Review by Donald Love 87
"Way more fun than a real box of oranges"
I'm sorry. I'm really sorry for that lame joke in the headline. I just couldn't resist it. The real one should read something like "A disc where the added parts equal the sum". I'll explain later what I mean by that.
The Orange Box is a compilation disc consisting of five games - Half-Life 2 and it's two semi-sequels Episode 1 and Episode 2, a little experimental game called Portal and a multiplayer game called Team Fortress 2. While the Half Life games are pretty much like each other, the other two are really different, so I'll split the review into separate parts in each category where it's appropriate. While the games differ from each other, what they got in common - and is the reason that they're together on a disc - is that all of them are developed by Valve Corporation, and they all use the Source game engine.
The Half-Life games are going for a pretty realistic approach when it comes to graphics. Of course, it's a sort of post-apocalyptic world, but you still can see that it tries to look like a REAL post-apocalyptic world. The graphics is a bit on the dated side, though, since the HL2 main game was released in 2004, and as far as I can tell no upgrade has been done for this version (which was released in 2007). Also, I don't know how much the Source engine has inherited from the engine used in the original Half-Life, but it still seems like it prefers squares and cubes. Of course, round things are _always_ harder to work with in 3D environments, but they have become more common in later years.
The overall graphics are very similar in all the HL games, but I've experienced some slowdowns with Episode 1 and 2, maybe because of those game uses somewhat updated graphics and more open areas, so there's more to load into the memory. It could also be that scripted events are becoming bigger and more complex. But that never gets really irritating, and only happens for half a second or so, and never when you really feel you need to concentrate.
The environments you travel through are also worth to mention. The original game (when I say "the original game", I mean Half-Life 2 in this review) seems to mostly have the usual FPS things - the city, sewers, much grey, much brown, for a while you'll also be in a futuristic alien technology building. The level which stands out most in the original is one where you have to drive a buggy down a beach road. While it's a break from the normal grey/brown, the environment just isn't that much more interesting. Episode 1 is a real disappointment here, too, because you'll probably want to play it after the original, and EVERY environment in Ep1 feels like you've seen it before. Of course, it's because you travel in the same areas, but you've already been tired with it once. Oh, and to add to that part of Ep1 is in darkness. So you have to use your flashlight. Which runs out of batteries. I really dislike such things in games.
Episode 2, on the other hand, is brilliant. You get out of that damn city and much of that game takes place in fresh environments. My favourite is the forest parts. Even though they're not big and not very green, it's so nice to see some trees as opposed to concrete buildings and burned-out cars.
One thing which struck me with these games where that they were a lot more gory and bloody than I thought when starting out. I never played through the entire Half-Life 1 game, but here it feels like they threw everything out there just because they could. Especially the parts with splitting people in two bothers me a bit - ok they're zombies, but I'd prefer to just stay with guns in a normal FPS.
There's only two words I can say about the graphics in Portal - Apple and IKEA. Everything just has this very modern design, with the electronic products (even gun turrets!) looks very soft, and very white. Most of the levels are like this, but later on you'll get to see what the facility you're in really looks like. Here, I also won't mind the square-based levels (remember, things like the gun turret, which is a 3D model, is a completely different thing), since it's just a part of the art style this whole game is built on.
Also, it's very easy to see what walls you can stick portals to, which is really great because then you're never really tricked - if you get stuck, it's because you didn't think hard enough, not because the game fools you into thinking something won't work which actually does.
Team Fortress 2
Team Fortress 2 takes a bit of a different approach to graphics than the other games. Here, it's all about cartoonish looks and cell shading. Which, according to me, is great because if it weren't, I think this would be way to gory. Now it's just fun.
Everything in Team Fortress 2 is a bright color, and everything is just so... unserious. From signs in the levels to the actual looks of the characters, it just never takes itself too seriously. Which makes the game very fun to play, because it's never about life or death. If you get blown to pieces, it's ok because you're just a cartoon character and will be up and running in about 10-15 seconds again.
Sound effects and music
The music in these games are fast-paced tunes that just pop up here and there to add to certain scenes and get your blood pumping, and is pretty hard to remember just because of that - there's too much else going on when you hear the music so that you won't really notice. The songs feature a lot of synthesizer sounds (like razor synths) and are very electronic in nature, which fits with the theme of the game.
The voice acting is above standard, though. Since the entire game is played as a FPS, there are no cutscenes to reveal info, nothing to read in between areas, nothing like that. Everything you learn is from what you're told. That's what drives this story forward, and most people you come across who haven't already turned into zombies will have something to say. Too sad you can't reply, because Gordon is a silent protagonist (which I'll rant more about in the story section). The voice actors do a great job, and it sounds like they've all read the script and got what it's about, pronounces things the same way, sounds like they know what they're doing - this makes it sound very believable at all times.
Sound effects are, like the music, pretty electronic and alien. Overall, they won't stand out really, the only two I can remember really clearly is firstly the explosion sounds from a gunship going down - a very satisfying sound for you as a player. The other is the sound a zombie makes when you set it on fire. For some reason, all other zombie sounds are said to be human "oh no why"-lines played backwards. When setting one on fire, for some reason it starts to sound like a human crying out in pain. It's really creepy, and I don't like it. The sound effects is also often a good first clue about what's about to happen - you can often here enemies before you get a chance to see them.
Portal is a very strange case. It features some of the best voice acting I've ever heard, but you won't hear a single human in the game. There's only two things you'll ever hear talking - the AI, GLaDOS, and the gun turrets. One thing which is pretty unique is that unlike other games, it isn't about the emotion in the voice acting. Since the AI isn't capable of feeling emotions (or is she? we can't be sure), all you'll get is this cold robotic voice. For some reason, I find that voice soothing and easy to listen to.
Also, the second thing is WHAT is said. Maybe it would fit better under story, but it's about what is said and in what tone. GLaDOS just keeps delivering quotes through the game, and even though most of them are lies and trickery, you as a gamer will love them. The gun turrets do that in a lesser scale, but it's always very funny to hear one of them say "where are you?" in this high-pitched tone after losing sight of you.
This game also features what is classified like one of the best videogame songs ever - Still Alive. Played during the credits, sung by none other than the AI herself - GLaDOS. Upbeat and happy, but with pretty dark lyrics - is is a very fitting end because that is like most of the game. It's really a great song, and if you haven't heard it yet, check it out on YouTube (though it kinda spoils the end of the game... though it's not that surprising what happens).
Other music and sound effects just aren't as memorable as GLaDOS, but it's there and you'll never find anything in this compartment lacking from the game.
Team Fortress 2
While the sound isn't really that important in an online FPS game, here it's just as good as the other games in the box. Just as the rest of TF2, it's highly exaggerated and crazy - especially the announcer (who is voiced by Ellen McLain - same person who voiced GLaDOS) who really is engaged in what's going on. "Alert! The enemy has taken our intelligence" sounds less like an announcement but with a tone more like an order to go and kill the enemy, secure the intelligence and get it back. While the player characters won't say much, the one-liners they deliver are pretty spot-on.
Even more so than in Half-Life, sounds are great to find out what's going on here. It really pays off to listen to gain an advantage - you can hear a sentry gun in search mode (no, unlike Portal these doesn't speak) if it's close by, so you can peek around the next corner a bit more carefully. If you hear a gunfight close by, try to get involved by sneaking up behind the enemy. The spies cloaking ability does become a bit less effective if you hear him cloaking on and knows that he's somewhere near. The examples are countless.
Music isn't used all that much in the game, though the main theme (I think it is - the tune which plays when you hover over TF2 on the box main screen) is very good, so I wouldn't mind to hear more of it. Other than that, there are more short sounds that plays when certain things happen in the game - like when you dominate a player (kills him a lot in one round), there's a sound which sounds like it's coming right out any agent movie you've ever seen.
So, overall, sounds aren't that much used in TF2, though those who are is great and blends nicely in with the gameplay. And the quotes, from both player characters and commentator, are great.
Ok, probably not many people will agree with me, but I find the story of Half-Life pretty... irritating. The problem isn't the part of the story told in the games, or the way it's told (which is great), but rather what isn't. Let me explain.
I never played through all of Half-Life 1, but I know pretty much what happened at Black Mesa. The thing is that during the leap from Half-Life 1 to Half-Life 2, so much has happened - the Combine forces has taken over the Earth, the Vortiguants has teamed up with the human resistance. The problem is, by just playing through the game, not much of this is explained why or how it happened. There are stories to find on the internet, official, but still they aren't IN THE GAME. It just annoys me; the fact that we can't get more info within the game, but has to look it up from other sources.
The story from beginning to end in the game (and Ep1 and 2, which all both direct sequels, starting only minutes after the earlier game ends), however, is told in a great way, and there really is something special with seeing it all from the first person perspective, never going out of gameplay mode. It makes you form a sort of bond with the characters you meet. Each game has it's own separate story arc, and I can't really tell you much without spoiling anything, but the main objective of these three games is to join forces with the rebels and try to stop the Combine.
One thing which really bugs me about this is also the "silent protagonist" approach. I just don't think it's working with Gordon Freeman. This method works in some games - GTA3, for an example, has an unnamed silent protagonist because it makes it easier to play as if it were you yourself. It doesn't work here because EVERYONE knows that you're not you in the game - you're Gordon Freeman, and he's not you. It just makes no sense, especially if you consider that he's portrayed as a real person in other senses. One thing which further adds to the irritation, is that characters remark about this in the game - "Not very talkative, are you?". No, I just don't find that part of the game working.
This takes place in the same universe as the Half-Life games, but I'm not sure where or when, since just like in those games, almost no info is given about it in the game. You play as Chell, a woman who, for some reason, has ended up in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, as a test subject. The goal of the game is to get through several test courses, by using Portals to either get you or items you need to places where they need to be. Since this is a pretty experimental game, the gameplay is much more in focus than the story, and my guess is that the story with the tie-in to the HL universe is just squeezed in there as a cool thing for the fans.
Team Fortress 2
Here, no real story is needed. I'm more surprised that one exists than if it had not. Two teams, RED and BLU, consisting of two construction companies which are actually just fronts for intelligence agencies. While not the most original, it works for this kind of game. Don't think too hard about it, just play.
The controls work like most FPS for consoles do - one stick for moving, one for looking around. Firing with R2, alternate fire with L2. Jumping with X, picking things up with Square (more about that in gameplay). Reload with O, changing weapons with the directional buttons. As I said, it's the standard thing. If you're more used to consoles than computers (like me), you're probably going to prefer this over using a mouse and a keyboard, especially since they managed to map buttons very good to the controller and you never need to twist your fingers in awkward ways to pull something off. At least not while walking - vehicle controls can be a bit irritating, since you use the left stick not only to steer, but also to accelerate/brake/reverse, which makes it hard to drive sometimes. I would've preferred if it was mapped with X or O to drive/brake or something. Still, since none of the driving portions are that hard, it's not a big problem.
Portal has even easier controls than Half-Life, since there's none of that gun switching and such needed to be done. In the beginning, all you can do is to run around and jump, but a bit into the game, you get the device known as the Portal Gun. This makes it possible to fire portals onto certain surfaces - and fully upgraded you can shoot a blue portal with R2 and an orange portal with L2. Only one of each can be active at one time, and they lead to each other. Overall, the controls are easy and good, and never a problem.
Team Fortress 2
Just like the other games in the box, this follow a similar idea. The biggest difference is that while you cannot pick things up, square is used to taunt your opponents. A fun but not very valuable technique. All I can say about the controls, and this applies to every game in the box - if you know your way around a PS3 controller, they are very good. Great responsivity, great mapping.
The main parts of the HL2 games are just plain shooters. There are enemies where you need to go, so you need to get them out of your way. So usually, it's just a shooter, but it's got some twists.
First of all, the game engine uses physics a lot. This makes for some decent puzzles where you has to weigh down stuff by loading it with bricks, or when you need to raise a bridge by putting air-filled plastic barrels underneath it. In the beginning, you can only pick up small things, but in one chapter you get the Gravity Gun. This makes it possible to pick up bigger things, and is used as your main weapon for some parts of the game where you use it to fling heavy things at high velocity towards your enemies. While it's fun at first, I find it very gimmicky at first.
What I like more is the enemy AI. I'm really impressed by how they work in squads and also are intelligent enough to back down and take cover. There are also great battle against enemy gunships and ugly semi-mechanical creatures known as Striders and Hunters. These battles are really intense, but you can really gain from trying to sneak up to avoid getting hit. The problem with this can become that the game becomes a save/load-party. The feature to save whenever you want is great, but there is a risk that you'll start saving TOO often, and also start to load when you lost a bit of health, even if it's not needed because the game is fairly generous with healing items.
There's also parts of the game that's mini-strategy (very mini), where you get a small squad following you. About the only orders you can give them is stay or follow, but it works. Other small "minigames" include the driving sequences I mentioned in the controls section, and also a tower defense thing for a while towards the end of Episode 2.
Unlike many other FPS games, this isn't split into different missions - you start the game, then everything just keeps on going in real time. I usually find games like this pretty confusing, and it's hard to keep track of how far you've actually gone. Much of that is because a mission based goes from start to end several times during the game. Some story arcs may carry over multiple missions, but it still gets a chance to reset every once in a while. Here, it feels like there's much gameplay but no real big twists to the story - because it all just is a road from start to end, and all small stuff in between just feels like distractions. I just have a hard time getting an overview of everything when it's like this. The game is pretty long, which adds to this feeling. While it's not up there with RPG lengths, count 10 hours or so for the main game, then 4-5 for each episode. This all depends on how good you are and how much you explore or rush through, though. I'm not a very skilled FPS player, so I surely took my time.
Overall, I can't help but to feel that Half-Life 2 is mainly a show-off of the Source engine, which was brand new by the time of release. It really strays far from the FPS genre at some points, and the gravity-based puzzles just get old very quickly. The best game of the three is Episode 2, mainly because the gravity gun puzzles is pretty toned down there and it returns to being more of a traditional shooter. So while the other games play out good, it just leaves a bitter taste afterwards that the game is more focused on what the ENGINE can do than what the game is actually about.
While you might could be able to say the same thing as I said about the Half-Life games in this section, I won't. First and foremost, this is, admittedly, an experimental game. Unlike HL2, it isn't a sequel to a very good game considered a classic. It just got put out there, and then it all exploded and it became widely popular.
Unlike Half-Life 2, which is a FPS game with puzzle tendencies, this is a FPP game - First Person Puzzler (that's probably not the official term, just something I came up with). There is no shooting. The Portal Gun might be a gun, but it can't really hurt anyone (directly). The goal of the game is to get to the end of several test courses, and do that by using portals to get you or things you need to the right place.
It's a pretty short game, and even though there are advanced versions of a few levels and some "limit" stages (where you need to complete it under a time limit, or with least teleports, or least steps), it just isn't long. Though that's also explained by the fact that it's just an experimental game - who would like to put a lot of time and effort into something which nobody would play? Also, like it is now, much more of the same would become boring.
Team Fortress 2
TF2 is, just as the name implies, a game centered much around teamwork. There's no single player version of the game, so you need to have your PS3 connected to the internet to be able to play it. The game is a FPS game, but most of it is centered around team effort, so just playing it with a gun&run style isn't going to get you to the really high scores.
There are six different maps in the PS3 version, without a doubt the most popular one being 2Fort; a "capture the briefcase" type of scenario where you need to go into the enemy base, get an actual briefcase, and carry it back to your base. Other levels have different gameplay, like one team capturing and one defending bases, or levels like that with a twist - you have two bases, your enemies two, one neutral, and you need to capture each base on the map in order.
Anyways, the teamwork starts to come in play when you pick a class. There are multiple classes to choose between, from the slow but durable and minigun-wielding Heavy, to an engineer who can build sentry guns, to spies who can dress up like one on the opposing team (and cloak!), to scouts who are weak but very fast. The thing is that you need to play as a team to be able to win! As an Engineer, you might not be among the ones who go to fetch the enemy briefcase or capture bases, but rather stay back at your own spawning area or near a base, build a sentry gun and keep it in good health as it takes on the enemies who decide to drop by. As a medic, you might want to stick with a heavy - since he's got much more health than most units, he's the one who's most likely to kill an enemy before the enemy kills him, but still need to heal up afterwards.
The gameplay is also very quick, with spawn time going down to just a few seconds. This makes the matches feel much more alive, and you play more offensive because there's no real punishment for dying.
Like all games where you play against human opponents, this can be fun to play as long as there's opposition out there - you never know what a human enemy will do, so each match is unique. There's been some talk in the community about people hacking and, well, while I can say that it's true that there are hackers floating around on the servers, most of the ones I've met seems to prefer to just have some fun with it (like recolorations and some level mods), and only one I've met so far (I've played this for a bit over 10 hours) has used his powers to try to look like he's good at the game.
The box is a good collection of games, but like I said in the beginning - they just equal the sum. What I mean is that by being bundled together, they won't become one great entity; they are still separate. The experience of playing Portal won't be enhanced because you do it just after Half-Life 2. The Episode games, of course, are nice to play directly after the main game, but the story isn't that complex or hard to remember that they improve by it. I only feel that three (Ep1+2, Portal) of these games are too small to be standalone releases, so it just feels natural to bundle them.
As independent games, they've each got good points and bad points. All the Half-Life games has a pretty weak and basic story (TOLD in a great way, I must remind you), an uninteresting main character, but still feature some great battles and works very good from a gameplay perspective. The main game also feels too much like it's more of a tech demo to show off the game engine. Episode 1 is just boring, since not very much is happening story-wise and also gameplay-wise it'll pretty much just be like the later part of the main game. Episode 2 is the best one of this three-pack, and I don't have any specific complaints about it.
Continuing about how the games fare on their own, Portal is very good, but way too short; it almost feels like it has no time to begin before you're battling the final boss. Team Fortress 2 is balanced and good, and playing online is always fun. If I should pick out my favorite games from the box, it would be Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2, even if Portal surely is worthy a playthrough.
As a total score, I give this box a 7 out of 10. It's consists of five good games, and will possibly give you some nice play time, but it's nothing that really sticks or anything that makes is very worthy of replaying.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 03/07/11
Game Release: The Orange Box (EU, 12/14/07)
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