The Orange Box is a strange name for a game by any standards. However, when gazing upon the contents of this particular yellow-red container its obviously supernatural nature is revealed. Clearly no mundane crate could hold such wonders. Nay, it must be some sort of uber-bin—the product of black sorcery perhaps, or mad science gone horribly right. Or perhaps the Machiavellian scheming of the world’s laziest gift giver, for here there must be something for everyone: a classic solo shooter continued, a classic team shooter updated, and a devilish little puzzler to boot.
All subterranean dwellers should pay special attention, for if you have somehow managed to miss out on playing Half-Life 2 in the past it is now time to push aside the rock that conceals the entrance to your secret cave and join the rest of us in enjoying this iconic shooter. Despite feeling a little dated at times in the wake of more modern genre representatives, HL2 is every bit as good now as it was when it came out. Last year’s Episode One is also included here, an additional nugget of Half-Life notable for its merit as well as its brevity.
Premiering with The Orange Box is Episode Two, the latest continuation of HL2. While still on the short side, it is considerably longer than Episode One (perhaps a shade shorter than Halo 3’s campaign). As for quality, it is every bit as good as HL2 itself, featuring a dastardly new enemy, the Hunter, and plenty of thrills. The only possible knock on Episode Two can be blamed on its forefathers for setting the bar so high, and that it relies heavily on the same kinds of tricks, like gravity gun environment puzzles and a long vehicle driving section, that we’ve seen plenty of before. A new weapon or two would have been nice or some kind of new paradigm to play around with, but those hopes must now be transferred to the eventual arrival of Episode Three at an unspecified time in the future.
The multiplayer duties for this package are ably handled by Team Fortress 2, a retooled version of the Team Fortress and Team Fortress Classic games from the late ‘90s. For the uninitiated, Team Fortress is a class based multiplayer game where players choose one of nine classes such as medic, soldier, or sniper and work together to achieve certain team goals, generally the capturing of flags or control points. The game itself has been streamlined from previous versions, with each class’ role more clearly defined and equipped to fill a certain niche, and given a new stylized computer animation look. The result is simple enough to be accessible but with a multitude of overlapping synergies available for greater strategic possibilities, creating a fast paced gem that, with a few more maps and modes perhaps, could very well have been a stand-alone product.
Last on the docket of an already robust agenda is Portal, an excellent little puzzle game with a wicked sense of humor. Here you find yourself as a test subject in a bizarre experiment with a simple goal: get to the exit of every level. Your only tool to this end is a gun capable of creating two connecting portals, and you’ll need it to traverse a maze of corridors, platforms, and environmental hazards. Accompanying you on your strange journey is a creepy disembodied computerized voice that prods you along with commentary that is both funny and disturbing at the same time. Although over way too soon, Portal is great fun while it lasts, and is given extra life in the form of advanced challenges that are very challenging indeed.
As has already been pointed out in many other places by many other people, The Orange Box may be the single greatest value in gaming history. Packaging a classic like Half-Life 2 and its episodic companions with the oh-so-long anticipated Team Fortress 2 is a little like ordering the most expensive item on the menu stuffed with the second most expensive item (credit: Homer Simpson). As if that wasn’t enough, they’ve thrown Portal on top like a big fat maraschino cherry. What more could you ask for? World Peace? Free Energy? A Spice Girls reunion tour? Patience, gentle friends. All things in their time. For now simply enjoy the bounty of riches that has been laid before you, cause it’s all good.