THE ORANGE BOX
(Valve/EA; Xbox 360 and PC; Mature)
Fans of the first-person-shooter genre who happen to own an Xbox 360 have a lot to be thankful for. Over the past 12 months, they’ve been blessed with titles that offer bone-crunching thrills (Gears of War), immersive environments and challenging puzzles (Bioshock), and unsurpassed online play (Halo 3). To this top tier of FPS games, you may now add The Orange Box. Comprising no fewer than five titles — Half-Life 2, two H-L 2 expansion packs, Portal, and Team Fortress 2 — The Orange Box is also one heck of a bargain.
Originally released as PC title in 2004, Half-Life 2 was an immediate hit with both fans and critics. Telling the tale of renegade scientist Gordon Freeman and his battles to free Earth from the intra-dimensional Combine forces, the game was widely praised for its well-calibrated pacing, fluid animation, ”realistic” physics package, and superb voice-acting. The game was ported to the Xbox in 2005 with mixed results — while the PC keyboard controls were adapted quite well to a console handset, the Xbox’s relatively under-powered chipset caused some annoying frame-rate issues. All those problems and more have been addressed in the Orange Box version — the game and the two expansion packs have been thoroughly optimized for the next-gen console. Just having these three titles alone would have justified the $60 cost of the Orange Box — but wait (to borrow the familiar refrain of TV hucksters), there’s more!
Team Fortress offers terrific online play, pitting a Red Team against a Blue Team. (We’re guessing there’s no political significance to these names.) Players can choose from a variety of classes, each with its particular strengths and weaknesses. What’s most striking about this game is its visual style, one that owes less to the grim and gritty environments of Gears or Halo than to the landscapes of Chuck Jones’ cartoons. Rounding out the Orange Box‘s five games is Portal, in which you play a stranger who wakes up in a small room of a seemingly abandoned research facility. It appears that doors were not part of the building’s plans: getting around the lab is done via glowing portals that mysteriously appear, allowing you to walk through walls (and floors and ceilings). Get through enough rooms, and you’ll find a gun that will let you create your own portals. It’s terrific fun, long on both challenging puzzles and bizarre humor — in fact, it may be the best game in the Box.
Yes, there are a few problems with the games here: an experienced player can get through the two expansion packs and Portal in a single day, and none of the titles can be called true high-def presentations. But taken in the larger context, these issues do nothing to diminish what The Orange Box truly is: an embarrassment of riches for the true FPS fan. A