No such thing as a Free(man) lunch.
But good values do exist, and The Orange Box is definitely one of them. Unlike the PC version where fans have had half of this package already, and have to deal with Steam, all this content is brand new to the Xbox 360. Since this is a mountain of content, there are three questions that come to mind:
[image1]Is a three year old game still worth it? Are the new games included any fun? Will we have cake at the conclusion of this review?
To answer these conundrums, we have break the game down into three easy to digest slices: Half-Life 2, Team Fortress 2, and Portal.
In the bakery that is The Orange Box, Half-Life 2 is one tasty 3-layer cake. The first layer, the original 3 year old game, is the base. Episode 1 is a thin layer in the middle. The top layer is Episode 2, bigger than Episode 1, but still doesn't change the taste much.
Thankfully, HL2 hasn't gone stale. The scripting, storyline, and voice acting are still top notch. Robert Guillaume does a fantastic job as Dr. Eli Vance. Even if you don't know who he is, you'll recognize his voice. Unfortunately, hearing it makes me long for more episodes of Soap.
The graphics haven't taken that much of a hit in its move to console, though that depends on the PC rig you may have seen the game on. Yes, PC fans, your $2K computer makes the game prettier than my $400 console. Then again, you have to deal with Steam every time you play, so I still feel sorry for you. (Hate mail in 5, 4, 3...)
Only recently has any game surpassed one of my favorite features of HL2 - the facial features. Though Heavenly Sword has raised the bar, I still have to give credit to HL2 for the subtlety of the way their characters react. Namely, if you aren't paying attention, you'll miss it. Since all the cutscenes are in-game, you might have to look at the various characters' faces during the conversations. Episode 1 and 2 are great for this since most of the time you're running around with Alyx Vance, who loves to roll her eyes and give you funny faces when the scientists are rambling on and on. Any game that can give emotion to a giant robot creature named Dog deserves kudos... or maybe this delightful devil's food cake.
For those of you that have played HL2 and Episode 1 on PC, the only thing new here is Episode 2. While it continues both the excellent storyline and solid gameplay of the original, it again fails to be a true sequel and simply more of the same game.
[image2]These three “games” should be taken together and referred to as “Half-Life 2: The Story So Far”. Unfortunately, that means somebody forgot to add the frosting to this delicious confection and the story isn't done yet. Since Valve has proven that they are incapable of actually doing episodic content in any sort of timely fashion, who knows if we'll get to the end of the storyline anytime within the next few years. Valve may end up on the same hit list as George Martin if they don't start moving quicker.
All in all, Half-Life 2 and its Episodes are a must for any fan of FPS games that hasn't experienced it. Even if you have played it on the PC, HL2's replay value is good due to the strong story and some fun achievements that make you play the game a little differently than you might have otherwise.
Team Fortress 2
Like that rich chocolate cake that you only order when you can eat it with other people, Team Fortress 2 is the multiplayer offering in The Orange Box's buffet of tasty treats. Originally based on Team Fortress and vaporware for nine years, this new version is a fast, objective oriented multiplayer game with an arresting visual style.
If you thought Half-Life was old, realize that Team Fortress was a mod for the original Quake. Instead of everyone being equal at the start of the match, TF2 has you pick a specialization from 9 different classes, each with remarkably different skills. The small and fast Scout has low health but is faster than just about anyone. The Spy can disguise himself as the enemy and backstab them. The Heavy has a giant machine gun that he... well, I'm sure you can guess what he does. The balance between the characters is impressive.
The art style is fantastic. Imagine if The Incredibles suddenly went psychotic and started lugging around giant weaponry. It is a complete visual departure from the other games on The Orange Box, and a refreshing change for the genre as a whole.
As varied as the art and character are, the maps show the same care. However, there just aren't enough of them. There are only six maps and each map is fixed to a specific game type, and you can't change it. Since most 360 players are currently enjoying the astoundingly customizable multiplayer delight that is Halo 3, moving to Team Fortress 2 feels a little limiting. Unlike other 360 offerings, there currently seem to be no menu options for downloadable content. If this is true, the longevity of TF2 is in question.
Unfortunately, TF2 has some drawbacks from its PC counterpart. First off, matches are limited to 16 players on Xbox Live (officially 24 on PC) since the system doesn't use dedicated gameplay servers. This also means that the host has to have a pretty good connection to host a larger map, otherwise lag can get bad. Supposedly, there's already a patch in the works to fix some of the issues, but that shows the other drawback. Though Steam sucks, it is Valve's own kitchen so when something goes wrong, they can clean it up quickly. On Xbox Live, any patches have to be certified for the system (usually a good thing) and that can take a little longer.
Team Fortress 2 is an excellent multiplayer game, but it is also the piece that couldn't really stand on its own. Personally, I'd love to see a single player game with this art style and more multiplayer maps. The gameplay is great, lets get some more content to make this into a chocolate volcano cake.
[image3]Portal is cheesecake. Why? Because cheesecake is my favorite and I can never seem to get enough. Portal is one of the most unique first person games ever and is truly revolutionary in many ways. Though the shortest of any of the offerings, Portal is entrancing not only for what it is, but the sheer potential of the game is staggering.
Portal is, as far as I can tell, the first “First Person Action Puzzle” game and is a great example of how hard it is to separate games into genres (or cakes for that matter). Though you are using a gun, its not a shooter by any means. Your portal gun creates holes in space that you can walk through. Each portal has to have two points that you shoot to various walls and surfaces on the levels. Want to fall forever? Shoot one portal above you and one below. You can even see yourself through the portals depending on the angle.
The excellent physics of the other games is on display in Portal as well. Like a cake thrown from a bakery van, objects moving through the portals maintain momentum. This means that the speed at which it enters the portal is the speed at which it exits. For example, to clear a long jump you might have to shoot one portal behind you, then you jump off a cliff. As you rapidly approach a hard lesson in the effects of gravity, you can shoot the second portal on the ground below you. Maintaining your speed, you'll launch out of the first portal and across the gap.
Guiding this action is the Aperture Labs computer, giving you different challenges to overcome and offering you rewards. Though Valve could have just made a puzzle game without a real plot, they incorporated one in that more than does the job. They even added a cake recipe if you listen hard enough. Also, the end song for Portal is the best video game tune I've heard since the bonus room song from Skullmonkeys.
[image4]Alas, this slice of cheesecake is just too thin in the end, otherwise it would be my wedding cake. For a puzzle game, there just isn't enough here. If you had given this game engine to the puzzle experts, like the amazing folks at Popcap, you would have ended up with a100 level convoluted puzzle game that would take months to solve. As it stands, you'll beat Portal in a couple hours, though you can replay some levels in an “advanced mode”. Again, I fear that the lack of menus for downloadable content might hurt the longevity of this amazing game.
The Thrilling Conclusion
In the end, this much cake would give anyone diabetes, though thankfully we don't have to worry about that. The Orange Box is more content on one disc than just about any other 360 game on the market. The single player Half-Life 2 experience is just as good now as it was years ago, and even longer thanks to Episodes 1 & 2. Team Fortress is a solid, but small multiplayer game. And Portal should be played by every person who has ever said that “all first person games are the same”. In fact, Portal should be played by everyone; it's just that different. Though each game has its own drawbacks and limitations, and some games you might wish were on their own with a ton more content, The Orange Box is a fantastic deal and a worthy addition to any 360 library.
The cake is a lie.