Monday, May 16, 2011

Portal 2

            Portal was one of the best and most inventive games in a long while.  Appearing as the “third wheel” next to the long-awaited Half-Life 2 Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2 on the Orange Box, it quickly took off on its own thanks to smart puzzles, hilarious writing, and unique game mechanics.  Its two flaws, to me, were its fairly short length and the fact that most of that length is spent in a tutorial.  A well-written tutorial, definitely, but still a tutorial, with only the last bit of the game really showing all it could be.
            Portal 2 is all it could be.  It’s even funnier, has even better puzzles, great characters, it’s really got it all.  It gets into it faster, it has more of it, it’s loaded with secrets.  It just does everything great but better.
            The story of it is that an AI core called Wheatley (hilariously voiced by Stephen Merchant, Ricky Gervais’ partner in comedy) is trying to escape the Aperture Science facility which has been absolutely destroyed since the last game, and wakes up Chell, the hero from the first game.  I suppose it isn’t a spoiler (since it was revealed in the trailer) to say that he also wakes up Glados, who’s not too happy about being killed by Chell.  From there, it’s an attempt to shut down Glados again, preferably before you die.
            The writing and voice acting are just perfect here.  I don’t know how much was in the script and how much was Stephen Merchant going off on tangents, but it just works so well.  There are many times when you can either solve a ridiculously easy puzzle or listen to him talk, and the latter is always the better choice.  Most games try to push you forward all the time.  Here, it feels more like it wants you to wait and see what he’s going to say.  And Glados is great, too, insulting Chell with all the tact and wit of a 7th-grade girl.  Given that both of these characters are robots whose only facial characteristic is a single eye, and yet they have so much personality, really shows how important the writing is to this game.
            Right next to the puzzles, of course.  And they really make you think with these, mainly thanks to adding in a lot of new elements.  In addition to the portal gun, you’ve also got discouragement lasers, aerial faith plates, bounce gels, propulsion gels, and various other things.  It could’ve easily gotten overwhelming, but instead, it teaches you how to use each thing at a good pace and in conjunction with each other.  The puzzle difficulty is just right, hard enough to make you enter each room and go “Well, what am I supposed to do here?” and easy enough to make you go “Of course!” when you finally figure it out.  There was only one time I ever got stuck and had to look at a walkthrough, and that was mainly because I had forgotten about a technique.  This is also one of those games where achievements will definitely extend playtime for some people.  A lot of them focus on either finding hidden things, or encouraging the player to solve puzzles in new ways.  Which is a very good thing.
            The game is also significantly longer, throwing you quite a few twists along the way.  While this is definitely a good thing, I do feel that it begins to wear out the test chamber gimmick in some sections.  I could’ve done with a few less of them, and a lot more of exploring the inner workings of the facility.  But the game still seems to know when this happens and shakes things up enough that there’s never really boredom.
             There’s also a co-op campaign in the game.  This is a full-bodied campaign separate from the single player, and it does not feel thrown together at all, which I have to commemorate in this age where developers will just throw in multiplayer modes from leftover resources.  From what I played, it was certainly…well, I suggest getting friends.  On the one hand, it helps out with the communication by giving you a ping mode.  Basically, you can tell your partner “Go here, shoot a portal here, go through this portal” etc.  Of course, you’re going to want to get a good partner.  Of the two people I played with, they both fit the co-op stereotypes.  One was the incompetent, who seemed to have no idea how to play Portal at all.  The other was the know-it-all, who had already gone through the co-op campaign and was basically either doing everything by himself or telling me what I had to do.  I would suggest finding someone who hasn’t played it and going through the campaign together, so that you can both figure out the puzzles at the same time.
            Overall, Portal 2 is easily one of the must-have games of the year.  It has intelligence and wit to it that’s so rarely seen, and the fun factor just comes from that.  There’s no big action setpieces, but when you finally figure out that puzzle you’ve been working on for 10 minutes, the satisfaction of that is just so much better.

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