There are benefits to being woken at 5am every morning by a baby who refuses to sleep. Well, one at least. It means I can get up, go downstairs, prop the little fella up like a ventriloquist’s dummy and do a bit of father-and-son bonding over Half-Life 2 on my Xbox 360 for the next three hours.
The Orange Box is a slightly confusingly named collection of the original Half-Life 2 release (as previously seen on PC and Xbox), two further chapters in the story (Episodes 1 and 2), the mind-warping puzzle game Portal and the cartoon-styled multiplayer shooter Team Fortress 2. Clearly it’s a winner in terms of value, with the package priced as a single game, but it’s the Half-Life 2 single-player element that’s the star.
First off, it has the most believable, realistic and rich video game environment ever created. And it’s varied, too. You’ve got the expansive Orwellian cityscape that reminds me a little of Stockholm, and those shabby interiors with their rusting stair rails and damp, flaky walls. At its core there’s the ominous Citadel, a glistening wart of black steel rising up from beneath, slowly, unstoppably eating its way into the remains of the city. Inside the Citadel it’s pure sci-fi – clinical, hard lines of toughened glass and shimmering metal with plasma beams and glowing orbs at every turn. Then, all of a sudden you’re out in the open, working a crane at the docks or gunning down giant stalking things in a forest.
It’s not just a shooter, either. Halo 3 is good, but all that relentless gunplay gets a bit dull after a while. In Half-Life 2 you feel as if you’re really in the game, mostly thanks to the gravity gun which allows you to pick up objects, move them around, blast them hundreds of feet into the air or smash them to pieces. It also plays a vital part in the game’s puzzles. Because the physics engine is so advanced, it becomes second nature to slip a breeze block under an unsupported pipe in order to make a walkway to a distance ledge, or fire an explosive barrel into a laser tripwire to set off a huge chain reaction. And to think, I was once totally enthralled by the transparent vector graphics of Mercenary on the Commodore 64.
How long The Orange Box will remain The Best Game Ever is open to debate. The next few weeks sees the arrival of some real stunners: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare will take war games to a whole new level, and Assassin’s Creed will do things no other game has done before. But for now at least, it’s at the top of the tree. Just on the off-chance that you haven’t already got it, get it.