Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Portal 2 Review

I'm well aware of the tardiness of this review. Then again, I'm not a game reviewer and this isn't a traditional video game review: no effort to shy away from spoilers, no numerical score, no affirming or challenging of the game in question's value at $60. Not that I'm against scoring games with arbitrary abstracts as some people are, but for one, it's a bit too late for anybody to care what score I assign Portal 2, and also... Well, I'm rarely this uncertain about my own feelings toward a game.

Portal 2 is the sequel to 2007's captivating first-person puzzler, an inspiring success story in which a senior capstone project, Narbacular Drop, so impressed Half-Life developer Valve that the company hired the students to work on a small title to be released within their Orange Box compilation so as to minimize risk.

That game was Portal, and to everyone's surprise, it was a hit with 'hardcore' and 'casual' gamers alike. The concept is simple yet mind-expanding; players wield a gun that can fire two portals, one orange and one blue, on nearly any white surface. In the heel-springs of human lab rat Chell, players must use the portal device to navigate a series of increasingly sophisticated test chambers in the eerily desolate labs of Aperture Science, all the while being guided and taunted by a passive-aggressive computer AI named GLaDOS.

Portal 2 takes place hundreds of years after the events of its prequel, in an underground facility ravaged by nature and time. Early levels revisit the first Portal's test chambers, their enamel-white sterility now decayed and stained, choked with rugged flora and graffiti celebrating your earlier exploits; Valve have always been masters of telling a story through the environment, and now it seems they've mastered the nostalgia trip. Soon enough, however, the player is led to new environments that reveal the true depths of the facility and the boundless ambition of its eccentric founder, Cave Johnson (more on him later).

A sequel in the truest sense, Portal 2 expands on and refines the tenets of its predecessor rather than starting from scratch. While all of Portal's mechanics remain in place, Portal 2 wastes less time acclimating players to the basics, instead gently but efficiently easing them into the unique gameplay--a singular fusion of FPS and adventure game which requests sharp reflexes and sharper wits--before introducing a bevy of giddy new toys. From Aerial Faith Plates to laser Redirection Cubes to tractor beams of swirling asbestos, Portal 2 doesn't skimp on new elements and their thought-provoking, sometimes thrilling applications.

While chase sequences and slightly more organic exploration sections have been added to the mix, the meat of Portal 2 is still furthering the cause of science through a number of deliciously head-scratching test chambers. The new tools introduced in Portal 2 often make for a more dynamic and flavorful experience. I had a lot of fun with the Hard Light Bridges, especially during the first trial of Chapter 4, when I used a vertical Hard Light Bridge in conjunction with my portal gun as an impromptu mobile shield against turret fire. Laser redirection, while not as physically stimulating as momentum puzzles and the like, offers a return to the first Portal's oftentimes more ponderous, patient style. Excursion Funnels, Aerial Faith Plates, and Repulsion Gel lend the game a delightfully gravity-defying verticality.

What is Repulsion Gel, you ask? Why, only one-third of Portal 2's most impressive new gameplay feature: paint! Once again, the vigilant talent-harvesters at Valve absorbed a student team to work on the Portal series; this time it was the young wizards responsible for fellow first-person puzzler Tag: The Power of Paint, a game itself inspired by Portal in which players manipulate paints that affect the physical properties of the surfaces they are applied to. Their expertise produced Portal 2's Repulsion, Propulsion, and Conversion gels. Blue Repulsion Gel is for bouncing, orange Propulsion Gel for gaining speed, and white Conversion Gel for creating portals on previously inert surfaces. The Conversion gel puzzles are particularly gleeful, but nothing beats the intricate, kinetic harmony of those puzzles which task you with employing the three gels in concert.

The previously mentioned chase sequences and organic exploration sections serve to break what could have been the monotony of a series of compact, precise, walled-in test chambers (keep in mind that Portal 2, at about 9 hours, is three times the length of the original). The forward-charging immediacy of the chase sequences counters the methodical experimenting done in the trials composed by GLaDOS and Cave Johnson, while the slower-paced moments outside the test chambers allow players to stare deep into the bowels of Aperture Science and provide some memorable set-pieces (flying through the giant Aperture sign at the beginning of the Cave Johnson section was a blast).

Of course, perhaps the most widely lauded ingredient of the Portal concoction is its writing and acting. You already know that Portal 2 has one of the best scripts and some of the best performances in video games. Stephen Merchant's bumbling, neurotic naturalism as the moronic personality core Wheatley, Ellen McClain's subtle humanizing of a malevolent AI bitch, and J.K. Simmons' turn as increasingly frustrated Howard Hughes-type American innovator Cave Johnson; these three characters offer Portal 2 more personality than most entertainment properties could ever hope to muster. My friends, we have us a true video game comedy here.

Now that we've gotten the basics out of the way, I can go into specifics on my overall thoughts and impressions (sans co-op) of what seems to be 2011's top candidate for Game of the Year. To start, I think Portal 2 is generally a superb game; Valve's almost freakish craftsmanship shines through in nearly every aspect of the production, from its smooth, propulsive energy to its satisfying, comfortable challenge to its appealing, almost Pixar-like presentation. In fact, Valve really does seem (to use one of those stupid "the ___ of ___" analogies) to be the Pixar of video games in many ways, and their latest effort all but confirms that. Their work is polished, charming, and just about peerless; everyone wants to work for them, but only the best get in.

Like I said though, it's not often that I find myself scratching my chin and pacing about the room trying to determine my own opinion of a game. You see, if Portal 2 has a problem, it's the original Portal. Prior to Portal 2's release, many, including myself, worried and wondered about how Valve could follow up a game as lean, novel, and just about perfect as Portal. If any game never needed a sequel, it was Portal. After reading Game Informer's cover story, my fears were assuaged; "Okay," I thought. "These guys know what they're doing. They're not reusing any jokes, it's a more robust production, and hey, it's Valve. They made Half-Life 2. I trust them." Upon release, critics were happy to claim that not only is Portal 2 a worthwhile sequel, but a better game in every respect; some even calling it, to quote Jim Sterling's Destructoid review, "one of the most fantastic experiences ever presented as a piece of software." High praise indeed, but it certainly helped get me excited to play Valve's latest offering. And now for the weird, surprising truth: I was disappointed.

I'd like to explore why that is, but to do so, Portal 2 must not be examined in a vacuum; it is crucial that we consider it alongside its predecessor. The original Portal was this faultless, crystalline short story packing a surprising comic punch; at four hours and with such limited assets, there was no flab, no flash, nothing but a singularly brilliant experience from start to finish, with all the charisma of a great debut. Furthermore, it is one of the few games, alongside the likes of Shadow of the Colossus, that is championed again and again as a work of art in which basically no "ludo-narrative dissonance" (meaning the clash and incompatibility of mechanics with story) occurs; nothing the player can do muddies or subtracts from the game's theme and narrative. Like many minimal artworks, the less is more approach allows what's there to be interpreted in a number of ways. The guiding non-player voice and the sterile, self-contained testing rooms could serve as commentary on the nature of linear game design; the 'game' half being at once malevolent and compelling, and the human player equated with a mute lab rat. Escaping the white rooms and ultimately killing GLaDOS, while still the only way to complete the game, satisfies the player's desire to break the rules and claim autonomy against the forces which would enslave him. There's the unreliable narrator trick ("This next test is impossible."), the thrill of peeking behind the curtain, the idea that the game is an allegory for breaking off a relationship with a manipulative, passive-aggressive girlfriend, and even a somewhat Freudian interpretation of the game as a satire of first-person shooters, with an all-female cast and a gun that shoots holes instead of projectiles.

Needless to say, Portal is cherished, and a $60 sequel of anything but the highest quality would likely have been met with venom. As good as Portal 2 is, though, it's not the endlessly stimulating, citation-worthy diamond that Portal is. It's certainly not as quotable, for better or worse. But as similar as the gameplay has remained between the two, I see them as very different games, and that's because of a key distinction: tone. The original Portal is at once creepy, hilarious, quiet, cold, and lovable. Allowing you but a brief glimpse into the red, graffiti-pockmarked guts of the facility, Portal suggests. Portal 2, constantly moving players through offices and catwalks and chasms, does not.

My favorite Portal 2 review comes from Eurogamer's Oli Welsh; every word rings true, but I'll try not to quote the whole thing. Welsh says, "You can't call Portal heartless, it's too funny a game for that, but it does have a heart of ice. It's so tight, so deliciously underplayed, that criticism passes through it like light refracted through a jewel. Very little of this is true of Portal 2. It would be impossible to expand that haiku of a game into a 10-hour blockbuster (with a separate co-operative campaign for two players) without muddying those crystal waters. Inevitably, it's more talkative, the humor is broader, it contains some ideas that don't work as reliably, and the fiction's delicate relationship with the Half-Life universe is disturbed." Portal 2, while less quotable, is certainly more talkative. There is no loneliness in this game. Wheatley, GLaDOS, and Cave Johnson are constantly blathering away, filling up the air with insecure mumbling, snide attacks on Chell's weight and adoption, and paranoid proclamations of impossible industriousness. But where Portal was a sparse short story with a stock of classic jokes, Portal 2 is a top-to-bottom bona fide comedy video game. It's not an escape tale with any video game-unique gags as playfully ingenious as incinerating the Companion Cube; it's just a humorous and at times touching story about power, corruption, science, and seeing two sides to people. As pointed out in the Eurogamer review, the difference in tone can be seen in each game's first room. Portal begins in a solemn glass box with a strange sci-fi bed, a toilet, and a radio. Portal 2's hilarious tutorial (the zoom function is taught by having you look at a painting on the wall in order to "feel mentally reinvigorated") takes place in a model of a tacky, not-so-swank hotel room.

Portal 2's comedy aesthetic does allow for some great moments, though. While GLaDOS's sarcasm in Chapters 3 and 4 felt weary and forced to me, she becomes much more enjoyable once trapped in the body of a potato battery, making her a bit more humble and sympathetic, not to mention funny. The malfunctioning turret who talks about Prometheus, the Cave Johnson "when life gives you lemons" speech, the turret-cube Frankensteins, and Wheatley's lazy test chamber are all great, but nothing beats the game's final interactive punchline: shooting a portal on the face of the moon. "Lunacy" is right. More than anything, though, Portal 2 makes me hopeful for the medium's future: here is a nonviolent, comedic first-person adventure game that is popular with critics and consumers alike. More things like this, please.

Going back to Eurogamer's fantastic review, I'd like to touch on their very interesting conclusion. They say, "Portal is perfect. Portal 2 is not. It's more than that. It's human: hot-blooded, silly, poignant, irreverent, base, ingenious, and loving. It's never less than a pure video game, but it's often more, and it will no doubt stand as one of the best entertainments in any medium at the end of the year. It's a masterpiece." Here's the thing: I'd take heart and soul over perfection any day of the week. I love Grand Theft Auto IV even though it is deeply, deeply flawed on a fundamental level, because I think it has soul. Final Fantasy VII is my favorite game, for chrissakes! And yet... I love Portal more than its sequel. Then again, I think both games have heart, from Portal's turret meekness to Portal 2's turret aria, "Still Alive" (soiled as it is) to Wheatley's strange apology. However, I think Portal has more soul, which is a bit harder to point out. I tend to think of "soul" as the little things, things like footsteps and ambient noise and color choices and little vocal phrasings and... I don't know, I guess the ambiguity of "soul" is what makes it so special. It's the subtle whistling tones, the audible mouth movements and notes that inflate and deflate, the inflections that balance quirky, half-intentional humor and devastating pathos, that make the performances in Silent Hill 2 my favorite ever (which are getting replaced in the HD collection fuckshitpissbitches!!). It's getting the call that Darko has arrived  in Liberty City while driving through Brooklyn in the rain as a man on the sidewalk says, "This cigarette is my lunch and dinner." It's the crackling of torches and crying of gulls in Ico. It's escorting Emma through the abandoned, twilit Big Shell after the personnel have boarded Arsenal Gear. I'm rambling, but do you see what I'm getting at? Portal 2 is too overeager, too loud and impatient to let the player savor those inconsequential details I look for.

Portal 2 is an undeniably great game, maybe even a modern classic, but to me, it's fascinating for other reasons. Comparing 2011's critical darling with its prequel is an extremely interesting exercise, and maybe in that context I can come to love it too.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Apology, Explanation, Promise

So... It's been a while. This is a bit awkward. I was in the middle of a list of my 25 favorite albums, and then POOF I'm gone for nearly four months. I apologize for giving no forewarning of such a vast stretch of nothingness, especially when I was, like I said, not yet done with my current project. To be honest, I didn't know that I was going to be so negligent for so long. It's likely that this has lost the blog some readership, and that's a shame. However, if you have moved on to other, more dependable blogs, then you're probably not reading this right now, which means I could say nasty things behind your back... but I won't. One of the problems with writing a series of mini-essays on my favorite albums--aside from my overly lax work ethic--is the fact that oftentimes I'm just not in the mood to spend an hour or more listening to and writing about the next long-player on the list (a lame excuse, I know). To combat this, I will be interspersing the list more liberally with other posts, mostly about video games. One such feature, a belated review of Portal 2, shall be coming shortly, and it won't be too long after that before I follow up with a piece on my 13th favorite album. Stay tuned!