The Orange Box (Xbox 360)
The Orange Box is nothing if not generous. You're not likely to find so much sheer game crammed onto any other single 360 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 some of it being poorly adapted to the Xbox 360. For instance, Half-Life 2 is well worth playing 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 of a computer to resort to playing Half-Life 2 on your 360. 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 BioShock, Call of Duty 4, Halo 3, and Medal of Honor: Airborne. Half-Life 2 and its episodic expansions will feel awfully modest and straitjacketed in comparison. The lack of wiggle room is downright oppressive as you advance from killing these three guys to this puzzle, to killing 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.
On the plus side, Valve added Gamerscore achievement to Half-Life 2, which offers a great incentive to revisit the game, even if it means adapting to the bad controls. For instance, there's an achievement for going through the flaming, zombie-infested ruins of Ravenholm using only a gravity gun to fling saw blades and explosive barrels. This is exactly what it takes to breathe new life into a tightly scripted game like Half-Life 2. That's assuming, of course, you care about your Gamerscore. (You know you do, so don't even pretend you're not at least a little tempted.)
Visually, the level design and artwork are still great. 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 the 360's 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 speed 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 rock-paper-scissors encounters. What's more, the 360 version is susceptible to bad lag and dropped connections. It's no surprise that the player base on Xbox Live is small, and Team Fortress 2 isn't likely to have much staying power.
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 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's 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 redeem The Orange Box. It's just a shame that it's not better suited to the Xbox 360.
This review was based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.