The new black

This fall, Orange is in
By MITCH KRPATA  |  October 23, 2007
4.0 4.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for The Orange Box

The Orange Box | for Xbox 360 and PC | Rated T-M for Teen to Mature | Published and Developed by Valve
If you wanted to nitpick, you could say that Half-Life 2: Episode Two is too brief. Ditto for Portal, a first-person puzzle game that clocks in at about three hours. And of the multi-player-only Team Fortress 2, you could lament the absence of computer-controlled bots for off-line play. Fortunately, the creative minds at Valve have obviated the need for any such criticism by packing all three games into one offering they call The Orange Box and tossing in Half-Life 2 (originally released in 2004) and Half-Life 2: Episode One (2006) for good measure. Each game shows a developer working at the peak of its powers.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two finds Gordon Freeman working with resistance fighters to close an interdimensional rift above the devastated City 17. The episodic model throws you right into the action, without the lengthy exposition of the long-form games. At this point, it’s no longer a surprise that a Half-Life game features expert pacing and the best exploitation of the first-person perspective around. But the climactic battle deserves special praise for synthesizing everything the series has attempted so far into one masterful, sustained set piece. The frantic fight against waves of attacking Striders demands white-knuckle driving and judicious use of the gravity gun. It may be the series’s finest moment yet.

Portal is set in the same universe, but the game stands alone. It began as a class project called Narbacular Drop at DigiPen Institute of Technology before catching the attention of Valve, which promptly hired the Drop team. The original vision remains intact. Armed only with a gunlike device that can create wormholes on nearly any surface, you must navigate increasingly hazardous environments. Puzzles start out easily enough: fire at the wall next to you to generate one end of the portal and at a wall across the room to open the other. Then just step through.

The conceit is taken far beyond that simple example. Momentum is conserved as you travel through a portal, so many puzzles demand that you find a way to fall further than a room’s physical dimensions would seem to allow before catapulting yourself laterally through a wall. It’s dizzying, innovative stuff, quite unlike anything that’s been done in a game before.

But Portal’s real achievement is to create a cohesive narrative experience and not just ride its impressive gimmick. From the moment your character awakes in a sterile testing lab, she is guided by an omnipresent Artifical Intelligence called GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System). GLaDOS is like SHODAN crossed with Mitch Hedberg, uttering menacing commands and acerbic observations in equal measure. She drops ominous hints about the nature of the experiment and promises delicious cake when it’s over. The way it all ends, though, is unlike anything you’d expect when Portal begins. You need to play this game.

Last in The Orange Box is Team Fortress 2, the team-based shooter 10 years in the making. Over the course of its development, untold builds of TF2 have been tossed. That’s usually a bad sign. Here, it seems to have allowed the developers to take a chance on something different. Team Fortress has a pleasing cel-shaded look and a cartoonish æsthetic that’s as far removed from the joyless metal corridors of Halo as you can get. With nine classes of warriors to choose from (including a medic, a heavy gunner, and a gas-mask-wearing pyro), the gameplay possibilities seem limitless. Although Team Fortress may end up having the longest legs of anything in The Orange Box thanks to its multi-player format, all three games stand tall above the rest.

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