You’d be forgiven for being suspicious if Valve was another, less eccentric company. After all, if any deal looked too good to be true it’d be this one: releasing three of the year’s most anticipated titles together in one package, along with two prior, highly praised games. Justifiably praised games, in fact. Half-Life 2, itself an Edge 10, and Episode 1 still tower above the offerings of more recent firstperson shooters. It might seem like ostentatious generosity, intended to distract from some flaw in its new offerings, but Valve just isn’t that kind of company; The Orange Box really is that good. Its three primary parts – Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Team Fortress 2 and Portal – each wow in isolation, and beggar belief in combination, creating a product of unique diversity and unparalleled value.
Given both the brilliance and distinctiveness of each constituent game, it’s difficult to assess their value in relation to one another and, though in this review we talk more about Episode Two, that’s not because it’s particularly the standout part of the package. Nonetheless, the greater scrutiny is justified: Episode Two carries forward our existing investment in a series of true excellence. If the original Half-Life set new standards of involvement in the FPS genre, then its sequel easily furthered this achievement, seamlessly meshing compelling storytelling with the game’s action, masking the underlying linearity through narrative drive and an art direction that evoked a larger world. Episode Two continues this tradition, and frequently betters its predecessors.
Once again a sense of urgency propels the player onward, the magnificence of the alpine range to which Gordon and Alyx escaped in the previous episode blinkering the player to the strictness of his path – but this time the compulsion to continue is a personal one. Although harried by pursuing Combine forces, escape is only one motivation – coming to the aid of your friends and allies is by far the more important concern. As the series has progressed, Valve has made an effort to establish personal, human connections within the drama of global strife, and Episode One ramped up the bond between the player and Alyx Vance, establishing sympathy with her fate. Although still possessed of a huge health bar, your ally, along with the rest of the resistance, here seems far more fragile. The threat against them feels genuine, that there’s every possibility these characters will be snuffed out by the Combine’s vengeance should you arrive too late.
To this cast are added new faces – Vortigaunt companions whose solemn flattery of the player is both amusing and unnerving, given how you have previously enjoyed stoving in their telepathic skulls with a crowbar. There are new enemies, too, and once again Valve proves that it has a knack for engineering brilliant AI-driven encounters. Acid-spitting antlions are the first of these formidable opponents – but keep their distance, attempting to bombard you at range, flitting between the slick tunnels of their hive in order to find new angles of attack. Then there are the hunters – tripedal Combine minions of a smaller scale than the striders, but faster, attacking you with impetuous vulpine aggression.
In some ways these new additions echo Valve’s previous experiments – the antlions’ acid attack recalls the bullsquid from the original game, and there is a clear unspoken connection between Half-Life’s houndeye and the doggy packs of hunters. Yet, in each case, the formula has been changed to create something new – a more delicately considered challenge. It’s something that’s true of much of Episode Two: sections of the previous games that resonated well with fans return in different guises, yet their frustrations are omitted, their ambitions scaled up. It offers much more diversity than the modest descriptor of ëepisode’ suggests, switching fluidly between different styles of play and environments that, for all their distinctiveness, convince of their continuity.
Only at one point does the game struggle with its design, during a short section close to its conclusion which departs from the series’ linear formula, placing the player in a wide-open environment, under attack from all sides. The game can’t quite manage the scale of this encounter, even when a car is at your disposal to help you traverse the arena, but it’s a momentary frustration in a six-hour experience of precise construction and great diversity, and it’s followed by a narrative pay-off that mitigates its annoyances.
Besides the overarching plot, however, there are other writerly rewards. Half-Life 2 excelled at delivering story obliquely, the environment describing incidental narratives that brought depth and integrity to the world. Here, in the mountain wilderness, the propaganda-spewing screens of City 17 are nowhere to be seen, and subsequently the politics of oppression and resistance that they described in previous instalments takes a backseat. However, as you travel through the broken, abused world there are many stories to be told. The journey to a resistance hideout is punctuated by diversions – weapons stashes, abandoned warehouses, obliterated homes – the story of their domination by Combine or some other calamity expressed eloquently through exploration.
Episode Two’s sustained quality of action and rewarding fiction marks it as one of the finest exemplars of the genre. You’d think that Episode Three might have its work cut out for it, but the proposition set up by Episode Two is a thrilling one. Further questions arise just as certain threads are brought to an end, that familiar narrative drive constantly pushing the player onwards.
It’s perhaps less surprising, then, that Valve, a company enamoured with the art of blending interactivity with narrative, has decided to frame Portal within a storyline teasingly connected with the Half-Life universe. In all other respects a pure puzzle game, Portal’s narrative trappings run the risk of feeling superfluous, but are ultimately a delight, such is the wit and black humour with which the challenges are presented. A captive at the mercy of ethically flexible weapons research company Aperture Science, you are subject to a series of trials testing both your intelligence and the capabilities of the Handheld Portal Device, the sleek, glossy white sibling to Half-Life 2’s Zero-Point Energy Manipulator. This portal gun can be fired at certain flat surfaces, be they walls, floors or ceilings, alternate triggers or mouse buttons placing portals of different colours, orange and blue, allowing you to step through one and out the other.
Valve has eked out puzzles of great range and complexity from the simple principle of these two interlinked portals. It’s the sign of great puzzle design: instead of simply pouring more and more variables into the mix, Portal teaches you new ways of exploiting the technology at your disposal. You might use a portal to drop a crate on to a troublesome mounted auto-gun, or place them in order to quickly traverse a room from a timed lever to the door it opens – these being the more obvious solutions. As the game escalates, Portal strains your spatial perception, forcing you to consider tortuous trajectories that flip your orientation as you pass from one portal to the next; leap from a high platform into a portal far below and you can use the momentum bestowed upon you by gravity to propel yourself across an abyss.
One level, reputedly conceived by Gabe Newell, sees you use this tactic to propel yourself ever upwards in a stomach-churning ascent of escalating platforms. As you exit one portal and fly up from the momentum of your fall, you gain just enough altitude to drop the alternate portal on the next, higher platform, repeating until you either complete the puzzle or your brain withers, confounded by the constant change of orientation.
Although Portal is generally more meditative than the other games of The Orange Box, it conceals some considerable dynamism in its core concept, requiring both careful contemplation and rapid reaction. At a certain point the game abruptly ups the tempo, using your now-familiar suite of skills to churn through a sequence of deadlier environments towards the game’s conclusion. It’s this awareness and careful manipulation of pacing that unites the components of The Orange Box. Episode Two punctuates its highs of bloody, frenetic combat with quiet, melancholic lulls, and even Team Fortress 2, perhaps surprisingly for a multiplayer game of such explosive action, also manages a variance of pace that sets it apart from most other online titles. Partly this pacing is a matter of choice – the game offers nine distinct classes from which to select and, while the role of Scout is very different to that of the Heavy, for example, somehow Valve has made each class equally appealing.
However, by the natural intermixing of these different roles, players inevitably create situations that radically alter the flow of battle, creating constant, thrilling eddies. The Medic builds up ëubercharge’ as he heals and then, when full, expends it by making himself and one other player invulnerable for a short period of time. It’s enough to bolster an assault on a capture-point that can turn the tide of the game. Equally, as a Spy – who can disguise himself as an enemy – plunging his knife into a Medic’s spine or sabotaging the Engineer’s teleports, dispensers or turrets can prove key. As a result, these support positions become fortified by a paranoid bustle of Engineers, Medics and Pyros (the latter class’ short-range but devastating blast of flame can turn an unsubtle Spy into charcoal in a matter of seconds). Team Fortress 2’s class system isn’t so much built on the scissor-paper-stone model; instead, the game’s exquisite balance relies on elegantly pitching situations and mixtures of classes against each other.
It’s been in the making for the best part of a decade, but it’s more than apparent where that effort has gone. TF2 is a peerless team pursuit, astute in its mechanics and realised with unerring brilliance. The game’s presentation epitomises ingenuity and polish, the cartoon art style succinctly conveying information that could otherwise be intimidating and abstract. Along with this come many comic touches – after death the screen automatically zooms to and freezeframes your enemy, who may well be in the middle of one of the game’s leering taunt animations. The Australian-voiced Sniper will wave jovially while saying, “Cheers for keeping your head still, you wanker!” while the Pyro will raise his flamethrower above his and emit a muted warble.
There is such care and attention in the detail of each and every part of The Orange Box – the cool, Alpine light dappling the ground in the forested wilderness of Episode Two; the rabid graffiti of previous Aperture Science test subjects; the cardboard cutouts of farm animals that conceal the sinister purposes of Team Fortress’ arenas. Valve’s genius is in the way it constructs its worlds through unspoken means – and The Orange Box is a perfect realisation of some staggering talent. At its lowest points it is highly competent. At its best, there is little that can touch it. The variety of its substance runs the gamut – furious action both online and off, tortuous puzzles, and enrapturing narrative. In each part it excels and betters what has gone before; as a whole it is almost overwhelming in its depth, irresistible in value and certainly, unreservedly, brilliant.
The Orange Box is one of very few games awarded an Edge 10. You can find the rest here.