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ISSUE 121 VOL 5 PUBLISHED 10/26/2007

'Orange Box' lives up to standards

By Matt Everhart
Staff Writer
and April Wright
Variety Editor

Friday, October 26, 2007

Imagine you go to Best Buy, and you want to buy three games. All three games are highly regarded and desirable for different reasons. You get up to the counter, expecting to pay well over $100, and the nerdy kid at the register tells you that you can have all three games for the price of one.

This, essentially, is Valve's "The Orange Box." "The Orange Box" is one of the greatest values in gaming history. No, I'm not exaggerating. It includes the incredible "Half-Life 2" and both of its expansions, online multiplayer shooter "Team Fortress 2" and "Portal," a new game that creates a completely original genre. Released Oct. 10 for PC and Xbox 360 (with a PS3 release set for later this year), "The Orange Box" is a package of three great games that should not be missed this fall.

The first game in the package, "Portal," is a pleasant surprise. One might think that "Portal" is a last-minute throw-away game overshadowed by the larger "Half-Life 2" and "Team Fortress 2," but instead it shines. Played from the first-person perspective like the other two games on "The Orange Box," "Portal" is a puzzle game…the first First-Person Puzzler, or FPP. Lasting about two to three hours, players must solve environmental puzzles by using the eponymous portal gun. This futuristic weapon creates blue and orange portals by shooting at walls or ceilings; walk in one, and you come out the other. The tasks can become mind-bending, as you might imagine, and utilize Valve's famous physics engine. One puzzle requires players to jump from several stories high into a portal on the floor, through another portal on a high, slanted wall, which sends players launching into the next room

While the gameplay in "Portal" is original and satisfying, the writing gives the game a unique character and elevates it into something truly special. In short, the writing is absolutely hilarious. A disembodied computer voice, called GLaDOS, guides you from room to room. It provides wickedly dark humor and sarcastic encouragement as you proceed through the game. At one point, the voice lets the player know, "If you are feeling light-headed from thirst, feel free to pass out," and later promises "cake and brief counseling" after the tests have concluded. The humorous nature of GLaDOS hides a very sinister secret, which is revealed at the end of the tests.

"Team Fortress 2" is also included in the bundle. TF2 is an online multi-player first-person shooter. Its cartoonish graphics belie its violent nature: this isn't Pixar; you will be blowing some heads off.

In the game, you can choose to be one of nine classes. For example, there's the glamorous sniper position, the under-appreciated heavy artillery operator and the medic. Which class you select makes a big difference in the gameplay strategy you choose. The idea of the game is pretty similar to international capture the flag: You defend your base, and the opposing team defends theirs. Lose your base, and you lose the round.

Overall, TF2 is a fun game, but it can be intimidating to newcomers. When you start up the game, you select a group to join. The groups aren't segregated by experience; a lot of the time, people without much gaming experience end up getting wailed on. So, while TF2 is a fantastically made game, it isn't really practical to start playing unless you have a good amount of time to devote to it.

And, finally, "Half-Life 2: Episode 2." When they made "Half-Life," Valve raised the bar by creating an absolutely marvelous universe in which to play. With "Half-Life 2," they raised it sky-high. And now, with Episode 2, they've raised it almost unattainably high.

The story revolves around protagonists Gordon Freeman (the player) and Alyx Vance (a character controlled by artificial intelligence), who are fighting to free the world from the oppressive control of the Combine, an alien race working in cahoots with several baddies on Earth. Episode 2 follows the continuing struggle of Freeman and Vance to take apart the remainders of the Combine's rule.

One of our complaints about the Half-Life universe is that it has always been too easy to feel safe. Even when you're fighting your way out of a room filled with zombies, you have an array of weapons. Other characters rely on the player to do things for them, and you generally get praise heaped on you for your god-like abilities. On top of it, major characters never die; it was always the expendable artificial intelligence characters that couldn't seem to get out of the line of fire. In this release, the losses hit close to home. Since "Half-Life 2," there has been a surprisingly well-developed emotional storyline to the game, and Episode 2 packs several powerful punches.

As always, the Half-Life universe looks stunning. There are several amazing panoramas containing wooded valleys and waterfalls. Even with the resolution turned down a little bit, this game looks gorgeous.

We only have two complaints. One is the repetitive nature of some of the tasks. In one long battle, the player is asked to go around and destroy large, walking land vehicles, called striders. The task goes on forever, is pretty frustrating and circular and doesn't contribute much to the overall story line. Our second complaint is the length of the game. It's pretty short, clocking in at about six hours. Considering the shortness of the game, the repetitive nature of some of the tasks isn't justified. Perhaps the developers were a little overextended with prepping everything in "The Orange Box?"

But even a few repetitive tasks and too-tough online game play can't besmirch the awesome name of "The Orange Box." Available through most entertainment retail stores and through Valve's online download service, Steam, "The Orange Box" is probably the best gameplay value this year. We heartily recommend it.

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