This is really five games for the price of one. Usually a box set is an indication of average games being sold together but all of the content here is AAA. The main meat is provided by Half Life 2 (HL2), HL2 Episode 1 and HL2 Episode 2. While all three are new to the 360 and PS3, HL2 has been out for a few years on the pc. With slightly slicker graphics being the only main change in HL2 I was a bit worried it would feel stale. However the story still feels fresh and it’s been a joy playing through HL2 again. I’ve enjoyed the story more on the console than I did on the pc – I’ve no reason why, it’s just what I’ve found during play. I’ve yet to complete HL2 yet so Episodes 1 & 2 remain untouched but I am really looking forward to them.
Portal is a puzzle game that is unique to Orange Box. Using a portal gun the player creates two portals. Walk through one portal and you appear through the other. Using this simple concept a number of puzzles must be solved eventually enabling the player to escape from the Aperture Science Labs. Gameplay is pretty short coming in well under five hours. However this is a unique and enjoyable gaming experience that I hope everyone will get the chance to try. Portal alone is worth buying Orange Box for – that’s how much I enjoyed it. Even the end credits are pretty special. The game length is also perfectly judged and once completed you get the chance to go for quick times through each of the challenges or try some of the advanced puzzles which are pretty tough. Stunning.
The final game is Team Fortress 2. This is multiplayer only featuring a totally different set of visuals and sounds. Very cartoony with some great audio and presentation. What differentiates this from the other FPS on the market at the moment are the variety of classes. There are nine options and there is a much larger emphasise on team play to win when compared with Halo or Call of Duty. I’ve only played a few games but they have been lag free (thanks to an update) and great fun. Initially everyone will go for the Soldier or Heavy but over time you realise the importance of Medics, Engineers, Spy’s and Scouts. I think there are only six maps which feels a bit tight but they are pretty large and due to the variety of classes there is a huge amount of replayability in them. Over time I would expect more maps to become available.
So that’s Orange Box. If it was just the Half Life series or indeed Portal alone it would have been in my games of the year but to have all five for the price of one is great value. Even at double the price it would have been in my list. So what’s next?
Well there’s a surprise – I like Halo 3. The most anticipated game of last year and it was great to see it met with all the hype. The March/April beta wetted the appetite and when the game finally came out in September it packed a few surprises. Firstly the campaign mode featured 4 player co-op. Not only that, the co-op campaign featured games within the game as you could turn on scoring modes to make even the campaign have a competitive edge. The co-op was flawless and made the campaign a lot more enjoyable although I still haven’t completed it. Too many games this year, a lack of game playing time and one other thing. Halo 3 online owns.
This for me is the main draw in Halo. I’ll never forget the first night online and seeing over one million other gamers online playing Halo 3. Amazing. A great selection of maps and a real variety in the playlists makes for a winning combination. Bungie have also improved their party system which was already the best on Xbox Live. Now you no longer hear the opposition before a match and it’s easy to mute players who are loud, abusive or like to play rock music at insanely loud volumes. Call of Duty should have learned a lesson with that as Bungie have addressed the main complaints (for me) from Halo 2. Also missing from Halo now are the de-rankers. I’ve not seen any in Halo 3 and considering this plagued Halo 2 it makes for a big improvement.
Bungie have also added the Forge which allows you to customise the maps to your hearts content. You can also share pictures and video’s with other players and also share your saved maps and game modes from Forge. They have also kept the playlists refreshed adding popular Forge modes, Rocket Race for example, to the official playlists. With one download pack already delivered and more on the way this will be a game to come back to again and again. I played Halo 2 for over two years and I’ve no doubt that Halo 3 has the same longevity. Awesome.
Call of Duty 4
A bit of a dark horse this one. I downloaded the demo not expecting too much and was blown away at how accomplished it was. Amazing visuals (maybe best of the year?) and 18 player battles set this out as a must buy and I wasn’t disappointed. The single player game is varied with some great set pieces and as it’s shorter there’s a better chance of players actually completing it.
Switch over to multiplayer though and you’ve got a myriad of maps and options, some great lag free gaming and also a unique feature certainly amongst this years FPS’s. The more you play the more weapons and characters options you unlock. You also have the ability to not only use the default classes but create up to five custom classes of your own. While this makes it a disadvantage for first timers, weapons and upgrades are quickly unlocked. It makes for a pretty varied game as you never know quite what weapons you’ll be up against. However there are a few niggles with the game.
Firstly the lack of an easy player mute means you get the screamers that were so common in Halo 2. More pressing is the host quitting shuts the game down rather than moving host as seen in Halo. You can identify who the host is and it was becoming more common that a host would quit while his team was ahead – really annoying. This should be addressed in a soon to be released patch. The party system is also not as slick as Halo and there is a tendency to lose players at the start of games, again something that will hopefully be addressed by the patch although I’m off the opinion that NAT rather than the game is responsible for that issue. If it wasn’t for these niggles it would be on a par if not better than Halo 3 but for me it falls slightly behind it. Still a great game.
Finally a great exclusive for the PS3. It’s not a long game but while playing it kept me entertained which is unusual for this style of game, best described as a Tomb Raider copy but with more action and a mix of Gears of War. One thing that can’t be doubted is the looks – one of the best looking games around at the moment and a real showcase of the PS3 and it’s potential power. I’ve had a couple of dodgy moments with the camera being a bit funky but then again I’ve never really played a third person game which doesn’t have a glitch or two. Sound is also superb as well as the story. A must have title for the PS3 which isn’t something you hear to often.
Two games, one of my favourite gaming genre’s – gaming nirvana surely? Well, almost. PGR4 came out towards the end of the year in the midst of the busiest game release schedules ever. It had more tracks than PGR3 and promised some amazing weather effects which is certainly delivered. In fact the track variety reminded me of PGR2 which I loved. However they added bikes to the mix which for me didn’t work. The handling just felt wrong and online you were toast unless in an all bike race. Even if you weren’t being malicious, the different braking points and racing lines meant collisions with bikes were frequent and annoying for those that wanted to use them.
However the online code was rock solid and delivered a great game. I thought the track selection was excellent and there were also some additional game modes added to help longevity. So why did I stop playing? I think the shine rubbed off a bit when other games were released so close to this one. Also they had removed capture the track mode from online which was central to our PGR Hardcore game nights. Shame. I intend to return to PGR4 though as there was so much left to do, so many cars to get and David’s got some fast(ish) times to beat.
So onto Forza 2. Shame shame shame. I played this a lot this year and it was one of the most anticipated games for me but ultimately I became frustrated with it and, well, bored. The game itself is great with a good graphics engine and a great game engine. Very sim-like and a great feeling/response while driving. With the huge variety of cars, car parts and classes it’s a very deep game with a lot of gameplay. However the track choice is pretty poor. It’s almost the same as the original Forza and it gets very repetitive after a while. Another annoyance is the online code. While it’s great for a few racers, anything approaching 6-8 is likely to lead to drop outs, lag and some annoyed racers. Considering how good the PGR series has been online this was a major disappointment.
There was however one aspect that I will forever remember this game for – the paint mode and the online auction house. This mode was a bit of a waste on me as I have zero talent when it comes to art. However for someone like Robert (aka Foe Real) who has a real art talent this was an amazing way to make money (virtual) and make lot’s of new friends on Xbox Live. I was constantly amazed at just how good his car designs were. Jaw dropping, especially considering how long it took me to make a few hundred thousand in the game and I’m sure he ended up with over 100 million credits thanks to the auction house. This Flickr set has some (not all) of his designs. A great game that I still can’t bring myself to revisit as it’s flaws have left a mark.
A title that should really be played by everyone is BioShock. The spiritual successor to System Shock, set in 1960’s you are a survivor of an airplane crash. I’ll never forget the first time I played this game. Bobbing in the ocean, a plane on fire all around the main character and I thought ‘imagine how cool this would be if this wasn’t rendered but actual in game graphics’. I then moved the thumb stick and realised it was real-time – what an introduction. I can’t think of another game that has had that impact on me. The graphics are very stylised, inspired by the 60’s and Art Deco. It certainly has a look all of it’s own. The look is amplified by the audio. In fact the audio is the most memorable of the year. It really does set the scene and sucks you in to an alternate reality. The tracks from the 50’s and 60’s, the noises in the background, the enemies screaming and the little sisters all sound great. Keeps you on edge.
Gameplay is deep, involving but I found it to be slightly repetitive. However you will never forget your first proper encounter with a Big Daddy or the moral choice of what to do with a Little Sister once the Daddy is defeated. A sequel (or prequel) is almost guaranteed.
Fifa 08 is a great football game and beats PES 2008. Better graphics and an amazing online experience compared to PES. I never thought I would recommend Fifa over PES but it is the better game this year. Warhawk on the PS3 is a great online only game. Primarily you are flying but you can also fight on foot and ground vehicles. Graphics are good but 32 player online support on consoles is a welcome change to the usual fare on Xbox Live. GRAW2 lived up to expectations and along with some great downloadable extra’s proved very popular throughout the year. Final mention to Peggle. Simple, addictive…just one more game please.
I’m also sure if I had a Wii that I would be raving about Mario Galaxy here but alas, I don’t have one….yet. Gives me something to rave about in next years review.