The Orange Box

Game Description: The Orange Box includes all the content of The Black Box for PC, plus the original Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode One. Innovative games featured in The Orange Box include Half-Life 2: Episode Two, the second installment in Valve's episodic trilogy advances the award-winning story, leading the player to new locations outside of City 17, as well as the pioneering type of single-player action game Portal, which rewrites the rules for how players approach and manipulate their environment, and Team Fortress 2—an all-new version of the legendary title that spawned team based multiplayer action games with a daring new art style features the most advanced graphics of any Source-based game released to date.

Half-Life 2 Review

Half-Life 2  Screenshot

I think that I'm impossible to please when it comes to video games. When I play a terrible game, I take an almost ecstatic glee in pointing out all the many, many ways in which the developers screwed up. When faced with a nearly perfect game, on the other hand, I start to nitpick, and search for tiny mistakes to grouse about, as if admitting that the existence of perfection somehow invalidated my worldview. I'm trying to work on this, so I'll get my childish nitpick out of the way right now so I can start singing the game's praises. Here goes: no matter where I was standing when I fired a pistol, the shell casing always seemed to make the same sound as it hit the ground. Shotgun shells sound very different when landing on sand than they do when they hit marble, and every time I heard the wrong sound it pulled me right out of the experience.

Half Life 2 is the best-looking video game I've ever played. No exceptions, full stop, the best-looking video game ever. It's the first thing I noticed about the game, and it kept stunning me with its beauty all the way through. The textures are amazingly detailed and varied to the point that I even if the walls repeated every ten feet none but the most discerning viewers would ever notice it. The animation is superb—all of the human characters move with a wonderful semblance of life, amazingly coordinated and fluid.

The only notable thing missing are pain animations, and that's enough of an oversight that it merits mention. Come on, it's the year 2004—if I'm playing a first-person shooter and I shoot a man in the leg, I want to see him stumble. Then, if for some reason I haven't finished him off, and he tries to escape, he damn sure better do it limping. All the characters in Half-Life 2 barely flinch when wounded.

Which is a tragedy, because the game's guns are all so fantastically designed that I'd liked to have seen them have a more pronounced effect on my opponents. The guns all look incredible, feature full animation, and sound amazing. By amazing, I mean LOUD. I've always said that the report of a gun should sound like the world is ending, and, as silly as it sounds, whenever I fired a gun in Half-Life 2 I felt as if I'd accomplished something, whether I'd actually hit my target or not.

The artificial intelligence, both friend and enemy, is also spectacular—everyone seems to be constantly in motion, always reacting, looking for cover or a better shot. 90 percent of the opponents in the game are human stormtroopers, and (except for one glitch wherein troopers don't actually exist until they jump out of a personnel carrier, allowing the player to camp in front of it and blast them one after another as they jump out) they react about as well as I'd expect a human to when under fire. The craftiness of my opponents and their skill at hunting me down really raised the level of the game for me. The stormtroopers were such challenging and entertaining foes that I didn't mind for a second the fact that I was essentially fighting the same four or five guys for the vast majority of the game.

Half-Life 2  Screenshot

Half-Life 2 picks up just moments after Half-Life ended—or maybe it doesn't. The game seems to imply that no time has passed for Gordon Freeman (the world's most butt-kicking physicist) since he single-handedly defeated the Xen invasion in the first game, but it's kind of hard to tell. Quite a bit of time has passed in the interim, time enough at least for a hostile extra-dimensional race to conquer the Earth. Since Gordon doesn't seem to have aged much, it's probable that he's been in some manner of extra-dimensional holding area since the end of the last game, waiting until the Man in the Suit had something for him to do. This is one of the more confusing of the game's plot points, one that could have easily been explained away had Gordon opened his mouth just once in the entire game. He doesn't.

Unfortunately, this lack of opportunity to get to know the main character left me feeling strangely detached from the overall game experience. Attempts are made to humanize the supporting cast, and the superb voice acting and new facial animation routines do an excellent job of making them seem much more human, and therefore much more creepy, than in any game before them. It's too bad they really don't have the opportunity to say anything much more substantive than telling Gordon where he's supposed to walk next, and who he's supposed to shoot. I sensed there was a problem with characterization when I realized that the most likeable character is an adorable giant robot that operates under the mistaken apprehension that it's a dog.

I was infuriated at times by the game's almost aggressive lack of an involving plot. I remember hearing the first Half-Life praised for being a step forward in video game storytelling, and finding the idea funny—Half-Life had the minimum story that was absolutely necessary to keep the player walking in the correct direction. There was no more plot to it than the first Contra had, and they were similarly linear in their design. Suffice it to say that this game follows closely in their footsteps, with the one notable improvement being that now some of the helpful scientists that point Gordon in the right directions actually have names. There's no furtherance of an overall plot, and no continuing characters beyond a few familiar villains. Frankly, had this game been called something other than Half-Life 2, it's possible that people wouldn't even have noticed that it was a sequel.

I shouldn't be too hard on the game, though, as this lack of a formal, tightly scripted plot allowed the developers to run wild and shoehorn into the game every fun thing that struck their fancy. Half the time I suspected that I wasn't playing a game at all, but rather the greatest-ever sales tool for a game engine. At times, Valve seem to be showing off, proving that they've developed the perfect foundation on which to build any type of game the player can imagine. They pull it of more often than not, as I can't remember a war game that captured the desperation and terror of street-to-street fighting that the game's later levels do. Heck, I've played every single survival horror game ever, and not one of them made fighting zombies as tense and thrilling as Half-Life 2's "haunted town" level does. The way the game switches genres from level to level gives the developers license to use whatever characters and situations pop into their heads. This freedom leads to an inspired set piece featuring the bugs from Starship Troopers, as well as a tense and terrifying encounter with the tripods from War of the Worlds.

Half-Life 2  Screenshot

More than anything else, I suppose, Half-Life 2 is the story of a group of developers in love with their physics engine. They're so proud of the fact that all the non-geographical items operate with realistic physics that they provide the player with seemingly endless opportunities to explore the limits of those physics. Whether knocking the platform out from under an enemy's feet, knocking barrels into a pool of water to create a makeshift bridge, or pulling the blocks out from under a tank's wheels to let it roll down a hill, I found myself appreciating just how realistically the physics performed.

Of course, the real advantage of this realistic environment is that it allows for an entirely new, and far more naturalistic kind of puzzle design. Think there's a secret passage behind a bookcase? Instead of backtracking through the level, looking for the missing book in the hopes that it will unlock the secret door, why not just tear the books off the shelf? Or tear the bookcase off the wall? The designers even offer a weapon, the gravity gun, specifically designed to manipulate the environment to help solve these puzzles. At one point in the game, I found myself confronted with a door barred from the other side. In another game, I might have looked for a convenient switch to open it, or a vent I could crawl through to circumvent the problem. Here, I just pulled out the gravity gun, aim at the bar, and lift it out of the slot. The realism of the physical environment made this one of the most intuitive game playing experiences I've ever had. It features one of the steepest learning curves I've ever experienced—whatever situation I was in, I just needed to imagine what I'd do in Gordon's place, and usually my solution would work just fine.

The only problem with this love affair is that, like most relationships, over the long haul the developers seem to have tired of their physics engine. More specifically, they seem to have tired of putting in the effort required to generate fantastic puzzles and setpieces. For a long sequence that takes place entirely within a crumbling, war-torn city, I would have liked a few opportunities to destroy bridges as convoys drove over them, or perhaps drop a wall on someone. Then there's the fact that at no point in this sequence does a building collapse. I don't even care if I get to blow it up or not—would it have killed them to have a building collapse, and then have some tripods come striding out of the rubble, and then require me to toss chunks of rubble at the tripods to distract them while my compatriots made their escape?

Whatever problems I may have had with the story progression, lack of characters, and so-so last hour can't dull my love for this game. It's an example of nearly perfect game design, with play mechanics polished until their shine could blind the unprepared. It's also one of the most fantastically paced games in the history, moving along at breakneck speed, never letting the player take a breath. It's only ten hours long, but nine of those hours are practically perfect in every way. For everyone who's ever played a first-person shooter, and who has a computer powerful enough to play it, there's simply no excuse to miss this game.

Oh, and one last little nitpick: when are people finally going to get tired of the whole sequel number superscript Half-Life Squared thing? Am I the only one sick to death of all of those tiny raised numbers? The rating? 9.0 out of 10.

Disclaimer: This review is based on the PC version of the game.

According to ESRB, this game contains: Blood, Intense Violence

Parents should be careful with this game—if their children have any taste at all, they'll want it, but it's an extremely violent game, and isn't really appropriate for players below their mid-to-late teens.

Counter-Strike players should pick this up right away, as it offers the exact same game they've been playing for years, only now the grenades bounce more realistically.

Fans of Psi-Ops should check the game out-the gravity gun is nearly as fun as that game's TK was.

Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers are in for a treat, as the game contains the most comprehensive subtitles in history—everything is subtitled, even the most minor audio cue.

Half-Life 2 Second Opinion

Half-Life 2 Screenshot

I'm in a bit of a conundrum: I'm both a big first-person shooter fan and someone who doesn't own a gaming PC. My aging home computer is suitable for most day-to-day purposes, but investing in a high-end gaming rig would be asking a lot. So it was with some dismay that I watched many PC gamers hail Half-Life 2 as the greatest shooter since, well since the inception of the genre. It garnered tons of critical acclaim and earned a number of Game of the Year awards, just as its predecessor did back in the late '90s. Meanwhile, I sat on the sidelines, waiting patiently for a console version.

Finally, a year after its release on the PC, Half-Life 2 has been faithfully ported to the Xbox. While I don't have a basis for a direct comparison aside from the visuals, the official line from Valve (one that, based on anecdotal reports, is accurate) is that all of the game's content is intact. Certainly, for those who played the game on their PCs last year, the Xbox port has nothing to offer but inferior graphics—although they look very impressive for an Xbox game. But for those like myself who are dedicated console gamers, the port is finally an opportunity to play one of last year's most acclaimed games.

The question that lingered in my mind, naturally, was whether Half-Life 2 could possibly live up to the expectations I had for it. Is it truly the best game of its kind ever made? One could certainly make the case as such, but after playing through the game thoroughly, it's not a notion I could agree with. Half-Life 2 is a fantastic game that accomplishes a great deal, but it is also prone to many of the contrivances that continue to restrain the genre from groundbreaking progression. And although one could certainly argue the same about many other games (such as the unapologetically self-referential Doom 3), Half-Life 2 thinks forward in so many ways that it's all the more disappointing when it appears stuck in the past.

The action in Half-Life 2 is standard first-person shooter fare. The artificial intelligence of the Combine soldiers is merely average at best—enemies will repeatedly walk into the line of fire, rarely take cover, and never retreat. They will not flank or try to flush players out of hiding. Instead, they will stand out in the open, walk side to side, and pursue retreating players carelessly. As such—and despite an impressive variety of opponents—the combat lacks the flexible, dynamic feel of Halo 2, and the game's action sequences play out fairly predictably.

Half-Life 2 makes liberal use of the Havoc 3 physics engine, particularly through the use of the creative Gravity Gun. While the presence of physics is nothing new to first-person shooters, the Gravity Gun it them a new level of functionality, despite the gun's sometimes inconsistent feel (some objects seem arbitrarily impossible to move). The game ultimately doesn't offer much more use of physics than other shooters, but the inclusion of the Gravity Gun is certainly novel.

However, the real strengths of the game lie primarily in its compelling settings and its dramatic and excellently scripted set pieces. From the outset, the game conveys a feeling of confusion, suffering and desperation among the people caught in the dystopian future of the tyrannical extra-dimensional Combine race. The game marvelously builds tension as Gordon Freeman must escape from the Combine unarmed to join forces with the ragtag human resistance plotting to overthrow the Combine. From there, players will venture through vast waterways, remote highways, deserted towns, war-torn cities and the high-tech Combine base itself, using a mixture of numerous vehicle sequences interspersed with the on-foot action.

Half-Life 2 Screenshot

I felt that despite its clearly restrictive linearity, Half-Life 2 was most successful in creating the feel of an actual world of massive scale, one that felt very believable. The set pieces are so massive and scripted with such attention to detail that they make the player feel like only a small part of larger events, something very few games are able to convey successfully. I particularly enjoyed the lengthy Highway 17 section, where Freeman drives down what feels like miles and miles of a highway, stopping along the way to confront Combine soldiers and aid the struggling human resistance. Toward the final chapter of the game, when Freeman joins the resistance in overthrowing Combine control of City 17, the scripting and set pieces convey a true sense of the desperate odds of the human fighters in a way that makes victory in the battles truly satisfying.

And indeed it is only because so much of Half-Life 2 is done so well that its stubborn clinging to outdated conventions feels as out of sync with the rest of the game as it does. The game uses a creative way of restoring Freeman's health and armor through medical stations throughout the game. However, despite this innovation, the old system of med-pack hoarding is alive and well, and players will spend a fair bit of time hunting around for supply crates to break open for ammo and medicine. Freeman, despite being a mere physicist, also possesses the superhuman ability to carry firepower fit for a small army. Though ultimately only minor complaints, I felt these clichés were out of place and distracting, since the developers worked so hard to create a believable world otherwise.

Also out of place are numerous sequences in which players must destroy Combine armor in the form of flying gunships or the massive Strider tripods that recall War of the Worlds. While the enemies are truly menacing and the set pieces are all very captivating and brilliantly scripted, the method for getting past them feels pathetically contrived. These enemies can only be destroyed by rockets, so each area has a crate full of an infinite supply of rockets. After one or two of these sequences (which, incidentally, do not always involve mechanized foes), it becomes painfully obvious that getting past them requires jumping through very specific hoops. Why didn't Valve allow players more than one way of defeating these enemies? Or, why not build on the system seen in the first gunship confrontation, in which friendly soldiers hand Freeman ammo if he needs it? While more freedom would be the best option, that structure certainly felt far less contrived than forcing players to track down the magical crate of infinite ammunition.

Additionally, as remarkably varied as the enemies and settings are, I did not feel that all of them worked. The waterboat sequences early in the game started strong, but seemed to drag on and become repetitive. Ravenholm—though visually beautiful—was populated with tedious, zombie-like enemies that failed to convey any sense of horror. And while the puzzles in the game often put the Havoc physics engine to impressively creative use, some of the platforming sequences were needlessly drawn out and tedious.

It may seem as though I'm nitpicking or being overly critical. However, for a game to be hailed as the best of its kind, I feel it should be truly groundbreaking. Half-Life 2 takes some steps in the right direction, but it ultimately stays too complacently on the beaten path to set itself above the fray. Halo 2 offered superbly dynamic combat; The Chronicles of Riddick offered never-before-seen gameplay; Doom 3 offered unparalleled atmosphere and tension. Half-Life 2, with its phenomenal scripting, riveting settings and remarkable variety of gameplay, is unquestionably among this elite group as one of the finest first-person shooters ever made—but not one that eclipses the accomplishments of its contemporaries. Rating: 9.0 out of 10.

Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.

Half-Life 2: Episode One Review

Half-Life 2: Episode One Screenshot

Half-Life 2, though I felt it was a bit overrated, was undeniably a major release and a massively influential game. Valve might be toiling away creating the next-generation Source engine, but they know a cash cow when they see one and Half-Life 2 has the fan following to keep them afloat while they work on their next big blockbuster. While the engine coders do their thing, we gamers will be getting our Half-Life fill with a series of short "episodes" that expand the series' plot a bit. Half-Life 2: Episode One is essentially just an expansion pack, but it's the first in what will be a series of episodic content that continues the story line that ended so abruptly in Half-Life 2.

Episode One picks up right where Half-Life 2 left off, with Gordon and Alyx inside the Combine Citadel just moments after Gordon successfully destroyed the reactor core and prevented the malfeasant Dr. Breen from escaping to a parallel universe. The game follows Gordon and Alyx as they escape from the soon-to-be-going-kaboom Citadel and make their way out of City 17 before it's leveled by the reactor's catastrophic explosion. We get some glimpses of the resistance celebrating their small victory over the combine, but we still see them fighting for dear life as they flee from the doomed city.

Episode One essentially just takes Half-Life 2's basic gameplay and adds a few more levels to further the plot. This isn't inherently a bad thing since Half-Life 2 was one of the most acclaimed PC games ever made, but as an expansion release two years after the big tamale, it's a bit disappointing. There are no new enemies, no new weapons, and no new vehicles. There isn't even much of an opportunity to experience Valve's implementation of high dynamic range lighting, which it demonstrated in the impressive demo Half-Life 2: Lost Coast, because the overwhelming majority of the game takes place in dark, murky indoor corridors. And though it does spin a good yarn and adds nicely to the continuity of the series, the game is still a bit on the short side. The game can be completed in about four or five hours, and doesn't offer much incentive to be replayed. Oh, and we still have no idea who the G-Man is.

It also suffers because many of the first-person shooter clichés that seemed out of place in Half-Life 2 feel even more out of place now. Gordon still has his super suit, and he's still running around smashing crates for bullets and medicine, which he happens upon in the most unusual and arbitrary places. The trusty old exploding barrels make an unwelcome return as well which, like the supply crates, seem littered about in some rather unusual (and oddly convenient) places. The game is still extremely linear, and the artificial intelligence is still pretty unimpressive and easy to trick, even on higher difficulties. It makes for a package that, while impressive two years ago, is beginning to show its age.

Episode One is strictly for the fans. Anyone hoping that this expansion would explore some new gameplay elements or even improve on the old ones is up for a disappointment. It's good stuff—hey, it's Half-Life!—but it's the same stuff. Rating: 6.0 out of 10.

According to ESRB, this game contains: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Language

Parents should be cautious of some mild blood and gore, but there's nothing overtly graphic here, nor is there any over-the-top language

Fans of Half-Life 2 should pick this up to get a little more of their Half-Life fix. Just don't expect anything really new.

Shooter fans may find this is worth picking up, only because it's been a rather dry year for the genre. I highly recommend the free Half-Life 2: Rock 24 mod that is downloadable for free for owners of Half-Life 2. It's a user mod that has Freeman escaping a Combine prison, and it provides a good romp without the premium that Valve is asking for Episode One.

Everyone else may want to pass on this one, particularly if Half-Life 2 wasn't your style. There's nothing here that wasn't in Half-Life 2, so it's not going to win any new converts. If you are one of the unlucky gamers who hasn't played the original Half-Life 2, the original is definitely worth a purchase as it can be had for around $20.

Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers will miss out on a substantial number of audio cues and dialogue; while audio isn't necessary to play the game, it can make a significant difference in its playability.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two Review

Half-Life 2: Episode Two Screenshot

Half-Life 2 was for me a little bit of a letdown. It was an epic game of grand scope with superlative storytelling, and I did think it was one of the best first-person shooters I'd ever played. But I couldn't help but be a bit bothered by the game's stubborn adherence to rather dated genre clichés-one man carrying a small arsenal, breaking open crates to find bullets and medicine, and the contrived placement of various weapons, exploding barrels, and magical crates of infinite ammo. So when the episodic content was announced, I was sincerely hoping that Valve would use it as an opportunity to improve the game by playing on its strengths and getting away from some of the contrivances that hold the series back from being a true masterpiece.

Episode One, however, was not that game. Not only did the exploding barrels and randomly scattered ammo crates make an unwelcome re-appearance, but the game eschewed most of the large-scale set pieces of the original, settling on dark, claustrophobic corridors littered with lumbering headcrab zombies and physics puzzles that seemed mostly recycled from the original game. Half-Life is at its best with large set pieces, tight scripting, smart enemies and big scary cyborgs; conversely, it's at its worst when it devolves into a run-and-gun corridor shooter filled with lumbering zombies. A total lack of new enemies and weapons also hurt the game, and while it was a decent five-hour diversion, I finished the game wishing Valve had aimed higher.

So it was with a bit of apprehension that I approached Half-Life 2: Episode Two. Again I had high hopes for the game, but I was afraid that Valve would again merely ride the series out on its established conventions rather than make substantive improvements. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded, and Episode Two has exceeded my expectations in nearly every respect.

Continuing the story right from the end of Episode One, Episode Two finds Gordon and Alyx in the wreckage of the train on which they had narrowly escaped from City 17 as the Citadel's reactor exploded, leveling the entire city. The Combine are now trying to open another massive inter-dimensional portal that will spell certain doom for all of Earth, and Gordon must make his way to a rebel base where survivors are planning an attack that will destroy the portal before it's too late.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two Screenshot

Unfortunately, the game starts off with a whimper. The first act felt far too much like Episode One, as Gordon makes his way through a massive antlion nest that is-big surprise -also infested with headcrab zombies. The repetitive attack patterns of the antlions and the slow predictability of the headcrab zombies would have rendered the first act of the game a complete wash were it not for a handful of tightly-scripted battles and some good storytelling saving the day. I spent the first hour or two of the game wondering when the real action was going to start, and feeling like the game was destined to end up much like Episode One.

Once Gordon escapes this bug-filled, zombie-infested underground labyrinth however, the game takes a stark turn for the better, weaving through one exciting gameplay sequence after another as it builds toward an epic finale that kept me on the edge of my seat and ended the story with a cliffhanger that was satisfying while perfectly setting the stage for Episode Three. The game expands on the Half-Life mythology far more effectively than Episode One did, providing great character development and intriguing insights into the complex web of Gordon's past, and even granting some insights into the influence of the perpetually mysterious G-Man. Gordon and Alyx seem to be growing closer (proving that if you want women to like you, don't say anything!), and we witness some dramatic moments that have genuine emotional weight to them.

The action is one clever battle sequence after the next, as Gordon and Alyx are pursued by the Combine through the alien-infested countryside. While Gordon still carries enough ammo to supply a small battalion and the game still stubbornly clings to the dated crate-smashing cliché, most of its other contrivances are either gone or expertly hidden. From battles with the new Combine Hunters to the grand spectacle of the final battle against an army of Striders assaulting the Resistance outpost, Episode Two has a truly epic energy brought to life with a stunning use of physics and masterful scripting. Encounters with the Striders and the Combine Advisors are genuinely tense, and executed with remarkable visual flair. The Half-Life series has always excelled by using expertly crafted storytelling to briskly move the player from one battle sequence to the next, rarely falling on recycled gameplay and always presenting players with unique new challenges; Episode Two is no exception, as it propels players through a brilliant narration encompassing numerous unique battle scenarios that require players to use their wits as well as their trigger finger.

Despite its lackluster first act, Episode Two ends up showing more of the kind of progressive gameplay I have been wanting to see from the series. A few dated clichés remain, but the remainder of the game is so tautly scripted and uniquely challenging that I almost forgot how ridiculous it is to be finding crates full of bullets in radioactive swamps. There are still no new weapons and only a few new enemies, but between the brisk pacing and character-driven storytelling, Valve has given me only higher hopes for Episode Three. Rating: 8.0 out of 10.

Disclaimer: This review is based on the PC version of the game.

According to ESRB, this game contains: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Language

Parents need not be overly concerned; while not intended for children, the game is not gratuitously violent or profane; it's mostly on par with any PG-13 action movie. Parents may even find the story and characters substantive enough to enjoy the game with their kids.

PC gamers may purchase the game either standalone or as part of the five-game Orange Box compilation; Xbox 360 gamers do not have the luxury of purchasing it standalone, but the Orange Box is a phenomenal value with Half-Life 2, Episodes One and Two, Portal, and Team Fortress all for $60. An added incentive for PC gamers is that if you already own Half-Life 2 and/or Episode One and you purchase Orange Box, you can give a free copy of the game to a friend via Steam.

Episode Two is a must-have for first-person shooter fans and fans of Half-Life. It has everything that is great about the genre and the series, and very little of what is not. It's especially a visually excellent game that will look great on a high-definition TV or a high-end gaming PC.

Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers may miss out on some useful positional audio cues such as enemy chatter and gun fire, but as with all Steam games, closed captioning is available. Subtitles are available for all dialogue, and are distinguished between characters with italicized font.

Portal Review

Portal Screenshot

Shoot two portals onto a flat surface and walk through one to appear out the other. This reasonably straightforward game premise is destined to go down alongside "form horizontal lines to make blocks disappear" and "avoid missing ball for high score" as one of the most deviously, deceptively simple in the medium's history.

But unlike Tetris and Pong, where the simplicity of the game rules ensured instant mastery, Portal's richest puzzling gameplay only really begins at those brick wall, progression-stopper moments where most other games grind to a halt, which is itself a bit of a perspective paradox. A shame, then, that those moments only begin to appear about three quarters of the way through the game's 19 training tests. But there is plenty to admire before you get there.

Although a science testing facility is hardly the most imaginative setting for a game like Portal, the drab labs and white-tiled walls of Aperture Science belie an engaging and entertaining atmosphere, ensured primarily by the robotic female narrator, GLaDOS, who guides you through the tests. Through her hopeless attempts to inject humour and humanity into the testing despite her dense corporate-speak and exaggeratedly broken photo-booth voice, the show-stealing GLaDOS (already achieving a notoriety that threatens to overshadow the portal mechanic) ironically does succeed in injecting humour and humanity into Portal. Skilfully appropriating the "robot with logical emotions" archetype, she soon becomes the deadpan conduit for just about any kind of humour Valve wish to throw into the mix, be it a boorish reference to organ donation, a sly gaming euphemism ("unstationary scaffold" gets my vote) or a totally incongruous Smash TV sample.

The tests themselves are for the most part of the satisfying and smart, but not very challenging mould. There are even instructions prior to each test giving the player a pretty good idea of what lies ahead and how it ought to be tackled (although once you know this they're pretty easy to ignore). Tests are designed as much with visual flair in mind as puzzle ingenuity, but it's a symbiotic relationship for the most part; when you find yourself falling into the floor and launching out of the wall across a chasm, the fun factor is hard to dispel just because the puzzle solution was a little too quick in coming.

Portal Screenshot

But the remarkable extended coda demonstrates the possibilities of the portal gun in a more traditional Half-Life level design, and redeems the game's underwhelming length and difficulty with a fascinating glimpse of what could be. Not only does it show just how completely the player has adopted the portal logic from the training sections, but it's a fluid, narrativized final level that, as one may have expected with hindsight, exploits Valve's design prowess much better than the lab tests. And it all winds up with a memorable, funny and oddly touching resolution that manages to achieve satisfying narrative closure in a game with the most threadbare of narratives.

Flaws? Well for starters it breaks the first rule of first-person platform gameplay (that is, "For the love of God do not try first-person platform gameplay") and compounds this potential for frustration with moving platforms, deadly floors, time-based beam puzzles and, obviously, the disorienting portal conceit itself. Also, the "rusty innards" visual design of the final stretch feels a little misjudged and ugly, which is a shame seeing as that is when the game really kicks into gear.

Perhaps we can forgive the aforementioned soft difficulty curve, however, as I think it helps make Portal absolutely the kind of game you'll want your non-gaming friends to try. Intelligent. Non-violent. A reasonably accessible setting. Genuinely humorous. You have to hand it to Valve for adopting and adapting Narbacular Drop (the student project on which Portal is based) into something that not only adds a new dimension to their "kill bad guys" Half-Life gameplay, but at the same time makes their work feel more cutting edge than ever. It's Half-Life 2's Gravity Gun all over again.

So Portal does its job within the Orange Box compilation, taking a brilliant left-field idea and successfully merging it with Valve's universe over an entertaining few hours of gaming. And in its own right the game lives on a little longer in the taxing Bonus Maps and the Achievement targets that will no doubt prove furiously addictive to those with the requisite gaming genes. Disappointment that the puzzles are not as labyrinthine and mind-bending as the original trailer suggested they might be, and that this is perhaps not the definitive exploitation of such a wonderful game mechanic, should be tempered with the knowledge that once the experiment is complete, there actually looks to be more life (or should that be half-life?) in Portal than we might ever have imagined. Rating: 9.0 out of 10.

Disclaimer: This review is based on the PC version of the game.

According to ESRB, this game contains: Blood, Mild Violence

Parents should know that the only blood and violence in the game, and that to which the ESRB rating refers, is when the player finds themselves in the firing line of a sentry gun. The only hands-on violent act the player themselves can perform is, hilariously, to gently push over one of the sentry guns so it becomes inoperable. More subtle adult content can be found in the occasionally sinister and suggestive humour of robot narrator GLaDOS, but it is not explicit enough to warrant an ESRB warning. The thinking must have been that if you are mature enough to understand the joke, then you are old enough to have heard it.

While the game plugs into the Half-Life universe (and for that matter the great value Half-Life bundle The Orange Box) enough for it to be essential for fans of Valve's legendary shooter series, the most fitting audience for the majority of Portal's gameplay seems to be those who enjoy stage-based puzzle games and lateral-thinking challenges. It is one of the few first-person titles that I would recommend to a gamer who is unfamiliar with the format, or unreceptive to the first-person shooter archetype. Although some control skill and speed is required later on, the vast majority of Portal can be enjoyed by thinking logically and methodically about how to overcome the problem in hand. And if that sounds boring, rest assured that the humour, flair, and satisfaction that come with progress make playing Portal an absolute dream.

Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers will find Valve's well-respected subtitle support in full effect. The "Closed Caption" option allows every incidental noise and sound effect to be transcribed onscreen (if sometimes unavoidably quickly), with colour-coding to aid comprehension.