The Orange Box
Exuding genre-leading quality from its every coded pore, Half-Life 2 and the post-Black Mesa exploits of Dr. Gordon Freeman have remained all-but unrivalled since the classic first-person shooter was first released in November of 2004. Therefore, no further outpouring of superlative-laden adoration is necessary to define what is, as everyone knows, a landmark videogame creation.
Arriving in June of 2006, the abruptly climactic narrative of Half-Life 2 was directly continued through Half-Life 2: Episode One, which saw (the one) Free-man accompanied by an A.I.-controlled Alyx Vance as the battling duo attempted to escape the collapsing City 17 Citadel with information vital to the survival of the human resistance. Following in October of 2007, the storyline pushed on yet further with Freeman and Alyx heading for the resistance's main base of operations in White Forest... with hoards of Combine forces hot on their blood-soaked heels.
Xbox 360 gamers have now come to receive all of the aforementioned content, brand new 360 Achievements, and some very special extra treats, through the eagerly awaited 'The Orange Box', which sees Washington-based Valve Corporation managing to successfully cram the sole game disc with a staggering amount of top-tier content that will leave most developers slack jawed with envy.
Specifically, fans can retrace the 12-15 hours of original gameplay from Half-Life 2, before then experiencing the 10 hours of fresh gameplay provided by Episodes One and Two. Once the collection's core narrative has been absorbed (and Striders galore vanquished), The Orange Box then offers up the brain-boggling challenge of first-person puzzle action in Portal, while multiplayer fanatics can exchange waves of humorous hot lead through the long-awaited appearance of Team Fortress 2.
In short, The Orange Box (while containing absolutely no citrus fruit of any kind) can be viewed as 5 separate contributing components making up 1 unequivocally definitive whole, or merely as the phenomenal continuance of a compelling story arc with two of the juiciest 'bonus' features ever created tagged lovingly onto a single gaming franchise.
Having arrived on Microsoft's original Xbox console in November of 2004 (the twilight of the platform's lifespan), Half-Life 2 effortlessly raised the quality bar for console-based videogames - prior to the fevered release of Halo 2. Now, a hardware generation later, and Half-Life 2 still looks and plays fantastically on every level, far outperforming several existing Xbox 360 games that have the temerity to call themselves 'next-gen'. With the addition of Episode One's 4-5 hours of pseudo-character cooperative gameplay, fans get to pick up narrative proceedings without skipping a heartbeat before slipping back into the assured gameplay Valve has made its own since the Black Mesa events of 1998.
As an episodic extension, Episode One largely looks and feels like Half-Life 2, with the Xbox 360 ably handling the 'more of the same' action with relative ease and rarely having to stretch itself in terms of juggling extensive eye candy. However, the 5-6 hours provided by Episode Two are notably more attractive, with the expansive and leafy surroundings of the area outside White Forest making for a welcome change after the pressing claustrophobia of Episode One's rumbling and crumbling Citadel.
Existing as a minuscule point of detraction (by way of poorly implemented critical balance), it is worth noting that partitioning load times can be a little obtrusive on occasion, and on-screen actions can stutter a touch as the temporarily paused gameplay attempts to pick up where it left off. That's the only processing point deserving of mention here though, as the rest of the gameplay rolls by with such ease that this paragraph feels like nitpicking of the very highest order.
With Portal, players remain in a Half-Life-inspired FPS universe while brandishing a handheld portal generator across progressively more difficult puzzles, courtesy of the Aperture Science Laboratories testing facility. Placed in an enclosed environment, the player's task is simple: solve the assigned room/area's physical puzzles by creating dimensional portals that allow for transitional movement not possible in the 'real' world.
For example (and in the simplest sense), when standing at the base of a smooth vertical wall where the puzzle's exit is located on a plateau at the top, the player can shoot a portal directly into the wall before them, before then moving backwards to better view the plateau and shooting a second portal above the exit. Walking through the first portal sees the player drop down onto the plateau through the second.
Naturally, Portal's wealth of perfectly balanced and ingenious puzzles are considerably more complex, taxing the brain to the point where frustration is always on the periphery but rarely manages to overwhelm the appeal of the game's breathtaking invention and creativity. The fact that an automated computer voice guides the player from test to test with a dark sense of humour pertaining to imminent death also helps to keep the experience fresh and fun throughout.
Finally, and after almost a decade of development, Team Fortress 2 provides a wonderfully cell-shaded and good humoured team-based multiplayer experience for those coiled-spring gamers looking to release the gathered tensions of one too many bowel-loosening clashes with Striders and Hunters. While Team Fortress 2 probably won't put much of a dent in the Halo 3/Gears of War servers, players get to choose between six game maps, Capture The Flag and Control Point game modes, and also whether they want to jump into Player Match, Ranked or System Link clashes. The stylised, Pixar-esque delivery of Team Fortress 2 (a far cry from its original modern military design) manages to carve itself an energetic and 'breath of fresh air' niche for itself when weighed against the usual sway of 'serious' online multiplayer shooters.
While The Orange Box delivers a core FPS experience that isn't completely 'new' or 'groundbreaking', the unparalleled worth of Half-Life 2, the invention of Portal, and the longevity of Team Fortress 2 means that The Orange Box is never anything short of a gaming feast. Original titles such as BioShock, Assassin's Creed, and Mass Effect all deserve their moment in 2007's glowing spotlight, and are more likely to be in contention for the coveted 'Game of the Year' awards as 2008 rolls around, but it is truly difficult to dismiss The Orange Box as perhaps the most essential gaming purchase of 2007.
And don't forget: The blend of near-faultless quality and originality associated with the amassed content threatening to burst free of Valve's collection can be secured for the price of a single Xbox 360 title, which near demands that The Orange Box finds its way onto your disc tray at the earliest possible opportunity.