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February 13, 2008
Half-Life 2: The Orange Box
PS3 Review Page 2
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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Half-Life 2: Episode One...

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Taking out enemies indoors.
After Valve announced that rather than getting straight to work on Half-Life 3, they would be releasing a trilogy of episodic releases continuing from the Half-Life 2 story, there was a bit of a quite discomfort among fans, a bit worried about this move. However, the company came through and 2 years after Half-Life 2 came out, put out the first episode on PC, at a much lower than full-release price.

Half-Life 2: Episode One continues on from the end of Half-Life 2. Without giving away too much of Half-Life 2's ending, a massive explosion happens where Gordon and Alyx are basically in a situation where they aren't going to walk away from. However, Gman interrupts, once again. Unfortunately for him, so do the Vortiguants, who save both characters. Players will find themselves under a large pile of rubble at the base of the citadel in City 17, with Dog and Alyx stumbling across Gordon. The two quickly make contact with Dr. Kleiner and Eli Vance who explains that they must get out of the city before the Citadel's reactor goes critical. However, it seems the Combine are trying to use the energy from the pending explosion to send off a data packet, forcing Alyx and Gordon to trek back into the crumbling Citadel to try and stop this, or at least obtain the data being sent. Getting back into the Citadel proves a bit easier than they anticipated; however, trying to leave once they have done their work is a different matter, especially given they need to not only flee the Citadel, but the entire of City 17 if they are to survive the impending explosion! One interesting thing to note here is that Gman is barely present in this game, as it is revealed he loses control of Gordon, at least for the time being, in the opening sequence of the game.

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Taking the battle to the streets.
Episode One really focuses on furthering the relationship and team play between the player, as Gordon, and Alyx, and she is with for almost the entire game. It's not necessarily a love interest for Gordon (though that is certainly hinted at), but the two are forced to work as a pair and feed off one another's strengths. What this really allows us to see is just how well Valve is able to convey human emotion. There are points in the game where Alyx seems to legitimately have very real feelings of despair, fear, attachment, optimistic hope, and so on. Alyx really seems like a person, and by the end of the 5-10 hour adventure (depending on how you play and your skill level), you find yourself quite attached to her. Without Alyx, Episode One would only be another good FPS, but with her, it is something entirely new to the genre.

Unfortunately, it's not all excellent news, as Episode One does suffer a few flaws. Technically the game runs perfectly. I never once experienced frame rate issues or slowdown of any kind in my play through of the game. However, it suffers problems of another kind.

When it was originally released as a standalone title on PC, there was a part of the game that was ultra-difficult. I am of course talking about the pitch-black room you have to survive in whilst waiting for a particularly slow lift. Before a few months were up, Valve had released a patch making this sequence a little bit easier. It was a welcome change; however, it seems they have made it even easier again, with the wait time a lot shorter and fewer zombies. While this will suit some gamers nicely, it, for me, detracts from the moment in the game. This point in the plot always represented to me a massive block, where the game seemed to reach an almost impossible battle that you had to get over, and it kind of represented the moment that happens in Hollywood movies where a hero redeems himself after falling. I feel that this is somewhat lost now. Better that than an almost impossible battle though I suppose.

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Vehicles are available, and look great.
Another problem I see is that a lot of Episode One is played in excessively dark areas. Granted, the release has a lot more of a horror feel to it than previous Half-Life games, and it pulls this off amazingly well, but I personally dislike having to have my flashlight on for 2/3s of the game. I guess this really is a personal preference though.

As far as looks go, the game makes some improvements from the first Half-Life 2 game, but they aren't particularly large. Unfortunately the largest improvement on the PC game, even more detail facial features, is lost on the PS3 release, as the faces in Half-Life 2 were also simplified somewhat. However, the game still looks wonderful and, as with Half-Life 2, holds its own against any other shooter on the PS3 market to date.

Audio is also done to pretty much the same degree as the previous release part of the review here, with the exception that music and effects are used in a fashion much more suited to the almost survival/horror nature of the game. All top-notch quality and hard to improve upon.

It seems Valve just continue to out-do themselves. This time, they've managed to deliver the immersive action-packed game we have come to expect from them, and not only inject many survival/horror elements into the game play, but also introduce emotion and attachment to characters that almost seems void in most games. The latter in particular is seldom evident in FPS games, as they tend to focus on action and rogue-heroism, but it works more than excellently here and is bound to get you keen for Episode Two.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two...

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What the Hell...
After Episode One raised even more questions, and ended on such a cliff-hanger, it was a long difficult wait until the release of The Orange Box (Episode Two is not, at the time of writing this, available as a standalone on any platform) in December last year. Finally it came and with it came what is, in my opinion (of course), one of the most amazing emotion experiences to ever hit any platform. That's right... emotional.

It seems Valve agreed with the masses, that spending almost the entire game with Alyx was a good idea in the previous episode, as once again, Alyx plays almost as big a role here as Gordon himself. Without ruining the end of Episode One, the game starts off similarly, with Gordon and Alyx being dug out of rubble. Quickly, they decide to continue their journey to meet up with Alyx's father, Eli, and the scientist, Dr. Kleiner. In order to do this the duo must reach a rebel base called White Forest.

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Grapically The Orange Box is very impressive.
This is the majority of the plot for this episode; however, as with anything in the Half-Life universe, it's not that easy. Enemies of all kinds, including a new enemy type called ‘Hunters', are at every turn, and the Combine are always hot on their heels. There are many twists and turns in this journey and once again Valve crafts these into the story and game play seamlessly.

I mentioned that this is an emotional experience... I don't want to ruin anything here for anyone, but I really think I have to mention that this game really plays with your heart. There are moments where you share feelings of absolute joy, satisfaction and relief with the characters, and moments of complete and utter despair and sadness. I'm sure some of you will make me regret saying this, but I have never been so close to tears from a game, and almost everyone I know who has played Episode Two has said the same.

One of the other things that sets Episode Two apart from previous instalments in the Half-Life series is that much of the game takes place in very large, outdoor, forest areas. Not only is this done well, but the Source engine seems to be just as suited to action-packed game play in this arena as in the more typical Half-Life levels. We've read a bit about apparent slowdown in the game, but I can happily say that at no time did I ever experience anything below a split-second minor frame-rate drop – as in nothing that isn't there in pretty much every game. Yes, it is unfortunate that even that small issue exists, but given the overall game, I really don't think there is anything to complain about it.

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Hmmm, what have we here?
Even the vehicle section in Episode Two seems to be lacking all the flaws from the original Half-Life 2's own. The sequence is action-packed, ensuring you never get bored, and even the controls feel more natural. Add to this that the levels are a lot more open and less linear, and you have grounds for a great vehicle chase. This is just one example of many areas in the game that literally made my jaw drop. The fight in the tunnel against ant-lions, the car chase, the first encounter with a hunter (and the first fight) and the massive battle against all the striders. These are all moments that blew me away.

Not to skimp on the overall improvements, graphically this game is another step up from the previous instalments, or at least it seems to be. It's hard to compare given the entirely different environments and even new enemies (even some of the combine undergo a suit-upgrade this time round), but it certainly at least seems to take things to a new level. If nothing else, it is a perfectly timed change of scenery for Gordon and his companion.

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OK, here's another screenshot to drool over.
However, one thing that has definitely taken a massive leap above and beyond all that Valve has done before is the audio. Sure, the music is fairly standard Half-Life affair (which is more than fine), and weapons still sound the same (excellent quality), but while you are in the forest, you could almost swear you are in a real-life location. There are realistic bird calls, insects, even the sound of wind. Likewise, when you are in the almost Xen-like mines of the Antlions, every time you come across a change in an area (whether it is a decaying body, blood stains, underground cavern, etc.) the sound of flies, or echoing, etc. is perfectly fitting. I challenge anyone to not get immersed in this game!

Episode Two really sets a new benchmark as far as story-driven FPS goes, but pushes the bar in many areas that are foreign to the genre. Up until the very last moment when the TV fades to black, Valve play with your emotions and pull at your heartstrings perfectly. It's hard to imagine this episode being outdone anytime soon, and the only real criticism anyone seems to be able to give it is its length (depending on how you play and your skill, it can be finished in 6 hours). Of course, part of Episode Two's greatness is due to the chapters before it, but even as a standalone title, it leaves its mark in the crowd.

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