The Orange Box (PS3)
The Orange Box is nothing if not generous. You're not likely to find so much sheer game crammed onto any other single PlayStation 3 disc. You get?deep breath!...Half-Life 2, Half-Life 2: Episode One, Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Team Fortress 2, and Portal. Half-Life 2 is the 2004 sequel to the seminal 1998 shooter, and it's followed by Valve's two episodic add-ons. Team Fortress 2 is a stylish team-based online shooter created by the same people who made the original Team Fortress, a 1996 Quake mod, and Portal is a puzzle game that also manages to tell one of this year's most memorable videogaming stories. With so much top-notch content, how could you go wrong?
The answer has to do with some of the material being dated, and how poorly some of it is adapted to the PlayStation 3. For instance, Half-Life 2 is well worth playing on the PS3 if you haven't got a PC up to the task. But since the Source engine used in the game isn't exactly pushing the technological envelope these days, you'd have to be saddled with a real dinosaur computer to resort to playing Half-Life 2 on your PlayStation 3. If this is the case, you're in store for one of the best shooters?of 2004. The genre has come a long way since then, and you've probably been playing things like Resistance: Fall of Man, Call of Duty 4 and Medal of Honor: Airborne. Half-Life 2 and its episodic expansions will feel awfully modest and straightjacketed in comparison. The lack of wiggle room is downright oppressive as you advance from killing these three guys to this puzzle to those four guys in that room to this scripted cut scene to killing these three guys?and so on until the end, which will be followed by two additional episodes of mostly filler.
Visually, the level design and artwork is still great, but this port to the PS3 was handled by Electronic Arts rather than the original developers at Valve. Occasional hiccups in the frame rate suggest the adaptation to the PS3 hardware was less than trouble-free. What's more, the load times are considerably longer, which wouldn't be such a problem if Half-Life 2 didn't rely on the old save-and-reload gimmick during its more challenging moments. The in-game achievements that breathed new life into the Xbox 360 version by giving you an incentive to play with alternative goals are, of course, missing from the PS3 version.
The characters' animation and expressive faces still look great. The sound design is timeless, from the voice acting to the oomph of gunfire to the incidentals like the familiar whack of your crowbar or the scream of a burning zombie. These are iconic bits of the Half-Life series, and they hold up even if the corridor gameplay is getting long in the tooth. As narrative, it also holds up. Half-Life 2 presents a ruined world in the aftermath of the original Half-Life's lab accident.
But trying to make your way through Half-Life 2 with a gamepad can be awkward. It seems that Valve did very little to adapt the interface to a PlayStation controller. When you've got headcrabs jumping past you or manhacks rushing at your face or a shambling zombie in need of a headshot, it's painfully obvious that this was a game designed for the combination of fast turning and pinpoint precision you only get with a mouse. Consider, too, the many vehicle sequences in the Half-Life 2 games. Instead of exciting chases, they're worst-case scenarios for how to combine driving and shooting with two analog sticks. It's a huge mess that draws out the driving for far too long.
The controls in The Orange Box suffer most when it comes to Team Fortress 2. Again, this was clearly a game designed for a mouse's fast turning and accuracy. Team Fortress 2 is built around the interplay of distinct and easy-to-play classes, each with a very specific strength, but without a better control scheme, certain classes have an enormous advantage. The engineer can sit back and rack up kills with his automated turret while the poor sniper will have a devil of a time trying to line up a headshot. The result is a huge wrench thrown into the otherwise meticulous balancing act. If it doesn't outright break Team Fortress 2, it at least makes it a game with a whole new set of balance considerations that seem to have been lost on Valve.
What's more, the player limit is exactly half that of the PC version, which means many of the maps are underpopulated. This is particularly detrimental to the capture-the-flag map, which is easily locked down with only a few defenders. But even on the five control-point maps, there are too often too few players. This leads to some really weird match-ups that are essentially decided before they've even begun. On a PC server with 24 or 32 players, Team Fortress 2 is a wonderful exercise in surfing the swirling chaos of the bullet-riddled spaces between each team's character classes. But with 12 (the default) or 16 players, it's about two teams fumbling about for the advantage in a handful of quick paper/rock/scissors encounters. To their credit, EA included support for dedicated servers, which makes it easier to find a lag-free game than it is with the 360 version. The drawback is that the player community, which was already small on the 360, is even smaller on the PS3. It's worth noting that you won't find many players with mics on the PS3, which is a real disadvantage in a Team Fortress 2 match.
The good news is that Portal works just fine. This is a brilliant story about a girl, a rogue artificial intelligence and the gun that opens doors between them. The controls don't require the speed or pinpoint precision of a conventional shooter, so nothing is lost in the transition from the PC, and since this is easily one of the year's best games, it alone is reason enough to get The Orange Box. It might be a short, but it packs into its four hours some wondrous brain-bending puzzles and one of the most satisfying and memorable conclusions to grace any videogame.
But other than Portal, it's almost as if Valve was trying to make a case for shooters staying on the PC, where we can play them with keyboards and mice. There are certainly shooters that work with a gamepad, but they're either built for it, or carefully adapted. Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2 are neither. Fortunately, the sheer quantity of content and the quality of Valve's games ultimately redeems The Orange Box. It's just a shame that it's not better suited to the PS3.
This review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.