What's inside the Orange Box?

... as so deliciously put by Valve's own commercial robotic voice. And I'm sure you've already made your assumption as to whether I believe the orange box is worth the money... Or not! Well, as you may have guessed, this is a review node delving into the products contained within Valve's most recent Cash-cow, namely The Orange box...

As with a few previous review nodes, I will occasionally delve into meta-review territory, talking about game mechanics and other related items more of interest to the average game creator, than game player. Please - bear with me. Also, I assume a small to fair knowledge on some parts regarding the titles. Although I do mention this occasionally during the review, I feel it only fair to give a small warning beforehand as well.

I should also note that this review has been written at various points in time in regards to my playing the Orange Box. I began the review shortly after playing through both Portal and Half-Life 2:Episode Two. That is now more than a month ago and I'm first finishing the actual review now. So, certain statements within the review, while true at the time, do not ring true for the entire review...

Finally, before we delve into the actual review I should point out that although the Orange Box actually contains five separate products, I will be focussing mainly on three of them. That is - the three new ones: Portal, Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode Two. I will occasionally mention the two remaining titles (Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode One), especially when concerned with the complete value afforded by the Orange Box. Anyway - Enough delays and on with the show...

Portal

Described as (and i quote) "... Brain-melting offbeat genius." To that, I must agree. I think the most important aspect to stress is offbeat. As I am writing this, one of my close friends is playing the game beside me and has just proclaimed (roughly translated) "This makes it worth every penny". Bear in mind however, that my friend has not actually purchased the game... I have... But he (in my opinion) finely illustrates a point I wish to make. I believe Portal is a game walking a fine line in-between gamer types. Very very roughly - I believe we can categorize a large section of gamers into the more bright eyed gamer who appreciates offbeat things. Another gamer segment would be the people who like run-of-the-mill things. Objects, events and items which act as expected or as explained without any further wonder.

Portal, without question, caters most to the former type. Coming back to the point I am trying to make, I believe most if not all people who welcome gaming will at the very least be entertained by Portal. Although this doesn't sound like much at first, think about it... How many other games can claim to hold the interest of almost anyone even if it's just for a short while. By saying this, I am of course ignoring gamers in the community who refuse to touch FPSs and perhaps also people suffering from ADD. But (and here's my point), while Portal does cater to many kinds of gamers, I'm afraid theres a strong division between those who are compelled to pay for the experience and those who just see it as a laugh on the side. An almost unforgettable and perhaps unmissable laugh, but a laugh nonetheless. Anyway - I'm getting ahead of myself. As I was saying, Portal caters to the slightly oddball type gamer...

Which is good in my opinion, because whether or not I am in one category or the other, I do enjoy unexpected oddball things. And Portal has heaps of it... In brief, Portal is played from the first person perspective but is far from any type of standard shooter. I'd try to describe it as a first person puzzle solver (or FPPS). Without revealing any of the story, you are thrust into an unknown and slightly disturbing scenario where you must solve a number of puzzles to progress. Most of the puzzles involves the creating of portals - specifically two differently colored doors - which objects (including you) can travel through. The portals are created using a special device you are given early in the game. A simple example would be reaching a high platform. This requires creating one portal close to the platform from which you can reach it, and another close to you which you can reach, and presto, you can reach the platform. For further details regarding gameplay facts, there are tons of reviews online willing to provide you with a more detailed description and what to expect (such as here, here, or here). Here I will go more into how well I believe the gameplay is pulled off, how well the content in Portal works and the final impression it left me with...

Gameplay

The gameplay in Portal is at this point in time unsurpassed. That doesn't mean that no game exists which cannot equal or provide an alternate type of gameplay more enjoyable than Portal. But for what it does, it does it best. I know of no other "of this kind" of puzzle solver that does what Portal does, so well. In fact, I know of no other "of this kind" of puzzle solver, period. Portal is in my opinion truly unique in this fashion. I wouldn't call it a revolution, but definitely more than an evolution. I think the best way to describe it is by saying, the concept of portals does not revolutionize first person games and Portal is not the first game to introduce this element (see Prey or even earlier FPSs). However it does make a radical change to the available possibilities within the game and is more of a branch in a new direction than an evolution of already existing gameplay elements. For this reason, Portal should be commended. I had a lot of fun with Portal especially because of the possibilities it provided me with. The fact that Portal contains very little to distract from its pure formula through most of the game, is a testament to how well its gameplay holds up. In fact, most people will probably tell you that they felt they were just getting started when the game suddenly ended, but more about that later.

To sum it up, the gameplay in Portal is truly unique and I recommend the experience to anyone... The price at which the experience is bought, is another matter however. More about that later...

Content

I should probably define what I mean by content. Well - Portal is an experience on its own. It is quite humorous and as already mentioned, somewhat offbeat. This is a good thing. The scenario within which you are thrust becomes more and more interesting the more you play and the climax does - in my opinion - not disappoint, even though some might say it comes a bit early. Without revealing too much, the game is very witty and it is without a doubt one of the funniest game experiences I have had in a while. Although the humor is very specific, I imagine that it has a broad appeal because the situations you face are just off enough, that you can't help but smirk or laugh.

The game will take you roughly 2-3 (4 tops) hours to complete in a single session. In addition there is a selection of remixed maps to tickle your fancy. To be blunt, this is - in my opinion - not enough. Why and how come I will explain below.

Impression

Ok... Enough of this "explain later" segment. This is what it all boils down to. Portal is an exciting and for some people unmissable experience which will satisfy all the way until its somewhat premature ending. As I've clearly hinted in earlier segments, the abrupt ending in Portal is something which may rub certain players the wrong way. I have nothing against a swift ending to a good experience, provided everything is wrapped up neatly. To Portal's credit, this is generally true. However... Here comes my gripe. Portal currently retails for 19.95$ on steam, Valve's premiere content delivery platform. Alternatively, you can purchase Portal as a part of the aforementioned Orange Box. But... If you are a general purveyor of Valve's previous work, you undoubtedly already own 40% of the Orange Box. Now... I can sympathize with people who point out that as a part of a larger package Portal is not only a good bargain, it's a great bargain. However, I feel I must evaluate Portal on its own. It is - in my opinion - more proper to assume that gamers will individually evaluate products based on their own merits as opposed to a collective experience, just because it was sold together with other similar products. However, even if you do not agree - I intend to evaluate the Orange Box in it entirety at the end of this review... So stick around :)

Now then... As I mentioned before, the impression Portal left me with was pretty amazing. But, all things considered, I feel that the 19.95$ price tag is a tad much considering what it offers when compared to other titles. I can't help but feel that Valve (- perhaps rightfully so -) felt they could charge an extra 5-10$ based solely on the fact that Portal contains a brand new game mechanic. I agree that its execution is nothing short of brilliant, but throwing a new mechanic in a game and then leaving out a significant amount of content doesn't sit well with me. I can't help but compare this a little with Katamari Damacy which also features a largely unseen game mechanic, yet is more of a complete game than Portal in my opinion.

So what does this all mean, you might ask. Well - you tell me. If you wish to indulge yourself somewhat short, yet new and exciting experience then I urge you to try Portal. On the other hand, since Valve will undoubtedly release a sequel which I imagine will feel more like a complete game than a very polished and elaborate mini-game, you may want to wait. Then again - perhaps it's just me... Perhaps Valve realized that the concept of Portal does not translate well into a complete game and thus decided to keep it short and sweet. Whatever the case, I feel it could do with just tiny price reduction. Such as going from 19.95$ to 14.95$.

Team Fortress 2

Now then... Here we are in familiar territory. The story behind Team Fortress 2 is by no means a small one. To cut to the chase, its origins lie in a free modification to the original Half-Life (whose origins lie in a free modification to Quake). Already back then, a full retail product was in the works and in 1999, screenshots were released of what Team Fortress 2 looked like at the time. Needless to say, a lot has changed... The current retail version looks almost nothing like the previous screenshots and is very reminicent of the original Team Fortress Classic for Half-Life. So is it any good? In the following sections I'll write a little about how Team Fortress is, how it's changed from the previous version and the impression it has left me with...

Team Fortress

Unless specifically noted, what I write here applies to both the original Team Fortress Classic (from here on referred to as TFC) and Team Fortress 2 (from here on referred to as TF2). The Team Fortress gameplay is made up of 9 individual character types one can choose between. Each with a different style of play and their own unique strengths and weaknesses. However, all with a common goal. To defeat the opposing team by capturing territory or their flag. Team Fortress is an online-only player Vs. player game. The different characters (or classes) you can choose between are: Scout, Soldier, Pyro, Demoman, Heavy, Engineer, Medic, Sniper, and Spy. Most of these are straight forward and as before I won't delve too deeply into all of the classes. The previously mentioned links should more than cover any necessary missing information.

Now then, the heart of the game is the different types of classes each player chooses. Battles usually play out ranging from 4 aside all the way up to 16 aside matches against each other. Some classes are more suited as defenders while others are much more useful on the offense. Which class you prefer and how you choose to play them is up to you. However, there is - in general - a number of optimal ways to play the different classes. Playing a class in a radically different manner will only lead to thwarting your own team and their efforts to win. For example, choosing the scout and defending the base is a bad idea in general since the scout is easily overwhelmed by the firepower from the remaining classes. Choosing the engineer and assaulting the enemy base is also a bad idea in general. His strength lies in the devices he can create which are best put to use in a stationary location. Granted, said location can be somewhere within the enemy base, but that's usually not the case.

So, to sum up: Online team-multiplayer with a variety of classes to choose among.

Differences

So what? Is that it? In both games, this is how things work? Well yes... In general anyway. There are subtle differences. TFC runs on the outdated Half-Life engine and includes an alternate type of play called "The Hunted". While this was one of my most favorite types of online play for a while, I can see why they've chosen to focus on the remaining core gameplay in TF2. But who knows, they may add it in a subsequent patch. It's important to note that while the TF2 costs 29.95$ (as a standalone product), the original TFC was free. Why does that matter? Well, it matters to me because the original TFC included about 4-5 maps upon its initial release and curiously enough, TF2 does as well. I must admit that for a retail product I think 4-5 maps for a pure online game is a tad on the slim side. Granted, some of the maps have relocating areas of play which makes for an "almost" new map when playing its different sections. But consider that Battlefield 2 originally offered players 15 huge maps upon release. Anyway, apart from all this, TF2 also changes a number of small details which in my opinion adds up to more than the sum of its parts. The original TFC gave each class a number of grenades in its arsenal. Along with usually a standard grenade, every class had its own unique type of grenade varying from Quad-type grenades to EMP grenades. Fun. But while these grenades gave most classes a fighting chance in any situation, it also leveled the playing field quite a bit. I believe removing the grenades from TF2 was a good move on Valves part. It simplifies the gameplay (which can often be a good thing) and makes the differences between the classes more apparent. A medic is now effectively useless against a sentry, where as before he could usually sneak a grenade in from some angle and problem solved.

Additionally, the abilities of a few classes have been modified. I'm sure most classes have gone through an overhaul in order to re-balance the game, but a few have gotten some new or altered functionality. Such as:

  • The Medic Übercharge ability: Heal enough people and the medic can unleash his übercharge which temporarily makes him and a fellow teammate invulnerable. A good balance-breaker in my opinion. Used in the right situation by the right people, this ability can take out a large assortment of sentries and a lot of enemy players.
  • The Spy abilities: The spy is now able to cloak himself as well as change disguise while being cloaked. He has also gained a new weapon meant specifically to disable the enemy sentries and other devices.
  • The Engineer abilities: The engineers devices have been altered slightly and he can now build teleporters to aid his teammates traverse the map.

Apart from the above mentioned changes, several smaller modifications have been made to the original formula. For example, the Heavy Weapons Guy can now pre-spin his devastating minigun without actually firing, if he anticipates incoming enemies. The demoman can change the trajectory of some of the grenades he launches. As I mentioned before - I am certain that a lot of time has been spent polishing and re-balancing TF2. Supposedly every class is now dicernable from their silhouette alone - something that was definitely not true of the old TFC. However, at the core TF2 is essentially TFC. You pick a side, choose a class, and off you go. The big question is - is TF2 worth the 29.95$ it sells for on steam?

Oh, and by the way - I am going to sidestep the whole conc-jumping mechanic even though I throughly enjoy conc-maps in TFC. While I am writing in small print, I might as well comment on the fact that Valve is apparently adding more maps to TF2 in their upcoming patch, but I've chosen to look at the retail product, excluding subsequent updates. After all, I cannot review what I cannot play.

Impression

So is it worth it? Well... That's not an easy question to answer, so let's ignore it for now and talk about the impression it left with me. Disregarding the price tag, TF2 is a great game. There are lots of classes to choose from, each with at least the same depth as in many other online multiplayer games, and some with even more. Ideally - this means that there are nine original ways to play TF2. However, I doubt most people will play every class properly to get a feel for how each of them work. It is far more likely that gamers will find 2-3 classes they like and mainly play those. No matter which way you look at it, TF2 is close to identical to TFC. However, the current retail version of TF2 wasn't the way it was originally intended. According to the creators commentary (and other historic documents), TF2 was originally intended to include a commander, able to intervene and provide support during a match. The commander would view the game from a top-down perspective in order to have a more strategic perspective, giving the game a more Natural Selection feel to it. However, as it stands TF2 is very reminiscent of TFC in more ways than one. So where does that leave us? With a good game in my opinion. I've had lots of fun playing Team Fortress 2 until now, and I've played most classes an entire match, just to try them out. I definitely have my preferences but I think I will try to play most classes some more, before I decide to stop altogether. I cannot help but also drag a quote out regarding Team Fortress 2, which is as follows: "... the deepest multiplayer game of the year.". The quote is from Will Tuttle at teamxbox.com in a preview of the game. It should be noted that he said it is shaping up to be the deepest multiplayer game of the year, not that it actually is it. But then again, quoting from previews is nothing new (what with all the Kane & Lynch debacle). Anyway, I find this a nice quote to look at, because the depth of Team Fortress 2 is a big part of what should make TF2 worth buying. At least that's how I think things should be... Shouldn't they? I mean, of course nice visuals and audio are always a welcomed addition and sell any idea better. So when I play TF, I play TF2 and not TFC. But as I mentioned before, the games are to a large degree the same. Yes, the alterations made to the formula from TFC to TF2 change the game in some very significant ways, but much of it remains the same.

I can't help but applaud Valve for the irony in a sense. In an ideal world graphics and audio would come second, Team Fortress 2 would probably do the same. I mean - it's close to the same game. But here's a product Valve has managed to spin enough to basically repackage a previously pre-existing game and resell it for 29.95$. Don't get me wrong - I don't hold this against Valve. In a way, TF2 deserves to sell well because its previous iterations were all free, but making them was not. It cost a lot of people a lot of time and effort and they are now able to reap their bounty. At least, I hope it is some of the same people. But the irony is still huge in my opinion. The games most radical change is the entrée it is served with, but the dish remains mainly the same. Yet it receives praise like there's no tomorrow. The parallels to Starcraft 2 are just too much. At least, I assume they are, given the footage I've seen so far.

But I digress... I like playing Team Fortress 2 and I think it's a good product. Just like Portal, I feel it could do with a slight decline in pricing though, but within the Orange box it is a different matter. More on that at the end...

Half-Life 2: Episode Two

Phew... Still with me? Good - because we got one more title to go, and then a round up at the end... I know it's tough, but someone's got to do it...

As familiar as Team Fortress 2 might seem, even fewer people can claim not to know Half-Life 2. Half-Life 2: Episode Two (referred to as HL2:EP2 from now on) is the sequel to the successful Half-Life 2: Episode One. It's a wee bit late in its arrival and according to various sources, Valve's original intentions with episodic releases have been a little off track. Nevertheless, the episodic iterations of the Half-Life 2 franchise have worked out well so far... Hmmm... "Iterations" is probably the wrong word, considering that there has only been one released episode so far. But, it turned out relatively well according to gametab.com. So how does HL2:EP2 fare? Well - I'll be talking a bit about the content and finally my impression. Be aware that the content section will contain some spoilers.

Content

Those who played Half-Life 2:Episode One (from now on referred to as HL2:EP1) and felt it was a tad on the short side will probably feel the same regarding HL2:EP2. To its credit, it is actually a bit longer according to the statistics provided by Valve. The game takes approximately 6 hours and 23 minutes to complete. However, while HL2:EP1 was mostly a direct continuation of Half-Life 2 with a few twists and turns, HL2:EP2 also throws some really worthwhile content into the game. This doesn't mean that HL2:EP2 is packed with new weapons and new enemies and all such stuff. In fact, it only includes a few new enemies, a new weapon (if you can call it that) and a new vehicle. But while I would describe HL2:EP1 as more of a "Half-Life 2:The Lost Levels" kind of expansion, I'd call HL2:EP2 more of a... Well... "Half-Life 2:Episode Two"... It's a bit hard to explain, so I'd better take another stab at it. Both of the episodes advance the Half-Life story and they both bring the players into some unseen territory, as well as add some new mechanics. But episode one felt mostly like we were seeing locations adjacent to the ones we had been at before. Not necessarily a step backward, more like a step to the left or the right. Episode Two definitely more feels like a step forward rather than sideways. Which is good. I know that content wise, episode one does play out in City 17 within which Half-Life 2 also takes place (most of the time). But I am also referring to the feel and mechanics of the game. In this department, Episode Two takes quite a few steps in new directions.

Anything else? Hmmm... Well, it's hard to delve into the actual content without revealing too much... So let's move straight on to the impression...

Impression

I must admit, I've been looking forward to this bit. So far I've played HL2:EP2 through twice. I believe it is an excellent experience from start to finish. There are several memorable scenes. I was shocked once during the game which rarely happens for me, so that in itself is achievement in my eyes. Additionally, all the good gameplay leads up to a very climactic boss-type battle, which in no way disappoints. I am urged to stress the final point more because it seems like these days, boss battles always fall short of their expectations. Too many games end up with bosses packing more health than one third of the enemies you've dealt with so far. Alternatively, the boss must be defeated using some type of puzzle solution which feels awkward and ridiculously out of place when compared to the rest of the game. A game where you've spent most of your time shooting everything into tiny bits, up until the boss. But - as I said - HL2:EP2 does not disappoint in this department. I have a hard time remembering when I last felt like I was in a very intense and satisfying boss battle. Excellent stuff... However, while we are on the subject (and since I do occasionally comment on game mechanics), it should be noted that it is not without its small flaws. Without revealing too much, the game requires you to prevent a number of enemies from progressing in an area. Most enemies seemingly appear on a timer. However, others appear based on whether another foe has been dispatched. Also, some of the enemies move faster than others and dispatching them in the proper order can be vital. I am telling you all of this, because after dispatching the first enemy, the second one appears almost immediately. Therefore, dispatching the first enemy quickly will lead to next one appearing quickly as well. Without saying anything else, this is not to your advantage in the game. I know it is a small flaw compared to what else could go wrong, but punishing the player for performing well is a very, very bad thing and should be avoided at all costs. But enough about the specifics...

Now that I've so often commented on the material goods all this fun is going to cost you, it is only fair I continue. The game retails for 29.95$ just like Team Fortress 2. Again - I believe the price is a bit steep all things considered. But then again... Especially with this title, I feel less jilted by the pricing as opposed to the other two titles. Which may seem odd, considering that this title is just an expansion on an already existing title. Perhaps its because HL2:EP2 fits more properly into the existing gaming categories. Whatever the case, an expansion upon a successful single player FPS is nothing new, but of all the ones I can remember, this is definitely one of the - if not the - most memorable.

Round up

Well... What a trip... We've delved somewhat deeply into three of the five titles included in the orange box and hopefully you've read something new along the way. But we're not done quite yet...

Perhaps in the spirit of the holiday season (although that was probably a bit too early at its release date,) Valve packed two additional titles in with the previous three and called it the orange box. Namely Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2:Episode One. All for a measly 49.95$. Now - considering only the three previously mentioned titles, this is a good deal. Individually, Portal, Team Fortress 2, and Half-Life 2:Episode Two cost a grand total of 79.85$. Buying the orange box saves you a nice 29.90$ on the price. Considering all my previous rants about this and that being too expensive it all seems to work out nicely... If you buy the orange box. As it stands - I'd have a hard time not recommending the orange box to anyone who is just remotely interested in any two of the three new titles and take the third as an added bonus. It is - in my opinion - that good of a deal. If said person doesn't own Half-Life 2 or Half-Life 2:Episode One either, so much the better. The five titles for 49.95$ turns a good deal into an excellent deal. If you have not had the pleasure of playing any of the titles yet and fancy yourself a bit of FPS fun, then I strongly suggest you pick it up.

That being said... It's clear Valve caters to the fan(atic). Buy the orange box and you've got some really good value on your hands... Buy any of them separately and the story changes a bit.

Finally, it's worth noting that all of three previously discussed titles include Valves own commentary tracks, which is quite informative. Unfortunately, I personally feel that the commentary from Valve is often dry and lacking in personality. Especially when compared to The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay where the commentary is almost overflowing with personality as well as quite a bit of useless junk. Personally however I approve much more of the rough-cut edited versions than Valves own PR-processed commentary tracks strewn throughout the game. They are a bit cold to be completely honest.

As a final remark I'd just like to once again recommend the orange box to anyone remotely interested in any of the titles. Especially if you don't own any of them yet...

Editor's Note: This is by far the longest review I've written here on E2. I hope you enjoyed it. Towards the end I almost developed a sort of disdain for it, but given how large it had grown I didn't have the heart to stop before it was done...

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