Review Price free/subscription
OK. Now back to where we came in. It's true that the Source engine no longer has the power to inspire awe. Even with its rightly admired HDR lighting engine and still unsurpassed water effects, Half-Life 2: Episode Two lags behind Gears of War and G.R.A.W. 2 for realistic character modelling and gritty surface detail. But you also can't deny that it looks better on lower-spec hardware than either of those games, or that it still produces scenes of real beauty - particularly in the outside chapters towards the end of Episode Two. Most of all, it still meshes in with clever and consistent art direction to build convincing worlds. Look at the decay in Episode One's hospital, the sylvan wonders of Episode Two's forests, the crazy, cartoon worlds of Team Fortress 2 or the sinister, sterile environments of Portal and it's hard to find anything to complain about. Meanwhile, in terms of dialogue, surround sound effects and the understated use of music at key moments, the guys at Valve can still hold their head up with Bungie, Epic and the rest, if not higher.
One final note. If I haven't distinguished much between the PC and 360 versions here, it's a testament to how skilled the translation from computer to console is. Half-Life 2 itself benefits a little from the addition of HDR lighting, and the biggest compliment to the controls is that I didn't really notice anything different once I'd started playing, bar the odd incident in Portal where I wished for a speedier turn-speed in order to make a particularly tricky shot. There have also been some teething troubles with Team Fortress 2 online, but Valve seems to be on the case. If you have a 360 and only a basic PC, then there's no reason bar the higher price to avoid the console version. How the PS3 port fares remains to be seen.
The most important thing to take away from this lengthy review is that it doesn't really matter which platform you get The Orange Box on, as long as you do go out and get it. Other reviewers have called it the best value pack in gaming history, and there's nothing I can say in disagreement. In fact, were it not for Bioshock, this would be the greatest FPS experience of the year so far. Keep your hair on, Halo fans; you know it's true. Even with Bioshock, there's an argument that the sheer quantity of quality entertainment here still makes The Orange Box a contender. If Episode Three finishes off the Half-Life 2 saga in similar style, then Valve will have pulled off one of the greatest, most ambitious achievements in gaming history. At the moment, I've little doubt it will succeed.
Seen as one long saga, Half-Life 2 re-asserts its position as the greatest of modern FPS series. Portal and Team Fortress 2 provide the thick, sweet icing on the cake. Unmissable.