When the makers of Half-Life 2 began their "episodic" approach to games, they weren't talking about episodes you and I see on TV. On Valve Software's planet, people wait two years between episodes of their favorite series—and pay $20 a pop. Or so last year's Half-Life 2: Episode One would've had you believe. Back on earth, though, fans weren't hot on the brief episode, so the Bellevue studio has responded with The Orange Box, a five-game bundle that turns last year's rip-off into this year's ridiculous bargain.
Half-Life 2's story continues with Episode Two, the latest six-hour semigame centered on scientist Gordon Freeman. After watching a convenient "previously on Half-Life" video—that's episodic, right?—players resume escaping an alien stronghold. The series' level of immersion remains incredibly high, but years after HL2's reign, the competition has caught up. Episode Two is among the smarter PC action games this year, loaded with well-acted characters and plenty to do, but it still looks and plays like the 2004 original.
The rest of The Orange Box picks up the slack, and Portal is the package's surprise hit. In this first-person puzzler, you're trapped in a lab with one tool: a gun that creates doors. For example, if you can't jump across a chasm, create an entrance portal on one side, then aim to make an exit portal on the opposite wall. Walk through and whammo—you've warped. Door-creating puzzles quickly amp up in difficulty, and making sense of momentum, physics, and mirror tricks with the gun will have you smiling too much to mind the brain-busting levels. Even better, the game's robotic narrator borrows heavily from the nerdy snark of series like Futurama, and the resulting humor is among the most refreshing I've encountered in a game. This genre-buster's only fault, sadly, is its four-hour length.
Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode One are also included as a bonus—and if you've already bought 'em, you can send the extra passes to a friend, no charge. Eat that, stingy RIAA. But wait—there's more! After hours of solo pleasure, get your group on with Team Fortress 2, a squad-based shooter that finally injects personality and accessibility into the tired team-battle genre. Pick from nine classes—the costume-wearing spy, the flame-throwin' pyro, or even the healing-gun medic—to wage online war in a stylized, propaganda-cartoon world.
Episodic gaming? Pssh. Long live the quintuple feature.