October 25, 2007

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The Orange Box (PC/360/PS3 forthcoming)
Valve, October 18
By Glenn "Weighted Companion Cube" Given production@hippopress.com

I don’t know how to break this to you everyothergame, but I’ve found someone else. She’s a beautiful combination of fun and sassy, combining the best times the past few years with heaps of new content. She lets me shoot aliens and carry a minigun while cackling maniacally. She addicts me to her puzzles and her weighted companion cube. I think I’m in love. Don’t make this any harder for me; just uninstall yourself.

Vavle delivers the gaming value of the decade in the Orange Box; a compilation of Half Life 2, Half Life 2: Episode One and three stellar new titles. Frankly those two classic first-person shooters are worth the admission allone if you’ve never played them. Valve continues to craft an amazing adventure in Half Life that combines all the skill and trickery of a good FPS with *gasp* an actual intersting story! Shocking, I know. Their third installment (Half Life 2: Episode Two) of the alien-busting gunner rises above its admirable predecessor in tweaking the AI balance issues and delving further into the tale of shoot-from-the-hip scientist Gordon Freeman.

All well and good, and for $20 or $30 I’d have bought Episode Two on its own. The real icing here lies in the long-awaited Team Fortress 2 and in the mind-bending puzzler Portal.

TF2 zeroes in on the very essence of competitive first-person shooters with an exceedingly well-designed half dozen levels of team-on-team warfare. While many twitch gamers may scoff at the lack of arenas for their high-speed firefighting, each level plays its role superbly. Updated classics like 2Fort and newer battlegrounds like Dustbowl strike an exacting balance between erstwhile enemies red and blue. Each board has its own game mechanic (2fort being the traditional capture the flag) including multiple variations on control point capture and invasion. Two elements put TF2 above its contemporaries: its class system and the distinctive art style. Players choose one of nine classes (rocket-launching Soldiers, turret-building Engineers, speedy Scouts, etc.) each designed to complement their teammates and exploit the specific weaknesses of other classes. Medics are natural companions to Heavys because their healing ray guns can enable the burly machinegunners to wade into enemies and lay down suppressing fire.

The Spy’s ability to disguise himself as an opponent allows him to slip behind enemy lines and disable the Engineers’ turrets to execute shot kills on unsuspecting foes. It’s all superbly thought out. What really brings it above the rest, though, is the Incredibles-esque stylization. Each class has such a distinctive profile that even amid the chaos of battle you can assess the capabilities of your enemies from across the field. No one will confuse the grenade-laden Demoman for the cowboy-hatted Sniper, and this crucial aesthetic makes your play experience all the better.

As if that weren’t enough, Valve also stuck Portal in. In this combination FPS and puzzler you and your Weighted Companion Cube must navigate a series of rooms using the physics-bending “portal gun.” This weapon allows you to open portals in a planar surface that can alow you to walk through walls, or walk through a wall and fall up out of a floor. Or whatever combination of insane mind-bendery you can conceive. Momentum is carried from falling objects through portals, allowing you to fling various items (and yourslf) about as you attempt to puzzle your way out of the twisted series of challenges presented. Maybe at first gloss it doesn’t sound like such a hoot but Portal is really the gem here. An original idea with Valve high-quality execution makes for an excellent gameplay experience.

The Orange Box is an incomparable collection of classic hits with cutting-edge gaming. You will not see a compilation (or possibly not even a solo title) that fires on all cylinders as Valve has here. If you haven’t bought it or are not waiting for it to dowload from Steam.com then you’re not really a gamer, are you? A+Glenn Given