Monday, June 27, 2011

portal 2

in this day and age (about 5 months after the last one. My days and ages change fast), I'm actually finding it hard to be excited about games. I'm tempted to be "one of those guys" who says the heart of gaming was lost sometime around 2003, and that no interesting games come out. But that's a lie. The truth is I think it's just my own non-stop exposure to games for such a long time that has left me a tad bored. The games I look forward to are usually far apart chronologically. It's usually an installment to a franchise I know or a developer I know, or a concept that really appeals to me a lot, like Mirror's Edge or Amnesia. So one of those kinds of releases has come around, and that release is Portal 2, the sequel to Portal 1 (which I liked) and a game from Valve, whom I trust to make good games almost without fail. But sometimes expectations can affect how you perceive a piece of entertainment media like a video game, and in fact this had made me lazily dislike some things I would have otherwise loved.

My expectations demoted this to "really good" from "great"
So how did my expectations demote Portal 2? To be honest, they really didn't that much. In fact, they hardly did at all. It was hard to know what to expect, even though I kind of already knew it would look like "Portal 1 with a few holes in the wall". Thankfully, as Valve always does, when it seems like they are giving away too much in the trailers and previews, it means they've got lots more to show you. For example, Valve showed us the Wheatley character early on being very Hugh Grant-like, a bumbling and polite British character who guides you around and makes unintentional Michael Cera-type jokes. I will spoil nothing, but I will say that what we saw is much less than the whole package. There is much more that the story and characters have to offer, and most of it is really unexpected. Given the restricted level structure and cast of about 3 characters, I'm genuinely (and pleasantly) surprised at the degree of character development this game has. The story does take the back seat off and on, but you rarely notice it because every piece of the game, even the parts that are "outside" of the test chambers, is a puzzle.

Walking in, it's a bit hard to know what to expect. When it comes to sequels, there's a very thin line to walk when it comes to "doing it right". You can be condemned as a developer for doing any one thing wrong, and it will be the thing that people focus on when they talk about it. If I had one main complaint about the whole thing, then I would say .... Wait, I don't really have any complaints. Okay then, the thing that I would bring up as "something I noticed" would be that where Portal 1 was flawlessly endearing, its appeal a partial result of technical, financial and time limitations, Portal 2 tried to recreate that on purpose. Not  a true, true problem, but noticeable. You can tell going in that Portal 2 has goals it is trying to achieve, to be on par with Valve's other, bigger games. In order to make it competitive among its own back catalog, they added the presentation of Half-Life, the seamless co-op of Left 4 Dead and a little bit of British comedy. If I could isolate a problem with that, I would say that there was just a tad (tad!) of "square peg in circle hole" syndrome. The original Portal isn't quite suited to this kind of expansion, probably a result of the necessarily-confined gameplay, but honestly I really think Valve did a great job. This game was made as well as anyone could have made it, and Valve (as always) stepped up and made it work.

I bought the PS3 version of the game because it came with a license for the PC version as well, so it's essentially 2 copies (albeit restricted to a single Steam account). On the day of purchase, I started the co-op with my cousin Travis, completing it over 2 "off and on" days. Portal is the kind of game that has, for whatever reason, transcended it's position within the community of "gamers", finding its way into the library of games for people who play stuff like The Sims or WoW. Games like that do not require status as a "gamer" in the popular sense for enjoyment. Anyone can play them; yo momma, yo auntie, anybody. So it's kind of weird that I found the introductory level for the co-op confusing. I understood the portal mechanic going in, and that each player controls 2 portals, but somehow Travis and I had a lot of trouble with the training level. The problem is that the game makes too much of an effort to be sure that I understand very basic gameplay elements. I can't even see this stuff being requisite for people who are "new to gaming". The level puts a very cumbersome shackle on the 2 players from the outset: they are separated by a glass wall and need to achieve their co-op progress by shooting portals through holes in the wall. It requires a lot of backtracking when one player forgets to shoot a portal and creates a lot of "wait, go back. no, the other way" moments, and even if you're sitting on the couch next to your partner, the level is homogeneous enough for you to get lost. Luckily, once you're allowed to play without this wall, it's all good co-op fun, ah-ha moments and good camaraderie. It really surprised me that co-op puzzle solving was done with little to no complications where working together is concerned. I'm just surprised at how cumbersome this level was, and I can easily see it driving away newcomers.

The game looks incredible despite the Source engine being a whopping 7 years old. Like most source games, the biggest visual flaw I noticed was texture resolution, but just about everything had new, shiny effects and ran with better performance than some older Source games. This is a game that lives up to both it's original and the number 2 in it's title. It is a fully-functioning sequel that meets and exceeds expectations the way Valve does. Nerf said.

1 comment:

Can't find it?