Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Glory Days of Valve

At this time every year, I replay The Orange Box. And it still holds up. The Orange Box was an amazing collection of games, both new and old, and it came with some of the most groundbreaking games that the industry has seen to this day. Celebrating its ninth anniversary a couple of months ago, this compilation of sorts left me so dramatically floored that I feel the need to attempt to recapture the initial excitement of its release every year.

Before we get into the real meat of things, let's back up a bit: What was in The Orange Box? Five games released for the price of one, it included two games that were the previously released fan favorite Half-Life 2 and its expansion Half-Life 2: Episode 1. But the real heart of the collection were its three new games. Yep, that's right — two games that were, at the time, still relatively new, and three that were brand new, all for the price of one game. That's how you hook the fans, folks. "The best deal in video game history," indeed. (Remember, Steam sales didn't exist yet).

So let's take a little trip down memory lane.

It's no wonder Valve would later be known for Steam Sales. This was only the beginning. At the time, a deal like this was unprecedented.

Flashback to 2007. I had just graduated high school. I was sort of aimless, unsure of what I wanted to do in life, and was attending a local community college while trying to figure out my future. I had vague notions of majoring in psychology. Ha. HA! Oh, you young fool. Anyway, that's not what this article is about. That fall, a miraculous collection of games was released on PC under the inconspicuous title of The Orange Box.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two

This was the big game that everyone was waiting for. The direct continuation of the previous expansion, Episode One, Episode Two advanced the Half-life 2 story and featured some very impressive technical enhancements along with the new campaign. Most of the game took place outdoors, which was a very big change of pace from the cramped dystopian cityscapes of the first two outings, and the environments were absolutely gorgeous.

Episode 2 featured new enemies and outdoor environments, making it feel fresh coming off of the reiterative cityscapes and tunnels of the last two entries.

The campaign itself was fast-paced and gripping, and held the player's attention from beginning to end. Episode Two featured a new Hunter enemy, which had only been seen briefly in a recorded message in Episode One. The Hunter was a dangerous and intimidating enemy which could follow you, indoors and out. Here, the story set in motion over the previous two games was in full force, and it ended on a massive cliffhanger that deeply affected fans everywhere. We're still waiting on the resolution to that cliffhanger, but I digress. The game met, and even surpassed, fan expectations, becoming a critically acclaimed success.

Team Fortress 2

The second new game in the box was Team Fortress 2, a cartoony, team-based shooter. TF2 had a rocky development cycle, even starting out as a traditional realistic army shooter, but the final release was unlike anything anyone had seen at the time. Each map was brimming with style, and the Source engine certainly did the game a few favors in both looking nice and running very smoothly. You did not simply choose your class in TF2; each class was a distinctive character with its own voice quips, looks and personality.

What other team based shooter at the time had a class dedicated entirely to healing? With a gun? Go ahead, I'm waiting for an answer. TF2 felt entirely unique at the time of its release.

Classes, such as the Medic or Pyro, were highly specialized and offered new forms of gameplay. Sure, we'd all seen flamethrowers in an FPS before, but to design an entire class around the concept was something innovative, not to say anything of the concept of a strict healing/support class. The highly stylized art, characters that brimmed with personality, innovative map design and streamlined, fast-paced gameplay all came together to create a massively addicting experience. The game was, in many ways, the precursor to Blizzard's highly successful Overwatch.


The real shocker, for many Orange Box aficionados, was Portal. This is the game that I think everyone expected to be nothing more than the bonus game of The Orange Box; a short and sweet fan-made romp that would be enjoyable, but ultimately forgettable compared to the big names it shared a box with. Boy, did it surpass everyone's expectations.

The clean and sterile art style allowed the game to work together with its deceptively innocent concept to tell a gripping story with a very dark undertone. The plot was one that was accentuated greatly by nonverbal storytelling techniques, such as writing found on the walls of Aperture Science labs, and GLaDOS proved to be a villain as memorable as the bone-schilling SHODAN from the acclaimed System Shock 2.

While the real star of Portal was its colorful antagonist, the puzzle based gameplay was fairly revolutionary at the time, as well. Portal took full advantage of its 3D rooms and portal gun to offer an engaging experience unlike any other game that was out there.

GLaDOS was an effective villain due to how she was both eerie and completely in control, but she also served as comic relief, a blend of supposedly opposing character attributes that was near flawlessly executed. Who doesn't remember the ominously innocent voices of the actually very deadly turrets scattered throughout the labs? "The cake is a lie" persisted for years after the game's release, and the Companion Cube's loss was comically lamented by fans everywhere.

Portal wasn't just about the story, however. The game itself also proved to be wonderfully new and experimental, and offered a puzzle-based experience like no other game had done before. It was so successful, it led to a full-fledged sequel years later.

While you can't step in the same river twice, all of the games included in The Orange Box collection hold up extremely well and remain very enjoyable, even nine years after their release. Hats off to one of the biggest and best releases in gaming.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Back to the Beginning - Samus Aran's "Zero Mission"

Short post today. I've been updating this blog less and less, as I am wondering if it is worth continuing to do so. As such, I've been on an unofficial hiatus for quite some time. The future of this blog is up in the air - I'd love to continue with it, but time will tell if that is feasible or not.

I'm a huge fan of Metroid Prime, Metroid Fusion, and Super Metroid, and I rather enjoyed the second two Prime games as well, even if they fell a bit short of the greatness of those three. I'd never touched the original Metroid or its sequel, so I decided to fire up the Wii U VC and give the first game's remake, Zero Mission, a fair shot. I can safely say it ended up being just as good as what I consider to be the Metroid Trinity.

First: it has all the snappiness of Fusion with all of the exploration of Super. Super was always a very lumbering, very floaty game, while Fusion's animations and inputs were quick and concise. Zero Mission goes for the Fusion approach, which is much appreciated. Fusion was a wonderful game - I even liked its narrative focus - but it was a bit too linear for my tastes, so it was nice to see the franchise return (in more ways than one) to the open ended nature that it's known for. Zero Mission was a perfect Fusion (ha ha) of the two.

Second: it's beautiful! There's dazzling plasma animations for Samus' cannon and every area looks unique, is full of color, and pops out at you. What I love about this is how well it ties into Super, whether it was intentional or not - this is Zebes under Mother Brain's control, alive and full of energy. The return to Zebes has it almost in ruins, and it's much darker and more dismal. The upbeat soundtrack was also a plus for me. Did I miss the "grittiness" of Super Metroid? Yes, I did, but the game's brightness ended up being a positive for me regardless. It's not like Zebes was suddenly a happy place because it was bright, either; it still felt very alien and hostile.

Third: The Zero Suit segment at the end was exhilarating. It took the adrenaline from the SA-X segments in Fusion and upped it tenfold. Crawling through tiny spaces with Space Pirates right on your tail as you stop to shoot the blocks blocking your way had my blood pumping like no other Metroid game has managed to do. It went from stealth to INTENSE action at the drop of a hat. Getting the Power Suit at the end was a nice touch, and Mecha Ridley was appropriately creepy and menacing (if not a bit too easy).

I very much enjoyed my time with this game. It was a bit short, as was to be expected, but it was overall a great experience. I loved seeing where the Brinstar theme in Smash Bros. came from! I haven't spent much time with Another Metroid 2 Remake, yet, but it seems like a worthy successor to Zero Mission. It's a shame Nintendo pulled it down, but at the same time, it's good that it managed to get released.