Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Portal 2

Welcome back, test subject. It's been a while.
Portal was one of those games that took the world by storm. If you're reading this, you're pretty much guaranteed to know what it is, but for the benefit of those who don't: Portal is an action game set in an abandoned scientific research facility. The principal mechanic of the game is the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, a 'gun' that creates 2 linked holes in space-time. This portal device is used to great effect, creating head-scratching physics puzzles - and yes, Valve show off their physics engine once again. What no-one expected, however, was for the game to be funny. Dark, deadpan humour from GLaDOS, the psychotic AI in control of the facility. Portal created one of, if not the most well known video game memes of all time, 'The cake is a lie.' (horrifically, the line is actually misused most of the time - it wasn't supposed to be a silly random line, it's more to give the player an understanding of GLaDOS' grasp of the human psyche, that cake is enough of an incentive to make the subjects continue through the frankly horrifying test chambers. In the end, you break free of her control, work your way through the interior of Aperture Science (the facility), and find GLaDOS herself.
You burn her.
Following up to what is perceived by many as one of the best puzzle games of all time, then, is no easy feat. But then, this is Valve, a company who cut their teeth on the universally acclaimed Half-Life and Counter Strike. They can do follow ups pretty well, considering the universal acclaim that Half-Life 2 receives. They do have a little trouble with the number three, however - see the MIA HL2: Episode 3 and the lack of Left 4 Dead 3 as evidence. So, when Portal 2 was announced at the end of a week long Alternate Reality Game last year, people were understandably excited. The concept sounded excellent - GLaDOS is back, Aperture Science is in disrepair, there are new characters in the shape of personality cores that will join you along the way
Fast forward a year, 2 weeks before Portal 2 is released. It's April 1st, and 13 indie games are updated with the message #happyPotatoFoolsDay. Something's afoot. Thus followed another ARG that lasted for 18 days, involving all forms of media - the 13 games themselves, Youtube videos, people visiting the headquarters of one of the indie studios and the community realises - this is to do with Portal 2. We're treated to concept art from the game and an extra level in each of the indie games directly relating to Aperture Science and GLaDOS. Valve had kicked their hype machine into the highest gear, and we loved it. The ARG culminated in Portal 2 releasing about 10 hours early.
This may all seem irrelevant, but it's important that we realise how big this game is for Valve. Gabe Newell, Valve's CEO and founder, was quoted as saying 'Portal 2 will be our best game yet.' There was a lot of hype surrounding this game.
Fortunately, it lives up to it. Chell, the player character from the first game, returns after she is rudely awoken by Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Merchant, of Extras fame) to find that Aperture Science is being destroyed. What follows is a 'train ride' (somewhat characteristic of Valve games) through the facility while you watch the room you're in crumble around you. At the end of this, you reach the Relaxtion vault from the first game, find the portal gun, and complete a few chambers that may look a little familiar, if a bit overrun with plants. You meet up with Wheatley again, who takes you on a quick behind-the-scenes tour to the nearest 'escape pod' - which just so happens to be in GLaDOS' chamber. I'm sure you can imagine what happens next.
The game is split into 3 main puzzle sections, each controlled by a different character - the first being GLaDOS, naturally. In between these sections, there are the 'story' areas, where the puzzle solving takes a bit of a back seat and you are instead introduced to the meat of the story. This is mainly due to the lack of dialogue in the test chambers - a decision made by Valve in the first game to ensure the player was fully concentrating on the puzzles and wasn't being distracted. The story is genuinely great, with a couple of great twists, and an ending which will go down in the history books.
Puzzles are solid, albeit a little on the easy side - there is no flinging from the first game, and at least until the final third, the puzzles are pretty easy. The last set of puzzles are far more challenging, and seem to be the direction Valve wanted to take all along - unfortunately, their testing team had other ideas. The game suffers a little from this 'design by committee' aspect - playing through again with the developer commentary enabled, you hear that Valve had some excellent puzzle ideas, but bad playtester feedback held them back - things that sounded truly great were cut because they were too difficult. A new testing element is introduced often, and combined with the previous elements in interesting ways. The parts I enjoyed most were the gel puzzles, although I seem to be alone here - many others have said that these were the puzzles they found most boring.
But the most important aspect of Portal was always the acting. Without it, we wouldn't have had the excellently delivered humour of the original. Thankfully, the same applies here. Ellen McClain is outstanding as GLaDOS, who is now a more offensive character after you so rudely killed her in the first game. J. J. Abrams is Cave Johnson, the founder of Aperture Science - he has some brilliant lines that will genuinely make you laugh out loud. He isn't around for long, though, and the game suffers slightly for it. The best character, though, is Wheatley. A scatterbrained personality core, he is the comic relief. He's voiced by Stephen Merchant, a man who can improvise brilliantly, and is absolutely hilarious. I often found myself standing around instead of continuing the game in the hope of making Wheatley say something else. Merchant fits the role perfectly and his lines never let up in their quality.
So that's the single player, but for Portal 2, Valve added co-op.
Co-op is far less story based. You play one of two robots who are being tested by GLaDOS, and it's immediately clear where all those clever puzzles from the single player went. The puzzles in co-op are hard, making use of all 4 portals available to you, as well as you and your partner's combined brainpower. The final puzzle is one that took me and my partner over 20 minutes, but when we got it, by god was it worth it. It takes all the testing elements from the entire game and rolls them into one multi-tiered puzzle. Brilliant stuff.
Portal 2 is pretty short. The single player took me 10 hours while looking for easter eggs and listening for extra dialogue. Co-op took about 4 hours. Getting all the single player achievements and doing another run with developer commentary added a further 5 hours to that total. I feel that 19 hours for £29 isn't bad (discounting that I also bought the Potato sack from the ARG, which was £20). But really, we shouldn't  be judging games based on length. We should be judging them based on quality and the experience. And on this, Portal 2 excels - it's certainly Valve's best game, and soared to the top of my personal list of the best games of all time. You have no excuse not to own this game yet. Buy it.

P.S. It also has hats, if you're a TF2 type.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Alan Wake

Alan Wake is kind of unique. In the endless sea of samey shooters with very little story (take Call of Duty - OH GOD! THE RUSKIES HAVE INVADED! FIRE THE DEATH BEAMS!), Alan Wake is entirely story driven.  The premise is that an author (the titular Alan Wake) with writer's block goes on holiday to try and get some R&R and restore his passion for writing. Things don't go entirely to plan when his wife, Alice, reveals that she brought along a typewriter. Alan storms out, his wife screams, she's gone. He dives into the water, thinking that's the only place she could have gone, then wakes up a week later with no memory of what happened in the intervening time. Not exactly the week of rest he was expecting, then.
Alan Wake's gimmick, if you will, is how you deal with the Taken (the enemies of the game). To kill them, you first have to eliminate their cloud of darkness with your flashlight, then shoot them. The premise, here, then, is that the Taken are possessed by the 'Dark Presence' (the mysterious antagonist of the game) and that they're after you for unknown reasons. The 'fight with light' gameplay works well, adding an extra dimension to pointing and shooting. Unlike other games, the protagonist isn't an all-powerful space marine and so isn't really skilled with a gun. Lock-on is almost non existant and you feel that much more satisfied when you take down a pack of enemies.
There aren't many weapons in the game, but that's a good thing - all of the weapons included, from the revolver to the hunting rifle and the flare gun, perfectly fit in with the setting of a sleepy town with an annual hunting festival. The flare gun, too, is your ultimate weapon - able to disintegrate Taken with ease, it's the rocket launcher of Alan Wake, according to the developers. Naturally, then, ammo is scarce for it, but when you get it, don't save it for a boss fight - you lose all your ammo at the start of every chapter.
The beauty of Alan Wake is its story, so I won't spoil it here. However, the ending is absolutely incredible. It ends suddenly and leaves you working things out through the credits. You'll eventually reach  'Oh, so THAT'S what happened moment,' when everything comes into focus and you realise what the whole story means.
Alan Wake is a 'Psychological Action Thwiller' according to the game's designers. It's a thriller, so there are some occasional scares. I'm gonna keep this fairly ambiguous, so you're not ready for it, but one of the most memorable, for me, was when I was tasked with retrieving something in chapter 2. I had grabbed it and thought I was completely safe, strolling slowly towards my destination. Suddenly, a Taken jumped out at me and made me literally shout out in fear and surprise. What followed was one of the most hectic battles of the game for me, as I fumbled the controller with my trembling fingers, trying to defeat one Taken.
A game that can scare you with just one enemy is doing pretty well.
The characters of Alan Wake are a mixed bag. Both Alan and Alice Wake aren't really explained as characters, not really evolving from the start of the game to the end. Barry Wheeler, Alan's agent, is the comic relief of the game and you'll either love him or hate him. I, personally, found him brilliant, but I can see how people would hate him. Sheriff Breaker is the archetypal tough female, who softens up by the end. Nightingale is the grizzled FBI cop who doesn't exactly develop his character through the story, more develop his accent. The characters are kind of typical, but the player can empathise with them, which is important. This, I think, is the biggest failing of the game - none of the characters are particularly interesting and, outside of Barry, none of them are memorable.
Alan Wake isn't a long game. It took me maybe 10 hours to complete on hard difficulty, including time spent scouring the game world for manuscript pages and other collectables. I'm currently replaying it on Nightmare difficulty and this time, it's taking me even less long. However, the length is suitable for the game - it means that the gameplay doesn't outstay its welcome and the story isn't too long and confusing.
Alan Wake, then, is a great game. The story is engaging, the combat, although pretty samey, is fun and it is just the right length. Although the characters can be wooden (not helped by occasionally very poor voice acting), the game is good enough to allow the player to skip over the poor characterisation and still enjoy the underlying story.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Left 4 Dead 2

So, I held off from buying L4D2 for quite a while. I like Valve, but I didn't really like Left 4 Dead and so held off from picking up L4D2 until last week, when 'the Passing' came out and it was on sale. Left 4 Dead 1, to me, felt unfinished. The weapons were all very bland, the campaigns repetitive and the characters wooden. It lacked that Valve charm that made their other games (that's Half-Life, Portal etc.) truly great. Those games were engaging, exciting, funny - whereas Left 4 Dead seemed a little less colourful by comparison. The world of Half-Life and Portal is so immersive and contains so much backstory - it's a genuinely interesting place to be. Left 4 Dead didn't have this, although admittedly it had very little in the way of story at all (and that's fine!), but it still seemed to take something away from the game.
Luckily, Valve seems to have banished the worries people had for Left 4 Dead 2 - namely, that it was too quick for a sequel (see Valve Time). With the exception of Rochelle, who, like Zoey, feels like a token gesture, the characters are far more engaging, funny and generally likeable. Ellis, for example, comes up with some brilliant lines detailing his life before the apocalypse (see here). This fleshes out the world a bit more and the fact that all the campaigns follow on from each other helps out with the previously lacking backstory.
Gameplaywise, Left 4 Dead 2 Manchester United 1 (*ahem* ripped off ZP joke) is very similar to Left 4 Dead the first. There are zombies. You kill them with guns and, now, frying pans. That about wraps it up for story, too. That isn't important, however. This is a game that knows its purpose - to have fun. And it does this very well. Controls are tight and balanced - there's no lag on your input. Its very easy to turn, reload, melee a zombie and get more health all at once and it all feels smooth.
The major addition to this edition is melee weapons. They're pretty much insta-kill on any zombie except the witch and the tank in normal, which can feel slightly overpowered, but it isn't gamebreaking. This isn't such a problem in difficulties above normal and on Versus and Scavenge modes, since the special zombies in these modes have more health. They're great fun to use and most of them make a satisfying thunk when they hit.
The special zombies, in case you don't know, are zombies with special powers. There's the Smoker, which constricts a survivor, the Hunter, which pins a survivor, the Boomer, which vomits on the survivors and attracts the common infected and the Tank, who, as the name suggests, is pretty much a tank. The new SZ in this edition are the Spitter, who spits acid at the survivors, the Charger, who charges at the survivors and can start pounding one of them into the ground and the Jockey, who can jump onto a survivor and ride them into danger. These new zombies feel like natural additions to the infection and they're all just as fun to play as ever.
There are 5 new campaigns to play: Dead Center, Dark Carnival, Swamp Fever, Hard Rain and The Parish, plus the new 'The Passing' campaign from the DLC. Dead Center, Dark Carnival, Swamp Fever and The Parish all involve working through the levels to rescue. I could describe all the campaigns in minute detail, but instead I'm going to focus on just one: Hard Rain.

In this campaign, you start next to your escape route and venture through 2 levels to find petrol cans. Once you've picked them up, you have to go back through the same levels, but there's a twist: the rain's been pouring and the whole area is flooded. It adds a brilliant twist to the standard Left 4 Dead gameplay and is my personal favourite campaign.
The best way to experience Left 4 Dead 2 is in the online mode. There are 4 survivors, even in single player and they are essential to your survival, saving you from SZ and the like. However, this feature is a bit broken, at least on my computer. The server browser is poor, the system often will only find 1 or 2 games (when there are about 17000 players online, bear in mind that each campaign only requires 4 players) and it takes several minutes to connect and load a game. Once you get into a game, it's brilliant fun but it's so difficult getting into a game, sometimes it isn't worth the effort. Admittedly, it was worse on the first Left 4 Dead on Xbox, where it takes me, consistently, almost 15 minutes to start the game, join a campaign and wait for enough players to join.

To sum up: Left 4 Dead 2 feels like the game the original should have been. Everything about it is better: characters, weapon variety and the amount of content. The only con is the online service, but I think that may be my problem more than the game's.
If you enjoyed the first Left 4 Dead, you have no reason not to buy this game. If you found the first game good but somewhat lacking, this sequel should change your mind. If you're on the fence about the co-op gameplay, don't be. Its an excellent way to play a game and I can guarantee you'll enjoy it.

Next time: probably Alan Wake actually, I don't know when that'll be though. If I can get a review for a game out sooner, I will, but don't hold your breath.
To buy Left4Dead 2 from, go here.

This Site my site where I'll be reviewing games, because I can. Hopefully, it'll be informative and funny!
Now, I'm not gonna give scores, a bit like Yahtzee in Zero Punctuation, because really, a game's quality can't be represented by a number. I'll end on pros and cons and my final thoughts.
Hope you enjoy reading!
Nick 'Nallen' Allen
Gamertag: Cptn Satsuma
Steam ID: rubbernecker