Monday, February 6, 2012

Top 10 of '11 - #5: Portal 2

I’ve been dreading smacking my hands against the keyboard to explain why this is not my Game of the Year for 2011. It’s an obvious choice for so many out there that anything short of a Top 3 placement could tick a few of you off, as it probably should; Portal 2 is, from front to back, one of the most memorable games of the year. It is a game that anyone who loves the industry would wholly recommend to everyone in earshot and beyond, because it does everything right.

So, why isn’t Portal 2 in my Top 3? That’s probably why I have saved this write-up for last among my ten selections – I do not have a concrete answer, other than my selections are based upon personal preference (obviously). It is a game that begins with something familiar and steadily gets better as it goes along, properly introducing new gameplay elements at exactly the right moments to where you never feel overwhelmed with new knowledge on how to solve the puzzles you’re on. In terms of construction, Portal 2 is matched and surpassed only by my #1 selection of the year, which is hard to do in a day and age where pacing has all but gone the way of the dodo.

The game begins as Chell once again finds herself in the loving grasp of GLaDOS, the evil computer who has dedicated her existence to expanding scientific research against human subjects. With your new dimwitted robotic pal Wheatley, you must attempt to brave through the revenge that GLaDOS sets in place for your destruction of her components in the first game’s conclusion. All is well, all is familiar, all is fun... but when you meet up with GLaDOS, things take a tumble for the strange as you’re displaced outside of the laboratories.

Portal is at its best when it makes you laugh - which says a lot, given the amount of things it is great at doing. The first game was littered with uncanny, hilarious dialogue coming from the “mouth” of GLaDOS, often making the entire experience feel like a huge inside joke that you are a part of. That’s ultimately where Portal succeeds more so than any other game series in the history of our industry: the people who “get” Portal are welcomed with open arms by other fans of the franchise, as we become a fraternity in homage to the boundless wit and heart of the folks who make it.

What Portal 2 does to expand on the universe the game is set in is astounding, and the truest example of evolution of a franchise beyond gameplay. Taking the portal gun’s concepts and dropping them outside of the testing chambers is a huge leap forward for the engine, as it literally forces you to think just as differently with using portals as the first game’s introduction to the device did. Likewise, the game takes a gigantic leap toward progress by moving beyond just the wonderful writing and delivery to invoke a still sadness over the entire situation. Playing with your heart strings, you are introduced to Cave Johnson, the facility’s overseer during its boom period across the ‘60s and ‘70s, and witness his effortless intellect at work throughout his best years as a scientist, all the way until his health begins to fail (see: Lemon Rant). The situation stinks for everyone involved underneath all of the funny one-liners and phenomenal acting from the likes of J.K. Simmons and Stephen Merchant, but the writers never truly throw the despair in your face; you must discover the subtlety of how depressing the situation is on your own through the scenery of the rummaged-by-nature Aperture HQ and the timely delivery of the actors’ lines.

For those of you who are constantly in need of something new and fresh, you can attempt to properly coordinate puzzle solving with a friend (or even worse, a stranger) via the brand new multiplayer mode – or as I call it, the “Learn to Hate Your Friends in Two Hours” seminar. Many feel that this is the true strength of Portal 2, though the flavors are truly different enough to distinguish themselves as sweet and salty. The story sequence provides moderate puzzles with heavy mythology sprinkled throughout for the game’s betterment, while the multiplayer experience relies on strict cooperation between two people with impeccable timing. Note to self: do not play with friends who have slow motor skills.

Amidst all of the things Portal 2 does right, my favorite thing is its ability to switch-up its core setting midway through the game, making the second act feel so incredibly, strangely different from everything that comes before or after it; it is the Bohemian Rhapsody of video games. Oddly enough, I also love that song but it is nowhere near the top of my favorites. This sequence also gives us an inside-look at what other madness Cave Johnson dreamt up during his years at Aperture, from the likes of turning participants into mantis men to his endearing globs of paint that actively manipulate physics throughout the lab. The introduction to paint that makes you bounce or sprint adds another realm of options to dive into while making your way through the facility, adding even more depth to the array of puzzles that comprise the title.

Perhaps Portal 2 is destined to be the one game that everybody can find something to love about in varying degrees. I concede that Portal 2 does literally everything right, from the artistic design to the puzzle implementation to the pacing to the writing. If it is in Portal 2, it is done to perfection. My apathy toward the puzzle genre may hinder the undying affection for the title that millions of others feel, but I can honestly say that this is not in my Top 3 solely out of personal opinion, as the game flawlessly executes everything it sets out to do.

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