The Orange Box REVIEWED!

Halo 3? Pfffff. It's second best now.

What happens if you give Halo 3 a whopping 95, and just one month later something else comes along that's in every way its equal, except this one comes with four other brilliant games, all for the same price as the game you reviewed thirty days earlier? The strongest gaming year ever, and we're in danger of scoring ourselves into a corner - but we'll risk it for five of the best games ever made, all on one disc. Read on to get the full story...

Two decades after vanishing from the face of the Earth, Gordon Freeman returns to find a world in ruins. A childless humanity brought to its knees by unstoppable Combine forces; a war waged in seven hours, crushes all of our armies. No force on Earth could save us. Until now.

Half Life 2 is a game of perfect moments. It's testament to just how good a game it is that those stand out moments vary so greatly from gamer to gamer. There's the vertigo-inducing trip across the underside of a bridge, the journey through the nightmare zombieland of Ravenholm, the ride along the canals of City 17 and the first battle against the Striders. Here at Xbox World, we can't agree on a definitive 'best bit', only that it's a game so full of great moments that to pick any one is to do the game a disservice.

The action unfolds around a story told by the world. Roads barricaded years earlier in an attempt to halt the invaders; buildings commandeered by the Combine for their own purposes; fusions of human architecture and alien metals. It's a world you recognise, corrupted by a force so malevolent and cruel, you want to fight back without ever needing to be told to do so - and when humanity finally rises up to fight alongside you, you know it's a rebellion years in the making.

Simply, just about the best adventure you'll ever have.

Picking up where Half-Life 2 wraps up, Episode 1 shakes up the formula. Where solitude and the relief of finding sanctuary with friendly characters was key to Half-Life 2, so companionship is the key to Ep1. Alyx is almost always at your side, and definitely remains one of the most likeable characters in videogaming - sympathetic, both weak and strong in her own way, and always impressively, especially human.

Since the first hour of the game is spent without any weapons available save for the Gravity Gun, you'll come to depend on Alyx to protect you. In the pitch black zombie-infested tunnels beneath City 17, you're both equally handicapped - Gordon without a gun and Alyx without a light. You'll work together, Gordon guiding Alyx and Alyx standing and fighting where you can't.

As a tighter and shorter experience than Half-Life 2, Episode 1 condenses a succession of spectacular moments into a very brief game - its short five hours will see you enter City 17's tower core, fight zombies deep underground, battle through packed streets under Alyx's protection, take on a Gunship in a building that disintegrates under its fire and a lot more.

Like Half-Life 2, every section is distinct and yet somehow it all flows together beautifully. You're never left wondering when a crap bit will finish so you can get back to having fun. Not a minute is wasted on trivia, and not once does the game slump.

alf-Life has always been a great adventure, but it's not until Episode 2 that it finally becomes a great shooter. It's not as if the formula changes much - in fact whole chunks of Ep2 almost feel like remakes of HL2 - but the pace, scale and spectacle are turned up higher than ever before. The moments of drama are punctuated by fewer moments of calm and those never last long.

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