Game title: "The Orange Box"

Platform: PC and Xbox 360

Studio: Valve

Rated: T-M, Teen to Mature for blood and gore, intense violence, language

Score: 10 out of 10


"The Orange Box" title can be a bit confusing to the uninitiated, but this collection of five games is a legitimate contender for the game (games?) of the year. Depending on your perspective, it can be viewed as a rerelease of mostly old material for maximum price or a wealth of great material for the price of a single game.

The new material here are three games, "Half-Life 2: Episode Two," "Team Fortress 2" and "Portal." For some, the recycled material will be "Half-Life 2" and "Half-Life 2: Episode One."

The PC games in the "Half-Life" family were all uniformly excellent. Protagonist Gordon Freeman's world of post-invasion battles against aliens and greedy corporations in the game series are strong on plot while maintaining nail-biting action in a first-person shooter with strong and scary horror elements thrown in.

The games were produced by Valve, a small studio with a handful of releases under its belt. "Half-Life 2" found its way to the Xbox and was a mild commercial success and a first-rate port. Later Valve released an enthusiastically embraced update on the PC, "Half-Life 2: Episode One." With the computing power of the Xbox 360 and its comparability to the PC allowed Valve to release "Half-Life 2: Episode Two" on both formats.

In a marketing stroke that is looking rather brilliant, the smallish developer released all three installments of "Half-Life 2" and threw in two other games that alone would be short on content but together present a strong five-game collection for the price of a regular game.

PC Half-lifers who have paid for each installment might feel a little ripped to pay full price for limited content, while those console gamers who haven't experienced the series before and are diving in on the 360 will have more games than they can shake a wireless controller at.

The good news for the PC crowd is that the inclusion of "Team Fortress 2" and "Portal" more than make up for the retread here.


"Half-Life 2" "Half-Life 2: Episode One" "Half-Life 2: Episode Two": All three "Half-Life" installments are uniformly excellent first-person shooters. Gordon Freeman and his cast are trying to survive a bleak future with the help of innovative game-play guns. Included are puzzles and a variety of survival situations. One of the three parts is new material, but all are smart, emotionally engaging shooting games. The only criticism can be that sometimes it isn't obvious where a player should go next.

"Team Fortress 2": This game is a sequel, as well, but with no plot or continuity to worry about. It is team warfare with various fighting classes (flamethrower, soldier, spy, etc.) that spice up the game nicely. It is objective-based (capture the flag) and can only be played online. In the first weeks of release, it had some lag on the 360, and it was occasionally difficult to immediately find a game. These issues seem to be resolved with an Xbox Live update. This game is addictive and, despite the cartoon nature of the characters, is also bloody. Minutes will fade into hours as players learn strategy and become more efficient at dispatching foes. A seriously fun combat game for those with a live game set-up on either PC or Xbox Live.

"Portal": With the same graphics engine and physics engine as the "Half-Life" games, players could imagine the two games exist in the same universe. Here players are contained in a series of puzzles that they must solve using a portal gun that warps physics and dimensions and travel. Using objects, the gun and brain power, the tests get progressively more difficult, providing a completely unique gaming experience. While the game is only a few hours long, it is exceptional.

The computer voice that instructs players in each of the 19 rooms of puzzles is often hilarious, and as the game progresses, it becomes a little more obvious that more than just a simple test is taking place. To say more would be to risk spoiling things, but by the time a player is done, the experience is better than a simple puzzle game has any right to be.

GRAPHICS: While the graphics are always solid, there is nothing here to blow your mind. That will never be a problem for players, however, as they will be too immersed in the games to even notice.

AUDIO: The sound team for "Portal" gets great big kudos for creating a voice-only character that is brilliant. The clever dialogue with the only "character" in the game and the excellent delivery that feels like a smart computer that has a complete disconnect with what it means to be human. The sounds in each of the other games help suck the player into the games. The details in the sounds of each game play a significant part of its success.


PARENT'S TAKE: My elementary-age kids loved the mind-bending fun of the parts of "Portal" I let them see (and they keep telling me "the cake is a lie") but I wouldn't even show some of the horrific parts of "Half-Life" to young teens. It is scary and bloody, and the violence carries impact and brutality. "Team Fortress 2" is intentionally cartoon in tone but is a gun-based adventure where some players are burnt to a crisp.

FINAL WORD: This collection of games is simply spectacular. Only vets of "Half-Life" have much to criticize, but two bonus games of such quality will temper the pain of those preferring a simple one-game package. The combination of such different game experiences in one box may change game marketing completely and leaves players eager to see what other magic Valve can dream up. For Xbox 360 owners mature enough for the content, this is a must-own, and and for those considering the console as a possibility, this might be the game that pushes you over the top.