If you were to believe the hype, the PlayStation 3 version of The Orange Box is an unplayable mess. The man would have you believe that the game (which ran so smoothly on capable PCs and the Xbox 360) suffers from game-breaking frame-rates issues, resulting in what 1UP called a "slideshow." We ran the story, and the responses ranged from Xbox 360 owners laughing, to Sony fans cursing Electronic Arts for not being able to deliver a competent port.
So when EA rang my phone and wanted to get a final copy of the game out to me, I was a bit skeptical. Having played much of The Orange Box on the Xbox 360, the last thing I really wanted to do was spend time playing a "broken" version of the game. I was assured by EA that really, it's not that bad. I had to see for myself.
When the game arrived, I tore it open. I was convinced that after ten minutes of play, the game's flaws would be as obvious as had been reported; this would be the easiest assignment of my life. But six or so hours of playing Portal, Half Life 2, and Half Life 2: Episode Two, I have one question: What's everyone bitching about?
Now before I go any further, I have to admit something -- if I were playing a game and the framerate dropped from 30 FPS to 29 FPS, I probably wouldn't notice. The Internet, it's equipped with some high-tech, top-secret military-grade cybernetic eyes; slight dips in framerates calls for 47 page threads on message boards, and our tips inbox being flooded with comparison videos. Really, I just don't get it. It should also be noted that I played through Half Life 2 and Half Life 2: Episode One on a sub-par PC, one that had me sitting through load times of up to a minute, and framerate issues when I fired a pistol. But I'm not blind, just forgiving, and if the issue isn't seriously hindering my fun, then there's no need to release the hounds.
After spending three minutes installing 400+ megs of initial game data on to my PS3 hard drive, I was ready to see what all of the fuss was about. I fired up Portal first, because my memories of the game still warm my cold heart. Visually, the first thing I noticed were the colors and the textures. While by no means ugly, they didn't quite "pop" as much as they did on the Xbox 360; everything seemed a bit muted. This is an odd thing to say, especially considering that most of the Aperture Science Centers walls are a clinical white, but it was definitely noticeable.
I hopped about a bit, strafing and spinning around, trying to get the game to chug. I couldn't. It did appear that there were slight dips in framerate when making quick motions from left to the right (or when spinning around), but had I not been looking for them, they'd hardly be noticeable. Up through level seven -- I mean, uh, test chamber seven -- I didn't experience any noticeable issues with framerate or anything else that would hinder playability. In fact, Portal is just as an amazing and innovative an experience on the PS3 as it is on the Xbox 360 or the PC.
But Portal, as it was pointed out to me, was not the main culprit. Portions of Half Life 2: Episode 2, according to 1UP's preview, were a disaster. The PS3 port had "technical flaws, which at best merely hinder gameplay and at worst make the experience downright unplayable." Well, that sounded like fun, and I couldn't wait.
The good news: At no point did I run into anything that made the game unplayable. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to pinpoint a time where gameplay was hindered. [Editor's note: The next few sentences may contain spoilers, so brace yourself or skip the rest of this paragraph.] In "Chapter 2, This Vortal Coil," an intense sequence that has you fighting off an attack by a colony of ant lions from all angles, there are noticeable framerate problems. As the action heats up, there is a slight lag in the action; but did this make the "experience downright unplayable"? Most definitely not. Even the driving sequences in "Chapter 4, Riding Shotgun," which were supposed to be a slideshow nightmare, weren't an issue. Do I think that the vehicle controls are broken and ridiculous? Of course. But this was an issue with the Xbox 360 and PC version as well -- you essentially control the vehicle with first-person shooter controllers, instead of giving you a gas pedal and a break ... which would just make too much sense, apparently.
One thing I have to mention are the load times. Despite dumping 400 some-odd megs onto my hard drive, some of the load times still seemed brutal. While I don't mind waiting 15-30 seconds for the game to first load up (or even between sequences, as Half Life tends to annoyingly do), having to wait that same 15-30 seconds just to respawn or load your last check point bordered on unbearable.
I guess the bottom line here is this: If you own an Xbox 360 or a PC that can run it smoothly, you're probably better off picking up The Orange Box somewhere other than the PS3. The game does look slightly better on the 360, and I can't recall any noticeable framerate issues while playing through that version. Plus, achievements are always nice, if you intend to work for them. But for those who only own a PS3 and are concerned by reports of a lousy port, don't sweat it. The Orange Box is still one of the best values in gaming, and that isn't changed by the slight technical issues I ran into on the PS3 (negligible framerate problems; Alyx Vance disappeared and then re-appeared on me once).
Should PS3 owners be miffed that they're getting the "worst" version of The Orange Box? I guess they have reason to -- given the presumed power beneath the hood of Sony's console, there's no good reason why PS3 owners should suffer "sub-standard ports." But seeing as how The Orange Box doesn't really appear to fall into that category, there's no reason why they shouldn't be excited about the game's December 11 release.
[Editor's note: I did not have a chance to spend any time with Team Fortress, beyond my starting up an empty room and running around. I'll be spending some time playing on an EA-hosted server next Monday, and if there's anything significant to report, you'll be hearing from me then.]