Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Orange Box for Playstation 3 review

Ah my long awaited (well okay not awaited at all) review of The Orange Box for the PlayStation 3 several months after it was released in Europe and a long longer since it was released for everything else. There is one small bonus to this late review – I’ve played it more then once. Sounds daft, but I think you can’t measure a game until at least its second run through.

Much is made of the plot and story of Half-Life and so I present…

The Story So Far.

For the uninitiated who haven’t played the original Half-Life (still available for PS2 and backwards compatible PS3s) here’s a recap of that game. You play Dr Gordon Freeman who, despite the PhD in Theoretical Physics from M.I.T., is employed at the private scientific research establishment of Black Mesa to push unknown, but potentially hazardous materials around a test chamber oh and you’re late for work and wishing this train/transit system would hurry up. Don’t worry about the blown computer, ignore the fact that they’re pushing the test beam to levels higher then ever, and those fluctuations are well within parameters so just push that lump of ‘stuff’ into the beam would you Gordon.

At which point all hell breaks loose and it looks like you've opened up portals into another dimension that spews forth nasty alien beasties seemingly intent on snacking on your corpse; time to leave.

Up through the levels of Black Mesa fighting of the aliens, dodging the soldiers sent to ‘clean-up’ the place and onto your destiny, namely heading through into the alien dimension and putting the kibosh on whatever’s keeping the portals open.

Job done and you’re mysteriously left in the carriage of the same train you started in this morning, except you’re not travelling through Black Mesa you’re surrounded by stars

Point Insertion.

It is at this point that Half-Life 2 begins with you now still in a train carriage, but pulling into City 17. You arrive to the blinding flash of a hovering camera-bot as it takes your picture, walk past the masked ‘police’ as they gently harass the passengers and enter the waiting room containing previous passengers too scared to step through to the examination hall; nice!

Okay enough with the moody atmosphere – it’s 20 years from when you worked at Black Mesa, and you succeeded in closing the portals to the alien dimension; shame all that fuss attracted the attention of another set of aliens who decide to take over. Well at least the Earth managed to fight them off for about 7 hours; talk about over-matched. So now the Earth is a police-state run by your former boss at Black Mesa and controlled by the Combine armed forces under the guidance of your ‘benefactors’

So you’re back and it seems you’re something of a legend even, dare say it, a potential saviour? Time to link-up with the Resistance and single-handedly (well almost) save the world.

Controls

It’s a first person shooter what do you want to know? You’ve got your standard primary and secondary attacks and your jump and crouch. Weapon selection is easy using the d-pad with weapon types being grouped along the axes. As per usual how you manage to carry a rocket launcher, shotgun, automatic rifle, etc. is not answered

As well as running around on foot Half-Life also allows you to drive vehicles, that is to say specifically designated vehicles, at this point the controls start to work against you. In order to allow an independent targeting system they’ve mapped targeting to the right analogue stick with steering mapped to the left stick. Unfortunately the left stick also controls acceleration.

It sounds logical, move the stick forward and to the left and you accelerate off to the left, pull it back and to the left and you reverse to your left, and if this was Jet Ski Fun that would be fine except it’s Jet Ski Fun with helicopters shooting at you as you careen down winding tunnels. So every time you try to execute a quick handbrake turn by throwing the stick to the left you risk entering the deceleration zone and simply stopping dead, before very slowly moving backwards.

Unsurprisingly this is not fun when being shot at, mix that up with a front firing gun that is the only weapon you can use while driving and it becomes downright unamusing.

If driving only played a small part in the game this wouldn’t be too much of a hassle, except in a effort to show just how big everything is you’ll have entire sections of it to contend with.

AI

Not That Bright, otherwise known as the Stand Next to Explosive Barrel syndrome. Attempting to mask this you get the standard mix of Make Them Fast, Make Them Tough, Make Them Hidden, and Make Them in Large Quantities. Like the Truman Show everyone has a start position and a set course of actions which never changes, those guys will always climb down on ropes and take this route to get to you – yawn.

Graphics

Yes yes very swish, but hey this is the 3rd (7th) generation of gaming this is what we expect. The water is very nice, the grass is very nice, everything has texture it’s all most pleasing. There have been some complaints about a smearing filter, but I play on an SD set not an HD so I’m not expecting pixel perfection.

Polygon pop-up was quite obtrusive. Perhaps the simplest example is of the socket in the teleport chamber - step back and it’s square, step closer and it becomes smoother; it happens to any complex surface and, as light reflections are recalculated, keeps catching your eye.

Framerate

This was the sticking point for many a reviewer. At certain points, well at a certain point, the game turns into a slideshow. Yep I can testify this is the case, or at least it was for my first run-through, for my second I noted no problems with frame rate beyond the odd hitch during the auto-save. I do however suffer the odd slow-down at the end of Episode 2 followed occasionally by a system halt. Save often is the rule.

Weapons

Yep the crowbar is back, so is the ubiquitous pistol, magnum, shotgun and automatic rifle. You also get a one-shot kill crossbow, RPG, machine gun, pulse rifle, pheropod Ant Lion controller, and the Zero-point Energy field manipulator AKA Gravity Gun.

Ah the grav-gun a result of Valve’s physics engine, simply ‘suck’ any object onto the gun then fling it away with you at lethal force, the ammo-less weapon of choice in debris filled rooms; well it should be if it worked the way you wanted it to.

See the problem is the grav-gun will pick up exactly what you’re pointing at; well it should shouldn’t it? Well no, not when you think you’re pointing at that buzz-saw blade of death and you pick up that tiny barely visible splinter of wood that’s lying on top of it. The second problem occurs whenever you pick anything above briefcase size, you now have that object dominating your viewpoint. So having picked up that large barrel to fling at the enemies coming towards you, you can no longer see said enemies.

While not too great a hardship in either Half-Life 2 or Episode 1, this becomes increasingly annoying in the final stages of Episode 2 where pin-point chucking of objects becomes paramount.

Gameplay

Valve has done much boasting of its physics engine. What this means is that things react the way they should do, so see-saws can have bricks dropping them down so you can stand on the other end, barrels float, and objects can be stacked on top of others etc. To be honest past the few ‘puzzles’ that need to be solved this way you just aren’t likely to notice anything overly different from every other FPS. This is a good thing, you expect things to behave correctly, this will bounce, that will slide; the fact it becomes taken for granted shows how well it works.

On the other hand Half-Life 2 is showing its age, indestructible buildings, inoperable doors, blocked passages, and scripted events. Scripts are fun the first time around, expected the second time, then just dull. Throw this switch and it’ll unleash zombies, step just their and something will happen, you reach the point where you know what will happen and prepare a nice surprise for it. To be fair this fault can be levelled at a lot of games, but the story driven plot of this one in particular highlights these faults and makes you feel like you’re on rails.

And this is where the main game doesn’t stack up against its predecessor. Sure you were still heading through a linear path, but it had multiple routes occasionally, you could head down a dead end, and you also felt like you could take it at the pace you wanted to. Half-Life 2 feels like a race, your options are limited and you’re directed to go here then here then here. Okay there are some small diversions on the road, but not many.

You’re also artificially restricted in other odd ways; in the original game you’d just come out of the test chamber unsurprisingly without any weapons. As you progress you find some in security sections and from dead soldiers – it all made a kind of sense.

In Half-Life 2 you again start with no weapons before being jolted around fleeing from guards before making to a Resistance cell and being summarily dumped outside and being told that the Combine are massing like never before and you’re to get yourself over to the next cell. Don’t worry though your good buddy wouldn’t let you tackle these streets unarmed so here’s a crowbar... a crowbar! A flippin’ crowbar, gee thanks a damn lot. Don’t worry you’ll get your hand on some juicy weaponry later, but still - a crowbar!

Likewise near the end of Half-Life 2 you have your weapons taken away from, don’t worry though you’re left with a super-weapon yay! Except at times you wish you had something a little more spray-happy to deal with groups or at a distance, perhaps one of those pulse rifles the Combine are using to attack you – nope you don’t seem inclined to pick any of those up.

Loading between levels is finger tapping slow, as is re-loading from death.

For the PS3 they’ve included a Quick Save ability so you don’t have to run to the menu each time. It’s a welcome addition, but it doesn’t always quite register your intent and, as it involves holding down the start key that’s also mapped to the menu, becomes almost pointless.

Conclusion

Okay it’s Half-Life you should be looking at the story and the plot elements and indeed they’re fine; it’s just the way they’re being told is starting to show its age. There’s little incentive to play the game more then once as you have few choices to make beyond what weapon shall I use to kill the enemy with and in what order.

The PC brigade can fiddle with the code and maps, the Xboxer’s have the achievements and the PS3er’s have… well nothing. All I can say is if you haven’t got an Xbox360, haven’t got the specs for your PC then this would be a fine addition for your PS3 game collection on it’s own; except it’s not on it’s own it comes with a couple of bonuses.

Team Fortress

This’ll be a quick review as it’s online multiplayer only, which is not mentioned on the box and I don’t have my PS3 online yet. So I can’t play it. Nope no single player mode, no bots to play against; all I can do is imagine a bunch of newbies running around and shouting “How do I do X with Y” with no-body able to tell them to sod off and play the single-player version first.

Portal

Oh Portal can I compare thee to a summer day?

In case you hadn’t guessed I like Portal, just to emphasize this not only has Portal earned the most playtime from me of all the games in this compilation, but it’s almost worth buying the Orange Box just for this; ah hell it is worth buying the Orange Box just for this.

The Story

Not much to say, you wake up in a sealed cube to a computerised voice giving you instructions, some of which gets a bit garbled. A blue ringed door appears as well as an orange one outside your cube. Stepping through the blue door you find yourself stepping out of the orange one. You are then led through a series of trials, on the way you get to pick up the Portal gun that allows you to control the placement of one half of the portals, later you get a second component that means you can place both an entrance and exit portal. Make your way through all the test labs with the promise of cake at the end.

Controls

Standard FPS layout

AI

Perfect in every detail. Sure there are no ‘real’ enemies so it’s hardly complex, but it works - so perfect.

Graphics

Non-descript, nothing technically advanced; but then it doesn’t need to be.

[Update - As Dan points out in the comments the graphics involving the portals themselves is really quite advanced, and I have to agree. My original thoughts were with regard to natural items such as trees, grass, water, etc. Portal is mostly grey rooms]

Weapons

The Portal gun, that’s it just a primary and secondary mode for each of the portals.

Gameplay

Smooth as silk, stepping through a portal is instantaneous with no hitches. Everything works exactly as it should. The only problem I’ve had is the occasional delay between trigger and gun firing and then only during an auto-save at the beginning of a level. The same complaints about loading times being a little long.

Conclusion

Too short, oh too short; except it’s not. Once you’ve finished the game you can go select a test chamber and play a quickest time challenge, or minimum steps, or least portals. Odd to think this ‘filler’ has more repeatability then the main star. It’s hard not to enjoy. Oh and at times I still find myself singing the end sequence song. What more need be said?

6 comments:

Dan H said...

I know this is out-of-scope for your review, but I feel I should mention it to be fair. The PC version of HL2 doesn't have the LOD problems you describe, nor the slow-down. Portal does have some technically advanced graphics features: most obviously the particle system for the orange and blue portals and drawing the view through the portals, which is not quite as easy as it sounds. The surface finishes were nice too: especially the sludgy water and the shiny black blocks you can't stick portals to.

As for TF2, you're really missing out. It is a fun game to play for being much less complicated than, say Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. Not having bots is a bit of a shortcoming, as it makes it hard to practise classes or maps you're unfamiliar with, without letting your team down by playing suboptimally.

And of course, on PC, you can buy the game directly through Steam, which meant not having to wait the aeon between the US and UK releases.

Invisible said...

TF2: Extremely fun stuff! Unlike the likes of, say, CS:S (walk round a corner, drop dead, oh dear), TF2 is both wonderfully easy to get the hang of, yet challenging to play. Mind you, it does have a few points where it's unexpectedly unrealistic. (E.g., you run into a room and fill every inch of it with flames from your flame thrower, and yet nobody is set alight.)

Portal: Has some very interesting psychological elements. (!) Very dark game… Quite short, but certainly enjoyable.

HL2: Awe-inspiring graphics. [The last game I saw was HL1, played without hardware acceleration. HL2 is a whole other ball-park.] Technically superior in every possible mannar. Downright boring scenary and storyline.

HL2:EP1 More of the same. The graphics are even better. The gameplay is even more boring.

HL2:HP2 Finally, a HL game that's fun again! Yay!

FlipC said...

Dan you're right in your observations I'm only really talking about the PS3 version. I could have made my conclusion a little more ordered in that the order to buy it is PC, 360, PS3.

I've added an update on to the graphics portion of Portal because you're right.

As for TF2 (damn missed the 2 off the review) hopefully I should be getting wireless broadband by the end of the month so I'll be able to have a go; just fricked me off that I couldn't even look at it.

Invisible if you say TF2 is fun then its got to be. As for graphics, as I said, they should be good and approaching 'reality' by now; but I'm not going to buy a game just because it looks pretty it's got to have some solid gameplay behind it and Half-Life2++ just lacks in some ways.

I'm just saying I don't have the urge to say "Hey I fancy a quick game of HL2" in the same way I do with Rez or Okami; at times it feels like a chore... then I start-up Portal and all is forgiven. Hopefully TF2 will add to that.

Invisible said...

As I said, HL2 and EP1 massively deliver on the graphics front, but the game itself just isn't very fun.

For me, EP2 was fun. Fun in a way that I haven't had since HL1. And that makes me very happy.

TF2 is certainly great fun on the PC. I'm not so sure about the PS3. (Can you play it on the same servers as people playing on PC? Strikes me that that might be a tad unbalanced...)

FlipC said...

The problem I had with Ep2 was the ending, again it highlighted the scripted nature of the game A comes from here followed by B from there; with the speed needed at times it becomes more a memory game.

As for TF2 the word is nope no cross-platform multiplayer.

Invisible said...

Come to mention it, I still haven't completed the ending of EP2. It's just too damn hard…