Videogames are no stranger to the compilation bundle, Metal Slug Anthology, Atari's countless arcade classic packages, heck - Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. It's not too often, however, that multiple, brand-new titles hit distribution as one single uncompromising mass, though - enter The Orange Box from Valve Software.
Living up to it's moniker, this very tangerine package features the original Half-Life 2, Half-Life 2: Episode One, Half-Life 2: Episode 2, Team Fortress 2, and the all new Portal. It's now available on both PC and Xbox 360 with a PlayStation 3 offering promised before the year's end ("Valve time" notwithstanding).
For the sake of completeness and given that Half-Life 2 and Episode One have been available to PC owners for quite some time now; we're going to look at this one from the console perspective, specifically Xbox 360. We could have split it up and reviewed each game separately, but it's being sold as one disc, for the price of a regular single game so we feel that it really deserves to be rated as a whole.
That said, let's still take a look at things piece-by-piece like, starting with the big deal - Half-Life 2 on a console. For those not familiar with its PC predecessor, Half-Life 2 was/is the long awaited sequel to 1998's smash hit Half-Life - a first person shooter responsible not only for setting new standards in interactive storytelling but also becoming the new favourite son of the modding community which included the hugely successful Counter-Strike. But we're getting side-tracked now - back to the story. In Half-Life 2 you once again assume the role of goatee-clad, crowbar wielding Gordon Freeman, an MIT grad turned hero after a science experiment went horribly wrong. Number 2 picks up a little after the first left off and the storyline kicks things up a notch, or 10. Characters that were mere duplicated props in the first game get really fleshed out and personalised here, and the powerful physics engine becomes the main device for creating the game's puzzles.
While Half-Life 2 on the Xbox 360 is still looking pretty sharp, the texturing can get pretty bland at times - particularly in the large outdoor areas. It can't really stand next to the likes of BioShock, Gears of War or even Halo 3 in the graphics department, but given that we're almost three years on from the initial release of Half-Life 2 on PC now, the fact it's still passable as a "next-gen" title at all (and it truly is) is testament to Valve's ongoing improvements to their Source Engine technology.
The control conversion has also been handled exceptionally. Some PC loyalists may never be able to give up the old keyboard and mouse, but for everyone else, it's as good as they come. Halo players might baulk at the idea of carrying eleven weapons simultaneously but there's no painful cycling, they're all accessible with minimal fuss via the D-pad and you'll quickly learn how many taps (max three) it takes to get to any specific gun. Everything else is where it makes sense and they've even dedicated the right bumper to switching between the infinitely useful Gravity Gun and your last-used weapon.
The movement speed, sprinting and jumping hasn't changed at all in the conversion making the player feel much more agile than most console shooters - there's no Master Chief moon jumps here, this is uncompromised Half-Life 2. Vehicle control, however, is one facet that doesn't translate so well. The first-person view, while it does help maintain the immersion, can get a bit frustrating in the thick of battle but at least there's a generous degree of auto-aim to help with zeroing in on the nasties when you're on the move.
Another minor gripe is the frequent loading, at some parts you'll feel as though you've only navigated through a few rooms only to have another "loading" box pop up. While it is brief compared to other older games, it can be a little jarring after playing the large roaming levels of Halo 3 or the expansive aquatic hallways of BioShock.
There's about 15 to 20 hours gameplay in Half-Life 2 alone and another five or so for each Episode. Episode One and Two, for the uninitiated, are a continuation of the Half-Life 2 story, following directly on from where you left off previously. The missions are just as good, if not better than anything from the original game and you get more new characters, more development of the existing ones and plenty of new memorable situations.
Parallel to the Xbox 360's required achievements, PC users will have noticed that Valve has employed this concept across platforms, allowing PC gamers to record and compare achievements on the Steam service.
There are some incredibly challenging distinctions, but the most distinguished is by far Half-Life 2: Episode 2's "Little Rocket Man" achievement, a feat which involves carrying an inanimate garden gnome from the start of the episode right through to the end so you can launch it into space in a rocket. There's no inventory or backpack, you have to put it down to shoot enemies and perform other hero-like tasks - have fun!
While Valve hasn't been so punctual with their delivery times on these new episodes (originally heralded as a way to expand the game with a fraction of the development time), the wait was worth it - and hey, they don't call it Valve Time
for nothing and if you're a first time Half-Life 2 player, the console versions are a perfect place to kick off the adventure.
Perhaps the weakest part of the Orange Box package for console is Team Fortress 2. As a multiplayer only game that requires at least 12 players to really function, it just doesn't work so well. It's a shame because, as any PC user that has played it will know, there's a fantastic game underneath. Unfortunately though, you just can't have a lag-free game when you're connecting peer to peer with 11 other players - especially if, as an Australian, Xbox Live is match-making you with players in the US. Valve have just now released an update to address this somewhat on Xbox 360, but it still leaves a lot to be desired.
It does support system-link so LAN games would of course be great. But let's face it, how often are you going to be getting together with 12 other people with Xbox 360's and a copy of the same game? The online problem can really only be solved by our Microsoft and Sony overlords to either run or let us run geographically local servers for these types of games - but that's probably not happening anytime soon.
If you can tolerate a bit of lag, you can definitely still enjoy this one. Like Half-Life 2, Team Fortress 2 also translates to console control very well. As a classed-based multiplayer game, you only ever have three different weapons to cycle through so it's all nice and simple and really easy to get in to. There's even a tutorial movie and little helpful hints all along the way. Fun fact: Team Fortress 2 was originally announced way back in 1998 - a sequel to the much loved community made mod Quake Team Fortress. What we have here today, almost a decade later, bears little resemblance to the original concept. The fundamentals, however, are still the same.
Much like the original TF, there're nine classes to choose from: Scout, Soldier, Pyro, Demoman, Heavy, Engineer, Medic, Sniper and Spy. Each class has its place and you'll need a decent variety on your team to succeed. A Scout can run the fastest and capture points a little quicker, but he doesn't have much health or fire power. A heavy can lay down some serious suppressing fire and has a lot of amour, but he's slow on his feet.
The balanced gameplay is exceeded only by the graphical style. What it lacks in texture res and fancy lighting effects it more than makes up for with its style. The characters and level design are like something straight out of a Pixar movie; well executed cell-shaded animation that gives the game an incredibly unique appearance. In addition, the levels are all designed with a 50s era spy-movie theme and the characters themselves are all larger than life stereotypes with their own distinct mannerisms and personalities. For instance, the Soldier is a militant World War II drill-instructor type while the Sniper is an Acubra wearing Aussie.
Network issues aside, there's potentially countless hours of gameplay in Team Fortress 2 on console. If you're buying it on PC, that's a non-issue, jump online and frag the days away.
Finally Portal, the new kid on the block. A game built entirely on one new idea, the portal gun. Portal is the spiritual successor of Narbacular drop, a student project that caught Valve's fauceted eye who proceeded to hire the creators to bring us this new commercial title using the Source Engine technology.
Portal kicks off with you, the player, stuck inside a sterile testing laboratory. A small room with only a bed, toilet and radio. Then a portal opens in the wall which functions as an access hole that transports you to a spot outside the holding cell, seemlessly in one hole and out the other. Similar to your usual first person shooter teleporter, only that you can see clearly through the hole to the other side. Moving on, you soon acquire a gun that can be used to shoot these portals onto walls. You can shoot your entry portal, then an exit wherever you wish and thus the adventure begins.
The game sees you working your way through the numbered levels of the testing centre with progressively harder puzzles you'll need to solve using only the Portal gun and a few props. All the while, a computerised voice is providing simple guidance and acknowledgment of your success. Portal is quite short to play through end to end, but it's one hell of a fun ride. There's a great humour element throughout the adventure and without spoiling too much, the computer voice over, particularly in the ending sequence, is some seriously side-splitting stuff.
For a puzzle game, there's also plenty of replayability. Once you're done with the main game, a bunch of new options open up, enabling some new challenges on previous levels that really ramp things up. Think you had trouble beating level four in the normal game, try doing it only using four portals, or only 24 steps, or in under 14 seconds! They'll really make you work hard for those last few achievement points.
If we had reviewed all these games separately, you'd be looking at high 8s and 9s out of 10. But when you go to a store and hand over your hard-earns, you're getting one disc in return. So rating on the merits of value - they don't come any better than this. Completely aware of the other terrific games available now and others due this holiday season - if you only buy one disc this year, you'd do well to make it The Orange Box.