Saturday, 21 May 2011

Portal 2’s Reviews, and a Portal 2 Review

When a team of developers continuously transmutes their code into gold, people start expecting more. Or such is the argument reviewers put forward to justify the obligatory nit-picking that follows. Actually, the critical reception of this game has been pretty good; it’s praised like it should be. Although there’s only so many ways people can phrase ‘It’s funny, well-paced and the puzzles are ever so wonderful.’ More worrying are the reviewers who feel the need to point this out right from the get-go. Seriously, it’s Portal 2: quit insulting your readers’ intelligence. Aren’t those numbers-out-of-whatever supposed to mean something? There are certain pieces of information that any reader with half a brain can deduce from the information available: if your review is on the internet, and you have a giant number right at the top of it, do you really think the reader would be interested to learn that Valve has expanded on its use of objects which interact with portals? Do the Fast5 reviews point out that bright cars are driven amidst exploding scenery? Hang on, I’ll check.

It’s about half and half. And the reviews which indulge in the obvious car prominence tend to carry some vague inquiry as to whether the dumb simplicity sells it or not, but I digress.

In all honesty, I can’t be too harsh on the critics. Not when it’s the user reviews that have funniest content: cue hype-based angst. Portal 2 is significantly better than your average videogame, but because of Valve’s sterling reputation people expect—Christ knows what they expect! Get a load of user Stabby’s (Metacritic) ire: “If this is the game of the year, then it definitely is a bad year for games. I could see how this game could be challenging and funny to 10 year olds, but for adult gamers its[sic] just too easy and childish in its execution, don't believe the hype.” I love that they command anyone who reads not to ‘believe’, when perhaps they should have used the word ‘invent’. They clearly had some imaginative model cooked up for what this game should be and that can be a pretty dangerous mentality to adopt, especially around sequels. This guy abandoned any logical basis for reviewing the game, all because it didn’t fit their fantasy. Someone should have reminded them that the original Portal’s single-player wasn’t hugely challenging, either: it’s still fun.

The esteemed ‘Stabby’ raises another interesting point, though: game of the year. The year isn’t actually half way through yet, but I’ll let that go. This is like someone moaning about who the Oscar for best film went to, only even more dumb since there’s no real consensus-body for aggregating industry opinion. But if there was a de facto Gaming Oscar, it would be just that: opinion. Sure, it’s nice to back a winner and, by corollary, annoying to see something that disappointed you celebrated by everyone else. But a horde of professional approval is seldom misplaced.

This guy doesn’t even know that Portal 2 is going to be game of the year for any publication, but the idea infuriates him! So much so that he was compelled to place a sneering ‘four’ atop his review. It’s pre-emptive hate, in a sense: the belief that a title is so over-rated that its reputation must be just as over-tarnished if the truth is to carry forward. It happened to Final Fantasy VII, too: a huge fan-base, followed by a second wave of people who were told to expect some kind of playable Rembrandt painting. Hardly surprising that people walk away angry.

My favourite point in the reviews of Portal 2, though, is how much bigger the single-player is this time around. It’s a fact: the solo mode is about three times as large as the original. But come on: this is a self-contained game. I think people would be a little pissed off if Portal 2 was the same length. When The Orange Box was on the horizon Portal was just that small game that came with the second Half-Life 2 episode and Team Fortress 2. It’s not a legitimate criticism to point to the lengthier campaign and bemoan some loss of concision; nor is it a particularly praise-worthy comparison to draw with its predecessor; this game had to be bigger. But it is interesting to consider how the developers tackled the issue.

Firstly, Valve made the decision this time around that the single-player is a story before a puzzle game. It captures both elements, but the sections with test-chambers are always leading up to something. The balance is undeniably impressive, but it’s an important (and unavoidable) distinction to make. There are about three or four separate test-chamber areas and, though it feels like each section could have progressed into harder and harder puzzles, the tendency, instead, is to stop short of jarring the player’s progress through the story. So, invariably, Valve had to sacrifice potential puzzles for the sake of the pacing here. The result? Well, there’s a clear aversion to punishing players over and over. But some people like to slave over obscure solutions; it’s practically a tenet of older single-player games. But it might be something best left for dedicated experiences whose aim is not to tell any kind of conventional story.

Once the clarity of the narrative took hold the part of me that wanted harder puzzles was supplanted by a dream of chronological consistence: alongside the sharpest of gameplay mechanics, as here, it turns into the pinnacle of conventional story-telling in games. Nothing is more jarring to this illusion than getting snagged on a hard section, and being subsequently forced to re-live a moment. So how do you go about solving the necessity and complicating nature of difficulty? Well, the pacing has a lot of stress on its seams in this regard: at the points of narrative-lull you can expect the more thought-provoking puzzles to crop up. But as you stand there, analysing the ways in which you might fling yourself to the next section, the muffled narrative pushes against the puzzle. The lack of time-frame in these sections almost becomes a detriment, with the imperative kicking against the fact of the diversionary puzzle. Then, just as quickly, the narrative springs into life; the previous mystery becomes a relic.

Any left over longing for a harder angle on the Portal 2 concept still finds its fulfilment in the form of the cooperative campaign: the final touch this game needed. While the single-player mode is primarily chamber-based, the concise narrative is the real, hidden backbone. Thus the cooperative focus on puzzles: a new take on the game, introducing the need to abuse four portals, and your friends’ free time. In short: the perfect outlet for the dedicated puzzle game experience.

So unless you’re looking for a stack of painfully difficult puzzles with little or no consideration for narrative pacing, I think it’s fair to say that most will enjoy this game. Now if only we could see a little restraint from the critical community’s love of the obvious. Oh, speaking of which, John Simmons and Stephen Merchant play prominent roles in this title. Are they amusing, well-implemented, apt even? Take a guess.

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