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The Orange Box: Half-Life 2: Episode 2 etc. - The Orange Box
It's during that final section that you might also hear of Aperture Science for the first time - a sure sign that another Orange Box inclusion, Portal, is more closely tied into the saga than we first thought. Rather than the quick, experimental add-on some might have expected, Portal is a hugely accomplished first-person puzzler. Developed by the team behind the indie hit, Narbacular Drop, now safely ensconced at Valve HQ, it puts you in the shoes of an unwitting human test subject inside a mysterious research facility. Armed with the portal gun - a device which can create instant dimensional gateways - you're expected to make your way through a series of gruelling and hazardous test chambers, each putting more of your intellectual capabilities to the test. The trick isn't so much where you put your portals, but when and in which sequence. What's more, momentum is transferred as you move through the portal, so many of the puzzles require you to think carefully about this as well.
The overall effect resembles a combination of FPS, puzzle game and platform game, and there's much to admire both in the way it drip-feeds new concepts and challenges, and in the way that a pitch black grim humour makes the game feel less cold and abstract than it first appears. The biggest issue with Portal is its length - you'll probably crack it in two to four hours on your first attempt, though there are remixed challenges and time trials once that's done. All in all, this is one of the most constantly surprising and interesting games I've played this year, and one that leaves you desperate to see what would happen if aspects of Portal's gameplay were integrated into the wider Half-Life 2 series. Here's hoping that's a direction Valve has considered.
The final gift in the Orange Box probably needs no introduction. Team Fortress 2 has already developed an enviable reputation in its PC beta stage, and closer inspection in the PC and 360 versions only shows how justified that reputation is. Just aesthetically, the decision to pursue a Pixar-like cartoon graphics style seems inspired; Team Fortress 2 instantly looks and feels unlike any other team-based action game out there. However, what I didn't expect was how well it fits the gameplay. In a game where the class players choose has a huge impact on gameplay, being able to instantly discern who is who at a distance is vital. You know that big, bald heavy weapons dude can take a kicking, but he's slow to move and slow to fire, while the scout might be weak, but he's ludicrously fast and packs a massive punch up close.
Without vehicles or a vast range of support options, Team Fortress 2 isn't as sophisticated a game as Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, but there's more than enough tactical depth in the use of class weapons and abilities and the layout of the maps to give it staying power. Meanwhile, it's a lot more accessible, straightforwardly entertaining and - importantly - newbie friendy. It will be interesting to see how it withstands the assault of Unreal Tournament 3 on the PC and Halo 3 on the 360 in the next few months. I could be wrong, but I imagine that both this and iD's new favourite will be safe keeping servers busy for some considerable time to come.