Category Archives: PC games

Best of 2007 #7: The Orange Box

The Orange Box

Also known as Portal & Friends.

The Half-Life 2 series and Team Fortress 2 are superb games, if slightly overrated in the case of the former. And while many game of the year nominations for The Orange Box can almost be justified on the criteria of sheer value alone, I’m quite comfortable nominating it on the basis of a single three-hour game that gets third billing on the box.

I’m convinced that one day looking at the (atrocious) cover art of The Orange Box will be like watching a film from the mid-80s, where the stars have faded or had a couple of stints in rehab and the only one still around is the precocious kid who got a tiny credit and now gets paid $15 million a time. Portal probably won’t be a multimillion franchise but I can see it being sustained through mods and official DLC alone. It’s already birthed several memes – usually an early sign of gaming stardom.

Of course there’s a ton more in The Orange Box than just Portal. Half-Life 2, though overrated in my opinion, could probably just about justify the price alone and for those without gaming PCs this is the first decent console version; Episode One is average but short (just over three hours for me); Episode Two is probably the best of the HL2 series. I’ve heard that Team Fortress 2 is great, but my experience with it has been marred by the laggy Xbox Live performance and a couple of other multiplayer first-person shooters.

Even if I have complaints, there are no bad apples in The Orange Box. Everything in the box has its merits and when you consider the sheer amount of stuff in here (and I’ve already seen it on sale!) it’s clearly one of the best of the year.

Portal

Portal

Much has been made about the value of The Orange Box, the new Half-Life 2 compilation, and to be honest it’s beyond dispute. This is one of the best first-person shooters ever made (I still think it’s a bit overrated, but that’s another post) in its first decent console excursion, with two expansions (one of which is brand new), and then two whole new games thrown in on top. And all for the price of one game. Considering the stuff that gets away with a £50 sticker nowadays, Orange Box is a steal.

But anyway, what I really want to talk about is Portal. The real unknown quantity here, what with Half-Life and Team Fortress both coming from established series, it’s almost the first really next-gen puzzle game; one that doesn’t work solely on the principles of Tetris or Bejeweled with some particle effects on top.

Back in 2003 Half-Life 2 taught us that as graphics begin to plateau it was physics that were the next big thing, and so I find it odd that this is the first mainstream title to really exploit it purely for puzzles. The early hours of Half-Life 2 were filled with so many moments that utilised the flashy new Havok engine that even today, when it’s almost ubiquitous, we’ve rarely seen it used for more than making barrels fall convincingly. Such an engine coupled with mind-bending portals – about the only memorable thing in the otherwise wholly forgettable Prey – gives two new ideas, united in their ability to distract from the task at hand, a whole game in which to shine.

Far from being a simple skeleton on which to hang a couple of neat ideas, however, Portal fits into the Half-Life universe as a side story. There’s not a mention of Gordon Freeman and only hints at the Combine invasion (the disembodied voice of GLaDOS, the computer, makes references to ‘them’, and the hastily-abandoned facility speaks volumes), but the unsettling sense of there being more to what you’re seeing than you’re allowed to know remains, particularly in later levels.

I was also surprised by the quality of the writing, being that your character is the only human in the game. GLaDOS is an omnipresent observer who never quite seems to be on the level with you and whose mechanical detachment makes for amusement, and the turrets talk like small children as they try to find and shoot you. They’re like virtual embodiments of the way that violence is sanitised, using phrases like “dispensing product” as a euphemism for attempting to kill you that fits well with the sterile environment. I recommend looking at the script to see what you missed when you finish it.

And the song that plays over the credits is just wonderful. So good that it deserves its own paragraph, see?

Portal takes only 2-3 hours to finish and as such would probably flounder outside of a bundled game or a cheap download, and I think even the $19.95 for the solus download on Steam is pushing it. But as it is a bundled game in a package that would be exceptional value even without Portal, what we have is a proof of concept that has the potential to be the next big puzzler. It’s a wonderfully realised game and quite possibly the best thing in that pack. I’ll regret saying this, but bring on the downloadable content.

An Unfortunate Use of the Term ‘Red Alert’

I found this advert for Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 in an old FHM, circa 2000, when I was in the barber a couple of years back, and only now that it’s started to fall apart after I liberated it (I did ask first) have I got around to scanning it for posterity. I thought it might be of some interest as a curiosity:

I’m a bit surprised that I’ve never seen it online before or since as those vitriolic ‘EA is teh evil’ posts always get hits. Quite alarming in retrospect and I can only assume that it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Isn’t coincidence a strange thing?

Finished!

Dissertation Word Count

After countless hours of research and wearing my typing fingers (little-known fact: I only type with three fingers) down to stumps, I’ve finished my dissertation. Not only does this mean that I’m mere weeks away from being kicked out into the big bad world, it also means that I can play some games and post on here again. It sucks when life gets in the way of the really important things, doesn’t it?

26 pages or 11,222 words was the final count, all in. That beats my previous biggest Word document by some 22 pages. I could be forgiven for being put off ever blogging again after writing that much about the things.

The current games of choice are both on their second wind with me: Halo 2 in anticipation of a little event in a couple of weeks, and alternately another futile attempt to master Counter-Strike Source and find out how much better at it most people are than me. Give me a week to get back in the swing of things and I’ll be on about the summer drought again.

MacBook Pro

Having gone through two internal hard drives and risking running it from a Firewire drive for far too long now, it was time to replace my good old iBook G4 with something a bit more 2007. Like something that is clocked in multiple GHz and can run both Mac OS X and lesser operating systems for the sake of convenience Battlefield 2.

MacBook Pro

Here’s the specs of my latest baby:

  • 15-inch matte display (1440×900)
  • 2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
  • 2GB RAM
  • 120GB hard drive
  • ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 (128MB)
  • Bluetooth 2.0+EDR
  • Airport Extreme (802.11n)
  • 6x dual-layer Superdrive
  • Mac OS X 10.4.9/Windows XP Pro (via Boot Camp)

Ended up costing me £1,150 after student discount.

I bought it with the stock 1GB RAM and added another 1GB stick myself (£40 from Crucial compared to £140 from Apple, which is in the dictionary next to ‘no brainer’) and it’s awesome. It obviously performs much better than my iBook and I’ve been playing with some Intel-only apps and stuff that’s been added to OS X since I last bought a new Mac like Front Row and the Joost beta to which I got an invite last week. The iBook couldn’t play 720p video smoothly but I downloaded a couple of 1080p trailers and this plays them without a hitch. Lovely!

The only annoyance was that it doesn’t ship with all the latest updates, so I had to download a stack of patches before I could really get down to playing. That included 10.4.9 which came out well over a month ago, so I wonder how long this was sitting in a warehouse. But if that sounds bad when I installed XP Pro I had to download SP2 (200MB+) and 55 (!) security updates.

Continue reading MacBook Pro

Best of 2006 #4: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

I love my immersive, coherent worlds, me. Make a good one of those and you’re halfway onto my top ten of the year list. One of the best ones won last year, in fact. This is also one of the best.

The scale of Oblivion is the amazing thing. As I type this I’m playing Final Fantasy V Advance, originally released in 1992, and it strikes me that what was a large game then can now be done in full 3D, fully voiced with proper actors, and just looking absolutely phenomenal. It had technical issues that were maybe symptomatic of overreaching on current hardware – or possibly unfamiliarity with it – but the magnitude of Bethesda’s vision was just phenomenal.

But give an ambitious and talented team the time and budget (and possibly the Lord of the Rings licence), and this shows what you can get. The moment when you first walk out of the sewers and up the hill – possibly getting held up or attacked by an ogre on the way – to look back at the city you’ve just come from is burnt indelibly into the memories of everyone who saw it, whatever they thought of the game.

Memorable towns and innumerable settlements and landmarks that can be endlessly explored make a great game, marred only by some technical quibbles. It’s unmissable.