Discussion Review: The Orange Box

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Platform: PC, Xbox 360
Publisher: Valve/EA
Developer: Valve
Release Date: 10/10/07
Genre: Action/FPS
Players: 1-16

Among this year’s packed lineup of triple-A releases, none can match the value of Valve and EA’s The Orange Box and only a select few can even claim to match its all-around stellar quality. Since both of us had been so eager to get our hands on this epic-sized compilation and have been singing its praises amongst ourselves since it’s release, fellow VGB cohort Greg Wilcox and I decided to resurrect the fun discussion reviews we used to do back at BonusStage and share our thoughts on the game in tandem. Read along for our full discussion.

Matt: With five games in one — Half-Life 2, HL2: Episode One, HL2: Episode Two, Portal and Team Fortress 2 — it’s a bit tough to know where to begin the showering of glowing superlatives, especially since each game is so damn brilliant. But the focal point of The Orange Box is clearly Half-Life 2, so I guess we should start there.

Obviously, if you haven’t played Half-Life 2 and the first expansion episode yet for some reason, you need to stop reading this review right now and go buy this goodie box of games immediately. Half-Life 2 is one of the greatest games of all time, and Episode One only continues the excellence with an even more suspenseful atmosphere and immersive team dynamic that has you playing alongside Alyx throughout virtually the entire episode. Similarly, Episode Two manages to take the Half-Life 2 saga up another notch, easily surpassing the original and Episode One in terms of intensity and immersion. At around 5-6 hours, Episode Two is an extra hour or two longer than Episode One as well, so I don’t want to hear any complaining about it being too short, dammit!

Episode Two picks up where the Episode One cliffhanger left off, with Gordon and Alyx surviving their train crash escape from City 17 and race to deliver an important packet of information that should surely aid the resistance’s fight against the Combine. Early on and during additional moments throughout, you work alongside Alyx like in Episode One, though overall there is much more time spent going at it solo this episode. What stands out the most with Episode Two is the more open and organic feeling environment. Now that Gordon and Alyx have escaped City 17, you get to see the surrounding landscape for the first time, and it definitely gives the game a more evolved feel in terms of level designs and pacing. The final battle in particular out scales anything seen in the previous two titles and is one of the most epic and intense moments I’ve experienced in all my years of gaming. The ending rocks too, but of course I’m not going to spoil that for you.

Vehicle riding segments also make a return after a no-show in the last episode, and thankfully they are implemented better here compared to the original Half-Life 2. For me, the driving portions in HL2 began to drag and feel like filler material tossed in to extend the game, but I never got that feeling for a second in Episode Two. Actually, having the vehicular stuff back is part of what makes the final battle so chaotic and intense.

Greg: I was (and still am) a huge fan of the original Xbox version of Half-Life 2 because the game was the absolute in technical feats for the system and still holds up to this day as a key title. It’s a shame that it didn’t garner more sensible reviews back then, but I won’t comment on other sites’ ludicrous judgment standards. Amusingly enough, the only reason I’ve retired the game into my library is because The Orange Box beats it to death in terms of content.

Half-Life was (and still is) one of the best games ever made and Half-Life 2, particularly with the addition of the episodic content, is still completely compelling, thrilling and frightening no matter how many times I play. The storytelling throughout the series has been unmatched, thanks to Valve’s careful design choices and the translation to both the Xbox 360 and PS3 is fantastic. If Valve had simply released HL2 and the two Episodes, the game would still be a steal, but they managed to fit the awesome puzzle/action game Portal AND Team Fortress 2 on the disc, making this the hands-down bargain of the year.

While you don’t have to have played the first HL to jump right in, folks who know the game will get the in-jokes and visual references. I love how the games smartly and transparently drop clues on how to deal with certain enemies early on, something players that look for constant hand-holding may miss. Clever players will take advantage of this, a good thing when those moments come where you’re challenged by multiple enemies from multiple angles.

Episode One is great stuff while it lasts, literally throwing you back into the place you just escaped from and building to a wild finale. Episode Two bests it in terms of combat and emotional intensity, but I really can’t say anything negative about the three parts overall. That’s because find it tough to see this series as anything but one continuing storyline that keeps me on the edge of my seat whenever a new chapter is done.

Controls are perfect across the PC and Xbox 360 and I love how Valve fixed the flashlight for the Episodes. As for the driving, I must be the only person who really got into both the airboat and car levels! To me, these sections were a good way to show off how large the game world was and unlike the Halo games, you’re really not doing a ton of backtracking unless you’re going after certain Achievements (or spare ammo). I did notice the handling difference between HL2 and Episode 2, so I’m gathering Valve was listening to feedback from those that had issues.

Matt: I’m with you on the flashlight; it’s nice to have that with its own power meter now. Doesn’t sound like a huge change, but it eliminates a little extra hassle and makes playing that much more streamlined and effortless. The console controls definitely work well too, which can be tricky for FPSs, especially those originating from the mouse-and-keyboard PC world.

Comparing the console versions to the PC a bit further, I actually found the all-in-one menu interface of the 360 version to be a much better system compared to having to close and launch each game individually on the PC. Then again, the game runs a bit smoother in terms of framerate and looks a bit sharper on PC, though the differences are minimal overall.

As for the driving portions, it’s not that I didn’t like them in HL2, I just think they tended to last a little too long for their own good. At first they were a fun diversion, but gradually they became a tad dull for me. And how the vehicular gameplay is implemented in Episode Two sort of proves my point some. The driving comes in shorter bursts and always seems to have a more focused role in pushing the game forward.

Now let’s turn to Portal, what are your thoughts on it?

Greg: What an amazing surprise! Sure, it’s short and the boss “battle” is less challenging once you’ve run a couple of insanely crafted gauntlets, but it’s definitely not easy if you’re expecting it to be a standard 3D puzzle game or platformer. First of all, the story is both humorous and subtly very unsettling as you discover who you are and what’s behind the scenes at Aperture Labs. The fact that the plot fits into the Half-Life time-line is brilliant and made me wonder what would have occurred had Aperture and not Black Mesa gotten that government contract. We’d be playing HL2 with a portal gun, methinks…

The best things about Portal, besides the main story, are the challenges that unlock upon completion of the main game and that awesome ending theme. I actually played through the game twice (the second time listening to the developer commentary) just to beat my time and hear that little ending ditty again. The funny thing is although Achievements are locked with commentary on, I did better at the game while it was on and I know at least two of the Achievements I’d missed the first time were accomplished on that second playthrough. Oh well, the third time’s the charm, they say.

Matt: Portal is a surprise indeed and a total gem of a game – it really is a shining example of true gaming innovation with puzzle and gameplay design that ditches conventional wisdom and forces you to think in a completely different way to clear each obstacle.

You are definitely right on about it being short (only like 2-3 hours long), but honestly, a game of this style probably wouldn’t hold up over a more standard 6-8-hour game length. And with the bonus challenges you unlock after beating the game and the drawing replayability of the story itself, the couple-hour runtime feels about right.

Aside from the unbelievably cool portal puzzle dynamic that drives the game, what I love the most about Portal is its sort of dark, dry sense of humor, and the little twist you get towards the end that reveals exactly what’s going on at Aperture Labs, as you mentioned. I too loved the ending theme song; it’s so damn hilarious and is a nice little added bonus to completing the game. Quite possibly the best credits sequence ever – there aren’t many that compel you to go back and watch/listen to again, but Portal’s certainly does.

And last but certainly not least we come to Team Fortress 2, how’d you find your time spent in this colorfully violent online shooter?

Greg: For Team Fortress 2, I had to hightail it to a friends to play, but this is one of those great games where you NEED friends that know the ins and outs of the game and the gigantic levels. It’s called Team Fortress 2 for a reason, as you’ll see if you try to go it alone. Between the cool art style and balanced play (with the right people), the game is a total blast. Of all the classes, I’m liking the Spy and Medic, with the Sniper, Scout and Demoman close runners up. TF2 is one of those games where you’ll absolutely want to play against type and pick a character you normally wouldn’t in a multiplayer shooter.

Each of these guys is well-designed and fun to play, but when you see how versatile they are other than “he can shoot a big gun” or “he can heal,” the game opens up. I’m surprised (and slightly disappointed) that Valve didn’t design female characters, as a curvy temptress rendered in that intentionally quirky art style would be a great distraction for some folks easily thrown by a swivel-hipped hottie with a firearm. Can you say downloadable skin and/or new character class, folks?

Matt: For the most part, I agree with you on Team Fortress 2 as well. All the different character classes are distinct and well balanced, and finding good teams that know how to fulfill their role and work together leads to some of the best multiplayer action you’ll ever play.

Interestingly enough, I actually found myself enjoying two classes you didn’t mention: the Engineer and Heavy Weapons Guy, being the last line of defense by strategically placing turrets on one hand, then being sorta the main tank of the offensive push on the other. Playing as a Heavy Weapons Guy when paired with a Medic who knows what he’s doing is the best too, as you absorb bullets like nobody’s business and mow through people with reckless abandon, coming out with nary a scratch once the dust and bullet shells settle.

As much fun as Team Fortress 2 is, though, I’m disappointed that there’s no system of progression, or even some form of personal character customization. With games like Warhawk and Call of Duty 4 (hell even the Battlefield games), you’re always earning experience and rewards for your performance, which keeps you motivated to continue playing. With TF2, I’ve gotten to the point where I play a match or two then lose interest in playing any longer because I’m really not getting anything for my efforts other than improved standing on the leaderboards. It’s basically just a good stress reliever for me at this point, and not much more. The gameplay is so fantastic though, so if there’s ever any sort of update, expansion or sequel that introduces some type of rewards system I’d be playing nonstop.

Greg: In playing a bit more of Team Fortress 2, I’m finding that it’s best for players to really try ALL the classes out, as each is perfect in many ways. I generally don’t go the heavy weapons route, but here, the game rocks no matter what class you play. Initially, I’ll admit to being slightly disappointed (VERY slightly) that TF2 only had a small amount of maps and not much in the way of customization as you noted. However, I seriously doubt that Valve will let this great game fade quietly into the night. When they eventually get around to it, I can see all sorts of additions to the game coming… that is unless the talented modders among the game’s growing fan base come up with something first.

Matt: In terms of graphics and audio, just to touch on the topic in closing, all five games in the pack perform marvelously. The Source engine has been tweaked to push out slightly crisper textures and sharper lighting and effects, and overall the HL2 games definitely look better than they ever have. Although the same core sound effects are pretty much carried over across all five, each game has a unique style to it. Team Fortress 2’s art direction is definitely the most distinctive with its cartoony, caricature-ish style blended with some seriously over-the-top violence and gore — it looks great and adds to the fun factor big time.

Overall, The Orange Box is the most compelling, diverse and fully-featured gaming experience of the year, not to mention one hell of a bargain. Each title is easily 9-point worthy in terms of review score at the minimum and would be worthy of its own standalone release. When you add them all together, the mix of games and the quality of the execution is as perfect as it gets in my book. Therefore, as my final score I give The Orange Box an enthusiastic 10!

Greg: As soon as I heard Valve was working on The Orange Box compilation, I can remember thinking out loud “Hell, if they can pull this off, it’s a 10 just for the effort.” The funny thing about reviewing all these games is it’s HARD as hell to find anything resembling a real fault at all, no matter what system you play it on. Hell, Valve knows this and their confidence in their work is solid beyond belief. How solid? Well, Gabe Newell gives out his email address in the intro to each developer commentary, asking players for any and all feedback. Now, tell me: just how many creators in the industry would go THAT extra mile these days?

Based on how amazingly well this package turned out, I’d love to see Valve release the original Half-Life and it’s many expansions (beefed up with Source, naturally) as a follow up. Call me crazy, but this package should definitely ship with Episode 3 once that’s finally completed… or perhaps a playable demo if it isn’t. After playing through what’s going to be known as 2007’s best deal in gaming and planning to head back again and again, I’m definitely giving The Orange Box a 10 as well.

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!