Half-Life 2: The Orange Box is possibly 2007's best game, a collection of five superb shooters value priced at $59.99. Valve expertly blends its older games with newer content, delivering an essential bundle only a fool would ignore.
It starts with Half-Life 2, or rather, an excellent port of Half-Life 2, a game from 2004 that outshines every first person shooter on Xbox 360. Despite its age, the game looks stunning, showcasing magnificent environments, rippling water, tons of action and the best physics of any console game. You don't just play it to find out what happens to its protagonist, Gordon Freeman or to kill things for the sake of slaughtering them. Most of the fun comes from experimentation, setting off chain reactions with exploding barrels, splintering wood, chopping zombies in half, skimming across the water in a hovercraft, squaring off against an attack chopper and chucking around large objects with the gravity gun. If you already played this on PC then great. There's nothing new to explore. But if you somehow missed this monumental achievement in gaming, you just won the lottery.
Half-Life 2's follow up, Episode One continues where the prequel left off. Once again, you step into Freeman's hazard suit and battle against the alien nemesis, the Combine. It's a short, 5-7 hour adventure, and you won't mind its abrupt conclusion, since you'll immediately segue into HL2's latest addition, Episode Two. During the course of this 10-12 hour adventure, you'll face countless enemies across a dangerous forest, fighting aliens topside and in the bowels of a dusty mine. Familiar weapons such as the shotgun, pistol, magnum and gravity gun return, along with a new vehicle and adversaries. Much like Episode One, it provides more Half-Life 2, which is in no way a bad thing, other than the fact that it doesn't finish the story, and Episode Three is probably a year from release.
Once you finish with those games (and that'll take anywhere from 30-40 hours) there's Portal, an impressive puzzle game that'll both amaze and frustrate you. Basically, you play as a test subject that, at the prompt of a sterile sounding voice with humorous dialogue, complete a series of challenges using a device that creates portals almost everywhere, allowing you to pass through walls and fall through floors. The effect looks just as stunning as in 2K Games' Prey, if not more so since you have greater freedom in a portals' placement. You'll spend the first few minutes marveling at the technology, especially as you watch your character walk through the portal and pop out the other side, which creates the illusion that you're right behind them, when in fact you're someplace else entirely.
Portal takes a great deal of concentration and will at times piss you off, not because of any glitches, but from your puzzled brain. Figuring out where to create the one portal that'll allow you to proceed may take you anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more, but it's time well spent. Gamers may criticize it for being a tech demo (which is partially true—Valve intends to utilize this technology in future games, possibly the next Half-Life 2 Episode), but it has enough depth to stand on its own and complement The Orange Box's other games.
Finally, we come to Team Fortress 2, a sweet multiplayer only shooter that is simplistic in design and almost impossible to put down. When compared to other games such as Halo 3, Gears of War and Resistance: Fall of Man, TF2 comes up short in terms of options. Capture the Flag and Control Point offer little in the way of variety, and six maps seem laughable in the face of Halo 3's 11. But we love this game nonetheless. The brutal, fast paced gunplay sends enemies running and limbs flying, while the nine unique classes (Scout, Soldier, Pyro, Demoman, Heavy Weapons Guy, Engineer, Medic, Sniper and Spy) have signature abilities and weapons, making for lots of variety and experimentation. In addition, Valve did a masterful job with the graphics, creating gorgeous cell shaded maps that provide a slick comic book presentation that goes well with the mayhem. However, above all else, TF2 is a hell of a lot of fun. If you want to obsess over stats you can, but it's designed for those who need to see their rankings and those that just want to kill people.
If we must complain about something, we'll point to the three crashes we experienced. The first occurred while playing Half-Life 2. The game locked up, and after we rebooted our 360 and loaded the save file, found ourselves transported past the checkpoint. The others took place during TF2, where we couldn't back out of a lobby and then got stuck on a loading screen. As this point, we don't know if this is The Orange Box's fault or the Xbox 360's. Considering the machine has a nasty habit of refusing to open its disk tray when requested, we blame Microsoft.
Valve deserves a call out for not including the original Half-Life. With so many new gamers these days, it's a crime depriving them of Mr. Freeman's original adventure, especially since it puts its sequel in context. We're not programmers, but we'd like to think that Valve could port an almost decade old PC game onto the Xbox 360.
The load times further irritate us. During play, Half-Life 2 takes several moments to load new portions of environments. Halo 3 does the same thing but much faster. Considering HL2 debuted three years ago, Valve should've utilized the 360's horsepower for speedier loading. But again, we have zero programming experience.
Obviously, the less experience you have with Half-Life 2, the more you'll enjoy The Orange Box. For veterans, the original and Episode One hold little value. But if you never played or finished those games, this is the quintessential Xbox 360 killer app, a must buy and a strong game of the year candidate. Stop playing Halo 3, Bioshock or whatever you consider a quality FPS and buy this immediately.