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.

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