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Half-Life franchise, Steam still going strong

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on November 30, 2007
(Issue 2548, Micro Mini)

They might not make headlines the way they did a few years ago, but the folks at Valve Software are still among the leaders in both delivering games digitally and in making quality online games.

If you've not seen the advertisements for "The Orange Box," you don't spend much time online. Valve's all-in-one package of "Half-Life 2," Episodes One and the just-released Two for HL2, "Team Fortress 2" and "Portal," "The Orange Box" also represents a return to retail for Valve, which is selling a boxed version in bricks-and-mortar outlets as well as the digital version via its online Steam utility.

It's an odd package in that if you already have HL2 and Episode 1, and want only Episode 2 and TF2, you end up paying more to buy just those two packages online than someone buying the Orange Box. Go figure - you'd think Valve would offer a better price break for its longtime customers.

Still, the games themselves are impressive and fun.

Episode 2

Episode 2 of HL2 picks up where Episode 1 left off, as Gordon Freeman and Alyx flee the city for the supposed safety of the mountains. Nothing goes according to plan, of course, and there are tons of puzzles to solve and bad guys to shoot. The level design is of the same high level we've come to expect from Valve since the original "Half-Life" shipped way back when.

And at just $29.95 for the download, it's a bargain in gaming with hours of solid gameplay.

Team Fortress 2

TF2, on the other hand, is a radical departure from its lineage, based as it is on the same model of multiplayer team combat as the original Team Fortress from 1996. While the original TF was built around the "Quake" engine and used realistic weapons and character models (both along contemporary military lines), TF2 is campy in appearance despite being based on Valve's state-of-the-art Source engine. But if being in TF2 is akin to finding yourself in a Hanna Barbara cartoon, the game play remains intense and team-based.

As with the original, the heart of TF2 is its class-based system of choosing your character's skills and weaponry. It's your traditional selection - soldier, engineer, medic, etc. – and the weapons are all pretty standard as well: pistols, rifles, flame-throwers, rpg, etc.

The level designs are fun and imaginative, with creatively chosen chokepoints that lead to some intense combat sequences.

TF2 is a system hog compared to the original, though, even with its cartoonish, basic color schemes. While the still-supported "Team Fortress Classic" (running on the original Half-Life engine) runs like a champ on my P4, TF2 isn't going to run smoothly until I add some more RAM – and that's with all the video settings scaled back.

There are a few shortcomings in the game. The logo importing utility for your spraypaint image doesn't seem to work – refusing to import even images that work just fine in HL2: Deathmatch.

And your on-screen name in TF2 is whatever your Valve online account name is. If I'd realized that, I'd have chosen something a heck of a lot cooler than "jimtrageser." Dork.

But the gameplay is addictive, the class system and maps well-balanced.

There are tons of servers up (although there are still quite a few busy servers running the original Team Fortress Classic as well), and this is one of the, if not the, most popular online team-based shooters going now. There are certainly far more servers and players when I'm online for TF2 than there are for "Counter-Strike" or "Counter-Strike: Source."

Other games on Steam

In addition to Valve's own games, there are all kinds of other PC games available for download. From "Medal of Honor 4" to the latest "Company of Heroes" release, you can buy dozens of the latest games and download them immediately.

And older games are increasingly being repackaged. Valve competitor id is now selling an "id Superpack" for $70 that includes every id game ever made: Doom, Quake, QII and QIII, plus "Wolfenstein 3-D" and even "Commander Keen." And while you may have the original discs for those games, will they run on your current PC? I can't even get Quake II to run on my P4 – not off my original CD-ROM.

I may well buy the "Quake Collection" for $30 just to be able to play Quake II again.