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February 13, 2008
Half-Life 2: The Orange Box
PS3 Review Page 1
Release Distributor Publisher Developer Offline Players Online Players
20/12/2007EA GamesEA GamesValve (Original) /
Media HDD Space Resolution Sound Format Tilt Controls OFLC Rating

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The Orange Box, ermm, box.
Okay, first off, I'm just going to say outright; this review will not be sticking to our standard structure due to the fact that this is really 5 games in one. I will also say that it is going to be quite a lengthy one for the exact same reason (Hence our first ever multi-page review! - Dave). If you are after a quick and simple review, all I will say is this; Half-Life 2: The Orange Box is one of the best releases on any platform to date and you'd have to be a pretty fussy gamer to not at least agree that this is one hell of a package. For more details, please read on...

The Origins of Half-Life...

As I do quite love the Half-Life series, and even those who have played the games casually don't always seem to fully grasp the story/origins, I'm going to give a bit of a background here.

The original Half-Life game, released in 1998, was one of those games that took the gaming world by storm. At this stage, 3D shooters were still very new, with Quake (the first fully 3D shooter) having only come out two years prior in 1996. Half-life set a new benchmark for games of this type, delivering an entirely in-game first person experience, never breaking the immersion with cut-scenes, whilst still managing to deliver one of the deepest stories to this date.

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The original Half-Life looked great in its day.
Players were to assume the role of Gordon Freeman; a M.I.T. graduate working for a secret scientific research institute dealing with, among other things, inter-dimensional travel and teleport technology. Freeman is set to conduct an experiment, passing a laser through a 'sample' (presumably some sort of crystal-like rock) to see the effects. Unfortunately, this all goes awry when the experiment tears a whole in time-space and allows creatures from Xen, another world, to enter the facility.

From this point on, the entire of Black Mesa (the research institute) is pretty much pushed into chaos, with the majority of its inhabitants being killed by creatures, turned into hosts for parasites, and so on. Gordon manages to escape from the test chamber and must find his way to the surface helping, and being helped by, various NPCs along the way (scientists, security guards, and the like). This is all well and good, except that the creatures from Xen are everywhere, and almost every pathway is blocked by some obstacle. As a result, players were forced to not only survive and shoot down countless creatures, but also solve puzzles and find their way out of traps, etc. It was this unique game play that set Half-Life apart from other shooters of the time, and made its mark on gaming history.

As if things weren't bad enough; halfway through the game, the government, aware of the catastrophe that has unfolded at Gordon's hands, send in military troops to 'contain' the incident. Translation: Kill everyone and everything still in Black Mesa. So add military troops to Gordon's constantly growing list of problems, and you have the basis of one very interesting, and at the time, ground breaking game. The game ends with Gordon travelling to the Xen world, and defeating the leader of Xen, the Nihilanth. After this, a mysterious character, who has been seen at many unreachable locations in the game throughout the course of the plot, pulls Gordon aside and offers him a choice; either go to 'sleep' until his services are needed again (offering employment more or less), or fight an impossible fight. A perplexing end to say the least. And so ended the beginning instalment of the Half-Life series. To this day, Half-Life remains the single best selling FPS, with over 8 million copies shipped.

Half-Life 2...

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Half-Life 2, a visual tour de force.
Half-Life 2, the long awaited sequel to the first title, came first to PCs at the end of 2004, a full 6 years after the initial chapter in the series. However, Valves long development cycle (5 of those 6 years were spent making the game an obscenely long amount of time by any developers standards... except 3D realms of course (see: Duke Nukem: Forever), was well worth our wait.

Set a roughly 10 years after the end of the original title, the opening sequence of Half-Life 2 sees players waking from the stasis that Gman put them into at the beginning of the last adventure. Gman once again makes an appearance, explaining that the time has come... for what? Well, at this point in the game, that's anyone's guess at this point.

Before long, you quickly come to realise that the world is somewhat of a sad state of affairs. It seems that killing the Nihilanth didn't stop the invasion from the Xen creatures, and they roam the world. However, that's not the worst of it. The combine, an inter-dimensional force who's only goal seems to be to conquer worlds and assimilate their species and technology into their own, have taken over.

It seems that Gordon's little encounter on the Xen home world with the Nihilanth, the leader of the Vortigaunt race, attracted the attention of the combine, who were, at the time, trying to conquer the Vortigaunt race, having already driven them from their home world to Xen. At some point in the 10 years that followed Gordon's success in Xen, the combine attacked Earth, conquering our planet in what is known, in the Half-Life 2 world, as the '7 Hour War'. That's right our entire planet lasted a mere 7 hours before surrendering. The surrender itself was handled by a Dr. Breen, the old administrator of Black Mesa, who has now been promoted to somewhat of a leader, helping control earth for the combine.

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Hmm a man, a missile, and control panel...
Very early on, players come across some familiar faces from the first game. Barney the security guard, Dr. Kleiner (one of the scientists who put Gordon into the test chamber for the original experiment) and a few others make another appearance. Before long, we meet a new character, Alyx Vance, and both she and Gordon find their way to Kliener's lab. Here, the good Dr. attempts to teleport both Alyx and Gordon to Alyx's dad's lab... Of course, things don't always go according to plan, particularly not for Gordon Freeman. Unfortunately, that's about as much detail as I can go into without giving away major plot points, so I will stop here, as the plot here is not something I would wish to spoil for anyone.

Half-Life 2 continues the tradition that the first game started, in delivering an uninterrupted and immersive plot entirely via the first person perspective. Vehicle sections, shooting sections, exploring sections, and so on, are all dealt with without leaving the eyes of Freeman. There are no cut-scenes, we don't get insights into other sides of the story, Gordon never speaks, and a lot is left up to the players own thoughts. Some of this may sound like a bad thing, but it takes away most of the chances of interrupting the immersion that the Half-Life series offers. A word from Freeman would remind you that you are not him, a cut-scene breaks up the action, and only getting from the story what you would get as a single person gives you the feeling that you are really in this wonderfully detail-rich world. Valve really has mastered the art of telling a story without ever telling the story.

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Cut-scenes are very impressive.
As far as controls go, the game handles like any other shooter. Thankfully, for those of you who have a set control schemes you like to use, the controls for Half-Life 2, and in-fact all games in The Orange Box, are entirely customisable. I'd also like to point out that while this game was designed with a mouse and keyboard in mind, the transfer from PC to controller is amazingly well done. I had my doubts about the port (as I am a heavy PC gamer, and played both Half-Life 2 and Episode One on PC before PS3), but honestly, this handles as good, if not better, than any other shooter out there on the PS3 to date. This makes solving the puzzles, taking down enemies, and travelling about, by foot or vehicle, incredibly enjoyable and problem-free. I will even say that the vehicle sections, whilst still feeling a little awkward (due to the fact that they are done in first person, so you are off-centre from the car and have very limited peripheral vision), they in-fact feel better than the PC equivalent.

So the controls work fine, but what about the rest? I'm happy to say that this game is 99% as good as the PC version of the game. There are some moments where there is some slight slowdown (particularly if you get out of a vehicle at some points where they don't expect you to), and the draw distance is nowhere near as far as the PC release gives you, but once again, it holds its own and more against other PS3 FPS releases in all fields. As much as I do really want to flaw this game in some way, I really cannot think of much to complain about. Some of the sections seem needlessly long (the boating segment of the game in particular), but these are always broken up with small areas in between that change things up. There are some parts of the game that really frustrate you, but at the same time, it's very, very hard to put the controller down and stop playing. Valve always have been very good at balancing frustration and compelling game play.

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Enemy design manages to impress.
Perhaps one issue that should be mentioned, and it's not really a flaw in the game, just a design choice by valve, is that the plot behind the game is somewhat hard to uncover. There are some obvious plot points, but it takes a fair bit of attention to detail and background knowledge (from the first game, and the 3 expansions) to piece together the pieces of the puzzle. Personally I think it's a nice extra dimension to the game, but there will be some players who walk away with a very "what the...?" feeling.

Graphically, even though this game is now over 3 years old since its original PC release, it still holds its own against current-day releases. As mentioned earlier, some sacrifices were made in porting it across from the PC, but it really is still a very beautiful game. Character models in particular are amazing and the faces of human, and non-human, NPCs really are something to behold. As mentioned, there are a few times where slowdown can be experienced, however, it is well within bearable limits and never seemed to happen at critical game play moments.

Keeping with the overall AAA title, audio is excellent, with voices, effects and music of the highest quality. One level, set in the town of Ravenholm, is particularly spooky when you have creatures coming at you in the dark and screams going on around you and so on. Music is a little sparse for my liking, but this also works with the whole immersion factor. Very little to complain about aurally.

Half-Life 2 was, and still is, one of the best games ever released to date. Depending on the amount of time you take exploring, looking for hidden caches of ammo, being stumped by the physics puzzles and so on; you are looking at anything from about 15 to 25+ hours of game play here, which is a massive length for most shooters. This game alone is worth the price of admission, but as we know, The Orange Box comes with more. So what about the other games?

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