Gaming Today Round Table Review: The Orange Box
As those of you who listen to our podcast already know, we’ve spent some serious time with Valve’s The Orange Box lately. In an effort to convey our thoughts on it to you, we’ve gathered the comments of a number of our writers together in this round table review.
If you’ve been living in a cave in what will be Islington in about two million years, The Orange Box is Valve’s latest release. It contains not only the eagerly awaited Half-Life 2 Episode 2 (along with the original Half-Life 2 and HL2: Episode 1), but also the newest iteration of the multiplayer classic Team Fortress. As a bonus, Valve’s packed in the first-person puzzler Portal. What can you expect from The Orange Box? Check out our thoughts after the break.
Half-Life 2: Episode 2
I’m going to take a look at Half-Life 2 as a single product. While Episode 2 is the only new content; I think it benefits from analysis as a whole not just in part. Those who found Half-Life 2 entertaining and grew to love the characters and setting will find a lot to like in Episode 2. It continues the story of Alex and Gordon with their recent escape from the now obliterated City 17. While it didn’t proceed quite the way I expected it to after playing Episode 1, the open environments and good mix of puzzle and run-n-gun action kept me entertained and the ending definitely left me wanting Episode 3 to hit really, really soon.
While many will pass off Episode 2 as “more of the same”, I went into the game with a more analytical frame of mind. Even though Valve’s Source engine has become a bit “long in the tooth”, Valve has furiously stretched its usefulness by implementing rigorous optimizations, higher static object textures, and LOTS more object handling via its already excellent physics engine. With the graphical settings cranked in Episode 2, I was able to maintain a steady 30+ fps with an aging system. Thus, I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t judge Source by screenshots alone; you truly have to see it in motion. Everything about the game screams polish. With that said, the gameplay itself has not changed. You have the same set of weapons that you progressively collect along the way. Or you can exploit the level’s objects with the gravity gun once again. And trust me, you’ll never run out of ammo or ideas there.
Even though the level design has maintained the “run from point A to point B” linearity with little to no backtracking, the levels themselves are not as partitioned as one would expect. My overall impression of Episode 2: A polished companion to the Half-Life series with emphasis on “feel” and intelligent use of level design that result in an enjoyable gaming experience that can vary from 5 to 15 hours of gameplay, depending on how thorough one wishes to be.
Although Half-Life 2 is nearly three years old, this was my first foray into the game. The storyline and gameplay mechanics are just as interesting and smooth as any other FPS out there, but many other games exist that I would rather play over again. The only real gripe I have with the game is that it was a bit too easy at times, even when playing the game on the most difficult setting. As a FPS I liked it, although to me it does not have a high replay value. That being said, Episode 2 was an enjoyable experience. It combined everything I liked about Half-Life 2 into another five hours of my life that I will look back on with fondness, but it is not something I would care to visit again in the future.
Much like Episode One, Episode Two picks up right where the previous game left you off. Gravity gun in hand, it’s time for another 4-8 hour experience that, on the whole, doesn’t stray from what you saw in Half-Life 2 and Episode One. But everything within Episode Two is so much more refined and perfected that you can’t help but enjoy every minute of it. (Except for that early portion, which really didn’t do it for me.) You never get bored because the game does a wonderful job of mixing things up – you might be solving an environmental puzzle one minute, only to hop back in your car to run over some enemies and then hop out for a huge firefight. The Gravity gun is as fun as ever, and the story continues to be one of the most compelling in gaming.
The easiest way for me to sum up Episode 2 is by saying, “More of the same.” If you liked HL2 and Episode 1, you’re going to be pleased. The game leverages the Source engine well in spite of its age. Episode 2 starts you out with the gravity gun, which is no surprise. While the gravity gun was a cool addition to the original HL2, it’s getting pretty tired at this point. It’s a lot of the same implementation we’re used to seeing, from manipulating the environment to advance, or solve puzzles, or shoot debris at enemies. Episode 2 continues on the theme of repeating scenes from the past throughout. On the whole, Episode 2 is a solid effort, but it lacks the originality that made Half-Life 2 so great.
Team Fortress 2
I’ve already gone on record as saying Team Fortress 2 is quite possibly the best multiplayer shooter I’ve ever played. Maybe that statement is a little extreme as it certainly isn’t groundbreaking on the gameplay level, but everything is so fun and incredibly well balanced that it’s certainly a contender for that title in my eyes. For a multiplayer-only shooter (or any game, really), the game’s cast of characters are some of the most vibrant and entertaining you’ll find anywhere. The game looks absolutely incredible and while the game does fall a bit short in the variety department due to the lack of many maps, what is there still offers a seemingly infinite amount of replay.
I found TF2 to bring back not only good memories, but something that has sorely been missing in a lot of team-based games: unique classes. Although the concept of heavy weapons, medic, scout, etc. have always been around and used in recent games such as the Battlefield series, the difference between the classes in modern games come down to the different pack your soldier carries. The problem is you’re still a soldier toting a machine gun or such. Thus, your primary role is that of soldier with support as a secondary. In TF2, the classes are far more discrete in their primary roles. There is almost a Rock, Paper, Scissors balance going on. The scout, for example, has the advantage of being at least twice as fast as the next fastest class. Sure he has some offensive capability, but if it wasn’t for that speed he would find himself seriously outgunned. The medic is another good example. The medic’s healing gun is truly where it’s at. Not only can he boost everyone’s health around him past the 100% mark, but he can also call upon his “Übercharge” and make not only himself but a targeted teammate practically invulnerable for a short amount of time.
This type of combo teamwork makes for a very formidable offensive capability. Thus, it’s not surprising to see a typical TF2 game using lots of strategy such as probing, plowing, and preparing. It’s the dynamic gameplay that sets TF2 apart from the competition. The acceptable graphics are entirely appropriate for the fun you are having. Is TF2 the perfect multiplayer experience? Hardly. I will promote its fun, however. There are some things from the original TF left out that I would prefer Valve left in. But looking back on it, it would have made TF2 a more complicated game. TF2 is definitely a game where you will be sharing your “That was frickin’ awesome!” moments with your buddies. I hope to see more TF2 maps and different gameplay modes from Valve in the future.
TF2 has character coming out its ears (well, if it had ears anyway). This is a refinement of the classic game with a very good eye toward balance and team roles. I enjoyed the limited maps and wished there had been more, but it served as a good sample of what the developers intended. Many complaints about its lag issues are floating about the net, but except for one or two slight glitches I played map after map with no burps. TF2 is not a shooter for everyone. The change from the old game may even come off as an abrupt one but I know I’ve had no problem introducing the game to friends who have absolutely no interest in multiplayer shooters based on the character the game exudes alone.
TF2 is a game I’ve waited years to play, and thankfully, Valve doesn’t disappoint. This multiplayer shooter brings all the glory of the old classes from the original Team Fortress to life in a whole new way. The classes are varied, but mutually supportive. They are also nearly perfectly balanced. The great thing about TF2 is that Valve has managed to retain all the class individually of the original game, and to subtly enhance the interdependency between the classes. Medics charge other teammates, engineers drop deployables, and heavies, well, they just shoot things. This is not a multiplayer shooter for everyone in the beginning. However, I think if players give it a chance, they’ll find that it’s a game they can really enjoy.
“Brain-Melting. Offbeat. Genius.” If you’ve seen the Orange Box TV spot then you’ve heard the 70-80’s style Hal2000-like voice box describing Portal as such. Portal is a first person shooter element mixed in with puzzle and logic problem solving. Because the emphasis is more on the latter, you will not find enemies to shoot in Portal because there simply are no weapons to speak of. Shortly into the game, the player is presented with the “Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device”, which becomes the primary tool of the game. To put it bluntly, the portal device is what makes the game what it is. There are two firing modes on the portal device: create entry and create exit. With that said, being able to position yourself places that would be otherwise physically impossible to reach certainly brings a whole new aspect to thinking. You’ll literally be thinking outside the box with Portal’s abuse of the 3 dimensions. You’ll also be exploiting the laws of gravity and game physics to your advantage as well. Portal’s simple yet effective game design is so immersive, you’ll forget how bland the graphics around you are and how each level looks and feels very mundane. As each level ramps up the difficulty (as well as dependency on the portal device), the game slips in a wee-bit of a plot as well.
Your role as an anonymous Aperture Science test subject quickly pits you against more hostile environments whilst the so-called “friendly” digital voice offers motivation for your actions by prizing you with “cake”, should you survive the ordeal. Much like Half-Life, the player never speaks, so it leaves the person at the helm to question the agenda of the companion voice behind the scenes. Where am I? Why am I here? Who is behind that voice? You’ll have to play through to the very awesome ending to get those answers. Without spoiling details, let me just say that the mini-plot of Portal and introduction of the Aperture Science division runs a nice parallel story to the already rich Half-Life universe. We could very well see the events and back-story of Portal merging into Half-Life 2 Episode 3. Last but not least, Portal has bonus game modes that are pretty much advanced modes of the stock Portal maps. If the regular game wasn’t enough challenge for you, you’ll get a wake-up call here. There’s even an option to load some custom (user?) maps.
Much has been made of Portal as an add on game. It is short but sweet – almost like a moist delicious piece of cake. You want to savor every bite but find yourself quickly devouring the entire thing only to be left in a slight sugar high and wanting more. I loved the logic puzzles and the unique setting. While it may not be the first game to use portals or the first puzzle game of this nature it definitely had a lot of polish and kept me entertained through and through. I just wish I could get another piece of cake.
It’s amazing how a single weapon can completely change the way you think about a game. The gravity gun showed us this once before, but that was all based in physics and simply gave you another outlet to accomplish things. The portal gun can really mess with your mind and can lead to an experience that could quite possibly cause your head to explode. Nevertheless, without accounting for future downloadable content, this is one of the best experiences you’ll ever have with a game, bar none. The writing is some of the very best I’ve ever seen in a videogame, and it’s also some of the funniest. There’s really nothing bad about Portal; it’s like being given a delicious cake (no pun intended) and being told it will have no implications on your health or weight. I fail to see a downside.
Portal is definitely an interesting puzzle game, and although easy it was beyond impossible for me to play without getting a heightened sense of vertigo for a few hours afterwards. I did not care for Portal at all. I like puzzle games in general, but Portal did nothing but bore the pants off of me. If I had a choice in the matter I would have stopped playing it after level 7 but since I was forced to play this for work purposes, I pushed through the rest of the game cursing my ill luck, along with my boss.
Portal, to me, is the highlight of The Orange Box. It’s easily the most original part of the package, and is as close to flawless as it probably could be. The levels contain increasingly difficult puzzles, and you’re driven onward by the constant cajoling of the ‘voice’ from above. Unlike other puzzle games, Portal involves not only conquering puzzles, but working out how to reach your goal by manipulating all three dimensions and the objects in the world around you. Portal only takes an hour or two to play through, and this is both a good and bad thing. It’s good because the gameplay still feels fresh and fun without being tedious when you finish. It’s bad because when it’s over, you still want more. I’m looking forward to seeing if there will be user maps for Portal, and I still want some cake.
Our cumulative scores for The Orange Box are as follows:
Half-Life 2: Episode 2: 8.5
Team Fortress 2: 9.5
Portal:9.5 (I should note that Stephany scored Portal as a 3, due to the disorientation she found the game produced)