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Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, Playstation 3 - PC & Xbox 360 versions reviewed.
Last year at X06 I saw Half-Life 2 running on the Xbox 360 for the first time and, to be honest, I felt worried. When the game launched on the PC at the tail end of 2004, its killer combination of the Source graphics engine and powerful real-time physics was groundbreaking. Overnight, Valve had upped the ante and produced something that made every other 3D shooter on the market look stale. Last year, however, with G.R.A.W. and Oblivion released and Gears of War, The Darkness and Call of Duty 3 on the way, I felt concerned that it was Half-Life 2's turn to look like its shelf-life had expired. How could the Source engine stand up to the might of Unreal 3 technology? Would the gameplay be so enthralling in a world where F.E.A.R. and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. have revolutionised AI, and where every game now boasts an advanced physics engine (at least on the box).
The Orange Box shows me how wrong I was. It's not just that I underestimated Source, but that I reckoned without something far more important. Valve isn't just about technology, it's about using that technology to set up incredible moments where gameplay and cinematic brilliance fuse, and chaining these moments together in a powerful narrative. If the Half-Life 2 saga tells us anything it's that nobody in the FPS genre - with the vaguely possible exception of Bungie - does it better.
In the unlikely event that you come to The Orange Box having never played Half-Life 2, then you're in for a treat. Playing through the early stages on the 360, I'm struck by how strong the beginning is and how atmospheric and well-developed its dystopian urban landscape seems. Like Bioshock's Rapture with its hordes of nutty splicers, City 17, its oppressed population and its brutal Combine authorities have a sense of concrete reality that other FPS settings so often miss.
I'm also struck by how well the game develops, throwing in new equipment and new demands at you just when things threaten to get samey, then expecting you to make the most of each situation. There are a couple of dull stretches, but not so many that they spoil things. From the air-boat sequence on the canals to the return to Black Mesa, the trip through the horrors of Ravenholm, Nova Prospekt and the final battle back in City 17, there's a real sense of growing scale and dazzling ambition. Given the chance to cut loose with the gravity gun, flinging scenery around and causing Combine destruction on a massive scale, every player gets a chance to create their own big pay-offs. There's a reason this game is so venerated.