The Orange Box

The Orange Box is a masterful collection of five first-person games, ported by the kind folks at EA after Valve shunned the PS3, three of which are based around the adventures of scientist Gordon Freeman (Half Life 2, Episode 1 and Episode 2) but the package also contains the multiplayer Team Fortress 2 and the sublime Portal. Read on to see how the whole thing pans out.

Every man and their gravity gun has heard of Half Life 2, even if it’s just in passing. The game continues the story of Gordon Freeman, scientist at the heart of the Black Mesa incident that occurs during the first Half Life (available on PS2, if you fancy a re-cap) and key player in the sequel and the two additional Episodes included on the disk. Half Life 2 is an expert lesson in storytelling and is one of the most successful first person shooters in terms of narrative and immersion, albeit one spread a little too thinly over too much exposition: what starts promising and ends in a rapturous finale is peppered with dull repetition and under nourished vehicle sections, but is a great ride nonetheless.

Despite being a three year old PC title, Half Life 2 does still retain some of its freshness, although many of its then exclusive visual and Havoc tricks have been bettered on more recent console titles. The Source engine (for the graphics, audio and AI) does a competent job but the PS3 port struggles at certain moments and the load times can be grating despite a handy quick-save function, but the main issue with Half Life 2 is what it could have been given. It’s well known that lots of the game was cut before release, including whole areas, vehicles, weapons and characters, and the pacing problems and ‘road trip’ feeling on the final release amplify these criticisms.

However, there’s much to enjoy in Half Life 2, and the continuing two far stronger Episodes help to cement Valve as potential masters at their craft – there’s no denying that this 60% of The Orange Box is the bulk of the package and deservedly so, when the game is good it’s great, with rewarding weapons and excellent storytelling, but when the objectives are unclear and the developers pull off yet another jumping head crab in the dark trick you start to yearn for some originality. Price-wise you can say that Half Life 2, Episode 1 and Episode 2 make up about £30 and you’ll not get through all three in a week, so that’s pretty much a bargain in all but the books of the most jaded gamers.

Team Fortress 2 was originally a mod for Quake, then for Half Life before finally settling on the same Source engine used for the rest of the compilation, despite having the exaggerated cartoon visuals. It’s essentially a team-based experience heavily biased towards the effective use of classes spread over a few game types such as the evergreen Capture The Flag and Control Point. The nine classes offer specialised gameplay (much like with Battlefield 2) and include Scouts, Soldiers, Medics and Engineers and will all be familiar to players of the original Team Fortress, although some of the abilities and weapons have changed.

The PS3 version of Team Fortress 2 runs relatively well, but can suffer from lag despite the player cap being dropped to just 16 per map from the 32 of the PC. The small number of actual maps is also a disappointment, but each is varied enough to provide some degree of length although the online community is somewhat sparse for PlayStation fans. In short, Team Fortress 2 is a nice deviation from the single player games in The Orange Box, but don’t buy the package specifically for this particular game.

Portal is the gem here, though. The guys responsible for the free indie title Narbacular Drop were hired by Valve directly and Portal is the first of hopefully many collaborations. It is essentially a first person puzzle game, revolving around the ever clever rules of portals as the player is charged with progressing through 19 increasingly complex test chambers, using nothing but the Portal Gun and a few cubes and switches.

The Portal Gun can (ultimately) fire both blue and orange portal ends, and although still governed by conventional physics (such as gravity and momentum) offers the player and any solid objects the ability to transport from one to another. The most fun for the gamer is in figuring out the required placement of the portals in each level and discovering the multitude of uses for them, with the goal of progressing through all the test chambers all the while being guided by the omnipresent GLaDOS computer system. There are many surprises in store in Portal, none of which we’ll spoil, but it’s only fair to say that the game might seem short (approximately 6 hours on the first play through), but there’s plenty of reasons to replay once the game is completed. The only shame for PS3 owners is that we can’t enjoy the hundreds of mods that PC gamers have access to.

So, The Orange Box ends up more than the sum of its 5 parts due to the lengthy single player of Half Life 2, the fun multiplayer brawl of Team Fortress 2 and the inspired inclusion of Portal. It’s true that the 360 versions run cleaner, with quicker load times and there’s no force feedback for Dual Shock 3 owners, but it’s still absolutely worth the money for PS3-only gamers. The hype might have already passed, but if you’ve yet to pick up The Orange Box, we suggest you make it a priority this week. If you’re skint, please, please rent it just for Portal.