Monday, June 13, 2011

A Polar Review For Portal Two

Polar because I'm going to gush. I'm obviously late to the party anyway. The cake has already been eaten. They already used the good confetti.  Still, gush I must.

After denying myself cake for so long, I decided over the weekend to pick up the Portal bundle on Steam.  I'd been holding off for a long time.  At first, it was because it was simply a "add-on" game with Orange Box.  It's not that I didn't believe people that it was "worth it."  More that my gaming time is pretty limited (self-imposed), so I try to wait for good stretches of time before I embark on anything new.

I'm the type of gamer that, if I like a game, I can't wait to play it.  I guess we're all probably like that, but the force is stronger in some than others.  For me, it swiftly becomes a compulsion.  I spend my days thinking about the game, and plotting about the game, and playing the game in my mind.  It was this way when I was in school.  Is there any surprise that I'm still this way at work?

Needless to say, gaming compulsions are bad for productivity.  Especially with a particularly engaging game.  Thus, I've cultivated the ability to set limits for myself.  This is why MMO's work well for me (WoW in particular).  I can play at a slow pace over a long period of time.  It's sort of what you're "supposed" to do.  I don't need to do it all (there's too much to ever do it all), so I can relax a bit.  Sure, when expansions hit, I'll experience a flurry of activity, but it calms down eventually.  Point being, I try to moderate my gaming.

Then there are times when you just want to binge.  This summer has been busy, but I finally got a weekend to myself.  My reward for, you know, dealing with life is to allow myself a short gaming binge.  The whole "I'm not doing anything this weekend but gaming."  Hence, I decided it was a good time to pick up the Portal games and attempt a play-through.

I knocked off 1 quickly enough and am on Chapter 8 in 2 (one chapter from the end, I'm told).  So, I think I did a pretty good job.  Now, before you think I was unhealthy about this... I got full nights of sleep, I didn't stock up on Mountain Dew, and we still made our wedding this weekend.  (Not my wedding.  A friend's wedding.  But we have a wedding every weekend from now until, like, August.  'Tis the season...)  Thus, it wasn't a complete binge.

This is supposed to be a review, I know.  Sorry.  I'll focus on the game.  I'm a horrible person.  She already told me.

I have nothing but good things to say.  Every now and then, game developers get a great concept and then really knock it out of the park.  I must stress that I believe there are two keys to a successful game.  The first is the idea, the second is the execution.  Very broadly, if you don't execute a good idea, you won't have a good game.  The Valve team continues to hit home runs with Portal 2.

The writing is top notch.  Laugh out loud funny... pretty much all the time.  I find myself shushing anything else in the room so that I don't miss a tidbit of dialog.  When was the last time I did that?  Normally I at least have iTunes on in the background.

The story is engaging too.  It's almost subtle, if I can say that.  I mean, the game is at the base a puzzle game.  A nearly lost genre that these games have single-handedly breathed new life into.  Nothing about puzzle games generally screams "story mode."  Still, I find myself engrossed in the lore, raptly attentive as Cave Johnson ages into a cranky old man.  The time capsules in 2 are just an amazing touch.  I feel as if I'm at Disney World... there is that attention to detail.

To me, writing and story are two of the most important things.  I'm all about them.  It's sort of what I do.  I think pretty much everyone else would give the #1 slot to what is probably most important: Gameplay.

The beauty here is that Portal is so simple.  You pretty much only ever use three buttons.  Blue portal.  Orange portal.  Pick up object.  That's it.  Yeah, you have the typical "wasd" walking scheme and... zomg... a space key to jump, but the controls are minimal.  You'd have to really work to F them up.  Even so, the game feels fluid and intuitive.  They took simple and made it elegant.

On top of that, the pacing is perfect.  Just about the time I'm thinking "Oh yeah, I'm the gel master!" BAM!  Anti-gravity fields.  The mechanics keep you guessing.  No single mechanic is overused to the point where you become bored with it.  If anything, I almost find myself wanting more.  "Damn, no more lasers.  I was setting things on fire."

Finally, perhaps that most impressive feat in my mind, is the sense of immersion.  We hear about that all the time these days.  Immersion this, immersion that.  But what is it, really?  Is it 3d?  Is it motion controls?  Are we wanting full-blow virtual reality?

Games like Portal and Assassin's Creed (to name another favorite) have gone "old school" with immersion.  They're not relying on advanced technologies or new controls.  Instead, they're flipping the tables and simply providing you with a valid, logical reason to suspend disbelief.  And, oh, how it works!  I would love more developers to take this lesson to heart.  We don't need super open worlds or visor control systems or wacky crap like that... what we need, simply, is a believable excuse to get lost in your world.  In AC, they use the animus.  It provides the reason for walls and interactions.  In Portal, it's as simple as "you're a test subject."  Now they can do all kinds of contrived things and it makes sense because "hey, I'm just a rat in a cage."  Alternatively, it's what made me say "of course there is a bouncing blue gel now.   It makes perfect sense!"

Don't get me wrong, I'm as excited for a true virtual reality as the next guy.  However, there will always be a place for simple controller games so long as the developers occupy our minds.  Gamers like me, we're completely willing to forget we're wielding a keyboard and mouse so long as you give us a reason to.  It doesn't even have to be a great reason.  It can be as simple as "oh yeah, you're in a genetic memory device" or "you're just a test subject in an evil corporation in the future."  What will they think of next?

(Note to game devs: All we want is just for your game to make sense.  Generally speaking, gamers are "outside the box" thinkers.  We'll get on board with your crazy idea, so long as you get on board yourself.  Too many devs fail and flail because they're unwilling to totally commit to the illusion.)

So anyway.  Yeah.  Portal bundle.  Totally worth it.  I went with Steam and the computer platform (despite owning a PS3) simply because it seems the most reliable platform right now.  Console world has been rough lately.  I'm in no way associated with anyone mentioned above.  Want a good binge?  Buy Portal.  You won't want to put it down.  It's joyride.  The cake is not a lie.

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