Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Portal 2

I played through this game's single player mode on PS3 around when it came out earlier this year, but because of the issues Sony had getting PSN back online, by the time I was able to get the game online (and activate my free PC copy), my friends who also bought the game had already played the co-op, and I wanted to experience it the first time with someone else who hadn't seen the solutions before either. I ended up waiting until this weekend, when another friend finally bought it and we blasted through the mode in one day. All it did was cement my position that Portal 2 is my favorite game from this generation, one of the best games ever, and also probably the funniest.

In a lot of ways Portal 2 is just more of Portal, but when Portal was already one of the most acclaimed and interesting games to come out in years, that's not really a bad thing. The sequel returns you to the same general environment of Aperture's underground laboratories, but expands on their scope exponentially in multiple directions. A lot of time has passed since the first game, and you get to explore the facility's entire history, from when it was first created deep at the bottom of a mine, and moving forward through time as they built newer and more advanced additions on top of the old ones. Part of the series' fun is the vaguely sinister nature of the environment, which is enjoyably disrupted by the games' sense of humor but still detectable through little areas you stumble upon, and the second game really explores this, creating one of the most intriguing locations ever in a game, both from an art and gameplay perspective. You frequently go between sterile, carefully managed testing chambers and the industrial decay that surrounds them, a juxtaposition reflected by every aspect of the game. The frequent changes in the feel of whatever area you're in at the time keeps things constantly fresh, and along with the clever gameplay and fantastic humor, you have a single player campaign that is longer, deeper, and ultimately more satisfying than the original's.

 There's definitely a detectable shift in the general puzzle design between games. Besides replacing bouncing energy cores with laser beams, all of the discrete elements from the original return, along with several new ones, such as energy-based bridges that can be redirected with portals and various kinds of gels that alter the properties of the surfaces in the environment. The increased number of variables to work with is accompanied by a shift away from experimentation and acrobatics in the puzzles, as solutions are generally more constrained to prevent overwhelming the player with all the possibilities inherent to the new elements and require less physical skill with the controller, letting players instead focus on thinking through the proper way to address all the obstacles present. I can see why some players might regret the slight loss in freedom this represents, but I thought the puzzles were extremely well-designed and constantly thrilling to solve, a feeling I don't think will go away that quickly on periodic revisits.

And as I already briefly mentioned a couple times, the writing and voice acting are fantastic. Valve has always done a great job of having a player experience a story through the act of playing a game, though in recent years their games have gotten more and more dialogue-heavy, usually to great comedic effect, and Portal 2 is possibly the culmination of that effort. GLaDOS was already wickedly funny in the first game, and having her be only one of a few characters in the game was a great idea. The two most significant new characters are Wheatley, a bumbling robotic friend who helps introduce you back into the world of Portal, and Cave Johnson, the founder of Aperture who had been mentioned previously in content from outside the original game and who lives on in a series of recordings in the facility's lower levels. Wheatley is played very well (and often ad-libbed) by The Office co-creator Stephen Merchant, and Cave is voiced by J.K. Simmons, who is consistently one of the most affable presences in Hollywood and does a great job as well. Johnson's dialogue is necessarily limited to solitary rants, but frequently GLaDOS and Wheatley are able to play off each other to great comical effect. It's all really memorable material without falling into the Internet meme pit that bits from the first game like all the cake-talk did. As always the script does a good job of creating a setting and telling a simple but interesting plot without having to directly explain it to you, and the ending is one of the single most gripping and unexpected things I've seen in a game.

And that co-op mode was worth the wait, as well. Just the inherent possibilities of what having two sets of portals instead of one is exciting, and I was glad to see the game fully capitalize on that potential. More portals means more complex set-ups, but even beyond that, having two sets of eyes and two brains working together on a problem means Valve could design tougher challenges, knowing that they had more freedom to try truly off-the-wall stuff and could expect players to roll with it. With the Left 4 Dead series they found an intriguing way to force players in a shooter to work together in order to survive, and they continue to have success here in making a unique experience out of cooperation. With the two player characters being easily-reconstructed robots there's a perfect opportunity to encourage experimentation and the occasional bit of messing with your buddy as you know there's no true consequence for a bad idea and the challenge is in figuring out the puzzle, not avoiding death. They also felt the freedom to bring back some of the more skill-based concepts like momentum, and find ways to combine elements that never interacted in the more straight-laced single player, like the previously mentioned bridges and gels. It's also just another showcase for GLaDOS, as she gleefully scolds the two robots and tries to set them against each other while they work towards whatever she feels like making them do.

All this and I haven't mentioned the yet-again entertaining and insightful developer commentary, the great use of music (not just in the background during dramatic moments, but also as a gameplay clue with the various new toys), the clever use of trophies/achievements and title cards, and the fact that they're still finding ways to make the Source engine impressive seven years later. Valve is easily one of my favorite game developers, and they seem to only cement that further with each new release. It's a testament to what they do that despite the continued radio silence on anything related to Half-Life, I find myself only intrigued by what's possible in the future rather than truly disappointed.

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