Halo 3.Assassin's Creed. Long is the list of pretenders this holiday season, games that will no doubt sell in the millions but which all fall short in one way or the other, disappointing all but the least demanding gamers. But if you're looking for that one special title, that one game that rises above the pack and delivers again and again on that indescribable something, well, I've got the game for you. And the best part of this deal is that you're really getting five games in one.

It's called The Orange Box, and while developer Valve gets a virtual wedgie for worst name of all time, in this case we'll overlook the silly moniker and dive deeper into what's contained within. There are five games in all, including Half-Life 2--that's the single best video game of all time, Mister--and its (of yet) two sequels, Half-Life 2 Episode One and Half-Life 2 Episode Two. (Yes, a planned Episode Three will supposedly wrap up the storyline sometime next year if we're lucky.) There's also Team Fortress 2, an innovative and imminently playable online-only multiplayer shooter, and Portal, a game that is so unique, so special, it would almost be worth the entry price all by itself.

All of these games are at least very good. But the sum here is greater than the individual pieces. That you get them all for the price of a single Xbox 360 game makes this the greatest bargain in recent video game history. It is also the single best game title of 2007. There's something here for almost everyone.

Let's take a look at the individual games.

Half-Life 2

When this game debuted on the PC way back in 2004 (see my review of the Xbox version), it was watershed milestone in gaming, a revelation that games could be every bit as immersive and believable as the best movies or books. As the name suggests, Half-Life 2 is a sequel, in this case to a 1998 game that was, too, quite impressive in its day. But Half-Life 2 really raised the bar, and if you think patently silly plot devices like the liberally-scattered tape recorders in Bioshock actually make sense, then Half-Life 2 still has some lessons to teach to gamers and game makers alike. To this day, Half-Life 2 has yet to be topped.

There's almost no point in describing this game any further. You can go back to my Xbox review of the game or, better yet, just jump right into this amazing dystopian future adventure yarn. Best. Game. Ever.

Half-Life 2: Episode One

Having played through the Half-Life 2 single player campaign at least three times--yes, it's that good--I was excited to discover a few years back that Valve planned to follow up the title with a series of episodic games that would pick up where Half-Life 2 ended and continue from there. The first of these, the oddly and unimaginatively-titled Half-Life 2: Episode One, debuted for the PC only in mid-2006. Its release on the 360 as part of The Orange Box represents the first time this game has shipped on a console.

As a direct sequel, Episode One literally picks up as the original Half-Life 2 ends. It features the same characters and basic settings, and involves the protagonist Gordon Freeman and his attempt to escape from City 17 in the wake of the catastrophic destruction that, well, he caused in HL-2.

If there's any criticism to this game, it's that we've seen it all before. If you're familiar with the original Half-Life 2, there are no real surprises in Episode One. On the console, this will only be a problem for those who play Episode One right after Half-Life 2: It's a bit much all at once. But anyone who played Half-Life 2 previously will and should look forward to continuing the story in Episode One. Yeah, it's more of the same, but that sameness is just so good.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two

Those who waited for what seemed like an endless time for Episode Two will only be partially mollified by Episode Two. Like its predecessor, Episode Two is again a direct continuation of the Half-Life 2 story, and again the action takes up exactly where its predecessor ended. And yes, Episode Two is a stronger entry than Episode One: It's got some interesting new characters and enemies, and there's more of the Half-Life 2 variety to keep things interesting. But it's no longer than Episode One, despite the much longer development time, rankling those of us who waited a long year and a half for what is essentially an expansion pack.

But what the heck. Gordan and Alyx are back and working better than ever as a team. This is the Half-Life 2 I remember fondly from a few years ago: Lots of variety and an amazing story. I just hope Episode Three doesn't take so long.

The other thing that's cute is that there are a few references to Portal in Episode Two, just as there are references to the Half-Life 2 universe in Portal. It's totally unnecessary but it adds an element of cohesive fun to the whole thing.

Portal

This is the big, happy surprise in the box. While the Half-Life 2 games and Team Fortress 2 were mostly known quantities before The Orange Box shipped, Portal is both completely unlike any of the other games and the least well-understood. It is also the best new game in The Orange Box, a bizarre and funny puzzle title that will exercise your brain more than your reflexes.

In Portal, you play an unknown female protagonist (that some have noted looks much like the Alyx Vance character from Half-Life 2) who is participating in strange scientific experiments for Apeture Laboratories (a competitor of Black Mesa in the Half-Life universe). You're given a portal gun that can shoot one or two teleportation portals in certain kinds of walls, ceilings, and floors, and led through a series of 19 increasingly difficult puzzles.

Along the way, you're both prodded and berated by a computerized female voice whose messages are often hilarious and beguiling. Some of the in-game elements, especially the turrets found in later levels, are also particularly funny. And without ruining the ending, let's just say that Aperture's plans for you aren't as wholesome as originally promised.

Portal offers stunning and intelligent game play, great humor, and intriguing links to Half-Life 2. My only complaint is that it's too short, and that the final extra-long level bears almost no relation to the rest of the game. But I was hooked, immediately, and finished playing in just two marathon game sessions. Portal is amazing.

Team Fortress 2

While the original Team Fortress started out as a mod (or modification) of the original Half-Life, Team Fortress 2 is quite a bit more refined and bears little resemblance to other games. It is, however, like its predecessor in that it's probably the best team-based multiplayer game of its generation, offering a stunning number of character classes, each with unique and valuable powers, and a decent, if overly-similar number of levels.

What's really interesting about TF2 to me is that the cartoon-like graphical treatment adds to, rather than detracts from, the experience. Many online games ramp down the graphics to keep frame rates high, but this is often done poorly, where the multiplayer component of a game looks horrible next to the single player version. But with TF2, there is no single player version, and rather than make a mediocre-looking Half-Life 2 rip-off, Valve instead went in a completely different direction. And it just works, like a bizarre and violent Warner Bros. cartoon.

Game play is outright fun as well. My favorite character class, the Spy, can disguise himself to look like the enemy, giving him two grin-inducing advantages: He can sneak up behind unsuspecting enemies and stab them in the back, and he can fool opposing medics into curing his wounds. Good stuff.

Half-baked box?

Are there any problems with The Orange Box? Sure, a few, and none are major. Most egregiously, it's missing some of the better Half-Life 2-based games, including Half-Life 2 Deathmatch and Counter-Strike: Source, which are available separately for PC-based gamers only. I know, I know: Complaining that Valve didn't include enough games in The Orange Box is a bit much. But surely Half-Life 2 Deathmatch is thematically closer to Half-Life 2 than, say, Team Fortress 2.

Because there are five full games here, the Achievements get spread pretty thin. There are 99 in all, and most are only worth 5 or 10 points each, so you have to play a lot to rack up any serious points. It's possible to complete Portal with just 25 points. That's ridiculous, and it may turn off the point-crazy Xbox 360 gamerbase.

The only other slight complaint is that two of the biggest reasons to get The Orange Box--Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode One--were available previously on the PC. So there's a chance that many potential Orange Box buyers already purchased and played these games. There's no way to get Episode Two, Portal, or Team Fortress separately on the Xbox 360.

And that's about it from the nit-picking department. The Orange Box is darn-near perfect.

Final thoughts

I'm running out of ways to explain how much I love this game, so let me just leave it with this: If you own an Xbox 360, you need to run out and get The Orange Box as soon as possible. (Heck, if you own a PC or PS3, grab the appropriate version, as it's available for those systems as well.) Forget the pretenders clogging up store shelves this holiday season: Half-Life 2 is still the greatest video game ever made, and The Orange Box is absolutely the best Xbox 360 game of the year. Highly recommended.