T he year 2007 marked the 15th anniversary of Wolfenstein 3D, the PC game that originally popularized the notion of the first-person shooter. Over a span of time that long, it's typical to see a new genre innovate, mature, stagnate, and eventually fall to the wayside, but Bellevue, Washington-based Valve—headed by former Microsoft employee and digital auteur Gabe Newell—has made every effort to keep that complacency from settling into a genre readily prone to it. Valve released the Orange Box earlier this fall, and it's one of the most exhaustive collections of superior gaming ever assembled. For the same price you'd shell out for any other game, you get 2005's classic dystopian sci-fi epic Half-Life 2, its two episodic semi-sequels (including this year's Episode 2), the online fracas Team Fortress 2, and the dimension-bending puzzle-shooter Portal.
All of these series expand on what it means to create a video game's world. Each installation in the Half-Life 2 pantheon turns the trials and tribulations of theoretical physicist-turned-resistance fighter Gordon Freeman into classic sci-fi adventure-pulp worthy of H.G. Wells. Team Fortress 2 not only refines squad-based capture-the-flag combat into a role-specific team sport where every type of combatant has a radically different role, but does it in a Pixar-esque art style that helps elevate it into a brightly colored world of explosion-heavy slapstick.
Portal is the most revolutionary game released all year. As a human lab rat entrusted to test Aperture Science's handheld portal device, you shoot a gun that places gateways on the flat surfaces of a room, thereby allowing you to undergo all sorts of strange spatial shortcuts that let you bypass hazards, divert projectiles, and fling yourself at ridiculous rates of speed for several yards, all while being taunted and cajoled by a hilarious, passive-aggressive AI. Video games may never be able to shake their stigma as time-wasters, but Valve makes sure they don't have to be a waste of brain cells.