Happy Orange Day!

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tf2.pngI don't know exactly why I'm so excited about the launch of Valve's Orange Box today, since I have no personal investment in the Half Life series and I won't even get to play the thing until later this month, when I trade the PS2 I've been using back for my 360. But I've been looking forward to Portal since, well, since the first time I heard about it. Which is a little ridiculous because, as much as I love to have a game take advantage of the ethereal nature of virtual worlds to screw with the laws of physics, there's good chance I'm not going to love the game itself. I'm trying to steel myself for a hardcore approach to spacial puzzles (read: platformer) with a killer difficulty curve. Even so, I can't help get excited about it.

But the point is, I've started to get excited about the other games included in this package. I'll finally get my chance to play Half Life 2, for one thing, which is supposed to have been the "Thinking Man's FPS" before Bioshock stole the title away. Episodes One and Two represent a step forward for episodic gaming, a cause to which I have been whole-heartedly converted. I love the style and aesthetic of Team Fortress 2, and by all accounts it's well balanced and a great deal of fun. And, quite frankly, whatever you think of these individual games, you have to admire the whole shebang. The contents display enough variety to appeal to a pretty decent range of tastes, and give everyone a chance to explore something they might not otherwise try.

Maybe more than anything else, this spoiler-free review of Episode Two by John Walker over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun has got me itching to find out what I've been missing all these years. Whether or not you're a Half-Life fan, I'd recommend you check out the article, which heaps all sorts of eloquent praise on the game. John was impressed by its style and polish, among other things. "Better than any FPS before, Episode Two disguises its linearity not by presenting you with false choices, but by making the only path on offer the only path you’d ever want to take. Go back and you’ll realise there is only ever one route. But you still picked it." I'm always impressed by this sort of attention to level design, which is perhaps the keystone to creating an effective narrative experience in a linear game. By definition, linearity limits a player's ability to make choices, which can severely decrease the player's sense of agency. Designing a linear game that doesn't feel linear is an impressive feat, and it allows the game effective use of the entire range of agency-based emotions, from pride to helplessness to regret.

By any measure, it seems the Orange Box is scoring high marks. To make your Orange Day celebrations complete, I'd also like to point out the first Team Fortress 2 machinima that hit yesterday, also brought to you by Rock, Paper, Shotgun. General agreement seems to be that it runs long, but it's elegant and touching and occasionally pretty funny. I have a soft spot in my heart for machinima, probably because I desperately want it to be possible to put together a great film without a huge art budget, and possibly because I love to see what creative people can do with constraints. (My abiding affection for the Red vs. Blue series probably falls in there somewhere, too.) Certainly, TF2 seemed to treat this film well. I haven't played the game, so I don't know how the camera works, but I was personally pretty impressed by some of the cinematography that they pulled off.

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