warning, whether it's Chell chasing after herself in an infinite mirror or falling continuously between portals on the way to achieving Terminal Velocity. Although it starts out simple enough, Portal reaches the heights of many great puzzlers, embodied by the euphoric satisfaction of solving the trickier challenges.
Further into the game, Portal cranks the difficulty up, throwing pressure pads, mini-turrets, and door mechanisms into an already bewildering but entertaining mix and taking the concept of physics to the nth degree. If bending the space-time continuum and defying everything Galileo, Einstein, and Hawkings had to say, Portal also challenges you with real-world concepts such as momentum and the effect it has on Chell 'flinging' to the exit.
A lonely test of cerebral might, Portal's initially innocuous beginning develops as you progress further through the lab and listen to GLaDOS musings. References made in Episode 2 establish Portal and Aperture Science Inc. in the Half Life universe, and we presume we'll probably be finding out more in Episode Three.
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