This week, Yahtzee opens the Orange Box.
Since evidence has led me to believe that Silent Hill 5 is currently in the hands of a pack of phenomenal idiots, the Half-Life 2 Orange Box has been pretty much the only game release I've really been looking forward to of late. The Half-Life series has always been a beacon of excellent design philosophy in the dark, wild, piss-stained swamplands of the video game industry.
Not that it's been easy to remain enthusiastic over the months. Valve have been shamelessly delaying over and over again like a uncommitted suicidal looking down from the edge of a towering rooftop. And then there was that bewildering announcement that the pack would needlessly contain the original Half-Life 2 and Episode 1. Valve's weak rationalization that pre-existing fans could give away their extraneous games as gifts was small comfort to jaded, friendless misanthropes like myself.
But now the waiting's over and I can gleefully sit down to enjoy the latest adventures of everyone's favourite emotionally oblivious mute, Gordon Freeman. Then, six hours later, I had to stand up again because I finished it.
I can't help feeling that Valve have missed the point of episodic gaming somewhat. The whole idea is to mix up the usual rigamarole of game publishing by having shorter games at lower prices released more frequently, and while they have aspects one and two down, they continue to struggle with three. I seem to recall Valve promising that Episode 2 would be longer than Episode 1 to make up for the longer wait, but I guess that got kicked in the head somewhere along the line. But what the fuck, right? It's short but it's cheap and comes with lots of fun extras, not unlike your mum, so let's just run with it, and talk about the game.
Gameplay-wise, there's not much to complain about, continuing, as it does, Half-Life's usual extremely high standard of visual design and pacing. The hype promised free-roaming environments featuring epic Hunter chases and pitched Strider battles, but those only really come into it in the explosive finale, and everything before that is the usual linear path connecting encounter after encounter. That's fine, you know, that's the formula that made Half-Life great.
But stop me if any of this sounds familiar: fighting off enemies while waiting for a very slow elevator, dropping stepping stones in radioactive waste to get across while zombies pop up to claw at your goolies? The set pieces in this series are starting to repeat themselves a fair bit - and really, Valve, how many times are you going to make us do that see-saw puzzle? Yes, you made a physics engine. We know, well done. But I prefer it when it's just propelling ragdolls gaily through the air.
Episode 2 does suffer a little from being the middle child, there's no real beginning and no real end so the story tends to meander around and it's difficult to shake the feeling that we're just killing time before the next episode wraps it all up. A new character is brought in without warning and everyone acts like we've always known him. It's actually quite perplexing. Valve has done a great job making us empathize with all the major NPCs so far, so being introduced to a new one at this late stage is like coming home from school to find a walrus sitting at the family dinner table and you're the only one who seems to notice. The new boy, is of course, another Black Mesa scientist which makes me wonder if there's anyone in this dystopian future who didn't used to work at that bloody place.
Let me wrap up my thoughts quickly and move on. If you've loved Half-Life 2 and all it's runty children so far then you'll love this installment because it's pretty much more of the same. If you like blazing action peppered with variety and cleverness you could do a hell of a lot worse than Half-Life 2: Episode 2 (Manchester United nil).
Now then, Team Fortress 2 (Liverpool 3, sorry, I'll stop this now). Chances are you already know everything about Team Fortress if you're even remotely connected to the online FPS gaming scene in the last decade or so, and TF2 is basically just that, with a makeover, and all the corners cut off. A lot has been removed from the original Team Fortress Classic model, but for all its insubstantiality, it's incredibly well balanced now. There's a role for everyone, regardless of what sort of game you like: The Heavy for uncomplicated damage soaking thickies, The Spy for your back-stabbing stealth game dirtbag, and The Sniper for people who like point-and-click adventure games, although admittedly the only puzzle is "use gun on man." The complete omission of grenades sounds weird at first but it means that new players don't feel alienated by those tiresome obsessives who were all mastering the fiddly little bastards while everyone else is out having sex with girls.
If I do have to criticize it, and I do, I'd say there isn't much variety in the maps. You get to decide between territory control in a desert environment, territory control in an industrial environment, or just to mix things up, capture the flag in a desert-industrial environment. But I guess this kind of thing has always been about mastering something through constant repetition, and to it's credit what little there is has been polished to a mirror shine.
Lastly, there's Portal, and if you're a regular viewer you'll understand how insane these words feel coming out of my mouth, but I can't think of any criticism for it. I'm serious, this is the most fun you'll have with your PC until they invent a force-feedback codpiece. I went in expecting a slew of interesting portal-based puzzles and that's exactly what I got. But what I wasn't expecting was some of the funniest pitch black humor I've ever heard in a game. OK, it's only two to three hours long, but that's a good length for it, it means that it doesn't outstay its welcome, and it narrows the gap between you and the balls-tighteningly fantastic ending. Absolutely sublime from start to finish and I will jam forks into my eyes if I ever use those words to describe anything else ever again.
Yeah, I know it's not very funny if I love a game, but fuck you. Portal's great and if you don't think so you must be stupid.
- Can I have my money now, Mr. Newell: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- There's an awesome song in Portal by Jonathan Coulton, he's one of my favourite artists and you should check out www.jonathancoulton.com if you like upbeat folk rock about robots
- Valve: tell me where Barney Calhoun went