Retro collections are a pain to stick a score to. There’s usually one or two, maybe three if you’re lucky, great games that stand the test of time along with half a dozen that only entertain for literally seconds. It’s funny then, that all of the five games in The Orange Box have their faults but yet it walks away with a perfect score. Why? Because it’s pure value for money. Plus: you get an achievement for launching a garden gnome into space.
For the uninformed, the disk contains Half-Life 2, two expansion pack-style extra episodes, brain melting puzzler Portal and the online multi-player Team Fortress 2. Half-Life 2 is starting to show its age slightly but it still has more going for it than some recent FPS games, with highlights being a battle along a rugged coastline and the chance to control your own insect army. Then there’s the infamous gravity gun – which gets super-charged temporarily in Episode One – that lets you lob barrels and crates at enemies and stack up boxes to form make-do ladders and such.
Episode One is definitely the weakest part of the collection. Set straight after Half-Life 2, it sees Gordon and Alyx fleeing a wrecked city through a crumbling citadel. Seasoned Half-Life 2 fans should be able to finish it in around three hours, but the sad fact is that it doesn’t get going until the last hour with the first two spent walking around dark corridors. After a tense escort mission the episode ends with a bang (literally), leaving Episode Two to pick the story straight up.
The next episode feels fresher – it’s set in a forest for starters – and is more epic in scale, with a massive bridge being destroyed within the first few minutes alone. What then follows is a mission to retrieve some Antlion lava from their nest, the chance to rally around the forest in a clapped out motor and a confrontation with a new enemy. No new weapons, sadly, although ammo gets purposely scarce around half way though forcing you to rely on Alyx’s sniping skills. We’re also fond of the ‘Destroy 333 Antlion grubs’ achievement. Feel the wrath of Gordon’s boot!
Now forget all about the gravity gun – Portal’s portal gun (which probably isn’t its real name) is the new best thing ever. Upon waking from a space-age sleeping chamber the female lead finds herself as a human ‘lab rat’ in a research facility. It starts off rather innocently with a female computer voice offering advice and giving out praise for solving puzzles but things quickly take a turn once it becomes apparent that you’re to be killed off at the end of the test.
At first the gun can only make exits – handy for redirecting laser beams and such – but later both exits and entrances can be made on walls, floors and anywhere else you fancy. If there’s a gun turret in your way you can make a portal above it, then go find a box and shove it into another portal so that the box will fall onto the turret and knock it over. There’s a strong sense of humour throughout – the computer promises a cake as a reward once all 18 puzzles have been completed – and it’s absurdly addictive with a smooth difficulty curve. Alas it’s another short one – three to four hours if you’re clever – but it’s perfectly formed and once completed a set of advance puzzles become unlocked. Make sure you stick around for the computer song at the end too.
Which then brings us to Team Fortress 2, a game that has been in development on and off for a good ten years. The cartoon stylings make it stand out from the rest of the collection, and indeed most other FPS games, and every character has their own skill set with plenty of nuances to learn. Example: the mini-gun soldier has a powerful weapon but it takes a few seconds to warm up which leaves him open to attack. But, if you have a medic on your team he might be kind enough to follow him around and heal him using a Ghostbusters-style proton pack health beam. Mechanics can make gun turrets, spies can disguise themselves as enemy soldiers, scouts can run fast and flamethrower dudes can cause major damage. The presentation is nicely done – when you die a box appears with your accomplishments for that round (most kills, longest alive, etc) and it’s well balanced – if you have to defend a base you get a 60 second head start to plant mines, set up turrets, and so on.
If you don’t have Xbox Live then you’re going to miss out on Team Fortress 2, but even so there’s a good twenty five hours of other stuff to play though. It’s no wonder that Valve recently claimed that they’ve lost track of how much time and money has gone into this impeccable collection.