Oct 162008

The Orange Box: Day 1.

Well at the insistent urging of my colleague, friend & co-blogger lordnaff I eventually found a copy cheap enough to get.

So to tie in with my ideas on time-based reviews and things that could be added to XBox Live, here’s how I got on with Orange Box after my first forays at it (3 Achievements!) for a few hours last night. Warning, this is going to be unavoidably negative in places, much moreso than I would normally ever blog. However I was planning a post regarding my problems with the FPS genre as a whole, but instead I’ve also included a lot of those points here. So if you’re a big close-minded fan of FPS’s.. please look away now! 😉

As a multiplayer-competition loving goon, the first game on “the Box” I decided to try, naturally, was Team Fortress 2. I already knew it was a pure MP thing, but I hoping for some kind of practice mode. Bots or something maybe? Umm.. nope. Nothing. So instead I booted a LAN game solo and after waiting for a 15 second countdown, to check I was really sure I was ready with myself, it did actually allow me to run around the map on my own, read the character classes and get a few basic tips & figure out the controls before without having to go in totally cold to a multiplayer game. It’s cool that there was some way to do this, but why hide it? Then I ended the game and got a congratulatory message for the longest time alive with the Medic or something. 15 minutes. Oh great, so my attempts at practice have ruined that part of my ‘high score’ stats now too. What a poor interface: This isn’t starting out well for TF2.

Anyway, I have the raw basics of the game down at least, although reloading on the B-button is proving to be an absolute nightmare for those used to Gears and Halo like me. Why on earth would you change that? But it’s time to leap into a Player Match on the same map I’d just ran around. Oddly.. there doesn’t seem to be any lobby, I am dropped straight into a game in progress. It seems to be a 3 v 3 game.

“Hello” I call over mic, to silence. “Anyone there?… Can you hear me?”. I run around for a good few minutes without seeing a single person. I hear intercom messages about ‘the intelligence’ being taken and stuff, so I know others must be there somewhere, but that’s all I get. Eventually I find someone on my team and get near to them and again call out; again with silence as the response. I was wondering if they could only hear me in close character proximity in-game. But it seemed to make no difference. I decide to follow my ‘teammate’ and sure enough I eventually find someone to shoot. A very brief firefight ensued and the usual spazzing about ‘figure-of-8 dancing’ that is all so common in the generally laughably-unrealistic FPS genre occured. I am pretty sure I got killed by a smack to the back of my head or something, although it was hard to tell, as I wasn’t left with any nice view of how I died or anything. The characters seemed to move way too fast to me, really hurting any attempt at tactical combat, not to mention how few hits seem to kill. The movements & attacks felt really jerky and non-fluid. It all seemed to heighten the sheer spazziness of it. As I’ve often felt with FPS games, it did accurately portray a gunfight between two people who had stuck traffic cones over their heads.

Eventually the opposing team ‘won’ the match and I noticed people seemed to be joining and leaving during the game too. But instead of a win/loss screen – it just seemed to restart immediately on another match with the same teams. I was getting bored with no-one to ask advice or anything, and then suddenly it popped up with “The Host has left”.

Maybe it was just a bad group? So the next match I enter the same map but this time one already full with 15 players, as I noticed it had felt extremely empty on that map. “Hello” I said once again as I was dropped instantly into a mid-game. Thankfully this time, someone answers. So it turns out you can actually hear everyone else on the same team. I explain I’m totally new to this and wanting some advice, and the young fella seems happy to help out – also, I notice no-one else seems to be really working as a team much at all. There’s no other communication going on so it doesn’t really matter that we’re talking about what the character classes and weapons over the game’s team channel. I try out a bunch of different classes but I couldn’t seem to get anywhere really with anyone other than the rocket-launcher Soldier who I am getting quite a few kills with at least.

Neither team seems to be be able to make any headway at all at actually gaining the objective. 8 v 8 seemed that it was impossible for either side to crack their defenses. Wandering into the enemy ‘base’ alone I could find no safe way in at all, and even following others in didn’t seem to help. I eventually ended up in a one to one chat with my helpful teammate because the game actually blocks the chat while one or other of us are respawning – but with no indication of this fact, I wasn’t aware I was in fact talking to myself half the time. Another gawp-inducingly moronic hole in the interface then. With the score on 0-0 for ages, the game eventually initiates “Sudden Death” mode which my teammate explains. A couple of minutes into this, without seeing any enemy… “The Host has left”. Oh dear. Well… I’m not really having much fun at this, so despite the fact I am really grateful to my teammate for chatting with me, I decide to go and try something else.

Overall, I can’t see why anyone would play this over Halo 3 at this point. The class selection is a very nice idea and it’s much better than running about the map to learn weapon spawn points. If I want a rocket launcher, I can play with one. That is great.

However for absolutely everything else Halo dumps on it from a stratospheric height. I am also pretty sure there is no party-play & a lack of good matchmaking… However I understand that some features may be a lot better in ranked matches, so I’ll certainly give it another try later. But when you’re looking at a bad interface, worse graphics, worse controls, and seemingly to me at this point far worse gameplay than the most obvious competitor that springs to mind… I’m left wondering why? Even the potential for the vaunted class-based teamwork seems much lower than in Halo without party play & with the flaws with the in-game communication.

So, time to try something else. Let’s start at the beginning with Half-Life 2 then I thought.


First impression – well the graphics don’t exactly seem cutting edge but, well, this started out really interesting. I was really impressed by the voicing and I at least seem to quickly grasp some sense of what was going on with the controls etc. The storyline seemed to be really interesting. Who were these overseer-type class? Who was that white-haired man talking over the viewscreens all the time with the really Equillibrium/1984 style stuff… I felt the urge to want to agree with them and assume they really were beneficial just to see how it played out. I wonder how things would get revealed…  but then BAM. It was ruined. My heart sunk – you were already supposed to know that actually, the new ‘ruling class’ people are actually aliens now controlling the earth and they most definitely are the bad guys ™ and you should shoot them in the face immediately all without any qualms at all. No grey areas allowed sir! (but it goes so well with orange).

My interest in the story was almost immediately lessened to the mere curiosity that I get with 99% of videogame storylines.

Even worse, you were clearly supposed to know half the characters already. That’s to be expected I suppose for a sequal.. but it’s not much fun for anyone when you haven’t even brought the game out on the same console. At the very least I expected some kind of storyline prelude summary in the manual. Nope, nothing. Apart from a vague explanation that it was somehow my characters fault that unleashed a lot of this bad stuff ™.

Also.. as good as the speech was, because it was fading in & out as I approached people, and because of the loud voice over the top from the white-haired dude, I kept feeling I was missing things. I restarted a section with the subtitles on, and sure enough, there had been masses of speech I hadn’t heard, that made things a lot more playable and understandable.

Anyway, I got through the first few introductory sections still rather interested, if feeling really let down by the fact the big story ‘reveal’ had already prematurely spilt itself everywhere before the game had even begun. Then finally we get to the more ‘action’ section of the game proper, and finally a I get a pipe! Aaah. This is about the only thing fun I can remember from my brief plays on the PC Half-Life – playing MP matches purely to smack some sniper-rifling camping idiot in the face with a lead pipe.

But I notice the control still feels rather clunky though. Smacking down some crates with the pipe to get through a gap or picking up and dropping things and manouvring objects is a nice feature, but for me it just highlights how bad the first person viewpoint is for this kind of thing. Unlike in third person, sideways-on.. or even you, know, real life, it’s really hard to judge where objects are in relation to everything else around you when you are blessed with a Dalek-like “10 degree view” of the world. Perhaps it should be called 10% Life rather than Half-Life?

I can still see way more from behind a Dalek than in any FPS game

I can still see way more from behind a Dalek than in any FPS game

As I got a gun and firefights ensued, it just got even worse. It made me realise how important a feature the ‘scanner’ in an FPS (like Halo has) is for adding any kind of realistic awareness of your surroundings. The “hit direction” indicators in Half Life 2 just didn’t seem to work properly at all either. I repeatedly got killed wondering “what the ****” was killing me. The worst case was when I was wandering along and suddenly couldn’t move, and my health dropped to zero. What on earth? On a later repetition I discover I’d been grabbed by some overhead egg-type alien thing. Fair enough, but why not pan the camera up automatically to, you know, let the player have some clue that his face is eaten off? Or better still.. here’s a crazy idea. How about making this game in something other than a first-person view in the first place?

I’m getting shot again and wondering where from.. so I try to backtrack into the cave-like area I’d just poked my head out from, but no.. I just stand still and die. Obviously this was because there was a tiny step on the ground that my character couldn’t backstep up over and, naturally, he had absolutely no awareness of it’s presence. Silly Gordan Freeman-Face! Another time it would seem my elbow got caught against a door corner in exactly the same fashion as I stood there getting shot. A problem I’m sure we’ve all faced in real life.. I’ve seen so many people stuck by their elbows in doorways when they don’t think to even move their arm, or maybe, you know, look out around the door frame rather than being forced to walk through it to get any view of what’s the other side. But of course.. you’d have to make something like Gears of War for that to work in a video game.

I also notice I’m repeatedly running through reasonably sized areas, but with really no clue as to where I’m supposed to be going. All the while being shot at. Again, it makes me realise how much better games have become these days to attempt to overcome these shortcomings of the FPS genre with objective and direction markers and map overlays for example. I got lost numerous times and died a few times before I found the ladder I hadn’t seen, or went in the right direction, or found the barrel I had to smash or explode.

All these things then seemed to combine on one particularly nasty section. I’d narrowly escaped some exploding barrels, and scraped through running down inside some pipes. I then walked out and got slaughtered by overhead gunmen. Ah, I forgot to mention until now that all enemies in this game seem psychically linked to your precise location at all times – the moment you step out of anywhere, or look through a hole in a wall, you will be shot. Even helicopters wheeling through city streets overhead are able to track you to almost sniper-like accuracy. I suppose it’s good practice for multiplayer. Anyway, I respawned and stepped out again, having learnt where the enemies where. I shot the first 2.. then more poured out and I died again. Respawn again.. and I notice each time I am starting this section with only 30% health. And I had no option to not save, no option to backtrack to find more health.

Not since I almost smashed the disk of Final Fantasy Tactics on the Playstation 1 have I seen such a game with such an atrocious save game interface that seems purely designed to screw over the player & perhaps artificially ramp up the challenge. It’s worse knowing that in all likelihood on the PC it had no checkpoints and the player could likely save anywhere and as often as they liked, and could manually backtrack to any previous saves they wanted. That kind of system also ruins games in it’s own way, but it wasn’t anything like this. Checkpoints are a great idea, but this was just so poorly designed as to be even worse than the save-anywhere method. I still eventually got through this section, but it left a really bitter taste in the mouth and resentment in my head.

Unfortunately the game seems all about repeatedly doing the same section over and over until you learn where the enemies are, where you are supposed to be going, where the ammo is. I don’t really feel much fun or progression from doing this. This is a definitive hallmark of all those bad PC games I’ve left behind. I’d heard Half-Life was meant to be immersive? Well it’s impossible to be immersed when you are dying over and over again and having to ‘learn’ sections of the game. Even good set pieces that should feel cinematic don’t really work when you see them over and over. I daren’t even compare it to something like Halo or Gears of War, as Half-Life 2 is so hopelessly outclassed on this front by games like these that it doesn’t even seem like a fair comparison.

I guess I was expecting too much. Worst of all, I was simply getting rather bored playing it. So bored in fact, I was periodically pausing the game and chatting & browsing on a PC while ‘getting through it’. This really isn’t a good sign when I’m only just starting a new game.

Oh and don’t even get me started on the torch! *mad glare*

The only point (past the very first level) where the game really entertained me was with the Achievements. The first one I got in the game was possibly the funniest and most accurate achievement for me personally I’ll ever receive, and when I was getting a bit frustrated with the game and it gave me “Malcontent” achievement, I did think this was a genius of programming to have read my mind like that. 😉

Anyway, despite all this negativity, it’s still a game I feel I can still play more of. It’s reputation alone means it deserves more of my time. Who knows, in a few weeks or months I could completely change my opinion. But for now, I give this game my highest ever rating: One Turd

  2 Responses to “Orange.. Wednesday?”

  1. Let’s be serious, dude. You just hate FPS games. Obviously you are not a lover of em if you’re just gonna complain and whine over “I can’t see what’s hitting me.” Perhaps we haven’t grasped the fact that an FPS isn’t about “let’s sit here and try to figure this out” or “Oh gosh, no one’s talking. WTF.”

    Let me put it to you this way. If you were a TRUE hard-core gamer, you’d understand the appeal of HL2, TF2, and Portal. In reality, you’re arguing about the BASIC MECHANICS of an FPS. You aren’t supposed to have a guy yelling “HEY! YOU’RE BEING SHOT AT!” every time you get hit. Nor are you supposed to hear every voice like it’s living in your ear when the conversation is 50 meters away. You just don’t understand the concept of a good game, obviously, if you can’t even get into the story of a game like Portal. Honestly, you sound like a 7-year-old whining about how Han Solo should have been a Jedi or something.

    Three simple words: get over it. FPS rules the market, hands down, ‘nough said. Valve Studios is one of the main reasonings in this, and has created not only some of the best games in the market, but also the greatest modding tools and most certainly the most popular game in the world (Counter-strike, 18 million and counting). Go review another genre, cause you obviously don’t appreciate this one.

  2. I ‘just hate’ FPS games? Strangely you’ll find I often praise the Halo series (even in this same article) and Left 4 Dead and other similar games like Gears of War. But yep, I do find everything in The Orange Box to be at best distinctly average and far from a classic. It seems hugely overrated to me and I believe the favourable views on it seem to be mainly based on it’s novelty-at-the-time, & value for money, and the PC-only features of TF2, that are not available on consoles – these things do not a ‘classic’ make in my mind.
    However you should read the later articles in this series though to see how my views have changed somewhat:

    BTW this is not intended to be a review of any kind, but a ‘day 1 new player’s experience log’.

    You also need to up your reading comprehension skills as you seem to have missed some other very basic points (like proximity sound)… but as you’ve missed the key point this isn’t a review, I’m not sure this is worth responding, but hey-ho! If once you’ve read more you’d like a sensible debate on things, then that would be great. But if you’re a close-minded FPS fan that you appear to be.. as the article warned you – look away now.

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