|The Orange Box is Valve's latest "game", bundling numerous Half-Life episodes together - including the latest one - with newcomer Portal, and the much anticipated vaporware classic Team Fortress 2|
Let's skip the foreplay, shall we. Two 9s in one month? You better believe it. As hypothesized, the end of the year is turning into quite the golden era for gaming, with many a killer title hitting pretty much every system under the sun, from handheld, to Wii, to even PS3. Which makes a nice change.
One such game, ominously titled The Orange Box - out now on PC, and heading to consoles shortly - even includes numerous killer titles within the same pack
. Games, one might argue, that could possibly fetch for a hefty sum by themselves.
Luckily for us, Valve are either incredibly generous...or incredibly stupid.
Just what is it we get in the ginger-clad case exactly? For starters, there's good old Half-Life 2
. A game, you may recall, I hailed as the best of 2004
. Joining it is the confusingly titled Episode 1, the first of the highly anticipated add-on packs for said game, and one you can hear all about in a podcast
we recorded...over a year ago now.
So far, so "best of", but what about the new stuff? You know, the shit we're actually interested in? Kicking things off is the follow-up to the aforementioned, shockingly monikered "Episode 2". It continues the whacky adventures of Gordon Freeman and oddly multi-ethnic Alyx Vance as they...hmm I've forgotten just what exactly, but I know it involves shooting lots of aliens while chucking shit around with fun-time physics.
Then there's Portal. The crazed experiment in 4th dimensional first person shooting that defies description. With cake.
And finally, of course, the 10 year late multiplayer FPS extravaganza that is Team Fortress 2. A game I've literally been following on news sites and fan blogs that entire time, dreaming and fantasizing about the day it may finally come to fruition, member firmly in hand. Well folks, I'm happy to announce that beautiful day is at long last here. TF2 lives!
And that, right there, is your lot. Phew.
Team Fortress 2
We'll start with TF2 actually. You see, I was quite the Team Fortress nut back in the day. While I didn't play a ton of the original Quake mod, I absolutely caned the living shit outta its 1.5 rendition (aka Team Fortress Classic). This was Valve's officially produced update, released after they bought out the original mod makers, and it was Diggler crack for a significant portion of the late '90s. Much like World of Warcraft
is to you miserable bastards.
|I'm playing Orange on PC myself, where it fetches for a mere £25 or so via Steam, but it's also heading its way to 360 this week and (eventually) PS3, for a more standard £40-ish fee|
Many an endless month did I stay up 'til all hours sniping dudes on 2Fort, while capturing control points on Dustbowl with a 4am grin plastered across my disheveled, pale face. And ya know what? I would have had it no other way.
At a time when the online multiplayer shooter was progressing from brain-less deathmatch to a more team-focused, objective style, TF was undoubtedly one of the spearheads propelling that movement forward. It most certainly changed online gaming forever in that regard, with I, like many, starting to realise just what was possible outta multiplayer gaming. I've seldom looked back towards vanilla flavored deathmatch since, and although most will cite Counter-Strike as that game for them...personally? I was all about the Fortress. Mmmmm.
Back in 1998, at the height of Fortress mania, fans caught wind of a supposed follow-up. In light of the original game's barmy, over the top antics - which included everything from rocket jumps to demented gibs aplenty - Valve claimed the game's "upcoming" (cough) sequel would switch to a more serious, almost Battlefield style though. Indeed, the scant few screenshots littering the interpipes around that time showed a far more regimented, army look, with - if memory serves me correctly - even the odd tank lurking in the background. To be honest, it's been so long I can barely remember. But I sure was excited.
|TF2 is an online shooter, lacking bots or any offline play whatsoever. With an emphasis placed firmly on classes, the actual gameplay alters from map to map, with objectives differing from one to the next|
And then...nothing. Just 10 years of silence. Valve maintained the game was still in development, but would say no more. No one believed 'em. If Duke Nukem Forever hadn't been doing the exact same thing that entire time - thus stealing much of that vaporware thunder - Valve may well have turned into quite the punch line. Eventually, people moved on. The Source engine was unveiled. Half-Life 2 was born. Yet still, zilch mentioned on the TF2 front. Where the frak did it go?!
To hell and back, it seems, as finally released here at the tail-end of 2007, it couldn't bear less of a resemblance to its original pitch if it tried. Its strict and serious army vibe torn away, TF2 revels in the most cartoony and over the top aesthetics seen in...pretty much forever. Rather than distance themselves from the first game's over-the-top arcadey nature, Valve instead have embraced it, from gameplay, to sound, to graphics and beyond.
This over the top graphical style deserves some major highlighting in particular, as it not only blesses the game with huge bouts of beautiful, zany style, but as a side bonus, goes down as one of the flat-out best looking games seen in years. Ramped up to full, it looks almost cartoon quality. An insane, blood soaked, bullet sprayed cartoon at that.
|Team Fortress 2 is one of the best looking games around, but in a truly barmy and off the wall fashion|
Gameplay-wise, it's great to be back in Fortress-ville too. All the old classes return, with your abilities and play-style altering drastically depending on your pick. Opt for the sniper, and amidst the flag stealing and outpost capturing antics that constitute Fortress' core gameplay, you'll be picking dudes off from afar and racking up the kills like Vassili himself. Elsewhere the more "up close and personal" chaps like Mr. Pyro and Senior Soldier, will be off in the thick of it, getting their claws dirty mano a mano.
If neither play-style takes your fancy however, there's always the Scout. Seldom stopping to fight - or even catch his breath for that matter - he's the perfect choice for the speed freak...those content to simply charge around like a mad spastic, weaving in-between the action, capturing objectives, stealing items, and whatever else the checklist of Team Fortress game-modes would have of him before moving on to the next. Almost off in his own world.
Maybe the Spy's more your speed. With the ability to disguise himself as the enemy team, then knife 'em in the back like a Brixton mugger, homeboy adds all sorts of tricksy mind-games and seedy mistrust to the proceedings. In a most pleasing manner.
And if all else fails, there's the good old Heavy. A slow, lumbering bullet sponge, wielding the most insane of gat-cannons, capable of mowing down endless streams of bad guys in mere seconds, laughing the entire time like a tickled gorilla.
And so on.
|TF2, as it stands, is a little barebones, offering just a handful of maps and only two game-modes. One hopes old faves like Hunted and Shutdown find their way in via downloadable content, pronto|
The point being, each of the nine classes enforces a very specific style of play, giving TF2 a huge variety of experiences depending on your tastes, and well, mood. The resulting battlefield wallows in sheer chaos, with bullets, fire and turrets going off in all directions, yet a relentless sensation of fun regardless. The balance is stupendous between each of said classes, the sights, always spectacular, and the end result simply...clicks. In a way only the best online games do.
You may remember the original game as one where death hit you constantly and relentlessly, forcing the respawns on in thick, heavy doses. While the same applies here, much like its great grand daddy, TF2 never proves an exercise in frustration though. It says a lot about how much damn fun a game it is in fact, that you're more than happy to laugh it off and try again, time in, time out, regardless of how many times you're set on fire, bonked on the head, or blown up in a fountain of body parts. That much sure hasn't changed.
Hmmm. Not much has changed at all
, now that I think about it. In actual fact, pretty much everything mentioned above - from the classes, to the gameplay, to that sheer sense of unbridled fun - applies directly to the original game. To be frank, there's precious little difference between predecessor and successor here, including even entire remade levels. The previously mentioned 2Fort and Dustbowl for instance, are both present and correct, just as you remember 'em. Like time stood still.
And therein lies my one and only real gripe with TF2. It's not really a sequel at all, is it? What we have here, boys and girls, is a remake. A 10 year anniversary re-imagining of an old classic, with a stunning "next-gen" face-lift thrown on top.
|One scarce new addition is the ability for the medic to "bind" himself to someone, healing them constantly, and even flipping on an invulnerable "ubercharge" when prompted. It's cooler than it sounds|
Dare I say, there's even been some mild dumbing down along the way. Grenades are long-gone, spies can no longer feign death, and there are now a plethora of conspicuous signposts everywhere you look, telling you exactly where to go at all times. Helping the newb brigade figure out just what the heck they're meant to be doing, no doubt.
Not that any of these mild alterations are a bad thing per se - the action's never been so pure and refined as it is here - but I guess I just ultimately wanted bigger things out of TF2. It's been a bleedin' decade after all. Valve even saw fit to ditch my fave game-mode of them all; the old hazmat centric "gas your enemy" keycard game that forever proved so riotous. Humph. Hopefully patches will alleviate that.
Playing this sucker sure brings back some amazing memories, I won't deny it. I guess I was just hoping to create new ones, not re-live those of yester-millennium. If you weren't around "back in the day", and have thus never touched a Team Fortress game, trust me, you're in for quite the treat though. The ace wealth of classes, stunning locales, beautiful graphics and gorgeous balance render TF2 undoubtedly one of the
best shooters of the year. This, I say without question.
If however, you got your fill back in 1999 like myself, a small part of you may feel a little let-down with TF2. You might have expected something more from it. A genuine sequel with some brand new ideas. Something that a decade late, isn't ultimately just the same exact game.
Which, pretty graphics aside, this totally and utterly is.
Half-Life 2 - Episode 2
I'm kinda torn here too, as although it's forever heart-warming to see a new installment of the all-powerful Half-Life franchise - and I should probably preface this by saying that Episode 2 is "fine" - I guess you could say I have similar such issues with it as well. Once again we join Gordon Freeman, battling alien forces with a wealth of ace guns and gadgets, in a fully realised, beautifully designed universe decked out in those most insane and hilarious of physics. But at this point...it's all a little familiar, is it not?
|Episode 2 is great, don't get me wrong, but I've played single player mods more impressive, and for free|
In fact, if like me, you've hammered the likes of Lost Coast, Episode 1 and even top quality third party campaigns like Rock 24 and Minerva, this latest single player add-on feels like just another to chuck on the pile. The combat's just as tight as ever, the puzzles as freakishly splendid as you'd expect, and the set-pieces right up there with anything seen in Half-Life 2 proper. I guess I just, ya know, hoped for some originality. Half-Life 2 itself was an amazing game, but it's three years old now. Shouldn't we be gearing up a Half-Life 3 at this point? Rather than the failed experiment that is episodic repackages of the same damn game.
Needless to say, we find precious few advancements to the formula here. There are no new guns featured in Episode 2, no new characters of any interest - save the uber annoying Dr. Magnusson - and all but one new enemy to contend with amidst its four or five meager hours. Which is pretty much just a mini-me Strider.
The ever reliable Source engine continues to improve slowly but surely in spite of all this, with further upgrades to the physics along with the addition of a subtle motion blur, but even that's looking far from as jaw-dropping as it once did. In light of Crysis, Gears
, she's still holding her own, but has most definitely seen better days, and Ep 2 itself looks noticeably worse than what this same engine is simultaneously pulling off in Team Fortress 2.
|It's nice to catch up with old friends - particularly Dog - while simultaneously progressing the ongoing Half-Life story|
It's the AI that feels most dated of all however. One dimensional lumbering zombies may have cut it in the earlier games of the series, but not so much here in 2007, with even the once-impressive Combine troops coming off slow and down-right dumb for the scarce few tussles you wage with 'em. You'll regularly catch the dark grey mannequins standing out in the open without a care in the world, seemingly oblivious to the hail of bullets, arrows and grenades heading their way.
I hate to compare to Halo, as Half-Life is such a different beast in an all manner of different ways, but after the insane AI, epic spectacle, and let us not forget, addition of online co-op to that game's recent sequel
, this, more than ever, just feels a little underwhelming and dated, I guess. Particularly its opening hour, which sees you trapped in the bleakest and dullest of underground caverns for waaaay too long.
That all said, it only takes one of the trademark Valve set-pieces - the road-side ambush, or the crazy Strider showdown par example - to see you smile once again, and this latest installment does improve dramatically in its latter half due to sparks of such brilliance. The final "end game" sequence in fact is pretty god damn stunning, and goes a long way towards making up for the...fairly pedestrian rest.
Mixed thoughts, then.
|Portal is one of my picks for 2007, and I couldn't be more impressed. Save a few extra levels, perhaps...|
Never mind all that though, as in my opinion, Portal is the game to buy The Orange Box for. I'd even go so far as to hail it as potential game of the year material, and in a year like this, I don't say that lightly. What we have here, lads and lasses, is an enchanting, oddly disturbing yet most of all deeply original experience, that I'd argue you've never played anything even vaguely like before. And the damn thing's fast becoming my new religion.
Awakening in a lab-slash-ward-slash-cell of sorts, the game begins by enigmatically explaining that you're here to carry out a test. A hardware test to be precise; that of a newly designed portal gun.
The portal gun works thusly; you point it at a wall, fire it once, then point it at another wall and fire it again, with the two locations thus turning into - you guessed it - portals. These allow you to walk through one and out the other - ala Prey
- the difference being you get to set 'em up wherever you want this time. And it's not shit.
You can even see through and carry objects between said portals if need be, as well as set them to floors and ceilings if you so desire. Needless to say, things tend to get a little queasy as you start to tinker and experiment with your new found toy.
|See that through there? That's you. Can your brain comprehend?|
This so called "test" is made up of 19 individual stages, each one putting the portal gun through progressively more rigorous a workout. Early levels are a simple case of using the portals to avoid gaping pits and reach an exit, while later ones turn into ludicrously complex mind-benders only the very best of puzzle solvers will be able to clock. There's a beautifully paced learning curve utilized throughout however, teaching you all the various tricks you'll need one by one, while never spelling solutions out or holding your hand to too severe an extent.
Further helping you along the way is an utterly hilarious computerized voice known as GLaDOS, talking you through the entire process from beginning to end. This AI character comes off as part guide, part prison warden and part, well, friend, who does everything from congratulate you on a job well done, to belittle you in the driest manner...even flat-out lying to you on occasion. I tell you now though, fellow gaming addicts, you've never laughed so hard at a video game character in all your years. Portal's writing comes courtesy of Erik Wolpaw - he of Pyschonauts fame - and it most definitely shows in the quality of dialogue and the laughs-per-minute ratio. I exaggerate not.
This is all funny, harmless stuff then, awarding Portal glowing initial impressions that set it off on just the right foot, but it's not 'til a good three quarters of the way through that it turns truly exceptional for me. The game shifts in tone quite dramatically you see, from fun little puzzle game to something far more riveting, and while I really don't wish to give away too much as to how or why this shift occurs, I guess I can tease.
|Will the Portal gun one day show up in Half-Life proper? Now there's some food for thought|
For me, it was the oh so innocent stumbling across of the word "HELP" scrawled in blood across the floor of a remote corner that did it. Considering the game is comprised of sterile white laboratories for the most part - those more akin to something outta THX 1138 - this sudden, somewhat shocking sight comes completely outta leftfield, and kinda freaked me out to be honest. Where the game goes from here, I'll say no more - and I've probably given away too much already - but I must say, Portal is way more involving, darker and more story-driven than expected. Ever played a puzzle game with a plot before?
This in turn leads onto what I can honestly say, is one of the finest final levels ever to grace a video game, rounding off a truly one of a kind experience that left me 100% speechless...while its demented final theme tune blurted itself forth from my speakers.
Yeah, there's no denying Portal could be longer; even shorter than Episode 2, I polished it off in a measly two and a half hours. It's just such a memorable and captivating ride though, you can't help but go out on a smile, content in the fact that you just experienced one of those timeless gaming moments you're gonna remember forever. Oh so rare, aren't they? Yet Portal's up there with the best.
|In terms of sheer value for money alone, The Orange Box is worthy of immense praise. Containing the work of pure genius that is Portal on top however? Shit becomes a must-have|
I guess if something so revolutionary as the portal gun had found its way into Episode 2 and TF2, this'd be quite literally the perfect package, but even if those two games feel ever so slightly tried and tested in light of the supreme blast of originality that is Portal, all three still come off rather exceptional in their own right. Thrown in together though? In the same box? For a measly £25? With freakin' HL2 and Episode 1 as well?! It's no wonder the world is going ga-ga over Orange. It is undoubtedly - and quite refreshingly - some of the best value for money ever to bless video gaming, and that, sir, deserves the highest of accolades.
I may whine at Valve for not straying too far from base with some of these games - and stand by that the more I tinker with 'em - but after bathing myself in Portal's brief yet oh so memorable roller-coaster ride, these guys, now more than ever, feel like genuine leaders of the games industry. And for that...