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The Orange Box turned 10 years old this year, and by extension Portal celebrated its anniversary too. Sitting alongside continuations of well-loved games, the short puzzle adventure could have been quickly forgotten. Tacked on to bulk up the box. It was, however, a surprise hit, winning over players with its smart spatial puzzles and writing that fans continue to quote. And while I can list lines off with the best of them (don t even get me started on that cake), this classic s hold on my heart comes from a person who never speaks one.
Here s an odd fusion. Portal is being mixed with the Bridge Constructor series to create a spin-off game about making fragile bridges that transport forklifts from one side of the Aperture Science facility to the other. In Bridge Constructor Portal we’ll see GLaDOS, the robot marm of the passive aggressive puzzler, return to torment the player with what I presume will be a characteristically snide voiceover, provided by Ellen McLain. Here s a brief teaser. (more…)
Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.>
Is there any greater testament to the power of writing in games than all the fandom that spilled forth from Portal? Valve’s first-person puzzler recently turned ten years old, and when I think back on it, so much of what I remember is otherwise plain and functional. (more…)
Every week, we ask our panel of PC Gamer writers a question about PC gaming. This week: which old PC game do you revisit regularly? We also welcome your answers in the comments.
I can't count the times I've played through Portal and Portal 2. With over 100 hours clocked in each, I'm an amateur speedrunner at this point. I treat every puzzle like a choreographed dance, a nearly unconscious performance that to any observer unfamiliar with the series makes me look like the master of all time and space. Because the Portal series is a game about momentum—you're always anticipating the resulting arc of a 'toss' of your body after leaping from a given height far above one portal—it's become my new way to skip rocks without a pond. Except these rocks tell jokes. And the rocks are always funny.
I've replayed the first Broken Sword more than any other game. There's an element of nostalgia to it, as it was one of the first games I really loved. But it's also a great adventure game in its own right, with an atmosphere you can get lost in and a genuinely funny script. There are TV shows and films I watch repeatedly because there's something comforting about the familiarity, and Broken Sword is the videogame equivalent of that for me. I know all the puzzle solutions, but I still enjoy reliving that mystery and travelling the world as amateur detective George Stobbart.
I still jump into Oblivion a few times a year. When I do it's often for a specific reason, like to test a mod or write a quick diary for the site (like finding the ugliest NPC or trying to poison everyone with apples) but I always stay a while longer since I still enjoy the game and the world. It's the first Bethesda RPG I ever played, and while it's not much in the looks department (and never really was) it's still one of the best examples of a free and open world where you can do whatever you like, be whoever you want, and tell your own stories.
I've played hundreds of hours of Quake 2 multiplayer—CTF, Action Quake 2, Rocket Arena—but I don't think I've ever finished the campaign. Even so, at least once a year I spend an hour getting Quake 2 to launch without crashing to play through the first level. I think I just like hearing the sound effects, which deserve credit for how weird they are. They Quake 2 blaster doesn't sound like any other game's energy pistol, picking up armor sounds like someone chomping down on a bunch of screws, and the Strogg are just bizarre—clipped, blown out, grossly-distorted. The way unique scents can bring back memories, these sound effects do it for me. Now please enjoy a song someone tried to make using the echoey menu sound effects.
On-and-off for the past year I've been playing NetHack, which was first released in 1987. NetHack is actually older than me, although it's been updated as recently as 2015. I can't claim nostalgia, here, or some deep childhood bond with roguelikes. I never played Rogue and only played NetHack for the first time a couple years ago. But it's now a regular part of my gaming life, and even when I take breaks from it I'm thinking about my last run. What kind of scrolls I could've written if my blessed magic marker hadn't run out of juice; how unlucky I got rubbing a lamp and spawning a genie who didn't give me a wish; how lucky I was to find an adventurer's corpse wearing dragon scale mail, a key piece of armor that can reflect instakill magic attacks. I've never beaten NetHack, and I don't know if I ever will, but when I play I'm constantly in awe of how broad and deep it is. Last time my pet cat got turned into a magic brain-sucking floating jellyfish, and then turned into a chameleon. NetHack is weird.
To the surprise of nobody, I play varying amounts of Hearthstone every single day, and have done for three years. During the doldrums between expansions, I just log in and crank out the daily quest to keep my in-game Gold top. But when a new set launches, and I've got a deck I'm really feeling on the go, I might play for as much as a couple of hours a day. The thing with any mulitplayer game, though, is that I feel the serotonin rush of winning acutely, so I find myself Jonesing for that buzz if I stop playing. Equally, the tilt from losing what can feel like unfairly can really sour my mood. So for both reasons I end up rationing my play in a way that I wouldn't with a big single-player game like The Witcher III. Right now I can't envisage a time when I ever stop playing it completely though. Which is both comforting and kinda scary.
I put Shadows of the Empire in my list of the worst Star Wars games a few months ago, and I'm still sure that was the right call. You sometimes have this weird thing as a critic where something you like is clearly not very good, and you have to call it as such, even if you've got a real soft spot for it personally. This is one of those games. Shadows of the Empire is obviously a pretty bad third-person shooter that made slightly more sense on the N64, and yet I've played the PC version so many times. I'm not sure I could recommend it to anyone but those who played it at the time, though.
I still love it. I played it yesterday, and the opening Battle of Hoth level is still one of the best ever put in a game—and there have been a whole bunch of them now across consoles and PC, almost all of which look better than this. The sound and feel of everything, from the scale of the walkers to the way snowspeeders handle, just feels spot on. On foot, Shadows of the Empire is never as good, but for a Star Wars-starved '90s, playing an original story set between Episodes V and VI was a treat, even if Dash Rendar is a mildly ludicrous figure. I even had the Micro Machines set.
The Orange Box launched ten years ago. It was undoubtedly the greatest bundle of games ever, with the simultaneous launch of Portal, Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode Two, alongside the existing Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode One. The former three were instantly significant in the landscape of PC gaming: Portal was an influential puzzle game that many cited as the surprise highlight of the set, while Team Fortress 2 arrived as a fully-formed multiplayer phenomenon that would constantly evolve across the next decade. Episode Two, of course, was the last time we experienced a new chapter of arguably the greatest singleplayer FPS series of all time.
It was a massive moment: imagine that many amazing games dropping at once now, from the same developer. It just wouldn't happen. Here, Valve's Robin Walker reflects on the factors that led to The Orange Box's release, and offers some behind-the-scenes insights on both Portal and Team Fortress 2.
PC Gamer: What did the release of The Orange Box mean for Valve at that time, and what does it represent as part of Steam's history?
Robin Walker: The Orange Box was a huge step for us internally because it was the first time we’d ever managed to complete more than a single product at a time. In some ways, the Orange Box was a company level 'hack' where we made three separate products that all consider themselves the same product for shipping purposes, which meant that people could rationally prioritize their work across all three of them. If you were on Portal, and everything was going well, but TF2 was struggling, it made sense for you to jump over and help TF2 out because all three games needed to ship together.
The Orange Box was also a great product to really highlight why the retail channel was reducing game developer’s options. We found with Episode One that retail really didn’t understand or like a premium quality $20 title—they stood to make less money per box, and they had a limited amount of shelf space in their stores. The Orange Box avoided this by combining multiple quality products into a single box that was worth that full amount, but in doing so it created other problems. Retail had never seen a new, high quality box containing more than one title. Historically, a box that contained multiple titles was a bundle of old or low quality titles.
So in terms of Steam’s history, to us the Orange Box represents the era in which distribution channels placed a huge amount of friction on what kinds of games were made, how big they should be, and how much they were sold for. These weren’t things that retailers should be blamed for, they were simply the side effects of operating in physical space. It’s great to be able to look around and see such an enormously wide spectrum of games being made today, many of which wouldn’t have had much of a chance to find their audience in that physical distribution world.
Were you surprised by the response to Portal, in that a lot of people considered it to be the highlight of The Orange Box at the time?
We didn’t really know what to hope for with Portal. We’d put it in front of enough play testers to be confident that players would have fun with it, but Portal didn’t fit any existing model of a successful game for us to know how it was going to really turn out. There wasn’t much of a history of first person puzzle games, let alone ones that combined a new gameplay mechanic with comedy. The Orange Box really solved Portal’s biggest challenge, which was to explain itself to players. By putting it in the Orange Box, we didn’t have to do the heavy lifting of explaining to people why they should buy this thing that was unlike anything they’d played before—instead, we could lure them in with Episode Two & TF2, and surprise them with the game they had the least expectations for.
Portal became incredibly influential to the indie games scene—its length, storytelling and environmental design are felt in a lot of today's games. Can you recall that process of the Narbacular Drop team joining Valve, and the key decisions that eventually made that game what it is?
By the time we saw Narbacular Drop at the Digipen student day, we’d already hired multiple groups of inexperienced developers who had built interesting things. When we hire those kinds of teams, we’re fundamentally more interested in the people than the thing they’ve built, and in our discussions with them, the Portal team seemed like a group of people with a huge amount of potential. We paired them up with some experienced developers at Valve, and let the team loose.
In any game's development, there are too many decisions to count, and many of them will ruin the game if made incorrectly. One decision that ended up being very important was the one behind GladOS. We had been working on Portal for about a year, and at that point we had 14 levels of the game in a state where they were being regularly playtested. There was no GladOS, the player just moved from puzzle to puzzle without any sense of progression or reward beyond the increasing complexity of the puzzles. The playtest response we kept seeing could be summed up as "This is really fun! When does the game start?". This was both great and terrifying. Players were having fun, but they seemed to consider everything they played as just training leading up to something else. Considering the entire game was really just a process of learning about the core gameplay mechanic, this scared us a lot, making us worry that we’d have to create a whole other section of the game afterwards.
But first, we asked ourselves what it was that was causing players to consider everything as training. After much discussion, we settled on the idea that it was the lack of threat or pressure. Nothing in the game pushed back on the player. There was no real failure, no cost to mistakes, nothing overall to fear, no larger goal to strive for, and hence no real reason to advance. We talked about various solutions, and in the end decided that introducing an antagonist made the most sense. The antagonist could start as a narrative tool for introduction & reward, and over time become the thing that pushed back on the player, eventually giving them the core goal of the game—"I want to learn all this because I need to be able to defeat X". We had little in the way of art production on the team, so it being a character that largely spoke to you via voice over was a straightforward production solution.
In the end, there are many important decisions after this that were critical to GladOS working as well as she did, such as her entire personality. But her genesis begins with a straightforward process of us trying to solve the core gameplay problem in Portal. Even today, it’s always fascinating to us that players seem to start Portal talking about the gameplay, but after they’re done, all they talk about is GladOS.
You've kept updating and transforming Team Fortress 2 over the years, and few competitive games have that kind of lifespan. What's been the philosophy behind that? How have you kept reinventing the game while still making it recognisably TF2?
The philosophy is pretty simple—listen to your players, pay attention to what they're doing, ship your work, and iterate as much as possible. But TF2's a strange thing. In some ways, it seems so different to how it launched in 2007, but at the same time, it still feels utterly familiar. There are still Snipers on the battlements in 2Fort having a fine old time paying no attention to what's going on with their flag in the basement. There's a much wider set of potential threats to deal with than they faced back in 2007, but they now have many more choices in exactly how they want to face them. And no matter what they decide, they can ensure they look different to all the other Snipers in the game.
So TF2's core gameplay seems to be fairly resilient in the face of all the horrible things we've done to it, and I think that's largely due to how we've approached our role in the process. We've always felt that our job was to support players in whatever they're trying to do. As a result, it's the players who've decided how TF2 should be played throughout the last decade. We've added all kinds of elements to the game, from both our and the community's minds, and the players have been the ones to digest and choose the way those elements ended up incorporated into the whole, even if it meant outright rejection in some cases.
You provided audio commentary for The Orange Box at the time, which was a really nice opportunity to let players get granular with the various games' creative processes, having previously tested it in Lost Coast. Can you recall the process of doing that? What was it like to examine your work through that lens as a developer?
We approached commentary as a tool to explain our craft. In our experiences listening to commentaries of other creative works, it was the nuts & bolts of how they actually did the work that interested us the most. Throughout our years of developing games, we constantly found that problems we thought were going to be straightforward to solve turned out to be nasty, thorny issues involving complex tradeoffs between design and technology. Often, that complexity was hidden entirely by the solution. So we thought it might be interesting to players if we could lift the rock and show them everything that’s going on underneath all that apparent simplicity. We’re game developers, so hopefully players will forgive us for thinking that game development is a fun thing to talk about.
Also, that commentary and accompanying analysis was all written before the product launched, which means we didn’t have the chance to examine our work through the context of how it was received, let alone how it would fit into the gaming landscape 10 years later. Would Portal be something people would like? Or would it be some weird puzzle game Valve made that no-one wanted any more of? Without that perspective, we found it hard to talk about anything other than what we were confident in—what we did, and why we did it.
Seeing "the cake is a lie" memes in 2017 hurts me about as much as slipping on a linoleum floor and bashing my head on a marble counter top. If I had to choose between reviving the meme for another complete circuit or never playing Portal again, I'd eradicate the game from my Steam account.
I don't hate Portal or anything—it's my favorite game of all time. I even have a bad Aperture tattoo on my back. I've just heard that fucking catchphrase belted out with such frequency since Portal's release in 2007 that it's forcefully supplanted treasured memories and worldly knowledge, like my the sound of grandfather's voice or the equation for calculating the volume of a cylinder. "The cake is a lie" is good fun, but Portal is so much more than a cute combination of words.
It's a catchphrase that has since fallen into whatever meme obscurity is called. So, already bearing the scars, I set out to wrap myself in its cold, disemboweled corpse to examine its lifespan and determine what kind of irreversible changes a viral sentence about cake could inflict on videogames, for better or worse.
Portal writers Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszek didn't set out to make Portal's cake catchphrase a meme—they were born before the '80s so they still don't know what memes are. They just wanted to write a funny game. For them "the cake is a lie" is just part of a clever plot device, a thematic anchor that offers a chuckle or two in its setup, reveal, and post-credits wink. Its viral potential was never even a consideration.
"We thought we should have a warehouse full of Hoopy t-shirts and mugs and posters…we would watch that hoop roll by over and over again," Wolpaw told Game Informer. "That was the part of the game we were most proud of, and nobody cared.”
Don't worry if the name doesn't ring a bell. As the innocuous hoop that falls from the sky after defeating GLaDOS and escaping an exploding Aperture, Hoopy isn't the most iconic character from the Portal universe. Chances are Valve didn't actually expect a chunk of industrial metal to become Portal's unofficial mascot; Hoopy is a classic Wolpaw-ism, a roundabout point made to illustrate how distant a creator is from how the public will perceive their work.
Between writers, animators, programmers, and everyone else juggling ideas and managing strict development pipelines, it's easy to imagine why they couldn't try for or predict the popularity of "the cake is a lie"—or any meme-able phrase. A forced effort to 'make a meme' would come off as crass and awkward. Hoopy with googly eyes and a shrill voice would be a grave mistake. Valve ended up demonstrating that the best way to make a meme was to not make one at all.
A deciding factor in Cake Meme's success can be credited to the year it blew up, a year in which some of the most legendary memes gained notoriety and cemented themselves near the head of the wacky, inexplicable semiotics parade. 2007 gifted us a kid in corpse paint that really likes turtles, a biting infant named Charlie, a prairie dog dramatically turning its head towards the camera because that's good fun, the hit single Chocolate Rain, and the practical joke that never gets old except it did in 2007: Rickrolling.
Somewhere smooshed between Tay Zonday and an errant turtle shell sits 'The cake is a lie.' It's a phrase that won't carry much impact to anyone that hasn't played Portal, but according to Don Caldwell, managing editor and meme specialist at KnowYourMeme.com, that's all it takes.
"It seems once a game reaches a certain level of popularity, the fan base is constantly looking to make jokes out of whatever quirky content they discover in the game." he says. "Catchphrase memes like these are easily spread across the entire web and have a very low barrier to entry for participating in their proliferation."
Through the sheer volume of players repeating the message, the underlying idea eventually caught on with people that hadn't played or even heard of Portal before. 'The cake is a lie' is straightforward enough: all your effort is for nothing. Once removed from its fictional context, the phrase carries the same pseudo-intellectual weight as any quote from the Matrix.
And like "There is no spoon" or the more recent "You know nothing, Jon Snow," early use of "the cake is a lie" indicated a wry state of knowing. For Portal players, the phrase represented a shared experience, and for everyone else, a clever way to flag down false sources of motivation.
Shortly after Cake Meme peaked, as most memes do, it quickly outpaced itself and became so far removed from its original context through repeated use that its purpose was lost in the noise. Memes co-opted the catchphrase by haphazardly smashing together One Nerd Thing with Another Nerd Thing. "The cake is a lie" itself became a lie.
According to Caldwell, memes without an attachment to a specific image are easier to distort and deploy. "Catchphrases like this tend to wear out their welcome a bit quicker than other memes, as they get repeated ad nauseum across chatrooms, discussion forums and comment sections across the internet." Caldwell tells me. "The same thing happened with 'I took an arrow in the knee' as well. People got sick of it really fast."
Interest nearly dropped off completely in early 2009 before spiking on July 6 of the same year. Caldwell attributes the renewed interest to an xkcd comic referencing the tired phrase, a sentiment that returning Portal 2 writer Erik Wolpaw wholly endorsed. "If you thought you were sick of the memes, I was sick of it way ahead of you." he told Gamasutra three years into his hell child's life.
Discovered after its release in 2011, Portal 2 still contained one overt reference to cake via a door labeled "Cake Dispenser". The reference is the likely cause of another spike in search traffic and roused some short lived interest in the meme again. After 2011, "the cake is a lie" flatlines.
The trend isn't surprising: popular game memes come and go with increasing frequency. As Caldwell mentioned, Skyrim's 'arrow to the knee' meme drove us all to the brink of quitting games forever, Fallout 4's Preston Garvey became the face of awful quest givers, Adam Jensen never asked for his "I never asked for this" notoriety, and we've been told "It's dangerous to go alone" at a steady rhythm for decades.
Memes have since become their own industry. Games are harvested for sharable content the moment they release, diluting the chance for any one meme to last for more than a few months anymore. "The cake is a lie" isn't the funniest videogame meme ever produced, but we may never have another of the same scale as grassroots as Portal's baked deceit. May it rest in equally divided pieces shared among a dinner party, but may there also be a gluten free option available as well, also resting.
Great memes never truly die, I suppose. Jump to 2:45.
"The cake is a lie" lived like its subject: short and sweet. Its impact was dissolved in misguided overuse, a fate most memes share. Even so, Caldwell thinks while the cake jokes will become extinct in the next decade, he doesn't think we'll ever forget them. "Portal was embraced by the internet in a way that few games had been up until that point. If anything, Portal (and "the cake is a lie") proved that video games could have vibrant, creative online fandoms just like other forms of entertainment."
Now, those vibrant fandoms are the status quo. Even the smallest games have their own subreddits or Discord servers spilling over with fan art and community curated memes. From Dusk's soap secrets to PUBG's chicken dinner, we'll be entertained and overburdened with an endless cycle of exhaustive catchphrases and hackneyed JPEGs captioned with Impact lettering from now until the end of everything.
Begrudgingly, I have to admit that as irritating as "the cake is a lie" became, without it there would be no gentle aura buzzing around Portal's history. We'd look back on it as a great puzzle game with bold, surprising ideas, but we may not have a cultural touchstone for how it made us feel. And I may not have this dumb back tattoo that I still adore in secret, a browser history I can't erase unlike the memes I laugh at and share with alarming frequency.
Cakes are rarely the apex of humor, but Portal proves the memes that sprout from great games come from a gentle place, too.
To celebrate 10 years of the Orange Box, we're publishing the original PC Gamer reviews from our archives. All three games were reviewed by Tom Francis in issue 180 of the magazine. The reviews capture our excitement at the release of a bundle containing three 90+ rated games. October 2007 was a great month for PC games.
Last night I had a really weird dream. I dreamt that instead of ending where it ended, Half-Life 2 just carried on after the explosion at the top of the Citadel. Vortigaunts rescued me, then Alyx hugged me, and I ended up catching a train out of town into a countryside full of tiny Striders. Then a Combine Advisor made me do my uni finals all over again, only this time I hadn’t revised and the papers were all in Chinese. And I was naked.
It’s surreal that Valve are still churning out more Half-Life 2, three years on. As beautifully crafted as Episode One was, it did tread on a lot of its parent’s toes. Episode Two certainly doesn’t do that. It turbos away from them at 90 miles an hour in a customised Dodge Charger, with Alyx riding shotgun.
I won’t spoil any details, but Ep2 is what happens after you and Alyx break free of City 17 once and for all. The setting for most of your previous adventures is nothing more than a smouldering scar on Episode Two’s skyline, and the Citadel looks like a longfinished game of girder-Jenga. Because of that, and because you spend a lot of time driving a car that could have swerved straight off the set of a postapocalyptic Dukes of Hazzard, Ep2 feels wild, dangerous and cool.
Your time—a little under five hours—is diced into refreshingly different sections. Valve still do pacing better than anyone. They break fights with puzzles, driving with combat, solitude with friendly faces and claustrophobic tunnelrunning with epic, sweeping vistas of naturalistic landscape.
These make Ep2 feel huge. It only took me an hour longer than Episode One, but every inch of it is gorgeous uncharted territory, and there are more inches than the running time suggests. Spending a third of the episode in a supercharged two-seater means covering a lot of ground, of course, but it’s more than that. There’s an openness to a lot of Episode Two’s chilly forested landscapes that’s new to Half-Life.
It’s all the more inviting because Episode Two is the most sumptuous chapter of the Half-Life saga, and by a country mile. It’s as if Valve’s tech and art teams are trying to outdo each other: the Source engine has had a striking technical overhaul that renders textures, materials and curves uncannily well, and the artists clearly relish having a fresh palette to work with.
Towering conifers bristle gently in the breeze, casting soft shadows across winding mountain paths. Each toothy vortigaunt’s big peering eye glints glassily, a perfect ruby sunk into finely wrinkled brown skin. Even the shotgun is newly beautiful, gleaming ominously in the sun with a convincingly weighty gunmetal sheen. We get to see the pine-covered rocky land of this nameless nation, and it conforms to no established gameenvironment stereotype. It resembles only the real world—some proud, cold country I feel sure I’ve been to—and it has that authentic real-world grubbiness that only Valve have figured out how to recreate.
The combat explodes across this soothing canvas with a brilliantly messy splat. Something clever involving particle physics has allowed Valve to make thick black blood, lurid yellow goo and something a lot like vomit spray repulsively from your victims with every cracking impact. The new poisonous Worker Antlions burst like bioluminescent bombs; injured Hunters drool a sticky slurry of their own innards from where their mouth should be; and when the vortigaunts fight... Jesus God. The trailers released last year showed nothing of this—some consolation for those of us who spoiled big chunks of the game for ourselves by watching them.
The three-legged Hunter creatures are the highlight of the fighting: velociraptors to the Strider’s T-rex. They’re the perfect size for Gordon-killing: compact enough to chase you indoors but hefty enough to take the shotgun blast that awaits them there. More importantly, they’re bright enough to do so when you least expect it. Valve have trained them to deduce where you’re heading and get there first by a different route, and the effect is alarming.
They’re another departure from what we’ve previously been shown of the game: they used to fire a tiresomely familiar pulserifle burst, now they fling a torrent of bulbous azure darts on swirling trails. These thud into whatever they hit, quiver pregnantly for a moment, then detonate in a flurry of fizzling plasma pops. Cover is no longer enough: wherever you hide, in a few seconds you’re going to have to throw yourself from the room before it explodes.
Once they’ve flushed you out with their flechettes, the Hunters use Episode Two’s wide open spaces to take a scampering runup and smack you into the stratosphere. The seemingly generic name is exactly apt: they take the initiative in combat, and nowhere is entirely safe. The Hunters continually provoke and surprise you in ways that Half-Life hasn’t since the first game’s marines.
The sense of threat is a prevailing and escalating theme As you can see, the pistol has been beefed up a little. Once, just once, itd be nice to have a windscreen. This is what Vorts do to Antlions. of Episode Two, and it extends to the plot. You and your friends are trapped, maimed and violated in ways that are distressing on a really visceral level, and it’s properly gruesome to watch. The blood-soaked tone gives the story a force that makes it the darkest and most exhilarating chapter yet. It’s Half-Life’s Empire Strikes Back—and it even has a less snowy analogue to the Battle of Hoth.
That fight needs to be mentioned—but mustn’t be described—because it’s the first truly satisfying climax to a Half- Life game. Half-Life’s Xen was disastrous, shunting energy balls at a bigger energy ball in HL2 was uninspired, and taking down a single Strider with the RPG at the end of Ep1 was almost comically banal. But at last Valve have crafted a finale worthy of the adventure that precedes it, and the result is the largest, most open-ended and complex battle of the series. It’s also one of my favourite Half-Life moments so far, and that’s saying a lot.
Episode Two is, needless to say, so polished that it hurts to look directly at it in sunlight—so my only criticisms are pretty feeble. The first is that it’s slightly too easy, right to the end. I wouldn’t mind if Hard mode only increased the damage you took. But it also reduces the damage you deal, and that renders almost all the game’s weapons meek and unsatisfying. Speaking of which, we still haven’t had a single new gun since the end of Half-Life 2. That game never went nine hours without introducing several new weapons, so where are our shiny new deathsticks? The armament is the only part of the Half-Life formula that’s starting to go stale.
Episode One seems dismally small and boring by comparison, however much I loved it at the time. But the one edge it does retain over the second is Alyx: she’s not quite as charming here. There are a few really wonderful character moments with her, and one superb performance from actress Merle Dandridge, but nothing quite as heart-meltingly cute as Episode One’s Zombine joke. To be fair, that’s only because the grim plot mostly keeps her in her less convincing :o and :( emotional states.
Still, I didn’t think it was possible for a mere episode to surprise, excite and energise me as much as it has. The simultaneous global unlocking of the next chapter of Half-Life is becoming one of the most geekily enjoyable events on the gaming calendar, even with the mortifying suspense of relying on Steam under heavy load. Not just the playing, but IMing inanities to friends while it unlocks with an agonising slowness, and retiring exhaustedly to the nearest forum afterwards to exchange breathless superlatives. “Oh, and the bit where—and then she—and the Advisors!”
Half-Life 2’s critics groan about its linearity, and its fans groan about how long it is between episodes. But the series shrugs off both complaints when you start seeing it for what it is: a series of playable movies. Better than anyone, Valve make cinema that you’re a part of—and they do it at about the same rate Warner Bros churn out new Harry Potter films.
In Half-Life’s day, it was a compliment to say a game felt like a Hollywood movie. In the intervening years Valve have become more professional and accomplished than any visual effects studio working in Tinseltown, and now it would be an insult to liken one of their beautifully crafted works to the messy dross the American film industry churns out.
I know some gamers love a sandbox—I’m one of them—but it always baffles me when that love seems to preclude the enjoyment of anything else. Do these people storm out of cinemas when they realise their popcorn munching isn’t controlling the actors? Are there really people who can’t enjoy a gorgeous, hurtling ride like this? That would be sad, because they’re getting seriously good. Bring on the third.
Verdict Fresh and thrillingly darkScore 93
Last night I had a really weird dream. I dreamt that Valve were finally going to bring out Team Fortress 2, only they’d made it look like some crazy Pixar cartoon, it was budget-priced, and all the classes talked as you played. And I was naked.
But here we are. This is the trouble with a dream job: you have to do it even when you’re asleep. I’m just going to review this ridiculous ‘Team Fortress 2’ fantasy until I finally wake up and discover that I am, after all, a chartered accountant.
Let’s not dwell too much on the original mod for Quake and Half-Life—that was ten years ago, not everyone played it, and TF2 is very obviously aimed at new players as much as old. Worth mentioning, quickly, is that it’s got the same nine classes but fewer weapons for each, grenades have been removed entirely (thank God) and, well... look at it. Look what they did to it.
The changes might sound like simplification, but like the art style it’s more about exaggeration. The Spy used to have a double-barrelled shotgun, for goodness’ sake. Taking stuff like that out hasn’t made it a simpler game, it’s made the choice to be a Spy a more meaningful one. Every class is so tightly focused on doing its thing that TF2 feels like nine different games fighting each other. That’s bewildering at first, but it’s a joy to watch characters this beautiful smash each other to pieces while you learn.
That Pixar comparison isn’t fair. TF2’s gurning murderers look better. Valve have remodelled their class-based multiplayer FPS after the work of turn-of-the-last-century illustrator JC Leyendecker. Google Image him and you’ll see the similarities in the angular, characterful silhouettes. They’re a world away from the lumpy sacks that were The Incredibles, and as it turns out, class-based multiplayer combat has long needed that distinctiveness.
It sounds like a small thing, to be able to tell what class someone is as surely and as clearly as you can see them at all. To have an immediate sense of the heft and power of a Heavy, rather than an abstract notion of his hitpoints. But stuff like this has an intensifying effect on your moment-to-moment experience: you feel, see and comprehend the game world in Technicolor. It makes all the relationships instantly clear and the importance of your actions explicit. In short, it makes everything you do 300% cooler.
That’s Team Fortress 2: multiplayer magnified. Cooperation means more, victory is sweeter, betrayal is more bitter, defeat more humiliating. But it’s what lies at the heart of multiplayer gaming that matters most, and that is, in the parlance of our times, the lols.
The image of a Scout circle-strafing a Heavy quickly enough to smack him into a stupor with a tiny baseball bat is inherently funny. But it only really gets a belly-laugh when the Scout is a scampering stickboy in knee-high socks, and his victim a meat-headed brickheap of a man. Character is a catalyst for comedy, and until now multiplayer games just haven’t had it. They were already funny, but TF2 just brings it out beautifully, every round.
All that stuff—gloating, humiliation, snuff slapstick—is best with friends. But another of TF2’s charms is that you form relationships with the people you’re playing with so quickly. They might not be friendships exactly, but they add an edge of human interest to every interaction. I don’t know Gabe Newell very well, but after he’d followed me around as my personal Medic for a while, I felt like I did. The same goes for Robin Walker after he and I—as Engineers—constructed an elaborate ecosystem of killing machines that reaped dozens of enemy lives.
That’s a quirk of the way friendly classes tessellate, but TF2 is more interested in playing up your relationship with players on the enemy team. Each time you die the game freeze-frames on your killer after a short delay, and that delay is calculated very cynically to catch him in the middle of an offensive taunt animation. Worse, the game then invites you to save this lewd image of your murderer for posterity. And the game looks so damnably good that you’re usually compelled to do it.
Valve know we like to mock the dead, dance on graves, hump corpses. So as well as making that mockery more crushing, they’ve also made a game of it: taunting now roots you to the spot, pulls you out into third-person view to watch yourself swagger, leaving you utterly helpless. You’ve actually got to make a strategic decision about whether you’ve got a few seconds to play air guitar on your victim’s carcass or not. I’ve seen chain-reactions of death where a Sniper waves to his unfortunate victim, is shot dead mid-mock by another, who then performs the same taunt—with the same fatal result.
The taunts, and the lines uttered alongside them, are part of the persona Valve have given each class. If you’ve seen the Meet The Heavy or Soldier trailers, you’ve had a taste of this. (See the disc for the most recent.) But the idea that your character is a character, with his own personality, is only as relevant as you make it. If you leave the taunt and chat commands alone, you’ll only really hear yourself if you’re a Heavy: the big guy can’t resist cackling deliriously if you’re getting a lot of kills, and an extraordinary spree will usually be punctuated with a bellowing “SO... MUCH... BLOOD!”
The other classes’ involuntary comments are too quiet and infrequent to hear often, but in a quiet moment I did hear the liquor-chugging Demoman mutter that “On the plus side, I already don’t remember this.” If, like me, you develop a particular fondness for one character, you can hammer the chat shortcuts and taunts to mutter battlecries at every opportunity. It was the gasmasked Pyro I fell in love with, and if you’re wondering what his voice is like, the answer is a punchline in itself: muffled.
His battle-cry is “Mmmph mm mumph umph!” and his call for a medic is “Mmphumph!” His dumpy teardrop physique, shrew-like tiny head, waddling gait and baggy, flame-retardant suit—they all evoke an endearingly downtrodden man. So I run everywhere garbling incomprehensible insults, rocking out on my fireaxe over my crispy fallen foes, and waving my bent petrol-pump flamethrower exultantly over my head after every match; win or lose. “Mmmph mm mumph umph!”
Most maps kick off with the two teams separated by a metal mesh that lifts after a minute, giving Engineers time to build their defences and everyone else a chance to taunt each other. The result is two rows of people jeering, singing, laughing, braying, dancing and whooping at each other in a cacophony of clashing voices. It’s a long-needed outlet for our natural tendency to pre-game smack talk, and it makes the atmosphere of the calm before the storm electric.
TF2 comes with six maps; three are new, three are remakes. The roster doesn’t feel slim once you play them. Hydro, a control-point map split into six zones, restructures itself between rounds to put teams into one of 16 different configurations. The others are mostly a linear series of control points—all except Gravelpit, which gives attackers a choice of two to assault, and 2Fort, which remains stubbornly Capture The Flag. Capture The Intelligence, sorry.
All are heartbreakingly gorgeous. The soft lines, gentle shading, warm palettes and wonky edges set off the gaudy action magnificently. It’s tempting to pussyfoot around with weasel words such as ‘among’, ‘could be’ and ‘in years’, but screw it. Team Fortress 2 is the most beautiful game ever made. I say that as a man who’s seen Crysis running on maximum settings, and I’m not kidding or exaggerating or on any more than the usual amount of drugs. Sorry about that, every other videogame artist in the world. This was not your lifetime.
Granary and Well are a little straightforward flow-wise, but TF2 sometimes benefits from a simpler arena. A linear series of control points might not sound like a lot of fun, but the simplicity shifts the focus to tactics and clever use of classes. My team won a round when another player crept behind the enemy lines to camp their locked-off control point, capturing it the moment it came into play. This despite the fact that he—presumably inadvertently—announced his plan to the entire enemy team by using ‘say’ instead of ‘team say’. The post-game chat revealed that they didn’t take it well:
EricS: We’re actually going to have to erect flood barriers from all the QQing going on over here.
Finole: I need a raft.
Robin of Death: Driller’s quit FPSs.
Robin of Death: And the company.
Gravelpit is a more interesting equation: the defending team has to guess which of three tall towers the attacking team is going to gun for first. Dustbowl, meanwhile, is sure to be a cult favourite all over again: it retains the deafeningly chaotic opening, the succession of increasingly bloody chokepoints and the desperate last stand. 2Fort is faithful to the classic original in all but appearance, and makes a particularly rich playground for the more tightly focused classes.
Hydro’s more like a set of maps than a single arena, and feels a little arbitrary for it. Valve have made it this way to keep it fresh, but I’m not sure multiplayer maps need to be fresh. CS’s de_dust is great partly because we all know it so well—so is 2Fort, for that matter. Hydro’s hypermagical rejiggling just extends the period for which you’re not really sure where you’re going. We won’t know for months whether it was worth this to keep mixing things up, and I’m happy to bear with Valve’s experiment for now—some parts of Hydro are superb.
The initial confusion of Hydro does highlight a real shortcoming of TF2, though: no minimap. Only the most co-ordinated, voice-communicating hardcore clan has any useful notion of where their team-mates are. In a game where the nine different classes are so interdependent, it’s vital to know where your turrets are set up, whether there’s a Medic nearby, and if the Heavy cavalry is on its way. Valve’s logic in omitting it is that some players never use them. Fine for those guys, but there’s no substitute for the rest of us to knowing where our team is without having to ask everyone all the time.
Mind you, a minimap would make the Spy’s life harder. He was always Team Fortress’s most inventive class, but his new incarnation is even more extraordinary. He can disguise himself impeccably as any class of enemy, and now he can also render himself temporarily invisible to slip into their base. There’s no friendly fire in TF2, but shooting all your team-mates to uncover Spies wastes too much time and ammo to be practical.
As a Spy in disguise you still take damage from enemies, but you’re man enough not to show it—you don’t bleed. That gives rise to a hilarious mindgame: a good Spy will take a near-lethal shotgun blast to the face from a supposed friend without flinching, confront his attacker toe-to-toe as if to say “What?”, and continue his infiltration beyond suspicion.
The Spy’s disguise-o-meter, built into his cigarette case, will give him the name of an enemy who really is the class he’s pretending to be. That means that every now and then, you experience the alarming existential crisis of encountering someone with your own name. Realising they must be an enemy Spy, you declare to your team that “The Spy’s a Soldier!” Whereupon, of course, everyone empties their magazines into you.
If you can stay away from your namesake and take the Spy hunter’s check-shots unflinchingly, the challenge becomes to act like an enemy. I like to dress up as a Heavy, because his reassuringly enormous size makes it hard for anyone to believe he could be a slinky Spy in disguise. It also means you get healed by enemy Medics—a peculiar sensation—and that can lead to an utterly bizarre psychological dance.
The Spy, you see, needs to get behind his victim for a one-hitkill backstab. The Medic, meanwhile, should always stay behind a Heavy for protection while he heals. So the two of you run in circles trying to get behind each other, until the Medic realises—with an almost visible pang of horror—who you really are. He draws his bonesaw, you draw your butterfly knife, and the duel commences. It’s sublime. The knife-edge between the thrill of deception and the shame of discovery makes playing a Spy more tense and thrilling than any other multiplayer experience—even the original TF’s Spy.
The other class highlights are more obvious: shredding a dozen enemies as a Medic-boosted Heavy, bolting past a superior force as a Scout with the briefcase in 2Fort, and detonating enough pipe bombs as a Demoman to fill the room with blood—and the screen with kill reports. In fact, the only class that doesn’t excite is the Medic. His contribution is to heal the major players while they charge in, but he can’t do anything else while he heals so his whole life is just holding down fire. When he’s healed a thousand or so points, he can temporarily make himself and his mark invulnerable, at which point he has to... keep holding down fire. It’s so cruel that he doesn’t get to let rip after all that joyless service to his team.
I have to admit that this, and the minimap problem, bothered me less and less the more I played. Team Fortress 2’s friendly look hides what’s still a dauntingly intricate game, and when you’re still learning the ropes, and the maps, its few flaws seem exasperating. But the measure of a multiplayer game is how much you want to go back to it. Right now I’m quivering a little, and last night I dreamt about it, so yeah. Team Fortress 2 is a bit special.
Verdict Rich, gorgeous and endlessly fun.Score 94
Last night I had a really weird dream. I dreamt that the students who made Narbacular Drop, the space-bending indie game I played last year, had been hired by Valve to make a beautiful new version in the Half-Life universe. You played this wide-eyed girl with strange metal braces on her shins like Eli Vance’s prosthetic leg, and a droning robotic voice kept saying sinister things that I found incredibly funny. Also my Year Nine maths teacher was there. And I was naked.
But you’re probably here to read about Portal, Valve’s first-person puzzle game about opening rifts in space to cross uncrossable obstacle courses. It’s designed around one simple but mindexpanding idea: you can shoot a hole in any wall, and then another one somewhere else, and if you walk into one you’ll come out of the other. Fire them side by side and you’ll walk straight back into the room you just left. Fire them on floor and ceiling and you’ll fall through the same room at terminal velocity forever.
The Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device (let’s face it, the portal gun) is your only weapon, but its brazenly impossible uses are endlessly fascinating to perform. The internal logic is flawless, but you somehow never grasp it entirely however hungrily your brain gropes. It is, I’m just starting to realise, abstractly kinky. Portal, honey, how can your physics be wrong when they feel so right?
The game grips you by the wrist and leads you briskly past the befuddling basics of these rifts, straight to the good stuff. Within a few short levels you’re using orthogonal portals to translate your gravitational potential into lateral velocity and flinging yourself exhilaratingly over turrets and lethal slime. By nudging you gently through rooms that cleverly lead your eye to the correct—yet patently impossible—solution, it swiftly teaches you a dazzling roster of lunatic tricks.
Portal is a magnificent puzzle game. The titillating wrongness of every solution and the wonky thinking required to get there make you feel like a space-folding genius, and yet you’ll almost never get stuck. Soon you’ve learnt so many weird ways of perverting the forces and spaces in any room that you can throw yourself through them, like a futuristic Prince of Persia with abilities more improbable and wondrous by far.
The solutions eventually become more gymnastic—opening new portals mid-fling and plummeting back through those you’ve previously opened with pinpoint precision. But by then you’re ready, and performing deliciously counter-logical mental inversions at breakneck speed is something to be relished.
The atmosphere, meanwhile, grows thickly sinister. Your singsong robot guide GLaDOS (you’ll find out what it stands for) doesn’t seem unduly invested in keeping you alive. Soon her own delusions creep into her instructions to you. “The weighted companion cube,” she announces as you snatch up a box, “will not threaten to stab you and cannot, in fact, talk. If the weighted companion cube does talk, the Enrichment Centre urges you to disregard its advice.” But as her coldly voiced lines become more murderous and surreal, they also get funnier. The writing is effortlessly sharp throughout, and with its single inhuman character Portal taps a thick vein of black, absurdist humour that becomes the game’s propulsive force. You’ll play faster just to hear the next beautifully unhinged line.
The game escalates magnificently. The puzzles change nature, requiring your to beat the system with the tricks it taught you rather than jumping through hoops. And at the same time, the humour reaches fever pitch—GLaDOS becomes so brilliantly deranged that at times it’s hard to control yourself for laughing. The final flourish—the most inspired credits sequence I’ve ever seen—reduced me to a convulsively cackling wreck, insensible and almost in tears. This is the funniest game I’ve played since Psychonauts.
Sadly, Portal is as short as it is sweet. It took me—admittedly a Narbacular Drop veteran, international super-agent and one of the greatest minds of our time—a little under two and a half hours. That’s long enough for the story it tells, and it tells it well, but it’s so damnably good that the craving sets in as soon as the satisfaction fades.
Depending on gamer demand, Valve say they’ll opt next for a straight sequel, a closer tie-in to the Half-Life games or some form of multiplayer. I just want more GLaDOS. Her lilting, darkly comic words of lethally unhelpful advice deserve a place in the annals of scary robo-speak, right beside “I can’t do that, Dave” and “L-look at you, hacker.”
“If you begin to feel lightheaded from thirst,” GLaDOS chirps, “feel free to pass out.”
Verdict Brain-melting offbeat genius.Score 92
Every week, we ask our panel of PC Gamer writers a question about PC gaming. This week: you have a three-slot loadout you can fill with weapons from any PC game—what do you put in them? We also welcome your answers in the comments.
Half-Life 2's crossbow: Look at me, I'm doing the PC Gamer dance, invoking Half-Life 2. But truly, the crossbow is a work of art. I remember pulling over in the buggy, spotting a combine chilling on an old billboard platform, zooming, aiming, and letting that beautiful dart find a home. Nailed the guy to the wall and I clapped. I expect nothing else from a videogame gun.
FEAR's HV Penetrator: Look, I love guns that let me nail men to walls. FEAR's HV Penetrator also lets me do that, but in stylish slow motion with a fully automatic weapon. The first GIF I ever made, age 14, was of this very beauty. It's part of me now.
Devil Daggers' devil daggers: What are daggers if not large nails? There's no men to nail to the wall in Devil Daggers, though I'm sure an endless stream of knives shot from a hand with hell-magic would do the trick just fine.
I have an all-Valve answer, I guess.
Gordon Freeman's gravity gun: My love for the gravity gun is probably mostly out of nostalgia at this point, but just yesterday I had to help a neighbor move furniture, and now I'm sore, and god forbid I ever use whatever passes for my muscles to do something. The gravity gun would have saved me time and energy, plus I could have launched my neighbor's tacky nightstand into the next town.
Chell's portal gun: Set a portal over the couch and one in the office, then I can go smoothly from working to watching TV, again sparing my pathetic muscles.
TF2's medigun: Let's face it, with a gravity gun and portal gun I'm going to wind up injuring someone, likely myself. Can you use a medigun on yourself? Yes: by placing some portals first. It's perfect.
Crowbar (Half-Life): I'm a big fan of weaponry I could pass off as entirely innocent if anyone were to query what I was up to, or which has multiple uses. I mean, If you're carrying a plasma cannon around you're clearly up to no good. Swap that to a crowbar and suddenly you're a useful person doing useful tasks. The crowbar also contains the possibility of easily opening boxes which might contain presents—a plasma cannon would just obliterate everything and then no-one gets any presents.
Blowtorch (Worms): This is another useful tool which just happens to double up as a weapon. "Madam, why do you have a blowtorch with you?" "Obviously I am going to be brazing some metal." "Ah, of course. Have fun!"
See? AND I could caramelise the sugar on top of a crème brûlée in a kitchen emergency where you need a crème brûlée in a hurry. And don't mind the kitchen being on fire.Odette (Bayonetta): As someone who regularly wears stilettos, I'm already a big fan of weaponised shoes. The problem with high heels, though, is that you tend to need to go a lot slower. You're trading speed for piercing damage. Not so with Bayonetta's demonic ice skates! You lay down a trail of ice and speed around, plus each foot now has a sharp blade attached. Triple flip into triple toe loop into triple slashing of my foes.
Railgun & Rocket Launcher (Quake series): There's no better one-two punch in PC gaming. Like Quake itself, Quake's guns are the pure distilled essence of FPS concepts—in this case, splash damage and direct damage. There are no attachments, secondary fire modes, or reloading to get in the way of your aim, and wielding them is a high-skill meditation on the genre itself. The canonical combo is to pop someone up by hitting them in the feet with your rocket launcher, switch to the railgun, and zap them out of midair. When you pull this off, your ancestors smile.
Particle Cannon (Wolfenstein '09): This little-remembered gun is essentially a firehose hooked up to the Ark of the Covenant. The gun feels like a faucet for liquified, otherworldly power, a theme throughout Raven Software's Wolfenstein, and it’s a great example of the fun that can arise when a single-player shooter hands you something overpowered. After a short spin-up time, a zig-zagging splurt of unholy turquoise flicks out of the barrel, cueing a banshee screech. A lot of the fun is owed to Raven’s expressive death animations: even a splash of PC energy dissolves Nazis instantly, and without interrupting their momentum.
Gloo gun (Prey): How has no one else suggested this yet? It's a gun, but also a tool that can help you reach new places in the environment, where level designers inexplicably hide money and ammo. No FPS weapon this year is cooler than the Gloo Gun.
Gauss cannon (Doom 2016): I went back and forth on this one, because a lot of Doom 2016's weapons transform throughout the game into more exciting, silly tools. I narrowly picked this one over the assault rifle that fires tiny rockets, merely because I love the precision bolt move on this one. It makes you feel like Iron Man.
Automatic shotgun (Wolfenstein: The New Order): An easy choice. My favourite modern shotgun. While my other two choices could be called frivolous or flashy, these are practical, cathartic-feeling bad boys for dealing with any FPS level that the gods may throw my way.
How about you, eh? Let us know your choices in the comments.