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The only thing that stops the dust is the rain. It’s a sweet reprieve, but there is no middle ground. The land is either as dry as the Betty Ford clinic, or as wet as the ocean floor. Everything can be seen from the ridge overlooking Armadillo as John Marston gently bounces along atop...

Half-Life 2: The Orange Box Member Review for the Xbox360

AcidTrip By:
PLAYERS 1- 16 
PUBLISHER Electonic Arts 
M What do these ratings mean?

Aahhh, the Orange Box. Touted as the "Best deal in videogame history", it has been lauded and given critical praise for its inclusion of not only the newest Half-Life 2 episode, but also everything else that came before it. There was a time where one would think that Valve would also include a kitchen sink with an embossed Lambda logo.... but sadly, that was not to be.

I love Half-Life. It's one of my favourite series--and since I'm not getting paid to do this, I can be as bias as I damn well please. However, I will still try to be fair. Why? 'Cause that's just in my nature. Now, onto the first section of this "greatest deal in videogame history".

Half-Life 2

"Wake up, Mr. Freeman. Wake up and, smell the ashes."

Half-Life 2 burst onto the scene in November of 2004 to much praise and critical acclaim. It was a more advanced version of Half-Life--a 1998 Valve game that was published by Sierra. That too was lauded critically and did well financially thanks to its seamless blending of puzzle, platforming, and FPS action. It also had a pretty kick ass story to boot, by 1998 standards. Truly, with the year of '98 jam-packed with great (and horrible) First Person Shooter titles, it was surprising to remember Half-Life breaking from the pack and planting its own flag on one of the highest plateaus in this genre.

With that said, Half-Life 2 looked to raise the bar again. When it was released, it was critically lauded once more, and it was given the royal lip service that seems only reserved for Halo. While it was definitely nice to see Gordon Freeman return with a stronger cast of characters, a stronger back story, and an overall more immersive and beautifully rendered architecture and character models, one couldn't help feel that something was missing. Indeed, while the story was definitely rich in subtlety and was full of gang-busting explosions and great, cinematic moments that you actually played through, one couldn't help but feel that in the end of that 12-15 hour experience, it raised more questions than it answered.

It is now the year 2007, the Orange Box has been out for a couple of weeks, and many are wondering whether or not Half-Life 2 still stacks up against the latest and greatest from other developers in the genre. Point-blank--it does. Half-Life 2 while being three years old, is still one of the best looking and most immersive games this side of Oblivion. The physics engine has been given great acclaim, so I won't waste time describing it three years later when it was already covered to brilliance. Instead, I will simply say that the Gravity Gun is *still* the most fun weapon in the game, and the amount of crap you can use at your disposal (explosive toxic barrels, crates, fences, wooden boards, enemy grenades, and a sleu of others) is amazing. Yes it's been three years since Half-Life 2, but this game still holds its own even against the lofty Halo 3.

However, some negatives still remain, even three years later and decidedly on one of the most powerful consoles to hit the market to date. The load times still work to pull you back out of the action. Not that they are long or overt, but when they do happen, that little loading bar sucks one right out of the gameplay that they were previously enjoying, and the end-result seems to be a jarring and displaced feeling that the player has peeked behind the curtain, even though that wasn't the intention. It's still not fun to play through the loading, but it's also necessary... I suppose.

The graphics are, really, not that much improved over the original Half-Life 2. The textures appear to be sharper, and the models look to be of higher quality, but honestly, it looks the same as Half-Life 2 did on a really high end machine. That's not to say it looks bad--I'd say the graphics still beat Gears of War in terms of realism and gritty detail. As much as I loved that pinnacle shooter, I always felt that it fell just a little short behind Half-Life 2, and it seems to be because that while they were focusing on "destroyed beauty" over at Epic, Valve has and probably always will focus on gritty realism and making their enemies, supporting characters, architecture and vehicles as realistic as possible.

In the end, it's hard to say if you can recommend Half-Life 2 to an existing fan. Chances are you've played this before, and chances are you've enjoyed the snot out of it as well. With that said, I can't find another reason NOT to take the plunge and immerse yourself in humanity's grave struggle to take back what's ours. The story still holds up against pretty much anything that's been released since, and the gameplay is still more fun than much of the more highly touted titles of 2006/2007. I think, what it comes down to, is whether or not you can justify spending $10-$15 on this game. Since it's one of five, the deal seems much more reasonable considering the wealth of content you get.

Half-Life 2: Episode One

"I think we just broke about 50 Combine Regulations!"

The first of three "episodes" that Valve heavyweights have said would make up Half-Life 3 was released a year later, and, oddly enough, titled Episode One. Many have criticized it for not offering new weapons or new environments. However, upon taking in the context on which this first third of Half-Life 3 was being told, one couldn't really expect Valve to make a whole bunch of new environments outside of City 17 just for the sake of a new game. This is Valve we're talking about. I haven't seen them sacrifice story for gameplay ever--and that could be because they've never needed to.

While one could definitely find reason not to purchase Episode One based on the fact that there was only one new enemy type, and the game itself had one mission (get out of City 17 alive), it would be hard to justify spending full-price on this game. However, upon taking in the context of the story (which is still excellent), one can't help but justify reasons to buy it for it's ideal $20 price tag.

There are still some noticeable hitches in the loading, however. I think this appears to be something more in line with the Source engine than anything Valve does, and while the loading times are still tolerable, they still do much to break the spell that Valve has put on the player. It's still jarring, and it's still giving a sense of peeking behind the Wizard's curtain, reminding everyone that, yes, Half-Life is just a game.

One other complaint I have is that Episode One is only five hours long. Less if you decide to cut through it on "Easy". There are some great "Holy Shit" moments like from Half-Life 2, and there is some great dialogue to be found here. Newly installed HDR lighting to the Source engine also provides the gross, slippery-looking enemy types with brand new... grossness. The Antlions look great in shadows, and the Barnacles also give off a real sense of yuck.

Perhaps the most notable improvement is to Alyx. She is with you for the entirety of Episode One, and she is always standing by your side. Her unlimited ammo and some of the "teamwork" segments were a great deal of fun. Especially the Hospital shootout. Shotguns at the ready and trademark Half-Life, pulse-pounding techno-rock in the background, this player just couldn't help but grin and bring the pain.

Is Episode One worth the purchase? Definitely. It's one of the best "Expansions" one could ask for and, instead of waiting five years for Half-Life 3, we're getting it now. The problem of course, is having one five-hour episode being released each year. That's definitely got to improve.

If you're a Half-Life fan, and you want to step into the H.E.V. suit one more time to see what's become of your friends and your enemies, then definitely pick up Episode One. You won't be disappointed.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two

"Dr. Freeman... I realize this moment may not be the most convenient for a heart-to-heart, but I had to wait until your... friends were otherwise occupied."

Hey, remember Half-Life? Remember how the ending to Half-Life 2 pissed off so many players? Remember when Valve announced the "Episodes" that would make up Half-Life 3, and that we wouldn't have to wait too long before the next installment?

Yeah, I do too.

Valve has certainly dicked the Half-Life enthusiasts around these past few years in the form of Episodic Gaming. The whole premise of course is one game in "chunks" that would be cheaper, and would be released more frequently. And while they definitely have the "chunks" and cheaper price tag, they seem to be scratching their heads at releasing the games with more frequency.

I also distinctly remember Valve promising that Episode Two would be dramatically longer than Episode One--which was a complaint that many fans had. And while it is noticeably longer (by an hour or two), it's still not exactly what we all hoped for in the great form of episodic gaming.

Episode Two immediately picks up where the first episode left off, and within the first ten minutes you not only survive an epic, cinematic thrill ride done to perfection and would make Arnold Schwarzenegger jealous, you also suffer through perhaps one of the most shocking moments in the Half-Life series. I won't spoil it, but let's just say that a new enemy is introduced, and the Vortigaunts are now beginning to show their power.

With the introduction back into the world now underway, you find yourself once more scheming with deviously simple puzzles (meaning, you'll probably think they're more complicated than you realize), and struggling to save your own ass against hordes and hordes of enemies. The first section has the player enthusiastically exploring the Antlion caverns, all the while encountering the Head-Humpers and their toxic buddies. The battles to be found not only in Episode Two, but also in the first hour alone, could rival that of big-name releases that we've seen this year. While trying to hold the fort in a Resistance stronghold from Antlions, I found myself playing cautious and trying to kill as many as I could in my own cavern. Slowly but surely, the sheer numbers of the Antlions were becoming too much, and it seemed that Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance were doomed to fail.

Let's just say, it doesn't turn out that way, and leave it at that. It is truly one of those ****-eating grin moments in videogames that we hope for. It's a great moment, and has to be experienced in and of itself.

And from there, it is the job of Gordon Freeman to take critical intelligence to Eli Vance and Doctor Kleiner in the White Forest. A stronghold for the resistance against the Combine overlords. While Episode Two does suffer less so from jarring load times (they make sense now), I also found that it didn't seem to quite deliver on pulse-pounding action outside of the grand opening hour, and a few battles dotted here and there until the epic, grand finale. The last two hours of this game are definitely worth the purchase alone, and with only one new weapon (it's a ****ing doozy), one new enemy type, and the plot being enhanced, Episode Two is definitely worth the purchase.

And let's not kid ourselves--the story is why we're here. The gameplay is excellent and the Gravity Gun is still the most fun weapon to screw around with, but the story is what keeps this writer coming back again and again. It's found in plentiful supply here, and the ending of Episode Two has got me screaming for Combine, alien ooze-like blood, all the while contemplating the words of Eli Vance. Which words? You'll see soon enough.

Overall, Episode Two would be worth the purchase by itself, but bundled with not only Half-Life 2, but Episode One, Portal, and Team Fortress 2--it's definitely something you can't miss.


"This next test is impossible. Make no attempt to solve it."

This game, well, no one was quite sure what to make of it. The concept was fresh and original, and it seemed to be something Valve could attain. It was a reachable goal that definitely had legs. The game itself is only two hours long, which is, quite honestly, perfect for a game like this. It's a puzzle game folks, and there isn't much in the way of combat. The puzzles however, more than make up for this as during the first five or six puzzles, you'll be left scratching your head and trying to make your mind wrap around the concept of using Portals to finish objectives. Once you do this, however, you'll definitely be giggling with glee as you create new and interesting ways to not only solve the puzzle, but solve the problem of walking a distance.

The story is there, and the A.I. named GLaDOS has oozing with black humour. She is perhaps one of the most entertaining side-characters I've seen in a long time, and I'm definitely glad she's included here. The game doesn't seem to pack much of a story at first, but as you continue steadily, progressing, you'll soon realize that there is definitely much more to Aperture Science than meets the eye.

It's hard to delve into this game without ruining some of the best parts, but let's just say the Weighted Companion Cube and the absolutely fantastic finale more than make up for this game's length. And the end-credits song "Still Alive" is one of the most catchy pieces of music I've seen in a video game for some time.  In the end, Portal is definitely worth the Orange Box. Maybe not all by itself, but with the other software that is being bundled here, you can definitely see why Valve decided that this was the best way to release they new content. Everything here is worth about twenty dollars, and yet instead of shipping them with an MSRP of $60, they all come packed together, ensuring at least thirty hours of enjoyment.

Team Fortress 2

"Bang! Ha Ha!"

I need to begin by saying this; this is game is perhaps the most fun on X-Box Live that I've had since Halo 2.

Now that this shocking revelation is out of the way, I will continue. Team Fortress 2, in my opinion, gets a lot of things right. We'll start with the good first.

The online matchmaking I've found, is as good as it can get for a non-Halo game. It's just, perfect. The game automatically tracks almost every possible statistic it can, with noticeable omissions being how many times you've paused the game to pass gas or how many terrabytes of data you've wasted hosting a match. It's definitely a great addition to this Orange Box, and serves as a sort of end-all be-all mutliplayer. With this, of course, it's definitely worth sweeping the fact that Half-Life 2 Deathmatch doesn't make the cut here (nor the Lost Coast, which would've made an excellent bonus feature). Team Fortress 2 definitely puts a strong emphasis on not only teamwork, but on punishing those who would rather betray their team just because they wanted the rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

The omission of grenades is noticeable, but after the first game, you won't really notice it. The class system is fluid, and it ensures that there won't be a feature anyone can't excel at. If you're not doing well as a spy, then you can use the Heavy if you just want to light up a room. Want to focus your talents on medical expertise? The medic (especially in tandem) with the Heavy makes both of you damn near unstoppable. Other classes like the Soldier, the Sniper, and the Pyro are also great, great fun. The latter being perhaps the most satisfying in terms of causing general mayhem.

But like I said, this game focuses on team work, and as such, there are no "deathmatch" options. There is Capture Point, and there is Capture the Flag (the flag being Intelligence briefcases that are held in the other team's base). With a thumping, almost 1960's spy-movie soundtrack and great, cartoony visuals complete with graphic wanton destruction, Team Fortress 2--if you can look past the necessity of teamwork and find people you can actually get along with--is definitely a must own multiplayer game.

The problems that this game does have, are not many, but the ones that are there are noticeable enough.

Currently, unless the host has a strong connection, there is a severe amount of lag that does not freeze the game, but instead makes it choppy and your character appears to hop around the map without much forethought. It makes you an incredibly easy target, and it's quite annoying.

The load-times as well are actually worse than the Half-Life games, or Portal. I guess this isn't too surprising since most of it is dependent on the other connections but, even Halo 3 does not have this long a wait to get into the action. It really makes me wonder if Valve optimized TF 2 for the home console experience.

Some of the weapons as well don't seem to be as well balanced as you'd think. The Pyro's flamethrower, while definitely satisfying, doesn't seem to burn the other fools to a crisp like you'd imagine it would. It definitely works, but it's also not as effective as fire-on-flesh should be. The heavy can deal the most damage, and if you were so inclined, six-to-eight players could team Heavy/Medic and completely blast through the opponent's for great fun. It also sucks when this is done to you.

With all of that said, and despite its problems, I'm going to recommend Team Fortress 2. A patch is in the works from Valve (in fact, it's done), and it's just awaiting Microsoft Certification. Whether or not this will drastically improve the gameplay for everyone, I'm not sure. If you're the kind of person who is sick of twelve-year-olds shouting racial slurs in your ear while you're sniping them, or people sodomizing your Spartan with a light saber, then throw in TF 2 and enjoy the friendly atmosphere--and make no bones about it, it's friendly. Your chatting is restricted to just your team-mates, allowing covert planning of tactics.

If you're a shy person, this game is not for you. Strategy and cohesive units are a must. If you try going it alone, you'll die horribly and repeatedly. If you're the type of gamer who really enjoys a good, friendly atmosphere with competent team mates and like working together, then this game is definitely for you.

Final Thoughts

The Orange Box is the best deal you can get to date. It's probably the best deal you can get for the X-Box 360, or the PC. Five competent and well-balanced games for the price of one? Jesus.

I've personally bought Half-Life 2 three times now. Once for the X-Box, the PC, and now for the X-Box 360. Does this make me a fool? Maybe. I think it means I'm dedicated to the Half-Life series, and I desperately want to see its conclusion. The other content here is definitely worth its weight. It may seem like Portal and Team Fortress 2 are piggy-backing on the name of Half-Life, but they're really not. They stand alone competently and without too many problems. There's a breadth of content here, and there's definitely a lot of replay value in the smart achievements and the Developer Commentary provided for all games (except the original Half-Life 2).

With that said, however, the most poignant problems The Orange Box faces are the load times. While they are not overtly long, they still detract enough from the gameplay because they are put in the most odd places--and in the end, they prove to be jarring and disjointed. They remind you that, really, all you're doing is playing a videogame when you desperately try to suspend your disbelief for a few hours at a time. Is it worth the loading to crunch through Combine, enemy territory, and solve the next puzzle? Do the load times detract enough to warrant your skipping of this game? Definitely not. However, be warned, if you're the egotistical, vocally abusive type, then skip it. This game, and the content found here-in, is not for you.

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