Whether it's $600 PlayStation 3s, $50 per year for the option to play your Xbox 360 online, or the five bucks Nintendo shamelessly charges for 20-year-old NES games on the Wii's Virtual Console, devoted gamers have gotten used to assuming the position when it comes to the costs attached to their hobby. But this time, you can get what you want and keep your dignity: The Orange Box—five of the best games around, all on one disc—is all yours for a mere $60.
The Orange Box contains the critically acclaimed first-person shooter Half-Life 2 and its two addendums, Episodes 1 and 2; the multiplayer first-person shooter Team Fortress 2; and the mind-bending puzzler Portal.
Surprising as it may seem, Half-Life 2 isn't the standout here. Though still a top-tier shooter, the 3-year-old game is beginning to show its age. Your alien opponents—who mostly stand in place when attacking and rarely bother to take cover when you shoot back—are more annoying than threatening, and the frequent (and bland) puzzle-solving elements will bore those who play first-person shooters to, ya know, shoot things. Fortunately, the follow-up games are more polished experiences. And though they're short—Episodes 1 and 2 can be finished off in a weekend—they're entertaining throughout, with none of the bouts of tedium that mar Half-Life 2.
Enter Team Fortress 2. In a genre in which every online shooter seems to vie for the title of bleakest and grimiest, Team Fortress 2's colorful, cartoony aesthetic is a sight for sore eyes. It's a war game à la Pixar, with hulking, dimwitted brutes hoisting chain guns and Aussie big-game hunters serving as the snipers. Players pick from nine character types, each with obvious strengths and weaknesses, and the included arenas are brilliant. For serious shooter fans who don't take themselves too seriously, TF2 is a godsend.
But The Orange Box's real star is Portal, which may be best described as a "first-person puzzler." Players wield the sort of gun that sci-fi fantasies are made of: not a weapon, it actually opens opposite ends of a wormhole, the pairs forming a "portal" to travel from one point to another. Say you're in a room with an inaccessible upper level: Fire one portal up there, another on the wall in front of you, waltz through, and voilà—you're there.
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Your mission is to escape, which would seem an easy task with such a device at your disposal. But it's actually incredibly tricky, thanks to the cunning designs of the rooms you're in. Suffice it to say, you'll soon be performing complicated pan-dimensional gymnastics that are all but impossible to describe without diagrams. All the while, your progress is critiqued by a monotone female voice via loudspeaker, promising a party in your honor if you can escape the increasingly complex and dangerous rooms . . . but you can't help thinking she has something else in mind. And without spoiling anything: Players who complete the game are treated to the most bizarre, funny song ever played over a game's credits.
Considering almost any part of it is worth $60 on its own, The Orange Box is one of the best gaming values to come along in years. Getting all five, including the most innovative, clever puzzle game since Tetris? Move on this.
The Orange Box for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. $59.99. ESRB Rating: M (for Mature). Score: 10 (out of 10).