Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Orange Box - Half-Life 2 and Portal mini-review

As some may have picked up on I purchased the Orange Box when it came out, this is Half-Life2 plus Episodes 1 &2, Portal, and Team Fortress. It's been out on PC and XBox360 for what seems like ages, but has now finally turned up on the PS3. That's the good news, the bad news is the creators Valve didn't have a hand in it. Instead it got handed over to EA for porting, sadly EA have a (deserved or not) reputation for doing lousy ports so everyone was in some trepidation about the quality of it. Unfortunately some of these fears have come true.

I'm only about half way through the main game and completed Portal so I can't comment on Ep1 or 2, or TF, but the complaints voiced by other reviewers regarding the frame drop in some levels is quite true. All of them discuss one part of the Water Hazard section where the action becomes almost like a slideshow. I will note however that it appears that a least one PC user is having the same problem so it may be that it's a source code fault that is being enhanced by the PS3 port to unplayable levels; either way this must have been a known problem when the game was released.

There may be light at the end of the tunnel however, firstly I had some synching problems with Ratchet and Clank (a PS3 exclusive) that vanished on the second playthrough; secondly the stutter disappeared after I did a quick save. So on the next playthrough I'll check for stutter, not move and see if it disappears by itself, and if not do a quick save.

That's not quite the end of the technical problems, one other annoyed me - texture pop-up. It's a common tecnique to use a low-resolution texture for objects at a distance then switch them for higher-resolutions as you get closer, the trick is judging the distances to switch. Sadly Half-Life2 at times does this well within noticeable distance. The last time I saw texture pop-up this bad was on Killzone (PS2) when stepping closer to a dead Helgast popped up a gas-mask and webbing; step back and they vanish, step forward and they reappear.

So technical problems aside the game is...good, not excellent. Almost zero hand-holding, the only bit you get is a "Press and hold start to quick-save" in the bottom right hand corner when you might be about to enter a dangerous situation. Annoying as a) I couldn't see a way of turning it off, b) it ruins the tension and surprise, and c) it appears even if you've just done a quicksave or a quicksave is currently in progress. Oh and no I'm not playing at Easy I'm on the default Normal.

Weapon selection is better then the first game, they're still grouped by type but are mapped to the four direction keys instead - one press up gets the pistol, two the magnum, three the crossbow; right is the automatic, shotgun etc.; down is the 'tools' crowbar etc, left is the heavy weapons, rocket launcher, grenades etc. Very easy to pick except it would be nice if you didn't automatically switch to a new weapon you've just picked up for the first time, and if you could select empty weapons knowing that you're about to pick up some ammo for it.

I ended up remapping the keys, which at least I could do, is there some sort of attempt to get everyone to use the tier 2 triggers for main weaponry? Never mind. Oh and I turned the music down (not off), to paraphrase an old review who complained about the default loud music on another game - 'You don't see James Bond wandering around with earphones and iPod blaring away' personally I like to hear that nasty awaiting me behind that corner before I turn it.

The graphics are good, the enemy sadly not too bright so far though they do at least respond when I snipe a colleague standing next to them and aren't psychic in knowing exactly where I've hidden myself, so points there.

The pace can jar a little, you go through a standard platform-type shoot to a looong water course on a jet-ski-boat that looks like something from the Florida Everglades. Fun in that for the first half it's not armed. Back to some more shooting, then on to long beach run on a dune buggy (that is armed). I'll say it again I'm not a racing fan, so I didn't enjoy these bits that much; what didn't help was what appeared to be very loose controls - from a standing start push up and to the right, yes that's it turn left. Not fun in the middle of a fire fight. Talking about looseness, when manning a turret gun ignore where the gun is actually pointing and trust your cursor instead 'cos they don't necessarily match up.

As I said good, not excellent.

Onto Portal of which I've got to try and avoid spoilers. Simply put you're a test subject given a device that can shoot the eponymous portals, basically movable doors. Fire one there and another on the other side of that big gap and just walk through - simple at first. Later you get walls you can't attach a portal to and have to use portals in 'strange' ways that you might not think of. The game leads you through the actions and consequences of portal manipulation then pretty much leaves you to it to work out how to combine these actions to finish the level.

It's fun, about nine-parts fun to one-part frustration a much better balance then almost every other game out there. It's actually worth buying The Orange Box just for this game alone.

Eps1 & 2 and Team Fortress I'll talk about after playing them

Oh and one last thing, for the PS3 at least, both the disc (not playing) and the game info slot have their own theme. A nice orange background while on the game info block the three main game's symbols rotating each coming to the fore and some really good music playing. I actually left the disc in and not starting just to listen to the theme music.