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I’m telling you, we’re not The Incredibles!

Combine, Capture the Flag, and Cake. There’s something for everyone in this remarkable collection of first person shooters (and one puzzler) from the tech wizards at Valve. From the gorgeous landscapes and alien architecture of the Half Life series, to the sterile laboratory of Portal and cartoon personalities of Team Fortress 2, there’s such a great variety inside Orange Box that it’s hard to run out of fun things to do.

The Half Life series included in the Orange Box doesn’t include Gordon Freeman’s initial escape from Black Mesa that PC gamers enjoyed back in 1998, but it’s got everything else from the series to date (except for the Half Life 1 expansions and free Half Life 2 tech demo “The Lost Coast”, but if you missed those you’re not missing much). Half Life 2 starts with Gordon entering the enslaved City 17 as a typical prisoner, but soon he escapes his alien overlords and joins with a team of resistance fighters.

By boat and by car Gordon escapes the ever-present assault choppers and tall, wiry stalkers, eventually meeting up with Alyx and her giant robot Dog. Half Life 2 is a classic game, still perfectly paced and endlessly enjoyable three years after its initial release. The HD upgrade and improved lighting make colors pop and animations sparkle. It’s about as close to full length, single-player perfection as we’ve seen in a first person shooter.

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This was a triumph. I’m making a note here: HUGE SUCCESS.

Once Half Life 2 reached its explosive conclusion, Valve’s experiment with episodic content began. Half Life 2: Episode 1 is about four or five hours long but it is arguably better paced than its predecessor. In Episode 1, Alyx and Gordon deliver a crushing blow to the Combine aliens and narrowly escape through a darkened underground garage filled with zombies and antlions.

One of the best scenes occurs halfway through, when you must wait for an elevator to arrive while hordes of zombies pour in from every direction. There are numerous flares conveniently placed around the garage, and there’s an achievement in there for you if you manage to light enough zombies on fire with them. Little touches like these encourage players who are already familiar with the game to replay these scenes in new ways.

HL2: Episode 2 is the current resting point for the series, until the third chapter rounds out the episodic trilogy. In Episode 2, Gordon once again will take to vehicles and fight alongside the Vortigaunts for the first time in the series. New enemies such as an acid-chucking breed of antlion and a smaller form of stalker will test this new alliance. The gameplay is more of what we’ve come to expect from the series–namely, an extremely high level of quality.

Half Life 2, and its episodic sequels, are successful at what they do because of the right blend of horror, sci-fi, and military themes. Sometimes you’re fighting zombies, or alien soldiers, or zombie alien soldiers. The Halo series has a similar blend of action genres, but Half Life 2 nails the character development over the course of the series through scripted moments that seem like mini-theater plays. Of course, the set is a giant digital world, so these digital actors and their expressions carry a bit more importance against a backdrop of a crumbling alien tower or devastated human refugee camp.

The satisfying storytelling of the Half Life series is also imbued in Portal, which is Orange Box’s happiest surprise. Throughout a series of laboratory experiments involving impossible rifts in space, you are taunted by an all-sensing artificial intelligence that mocks you and strings you along with promises of cake. Of course, it turns out the cake is a lie, and soon you’ll find yourself outside of the controlled system in a frantic escape.

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Tune in for the next episode, “My Mother’s a Vortigaunt”

With nods to movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and the independent sci-fi horror flick Cube, Portal is one of the funniest and most intelligent games to come out this year. Sadly, it’s over in just a few hours, but for players craving more there are numerous time trials and advanced challenges to complete. The technology, writing, and humor that are found in Portal are unmatched to date–it’s just a shame it isn’t longer. Sequel please!

If there’s one bruised orange in the box, it’s got to be Team Fortress 2. A long-awaited sequel to the original class-based shooter, TF2 had a Pixar-like makeover recently, which does make this game look fantastic. Every class has a ton of personality, as seen in Valve’s animated character studies. However, the game itself is a bit lacking.

With only five maps that are variations on the same old capture the flag and territory holding objectives, the gameplay feels ten years old. It’s a shame that these interesting looking characters are stuck in a game with zero plot and the same old run-and-gun gameplay. While Valve gets thumbs up for the character design, the tired gameplay should probably be put out to pasture.

So the multiplayer component of the Orange Box is a bit of a dud. But the single-player games more than make up for it. Half Life 2, and Episodes 1 and 2, consist of one massive, engrossing adventure that is a must-play. Portal is definitely the most original game of the year, and the overall collection makes a great case for being the best game of the year.

There are a few minor complaints, like an awkward weapon inventory system in the Half Life games and a brief Portal experience, but Valve has proven that they can dominate the console space with superior storytelling and technology. It’s so refreshing to see these games done right on the Xbox 360, without looking like every other Unreal Engine 3-powered clone. Hopefully whenever we see a conclusion to the Half Life episodes, it’ll be packaged along with even more exciting and original content. Until then, there’s a sweet Orange Box to enjoy.

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