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so, how do you make the sequel to a modest, experimental puzzle game that went from bonus extra in a first-person shooter boxset to indie-esque mega-hit? well, Portal 2 is Valve's answer, and i think they might just be correct. [tick]
while the basic premise and mechanics are the same, from the outset, the tone is fairly different to that in the original. although there is a certain amount of simple button-and-box puzzles to wade through before the game-proper begins (to enable the initiatation of the uninitiated), the developers have clearly been mindful not to make expectant, returning fans feel too much like they're simply falling back into an old groove.
despite its humour, Portal had an austere and chilling atmosphere. here, with GLaDOS destroyed and the fearsome reputation of the Aperture Science Enrichment Center in about as poor a state of repair as the old place finds itself, there is a new feeling in the air.
as the game begins you wake in what appears to be a double room in a Howard Johnson - specifically the one in Queens, NY which pretends to be near JFK airport. a knock at the door brings you round from what was apparently a very lengthy period in stasis.
the knock turns out to be the work of a small, enthusiastic droid called Wheatley, played, in his usual way, by Stephen Merchant. Wheatley's script represents a continuation of Portal's tradition of witty, genuinely amusing writing, and Merchant's performance offers the same sort of quality on the voice-acting front.
however, Wheatley quite definitely represents a break from the dry, oddly threatening humour that characterized the first Portal, with Merchant goof-balling it right up all over the crumbling experimentation facility shop. personally, i'm not sure I'll ever get used to the idea of a globally renowned star with a Bristol accent, but never can it be said that he doesn't do well with what God gave him.
never can it be said that he doesn't do well with what God gave him.
once Wheatley's zany bumblings have guided you through the first few puzzles, you're off and running and the narrative shape of the sequel starts to take shape. it turns out - somewhat passed achievement diminishingly - that GLaDOS isn't really dead, only sleeping. furthermore, by accidentally pressing a load of buttons, you and Wheatley reactivate her, and a new puzzle-based struggle of scientific wits ensues.
it's clear from the content of her familiar commentary that GLaDOS is as maniacal as ever and as, if not more, intent on your destruction. and yet, quite a lot of her menace has become melancholy. "Here come the test results: you are a horrible person - that's what it says, a horrible person, we weren't even testing for that."
the evolution of GLaDOS's character is one of the ways in which Portal 2 cleverly demonstrates its understanding of and ability to play with the expectations of Portal fans, whilst also laying out a thoroughly novel and entertaining narrative arc, lined with likeable, well drawn characters, which works equally well if you're new to Aperture testing procedures.
at its heart, however, the game is not really about story and characters, its about puzzles, and Portal 2's somehow manage to maintain all the grace, charm and parsimony of those in the original, while also being thoroughly innovative and ridiculously entertaining.
as before, while the science riddles work their way up to a startling level of complexity, the learning curve is gentle and i can't imagine that anyone, even those completely new to the whole Portal thang, would ever be stranded without at least some idea of the way forward.
this co-op mode is simply a must.
in addition to portals, boxes, lasers and gravity, Portal 2 boasts light bridges, tractor beams, jump pads, laser-reflecting lens blocks and adhesive gels with useful physical properties (care of the mechanic developed for Tag: The Power of Paint), which all combine to create far richer and more complex testing environments than any the original offered.
moreover, in addition to seven or eight hours of joyful single player campaign, the Portal 2 owner has access to one of the most engrossing and entertaining multiplayer experiences currently available in any game.
the level and nature of the co-operation that is required to succeed truly brings new meaning to the gaming world's use of the term. the idea is not to work independently but simultaneously - as is generally the case - but to genuinely, meaningfully co-operate. the level of team-work required makes verbal communication extremely useful, but where that's not possible/desirable, Valve have created an ingenious symbolic language which steps up and fulfils 90% of the communicative demands.
if you're at all interested in the true potential of multiplayer gaming, then this co-op mode is simply a must. don't get me wrong, first person shooters are fine in their place, but if their real legacy ended up being that they were the shell in which gaming experiences as demanding and multifaceted as this were blooded, then that will be accolade enough.
i feel almost churlish even mentioning faults.
while it's true that Portal 2's visuals are something of a letdown - the abilities of the Source engine are starting to seem slightly lacking - and there is genuine grounds to gripe about the number and duration of loading screens that punctuate the journey down into the bowels of Aperture labs and back again, i feel almost churlish even mentioning faults which are, in the overall context, basically insignificant.
one aspect, which is less insignificant - at least for 360 owners - is the obvious shift that Valve have made towards the PS3 as their console platform of choice. Now that the Sony network is compatible with Steam, PS3 owners get quite a lot more bang for their Valve buck, with access to all the updates, patches and extras available thereupon, as well as receiving, in their box, a code which is good for a full, free download of the game on PC or Mac.
setting these very minor issues to one side, the reality is that Portal 2 is quite simply a near-astonishingly good game (notice the refusal to hyperbolise - think, how many times in your life have you been genuinely astonished?) and if you have the means to, you should certainly obtain and enjoy it, on whatever platform you can.
how many times in your life have you been genuinely astonished?
by means of a conclusion, i'm not sure i can praise it more highly than to assert (as a arrogant man) that Portal 2 is one of the only games i've ever played that seemed justified in challenging me as to whether i was worthy of it.
"remember, testing is the future, and the future starts with you".
"that said, if you are simple-minded, old, or irradiated in such a way that the future should not start with you, please return to your primitive tribe and send back someone better qualified for testing."
[if you'd like to see more of the weird and wonderful world of reallyquitetired then the door is always open at his semi-detached house/blog]
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: