Reviewed by Ryan Acheson
Available for Xbox 360 (reviewed here), PlayStation 3 and PC
Rated T – M (Teen through Mature)
Distributed by Valve Software
So what’s inside The Orange Box and how much of that interests us? Well, there’s Team Fortress 2, which is a team based multiplayer game, that while a lot of fun is as relevant here as Lassie, so let’s skip past that … then there’s Portal which is about as far from horror as Team Fortress 2 though it is a brilliant title that you’d be an idiot not to play if you pick up the game. So far so meh from a horror perspective.
Well, fortunate then that you get Half Life 2, Half Life 2: Episode 1 and Half Life 2: Episode 2 as well.
No one game in The Orange Box isn’t awesome, but if you’re only really into horror and you already played Half Life 2 and Half Life 2: Episode 1 on PC, then $60.00 is a bit steep for Episode 2. If you haven’t played any of the episodes yet, it’s a fairer price and definitely worth a look… but if you haven’t played any of the Half Life 2 games, even if you aren’t interested in Portal and Team Fortress 2, you’ll want to pick this up.
The Half Life series isn’t pure horror but there are large sections of it where horror is absolutely the focus. That these are generally regarded as the best sections of the games by people that aren’t horror obsessives like us, should give some indication as to what you’d be missing out on if you choose to overlook them just because it isn’t all horror all the time.
Half Life 2 continues the story of mute scientist Gordon Freeman, and I gave it rave review ( Half Life 2 review here) here when it came out. Whether you’ve played the original Half Life or not, (or even if like me, you played the original Half Life and didn’t get what all the hype is about) Half Life 2 stands up by itself, and more importantly in the few years since it was first released, has held up brilliantly.
First, a short refresher on the story of Half Life. Gordon Freeman, nuclear physicist, was working at a place called Black Mesa … home to all sorts of top secret military projects and the like. An experiment goes wrong, and portals to an alien world are created, bringing the zombie making, face hugger like head crabs, and the smarter and more organized Vortigaunts from the alien world Xen into our world.
The military sent in a clean up team to wipe everything out, including the surviving scientists and Gordon bludgeoned and shot his way through zombies, aliens, and gun toting soldiers, found his way over to Xen, killed the big giant psychic baby that had enslaved the Vortigaunts and forced them to attack Earth, and finally was suspended in time by the mysterious G-Man.
Seemingly human, always carrying a brief case, eagle eyed players would have spotted the G-Man throughout their adventures, and at the end of the game, he offers Gordon a job, having been impressed by his resilience and survival skills.
The choice is a bit more loaded than that. Take the job or die… Gordon takes the job, despite not knowing who the G-Man is, who he works for, or why he seems to have the ability to stop time and flit in and out of space.
Half Life 2 starts with Gordon being released from the G-Man’s enforced slumber outside of time, and being thrust into City 17, in a near future where the Earth has been enslaved by the Combine, the alien race that had previously enslaved the Vortigaunts.
Half Life 2 then, is Gordon’s journey as he tries to help the resistance overthrow the combine headquarters based in City 17. As well as fighting lots of the humanoid soldiers of the Combine, those beloved head crabs make a return along with a bunch of other alien beasties that have either become part of the world’s ecosystem or fight for the combine.
With it’s physics based game play and puzzle solving, and its tight gunplay, Half Life 2 is a brilliantly varied game. The showpiece of Half Life 2 is unquestionably Ravenholme … a zombie and trap infested town conveniently filled with all kinds of sharp deadly things to pick up with the gravity gun, and launch at zombies and head crabs. Saw blades will become your best friend, and this dark atmospheric jaunt shows that when Half Life 2 wants to be scary, it absolutely can be.
Later sections evoke Tremors with a “stay off the sand” jaunt, and War of the Worlds with giant tripod like Striders stomping around. While the graphics have dated a little, and the flaws of the game remain (mainly late on when fighting through tight spaces with a team of friendly AI that keep getting in your way and consistently apologize for) little else has.
The music and sound design is still as involving as it ever was. The writing and voice acting deserve special mention too. You will come to care about the characters here, and it’s the great delivery of some fantastic lines that create that attachment. Espescially good is the dialogue delivered by the G-Man and Dr Breen, Half Life 2’s main antagonist. It’s just gripping stuff.
The subtle way the story unfolds is just as clever for those of you that don’t mind hunting for the minor details, and the pacing of the game is as good as it ever was, with each chapter brilliantly flowing together, while having it’s own theme or gameplay elements.
Valve haven’t just thrown the old PC version on the disc either. As well as adding a number of achievements, they’ve brought over the improvements to their technology developed for the later episodes. The flashlight now casts shadows, a subtle element that definitely adds to the creepiness of stumbling around dark corridors and tiny air vents. The Vortigaunts look substantially better, and Alyx, your main side kick in the game, has been prettied up with a brand new, more detailed model.
Any textures that were improved for the later games have been replaced too, meaning that, while a little dated compared to many modern titles, Half Life 2 looks better than it ever did, and only the most ardent graphics obsessive will have any complaints about the look of the game.
Valve’s artists are no slouches, and strong art design carries right through into the episodes.
The two episodes carry on the story of Half Life 2 without missing a beat. They’re both substantially shorter, but they also feel leaner and more polished, like all the filler was pulled out.
Not wanting to spoil the story of Half Life 2 by telling you the story of the episodes, it’s hard to really talk much about them in that respect, but since the gameplay is mostly just an extension of the great work of Half Life 2, there isn’t much I need say.
Episode 1 definitely contains the scariest moments of the Half Life series, and remains my favourite. A trip through pitch black zombie and ant lion (think bugs from starship troopers) infested tunnels is one of the scariest moments in gaming, with what feels like the darkest darkness possible. Even with Alyx at your side (as she is for the vast majority of Half Life 2: Episode 1) the tension is incredible.
Later the pair of you will fight through a disturbing hospital, which again is another section of the series that is all out horror.
Episode 2 is more organic. It moves out of the streets into dark ant lion tunnels, and open forests and mountain roads. The final set piece is surprisingly open ended for the series, as well as fittingly one of the toughest spots of the series to date.
From a horror perspective, there are some tense moments early on in the ant lion tunnels and the mines they weave in and out of, but once you get outside the tension never really returns.
Like every game in The Orange Box it is a great game all the same, it’s just after the much scarier and more horror centric Episode 1 it’s a little disappointing that there isn’t a full on horror chapter even if there are scary moments.
Graphically, Episode 1 is an improvement over Half Life 2, but it’s Episode 2 that unsurprisingly looks the best, being the newest game. The organic ant lion tunnels look completely smooth and natural, and the more open areas have some breathtaking vistas.
Just as a word of caution, you’ll probably get the most enjoyment out of the games if you take slight breaks between them. They were made presuming that you hadn’t played the previous game for a few months. If you play through them all back to back, you might find the early sections, which were designed so that players could get reacquainted with the gameplay, drag a little. It would be unfair to hold that as a strike against the game though.
For someone that hasn’t played any of the Half Life 2 series before, or someone who enjoys gaming even when it isn’t horrific, The Orange Box is a triumph, and represents some of the best value in gaming right now. Valve have done a brilliant job tweaking the controls and graphics to the Xbox 360, and Half Life 2 looks much better on a giant widescreen TV running in high def than it ever did on my PC.
I’m docking it half a point for Episode 2 not ever getting as scary as Episode 1 and Half Life 2 did in some of their chapters, but if that isn’t an issue for you feel free to add it back on.
All that’s left to wonder now, is how Episode 3, the last part of the story, is going to be released on the consoles, so that we can all get some closure from the strong ending of Episode 2.
4 1/2 out of 5
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