"The Orange Box" is one of the best values in video games since, well, ever.
There's no actual orange box with "Orange Box" ($59.99 for Xbox 360, $49.95 for Windows PCs, Rated T through M).
More on that later. But we do get just about everything a gamer could want:
— A first-person shooter with a plot that doesn't pile on one cliche after another? The included "Half-Life 2" games deliver a breathtaking sci-fi experience that makes Master Chief's travails seem like a hack job.
— Online multiplayer battles? Nine years in the making, "Team Fortress 2" brings with it a uniquely stylized, time-sucking remake of an online shoot-'em-up classic.
— A bizarre puzzle game with enough twists and turns to confuse M.C. Escher? A few minutes with "Portal" makes me believe those string-theory physicists who say there are far more than just four dimensions.
So yeah, only three of the five games are new.
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After three years, the groundbreaking game holds up well — and often exceeds — anything I've experienced in newer first-person shooters.
In "Episode Two," you guide crowbar-wielding scientist Gordon Freeman through a dystopian battle against invading aliens and sinister government forces.
It sounds like typical sci-fi schlock, but there's such an amazing depth of character and bleakness of vision.
From the original "Half-Life 2" to the shocking conclusion of "Episode Two," the lengthy journey of Freeman and other key characters is one of the most cinematic, emotional stories I've experienced.
As infomercial king Ron Popeil might say, "But wait, there's more!"
"Orange Box" also appeals to online action addicts with "Team Fortress 2."
This redo of the first definitive team-based first-person shooter in 1996 brings a unique art style that reminds me of the Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner animated shorts.
Cartoonish without being childlike, it's a nice contrast to every other game in the genre, which strive for photorealism.
"Team Fortress 2" splits a roster of different combatants, such as the fragile Medic for healing and the lumbering Heavy for mass destruction, into two teams, red and blue.
The goals vary from capturing the enemy's intelligence briefcase to controlling various territory points on a map.
It's a refined experience that's filled with the unexpected highs (and lows) of fighting with and against other real people online.
Finally, there's "Portal." This is a game that defies description.
In short, you play as a test subject in a mind-bending training course sponsored by Aperture Science Laboratories.
Using a device that can open portals through walls, ceilings and floors, you'll have to solve an increasingly strange series of puzzles to get from one end to the other.
"Orange Box" is available in the usual disc format for the Xbox 360. PC owners, however, can use Valve's Steam program for direct digital downloads. This method saves packaging and makes the PC version $10 cheaper.
Individually, these games are phenomenal. By packing them together, Valve has given gamers of all stripes one of the best deals in video game history.
Four stars out of four.