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The Orange Box Review - Thoughts?

White Forest is home to a proliferation of Hunters and Striders in Episode Two.

It's night-on impossible to mark The Orange Box down. Boasting Valve's magnum opus and its episodic follow-ups, you already have a harmony of supreme first-person shooters. And that's before you factor in the gravity-defying Portal and cartoon-embodied Team Fortress 2, both worthy purchases in their own right.

The Xbox version groups the games together in one easily-navigable menu. Given chronological proceedings, Half-Life 2 is the place to begin. And what a lot changes in three years. The first thing you'll notice as the synonymous City 17 events unfurl is just how bad it looks. True, the water effects still dazzle, the facial animations are impressive and the weapons look nice, but the game's textures look muddy at best. A few objects looked positively woeful too, imbued with a sickly green tinge as if the game's lighting was completely off-kilter, or the engine was struggling to cope. It looks better on PC, but only because a 37 inch television doesn't do it any favors.

Still, you'll awaken from your post Crysis stupor -- where you might be accustomed to lovingly rendered jungle vistas running at atrocious framerates -- when you realize just how well Half-Life 2 has translated to Microsoft's brain-child. Its seamless firefights and seamless story underline why this is still a definitive shooter.

I was eager to press on to newer ground nonetheless.

Episode One is newer, though not altogether new, having been released prior to The Orange Box. Forever a disappointment in my eyes, its stymied gameplay contrasts markedly with its more imaginative forebear. While it continues Half-Life 2's formula, it does so in a more diluted and constricted manner. Given that you can play all three in succession however, Episode Two included, its feels less like filler and more like a bridge between two bigger stories.

Episode Two then is a far more interesting affair, adhering less to the conventions of corridor crawling and placing a greater emphasis on outdoor roaming. Alyx doesn't repeat her performance of holding your hand throughout the entirety of the adventure, though the game stills feels nicely scripted. You don't wander about aimlessly at a loss of what to do, as in Halo 3, for instance.

The game is also a far meatier affair. Gordon traverses a diverse gamut of locales, and his ability to commandeer vehicles adds a new dimension to the ensuing gameplay -- this was one aspect of Episode One that was sorely lacking. Sadly, the driving is belittled by awkward Xbox controls that see the car being accelerated and steered with the same stick. Unsurprisingly, Freeman's new adventure is far longer than his previous expedition, taking six or so hours, a heinously Strider mission notwithstanding.

It also looks the best of the three, largely thanks to its wonderful art direction True, the textures do seem less muddy than before, though you'll be more struck by the scenic vistas, a welcome addition to the Half-Life routine.

The game as a whole is wholly more expansive in its execution and while the opening chapters signal a far more claustrophobic affair, Episode Two ultimately branches out into a game that shadows its predecessor for its sheer quality. And, unlike Episode One, it benefits from its truncated length as it has seemingly convinced Valve of the possibilities inherent in a game without the need for padding.

Not that Episode Two is faultless. It still doesn't look that technologically impressive given recent visual feats and White Forest also isn't that wowing. It's pretty, but you don't get that sense of awe that you do with something like Crysis. Crysis is a far more powerfully-driven game, true, but there's the pervasive sentiment that, with Episode Two, you're in a tight little box and Valve is trying their damnedest to cover up the limitations of the gameworld with clever ploys and subtle tricks.

Its storytelling occasionally feels at odds with recent squad-based shooters that employ mission briefings, though its seamless tale is a trademark of the series that many have become accustomed to love. Gordon's insistence not to speak is a Half-Life staple too, though it does seem odd at times. Perhaps he'll blurt out a cameo line professing a love for cheese in the last episode, akin to Saint's Row's nameless hero during the boss missions.

As it stands however, Episode Two is exactly the sort of game that rectifies the blemish that was its predecessor.

Portal is ingenuity personified, a game seemingly born to ridicule Prey's lackluster attempt at the portal idea. Its ability to make you laugh is a bonus and you'll find yourself re-playing it when Gordon's inhabitance is not to your tastes.

Team Fortress 2 is strangely appealing from a visual standpoint, though some may abhor its cartoon visage. Nonetheless, it has a smooth anti-aliased sheen to it that is not as noticeable in the Half-Life games. While lacking in quantity of maps, its differing c*la*ss*es and immensely enjoyable online play will keep you coming back all the same.

Taken as a whole, The Orange Box is an unrivaled bargain even if you've already sampled Half-Life 2 and its first episode. Gordon's new White Forest adventure is such an addictive, compelling ride that it makes The Orange Box worth purchasing alone. But you'll find that Portal and Team Fortress 2 only solidify your reasons for buying this wonderful package. I can only dream of the deal that will arise when Episode Three emerges.