The Orange Box: A Bit Of Context

As is obvious from the fact that I keep posting about Portal & HL2, I’ve had the Orange Box for a couple months now. (If you aren’t up-to-date with Half Life 2 news, The Orange Box is a bundle that contains Half Life 2, Half Life 2: Episode 1, Half Life 2: Episode 2, Team Fortress 2, and Portal.) While I have played Half Life 1 and Counterstrike (the most popular multi-player modification for Half Life 1) in the past, I never got around to finishing Half Life 1, and I never played CS much. In fact, it’s pretty rare that I play games online at all.

This was mainly due to the fact that I was stuck in Low Bandwidth Purgatory for the last fifteen years. Yes, if you do the math, that means I was using the Internet before the World Wide Web became popular, but didn’t upgrade past a crappy modem connection until well after the entire rest of the world had. The reason I was stuck on a modem connection longer than all the rest of humanity was because of a lack of 1) funds for a cable or DSL connection, 2) funds for a new computer so I could connect wirelessly. As a result, I have played through Doom 1, Doom 2, and Quake, but never online. (Except that one time I tried to play Quake online in 1997, I think, and quickly gave up hope.)

I remember when I first played Wolfenstein 3D (the very first first-person shooter game) and thought it was okay for the first few levels. The original Wolf 3D isn’t bad in the same way Space Invaders isn’t bad: mindless blasting through wave after wave of enemies has it’s place. But if that’s all I’m doing, I start yawning pretty quickly.

Ultima Underworld II came out between Wolf 3D and Doom. UW2 was a first person action RPG with lots of combat, but also lots of puzzle solving, character interaction, inventory and character management, and a fantastic plot, setting, and characters. Doom was more of Wolf 3D, but polished up, given a much nicer range of enemies, better weapons, and some truly memorable environments and moments. But no plot, characters, or interaction with anything other than violence. The puzzles were laughable. The inventory non-existent except for how many bullets you had in your pockets. In short, Doom was popcorn where UW2 was a full course meal. And I liked both of them, though I certainly liked UW2 much more than Doom.

(Quick aside: The whole First Person Shooter style of game was created by Wolf3D/Doom/Quake. Do you know where Impulse 101 came from originally? Quake. And did you know that the Half Life 2 map files all start with “d1_” which is exactly like Doom? And, of course, the copious supply of explosive barrels throughout HL2 is an obvious homage to Doom.)

Anyway, despite Doom/Quake’s popularity and the fact that I played all the way through their single player campaigns (nothing wrong with a bag of popcorn now and then), I didn’t like them nearly as much as what Raven Software did with those games. (Raven took Wolf3D and made Shadowcaster, they took Doom and made Heretic & Hexen, and they took Quake and made Hexen 2.) Hexen 2 in particular is wonderful because although there still aren’t any actual characters to talk to, there is plenty of interaction with the environment and the sense that there were people around not long before the monsters took over. And, of course, let’s not forget System Shock, the first person cyberpunk thriller set on a space station with the original Psycho AI Chick Shodan. System Shock was by the Ultima Underworld folks, so there was lots of character and inventory management, but the goal was changed to survival rather than save-the-kingdom. Add to all this the original Tomb Raider showing up and demonstrating that simply exploring places and solving puzzles with hardly any monsters around can be just as much fun as wading through hundreds of monsters.

I don’t actually remember why I stopped playing the original Half Life, but the fact that I can’t remember is a particularly bad sign. By the time I got HL1, I had already experienced the Final Fantasy VII revolution (another essay for another day) and Ultima IX had finally also come out. Not to mention Diablo II. So, in comparison to these other games, Half Life was still popcorn. Oh, it was good popcorn with butter and scripted scenes and that neat gun that spawned little monsters when I cheated to get it. But it was still a game based on the Quake engine with extremely flat characters and an extremely linear plot. And if you’re going to hand me a linear plot at that point I was used to Final Fantasy’s lovable companions, Diablo II’s loot, Ultima 9’s wonderful environment and NPCs, and the inventory and character management from all of those games. Half Life had none of those things. So I eventually became bored and stopped playing it.

What can I say? I try to enjoy all kinds of games (except for sports game because they are pointless, but that’s another essay), but I like the ones with actual characters in them the best. Let me put it this way: if you were to write down what’s happening in the game and it’s a hundred pages of just shooting monsters, is that entertaining? I even consider fighting games like the Street Fighter series and the Soul Calibur series (and yes, even Mortal Kombat,) to be essentially more entertaining than most first person shooters because characters are fighting other characters. Anyway, back to the history part. I’m almost done, I promise.

Around two months ago, I FINALLY got a new laptop that was capable of playing Half Life 2. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in Half Life 2, especially since the characters and plot were being hyped so much, it’s simply that I didn’t have the hardware until recently. I specifically remember Warcraft III and Half Life 2 being the last two PC games I really wanted (again, that’s a subject for another essay). So it’s kind-of ironic that the real reason I wanted the Orange Box was for Portal.

Well, sure, I still wanted to play HL2 as well. But as Tycho points out, the guns in HL2 “just shoot regular old bullets“. I was pretty much done with games that were about shooting monsters (and maybe also finding keys), but not much else, at this point. I had heard about the characters, I had heard about the vehicles, I had heard a lot about the Gravity Gun. I had read all the way through Concerned, a wonderful comic set in the Half Life 2 universe that can be enjoyed just as easily if you’ve never played HL2. But to tell you the truth: I could have waited a little longer to get HL2 because I had classes to attend and homework to complete. But Portal, on the other hand, looked irresistibly awesome. The fact that Portal came with HL2, HL2ep1, HL2ep2, and Team Fortress 2 simply made it a sure deal.

Well this post is rather long, so I’ll split it up into two parts. My review of The Orange Box is coming next, and then my (possibly final) next Portal HL2 post.

EDIT: Man, this is a boring post. I didn’t realize how horribly long-winded it was when I was writing it. I’ll have to edit it down severely later.

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