It's hard to talk about what Valve's The Orange Box offers without immediately falling into an impression of some sort of late-night pitchman for fantasy knives and alternative cleaning products. That's partially because the name "The Orange Box" sounds more like some kind of citrus-scented bathroom cleanser than a video game, and partially because this five-games-in-one package is the kind of crazy deal that almost forces you to shout "Now how much would you pay?" With three amazing new games and two classics all in one package, it's impossible to go wrong with The Orange Box.
With your purchase of The Orange Box, you'll get Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Team Fortress 2, and Portal. They're all based on the same graphics engine, but they're all incredibly different games, which ensures that there's something for everyone. You'll also get 2004's Half-Life 2 and 2006's Half-Life 2: Episode One, which is handy if you aren't up to speed with what Gordon Freeman's been doing over the past few years. On the PC, you'll launch each game separately. On the Xbox 360, the game boots up to a menu where you can easily select any of the five games, and quitting out of a game brings you back to the selection menu.
Let's start with new stuff. Episode Two is the continuation of the Half-Life 2 story. It picks up right where Episode One leaves off, with Alyx helping Gordon out of the rubble of a train crash. You've escaped from City 17, which now looks more like a smoking crater in the ground with a huge, swirling portal floating over it. But you aren't safe just yet. You've escaped with information that the Combine very much wants to get back from you, so the chase is on again. Fortunately, you'll do much more than just run in Episode Two. The biggest difference here is that Alyx doesn't directly accompany you through the entire game. You'll split up much more frequently, so, for example, you'll find yourself working your way through antlion nests and crushing antlion grubs all by your lonesome. You'll also negotiate a mine with the help of a vortigaunt who happens to serve as a subtle form of comic relief. It spouts dialogue that plays off of the serious, spiritual tone that most of these aliens take, only applying it to things such as crates full of supplies that just flew down a broken mineshaft and out of reach. These bits alone give Episode Two a much different tone than the previous games, but there are also significant gameplay alterations.
Episode Two marks the return of the lengthy vehicle sequences seen in Half-Life 2. There's a large block of action that takes place with you moving from spot to spot in what appears to be a stripped-down Dodge Charger. There are also a couple of big set pieces, such as one sequence where you have to defend the center of a mine from relentless antlion attacks. Likewise, the game's final sequence takes place in a wide-open area and, without getting too specific, feels very different from anything Half-Life 2 has done so far. Although you won't encounter any new weapons in Episode Two, the developers have at least broken the flashlight power meter out from the same auxiliary power that you use to sprint. This is a smart change that doesn't make much sense in terms of continuity between episodes, but it's handy and the sort of thing you wish they'd roll back into the much darker, much more flashlight-oriented action of Episode One. At about four or five hours, Episode Two is also longer than Episode One.
With all that Half-Life, you'd think that the other two parts of this package would be minor additions thrown in to make the deal sound more attractive. But Portal is probably the greatest thing about The Orange Box. It's a clever mix that combines first-person action with very focused puzzle-solving. It's also completely hilarious. The premise is simple. You're a woman who wakes up in a tiny box inside some lab facility run by a mysterious company called Aperture Science. You're presented with a portal that lets you walk out of the room and into another. From there, the game gradually introduces you to portals and eventually gives you a gun that you can use to fire portals onto walls, ceilings, and floors. Your primary and alternate fire buttons are used to create blue and orange portals, respectively, and walking, jumping, or falling into one portal sends you out of the other one. You can also pick up objects, such as large boxes, which often must be placed on large buttons to open doors so you can proceed through a variety of test chambers.
Along the way, a computerized female voice guides you...and misguides you. The dialogue from the computer supervising your test gets more and more overtly funny as you play and leads to a very satisfying conclusion, including what might be the best end-credit song ever written. Later puzzles force you to pull off some tricky portal maneuvers and require you to consider how much momentum you have when you enter a portal, given that the same momentum is carried with you when you come out the other side. So if you jump down into a floor portal and have the exit portal set on a side wall, you'll rocket out of that portal with the velocity you had when falling into the hole on the floor.
Upon finishing Portal, which may take you three hours or so if you're able to quickly grasp the concepts that are presented, you'll unlock a series of advanced challenges. These include six harder versions of puzzles from the main game, and challenges that ask you to finish levels under certain limits, such as the time it takes you to complete the level, the number of portals you use, or the number of steps you take. The advanced puzzles are tough, but not impossible. However, the challenges are much rougher. There are bronze, silver, and gold medals awarded for each of the three challenge types across six levels. Even after you've figured out the puzzles, Portal remains fun and is worth coming back to again and again, just to listen to the dialogue and spend a few fleeting moments with the weighted companion cube. It's a shame that it had to end this way.