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4.23.2011

Science Still Alive: Portal 2 Review

I have tried my absolute best to keep this review spoiler-free. Although I discuss the new elements of the game, I do not disclose any plot. I may have a spoiler-riddled discussion of Portal 2 at some point in the future, but for now you're safe if you haven't played the game yet.

There's a very good reason Portal 2 was my second most anticipated game this year. Actually, there are many good reasons. Foremost is the quality of the original game. It's not very often a game comes along that makes the kind of tidal waves in the gaming world that Portal did.

It was innovative. It was fun. It was hysterical. And the cake was a lie.

I was a bit surprised when they announcement for Portal 2 came along. I must admit I was skeptical whether the concept would work beyond a brief standalone game. I thought honestly that Valve had shot their wad with portal-based puzzles and passive-aggressive artificial intelligence. But, hey, it's Valve. They sure take a long time developing games, but it generally pays off.
Just one example of the immense set pieces in Portal 2.

Portal 2 is considerably longer than the first game. Most people report 8-10 hours of gameplay for the single player. That's about right. I'd say it's more like 7-9 for seasoned Portal veterans. In either case, it's at least twice as long as the original game which ran about 3 hours tops.

The increased length means there's a lot more time for developing an involved plot and more intricate puzzles. Without giving anything away, we meet a few new characters and, of course, experience the return of GLaDOS, who is indeed still alive.

In true Valve fashion, as much of the story is told through dialog and actions as through the setting itself. Aperture Laboratories look quite a bit different this time around. Let's just say the complex is more vast than the original game ever suggested. The diverse scenery helps relieve the fatigue of testing in those grayscale antiseptic chambers that make up the entirety of the first game.

The tests themselves are kept fresh and new by the addition of several new elements given hilariously silly titles such as "Thermal Discouragement Beams" (lasers), "Arial Faith Plates" (basically spring-loaded panels), and several liquid gels with various helpful properties such as portal conductivity or speed enhancement.

The new test elements are fantastic additions to the game.
The test chambers are the most fun part from a gameplay perspective. Despite the addition of these new testing elements, the game isn't overwhelmingly difficult. It's been incredibly well-designed with tests just difficult enough to make you feel smart when you solve them, but not so difficult that you give up.

Most of the times I got stuck were during the transitional portions of the game when you're going from one series of tests from another. These portions are the weakest part of the game. I was sometimes unsure where I was supposed to go next. When I finally figured out that I could portal over to that tiny little panel and then to fling myself up to that ledge, I felt kinda dumb for missing it. But in the chambers themselves I never felt this kind of frustration.

Writing was a huge part of the original game. No one expected it to be as funny as it was. Portal 2 is still very much a comedic experience. Again, the comedy is just as much derived from the environment as the characters' dialog. Both are well-crafted and generally work well. Only very occasionally did I feel the writers were trying too hard or that a joke fell flat. I wish I could put some of my favourite lines from the game here, but I don't want to ruin them.

Portal 2's a solid gaming experience that lives up to its unique predecessor in almost every way. Of course it isn't as fresh. By nature, a sequel can't be. My only real disappointment is that the game doesn't give any insights into what's going on in the Half-Life storyline. But it would be wrong to fault a game for lack of information about another game even one so anticipated as Episode 3.

In the end, the game plays great, it looks as good as any Source engine game has so far (which is to say dated, but with good art direction all the same.) The ending is fun, funny, and satisfying. That's about all any reasonable gamer could ask for. The replay value might be somewhat limited, but co-op mode is decently fun if you have a buddy ready and willing to play. Worth $50? Depends on how big a fan you are. If you haven't gotten it already you might consider waiting for a Steam sale.


Now let's hear something about Episode 3, Valve!


P.S.
I don't think it's giving anything away to say that, like the original game, Portal 2 has a Jonathan Coulton penned ending song and, in my opinion, it's just as good as the famed "Still Alive."

4.15.2011

Portal 2 is Releasing Early... Maybe

I've been busy this semester so while I've seen some of the very funny Portal 2 promos featuring J.K. Simmons, I had no idea Valve had launched massive Alternate Reality Game ad campaign around the game's imminent release.



There had been a timer counting down on the Aperture Science website which many people speculated was a countdown to an early release of the game. At 9am PST this morning the timer reached zero and that's not exactly what we got.
Even away from my big computers, I was anxiously awaiting the countdown.
The long and short of it is that we might see an early release of the game depending on how many people purchase and play 13 indie games through Steam collectively known as "The Potato Pack." The Aperture Science website now displays a different page which tracks progress toward an early release... and it's going quite slowly. It's slow enough that, while an early release is still likely, it probably won't be nearly as early as anticipated: probably Sunday or Monday.

I am rarely critical of Valve. They are one of my favourite game developers and I love getting games through Steam, though I have to say that teasing us like this is just mean. Sure, they are under no obligation to release the game early. But what they are doing here basically amounts to soft extortion. After I read last night that Portal 2 might get an early release I was really stoked. I had a few hours this Friday afternoon to take a break from my busy schedule and play it. I won't have any time on the game's scheduled release date. Boo hoo for me, I know.

Is it a big deal? Of course not, but after Radiohead's generous early release of The King of Limbs in February, I really hoped Valve would follow suit. Yeah, it'll still probably come out early, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't really disappointed that the game didn't drop today.

Although I can appreciate Valve helping out indie developers like this (though since they get a cut of sales it's far from altruistic), it's just mean to dangle the game above our heads. It's finished. It's sitting encrypted on my hard drive. Why can't I, a loyal Steam customer, play it now instead of playing your silly waiting game? I'd like to play the actual game, please.



In other gaming news, World of Goo for iPhone came out on Thursday. It runs fine. It's the same great game I bought years ago for the PC. The glaring problem with playing on an iPhone is that your fingers obscure the screen while you play making it feel a bit clumsy. It's probably just because it's such a small device. I'm guessing the game plays a bit better on the iPad.

Also, Crysis 2 has been out for nearly a month. As my most anticipated game of 2011, I fully intended to review it and I still do when I get adequate time. However, the PC version is receiving a DirectX11 patch for the game to finally bring it up to par with other modern PC games. I think I'll wait until after that to review it.

4.04.2011

World of Goo Coming to iPhone

A couple years back I did a video review of a fantastic little indie game called World of Goo. I concluded my review by commenting that the game which at that time was only available for Mac, PC, and Wii would be great fun on the iPhone with a touch interface. I just want to say: I called this one.

Developer 2D Boy announced on their blog that they've submitted the iPhone version of the game to Apple for approval. An iPad version has been available for awhile, but despite the success of that device, they aren't nearly as widespread as iPhones/iPod touches.

Better news: for 24 hours after launch, the game will be on sale for just $0.99 which is not only worth it but also a killer deal. My only concern is the smaller screen of the iPhone might occasionally be a hinderance to gameplay. We shall see.

I'll just go ahead and embed the review here for those of you who don't know what the game is. I make my Nostradamus-like prediction at 4:56, by the way.



I own this game for the PC and I've played it before years ago so why am I excited about it? Well perhaps that calls for a post on mobile gaming...