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Portal

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title="Permanent Link to Valve writers talk silent protagonists and bringing the LOLs">Portal 2 Thumbnail



As reported on Gamasutra, a bunch of Valve's writers have been taking part in a roundtable question and answer session at GDC Online.



Read on for some insight from some of the most talented writers in the industry.



Valve might be famous for its use of silent protagonists but according to Mark Laidlaw, one of the writers at Valve, it can be a restrictive on a studio's creativity: "Now that some of Valve's most popular protagonists are silent, there’s no turning back. “At this point we’re fully committed to it and taking it as far as it possibly could go.”



Eric Wolpaw, another writer at Valve, also provided some insight. Referring to Valve's hugely successful free to play game, TF2, he said: “that whole game is us desperately trying to keep our jobs."



“Comedy stuff is tougher because it’s more subjective and it’s really hard to gauge peoples’ reaction," he said. Wolpaw added that sometimes it’s a bit depressing, when people playtest a part in a game that’s supposed to be funny, and there's little reaction. “Pretty much no one that played Portal 2 cracked a smile, but testers still said the game was funny... It’s hard to tell if a joke is failing or not.”



Laidlaw was equally humble when referring to his own work: “We fail all the time, we just don’t advertise it too much...we always want to feel like we’re on the edge and challenging ourselves and growing all the time.”



What's your favourite example of writing in games? Let us know in the comments.



PC Gamer
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title="Permanent Link to Portal 2 DLC out Wednesday, adds new co-op missions, challenge mode and leaderboards">Portal 2 - bouncy blue turrets



Wednesday October 5. That will be the day in which the Portal 2 Peer Review DLC will be released. The free mission pack will extend Atlas and Peabody's co-op adventure and add a new challenge mode for single player and co-op maps.



Back when Valve announced first DLC pack, they also mentioned leaderboards so all your friends and a bunch of strangers will all know how exactly how smart you are (or aren't), which explains the 'Peer Review' handle. That means your performance will be graded by both Glados AND the conglomerate hivemind of the The Internet. NO PRESSURE.



In more 'free stuff from Valve' news, the third volume of the Portal 2 soundtrack, Songs to Test By, is available now on the Portal 2 site, featuring such classic hits as Some Assembly Required, Your Precious Moon and Robots FTW.
PC Gamer






If the portals in Portal could take you back in time, a) your mind would break, and b) it would look like this.



It's a video of a prototype made by game designer Arthur Lee, in which you can create portals by taking screenshots. Whatever you snapped is what you'll see through the portal. Where it gets braintingling, though, is that the portal will take you back to the time when you took that screenshot. In other words, the portals don't just fold space, they fold time as well. So that's nice.



As Mike Rose over at IndieGames.com points out, there's your Portal 3 right there.
PC Gamer
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title="Permanent Link to This week’s best free PC games">Portal



This is a good week for those of you who like Pac-Man. Two new interpretations of the classic arcade game lie nestled below - about as far apart in style as you can imagine, but both an inordinate amount of fun. Elsewhere, there's a first-person shooter that has no right to be as enjoyable as it is, and a first-person puzzle game that I'm sort of breaking the rules for. Because it's a game from Valve, and one of my favourite games in the world. You understand, right? Read on for this week's freebie picks...





Portal



Valve. Get it from Steam. But hurry up!







I never thought for a minute that I would get the chance to write about Portal in this column. But by way of sneaky half-rule-breaking, I do. Because one of the greatest PC games ever made is now free - not forever, but until Tuesday, which is enough days away from the time of writing that I've decided it still counts.



You know the score, surely. It's a first-person puzzle game in which you fire one portal to jump through and another portal to emerge from. In doing so you'll learn to overcome a variety of increasingly complex environmental obstacles, and Valve's expert level design means that while you'll scratch your head on a number of occasions, you'll always experience the most beautiful moment of realisation when you work out how to apply your existing knowledge to a new scenario.



It's made even better by a fabulous story, one that starts with refreshing subtlety but builds, slowly, suspensefully, before releasing in a phenomenally climactic final hour. It's one of the most dazzling, innovative, smart and hilarious computer games ever made, and if you haven't tried it yet, you now have absolutely no excuses. Grab it before the 20th, and three of the most special gaming hours you'll have are yours to keep forever.



Digmaan



RWSB Games. Grab it from IndieDB.







Digmaan is a game made in First-Person Shooter Creator, which always sets alarm bells ringing. It's fixed-resolution, blocky, doesn't like widescreen formats, and textures occasionally clip and overlap with one another. One time an enemy fell out of the game, and another time one got stuck in a wall. It's an ugly, broken mess, carried by a story so flimsy it might as well not be there: the aliens are invading, and via some sort of unexplained teleportation and regeneration science you're taking them on... while your army buddies stand around doing not very much at all.



But my goodness, there's the basis of something good here. Your extra-terrestrial foes attack from a distance with pinpoint laser accuracy. At first I thought it was just awful game coding. I kind of still think that. But it works. This is a game where it only takes a hits of bullets to fell a foe, just as it only takes them a few shots to down you. It's extremely rare to be able to get close enough to see an enemy in all its gruesome glory - most of the time, you're crouching behind cover, sprinting from place to place, popping up every now and then to take a pot-shot in the hope of landing a bullet where it needs to go. You'll die a lot, but you respawn nearby with the world as you left it, BioShock-style, so it never gets too frustrating (unless you completely run out of ammo, with no way of finding any more, which caused me to reload an earlier save a couple of times).



It's hideously unpolished, in the way that all FPSC games are. But it's also got more of a spark, more tension and atmosphere, than any I've played before.







Netpack



Royal Paw. Download it from the dev's website.







It's an absolutely brilliant idea. Pac-Man, reimagined as a roguelike - a version in which you can take your time, eat one pellet at once, plan your moves, and utilise inventory items on your quest to rid the levels of foes.



And it is a proper quest, too. There's nothing in-game to explain it, but the readme file comes equipped with a big story, explaining why you're here. You're an explorer, searching for the revered Mace of Four Winds. And you've finally laid your hands on it, at the bottom of a massive network of caves. The only problem is, having stowed it away in your backpack, you've realised it's haunted. And that's why you're in trouble.



Amusingly, there's even combat, in the most perfunctory sense: you simply move into a ghost to battle it, and the game tells you how much damage you're doing to one another with each press of an arrow key. This is a really smart reinterpretation of a classic. I think you'll like it a lot.







Forget-Me-Not



Nyarlu Labs. Download it from the developer's site.







Another interpretation of Pac-Man, Forget-Me-Not is about as far removed from its slow, careful pace as it's possible to get. This is Pac-Man reimagined as an even faster-paced arcade game, one in which a whole load of other game mechanics come into play.



Originally released on iOS, Forget-Me-Not sees you shooting your way around procedurally-generated levels that fall apart under the strain of your blasting. As well as collecting pellets, you'll automatically fire at anything in your way - which sounds simple enough until a bit of the map breaks off, forms a wormhole that loops it back round behind you, and you suddenly realise you're about to die because you've been shooting your own behind for the last ten seconds.



Power-ups can be exploded for extra goodies, and they keep appearing for as long as you'd like them to, so it's tempting to stick around in a level past the point where you could move onto the next one. Take too long, though, and everything goes dark, a ghost appears, and it's a race for the finish line before you're doomed.



I'm almost certain that, in my half-hour or so spent becoming hopelessly addicted to the game, I haven't seen anything close to every secret it has to offer. You can even have a go in two-player mode. It's fabulous. Thanks eternally to Phil_Lapineau for pointing it out in last week's comments thread.
PC Gamer






A lovely bit of news from RPS this morning. If you don't already own it, you can download Portal for nothing on Steam. It's being made free to download until September 20. If you download it before then, you'll own it forever.



It's all part of Valve's Learn With Portals initiative, which aims to promote Portal's reality bending puzzles as an educational tool, and hopes to encourage the next generation to start building a new wave of even more dastardly test chambers. You can see our future tormentors learning the basics at Valve HQ in the video above. You can build your own levels with the free Portal authoring tools, which you'll find the "tools" section of your Steam library.
PC Gamer
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title="Permanent Link to Exclusive Portal 2 BLC!">portal 2 BLC



That’s bakeable, luscious content—available exclusively from PC Gamer!



When PC Gamer first chatted with GLaDOS voice actress Ellen McLain after the release of the original Portal, our conversation with the affable, multi-talented award-winner naturally turned to baked goods. As a native Southerner, McLain is naturally fond of Red Velvet Cake. But when she goes into the kitchen, what comes out is a plate of delicious, toasty, aromatic Pecan Tassies.



Now PC Gamer is proud to present the very first Portal 2 BLC: Ellen McLain’s own recipe for Pecan Tassies. We recommend baking four batches over the weekend and enjoying them in frequent breaks between co-op missions.







Ellen McLain’s Pecan Tassies



Pastry shells

1 (three-ounce) package cream cheese

1/2 cup butter

1 cup sifted all-purpose flour

Combine cream cheese and butter. Blend in flour. Chill about one hour. Shape into balls about one inch in diameter and press into tiny ungreased muffin tins.



Filling

1 egg

3/4 cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2/3 cup chopped pecans



Beat egg with wooden spoon; add brown sugar, melted butter, and vanilla. Mix well and stir in pecans. Pour into prepared shells and bake at 325 degrees for about 25 minutes; cool before removing from pan.



Makes 20-24 tassies. GLaDOS says, “Bon appétit!”
PC Gamer
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title="Permanent Link to Video–mod madman remaking Portal in Minecraft">not sure if 2



Whoa. CompC, a Minecraft forumite, is working on a full recreation of Portal in Minecraft. Using the Portal Gun Mod (available here), a hell of a lot of redstone, and an adapted tileset, he's already finished work on the first six chambers.



Click on to open an HTML portal to video footage.







PC Gamer
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title="Permanent Link to Erik Wolpaw on Portal 2′s ending: “the is probably lurking out there somewhere”">Portal 2 - bouncy blue turrets



Relax. All done now. Potatoes collected, game digested, portals spent.



lol



Time for more Portal 2! After finishing both of Portal 2's campaigns we sat down with writer Erik Wolpaw to discuss what was – and wasn't – featured in the return to Aperture, the game's ending, and a lady with an especially sexy voice. Needless to say, if you haven't played Portal 2 to the end, this is spoiler PACKED. So don't read any further until you've completed the thing.



PC Gamer: No more cake. Well, one reference. Were you sick of the memes?



Erik Wolpaw: Yeah we felt like it had kind of run its course and we didn't see any reason to – we knew, that particular thing, we were going to retire that and not push it at all. It wasn't even bait as far as I know, it was just that was one of the axiomatic design principles, you know – no more cake. Even though one might have slid in there it was with a light enough touch that it's hopefully done in good taste.



PC Gamer: Has Cave Johnson got a bit of Andrew Ryan in him?



Erik Wolpaw: I've heard that. Well 'the industrialist' is a fairly standard character – this is a bad admission, but I haven't played all the way through Bioshock. But from my knowledge of Andrew Ryan I don't think he's especially funny, which hopefully Cave Johnson is occasionally. We also like the idea of, Andrew Ryan aside, this guy who is kind of on top of the world and then takes this fairly precipitous fall and realises at the last moment that maybe his focus has been on some of the wrong things. For all I know that actually is Andrew Ryan – does that happen at the end of Bioshock? Anyway – I can say for sure, without hesitating, that they all come from a common genesis point though I don't know what that is, maybe whatisname from Citizen Kane. Kane?



PC Gamer: Did you use the same voice actor for Caroline and GlaDOS? Because Caroline has a very sexy voice.



Erik Wolpaw: Yeah that's Ellen McLain. I don't know the actual science that would turn Caroline into GlaDOS, but I assume it has something to do with DNA and genetics so it obviously makes sense. GlaDOS has this actorly affectation, she kind of speaks in this particular way, and then we give it these effects so it changes it from her natural voice. I'm sure she'll be happy to know that you describe her voice as sexy!



It's interesting you find that sexy. It is a sexy voice. She also does the voice of the announcer in TF2 and I always found that hot, kind of a sexy voice to me. You know she sounds kinda like a chain-smoking harpy but there's something kind of... I don't know... anyway, great actress!



PC Gamer:The script was great – was everything we heard scripted?



Erik Wolpaw: A lot of it is scripted. Probably the character who goes furthest afield is Wheatley, Stephen Merchant, a writer in his own respect and also a good ad-libber. So we'd write a bunch of lines, and sometimes he would spin off and do variations on it that he would just riff on something for a few extra minutes. But he also has the ability to take a line we've written and read it in a way that sounds very natural and ad-libbed, which was one of the things we really liked about him – we knew he was quick on his feet, we'd been listening to a lot of podcasts with him when we were initially writing Wheatley.



There's this thing. Video game characters tend not to feel very naturalistic when they speak and we wanted to attempt something that sounded more off-the-cuff, like someone is ad-libbing these lines as it goes. I think we pulled it off reasonably well, and Stephen Merchant did a great job of making that happen with Wheatley.



PC Gamer:Our favourite line is “Machiavellian!”



Erik Wolpaw: Machiavellian! Misunderstanding Machiavelli. He'd read it, but didn't quite grasp... or maybe he didn't read it. It's hard to say. There's a running undercurrent that neither he nor GlaDOS can actually read. We didn't really push it that much but it's kinda funny.



PC Gamer: And quite apart from the hot voicework, the co-op bots managed silent comedy very well in their gestures and animations – how did you go about creating those characters?



Erik Wolpaw: In terms of the nuts and bolts, I mean the general idea was that we knew early on we didn't want them to talk,because it would just add a bunch of noise to what is effectively a game about communication between two players that you're going to be talking a lot. We didn't want them competing with the player. So they would make their little robot noises.



And thinking back to the original design a lot of it is watching the other player do things or failing to and that is funny. It's physical comedy. So they were kind of designed with the idea of the classic comedy duo, you know the short fat guy and the tall thin guy. In terms of the moment-to-moment animation I don't really have any great insights to offer there, apart from the animators did an amazing job on it!



PC Gamer: It seemed a fairly happy ending for Chell, if you didn't think about what was out there.



Erik Wolpaw: Depending on how... yes, generally speaking. There's always that debate about 'ooh we could pull the rug out from under you at the last minute' which I guess we sorta did in Portal 1. I always feel that's a little bit cheap, I feel you the player as Chell have earned a moment of grace, right?



We did three endings, it's a long series of endings. We wanted to show you GlaDOS, show you Chell and then show you Wheatley – GlaDOS learns a lesson and promptly deletes it so she can set herself back to zero. You learn whatever you learn and you're out and it doesn't look so bad – but we know the Combine's probably lurking out there somewhere. And you get the Companion Cube back – that could be good or bad, it's not really clear. In my mind GlaDOS has given you the Companion Cube like “take your shit and go”, or the Companion Cube has been on its own adventure this whole time and just manages to escape at exactly the same moment you do, in which case it's probably pissed.



And Wheatley actually is contrite. He potentially has learned an actual lesson – he's up in space and relatively sad. I thought Stephen Merchant did a nice job of seeming actually apologetic. One of our dreams is to have a boss monster say sorry – because you kill boss monsters all the time, and they scream and they're dead. Never really had a boss monster offer me a sincere apology for all the trouble that he's caused me. I mean, he was a big pain in the ass for a large segment of the game!



PC Gamer: He didn't sound sincere to us.



Erik Wolpaw: He's sincere, he's sorry! He's floating in friggin space for christ's sake! And he even makes a point to say 'and not just because I'm floating in space!' He may not be sincere. If we ever need to bring him back for any particular reason, all his traits are there. Personally I think he's sincere – there's authorial intent versus people's interpretation of it. I think he genuinely does feel sorry for all the trouble he caused. Actually the only person who gets the unequivocal happy ending is the space sphere, who is now out in space and genuinely pleased about it – he loves it. No asterisk, no strings attached there, a happy ending.



PC Gamer: And is the Combine out there?



Erik Wolpaw: The only qualification is something we're just kind of saddled with – you know that the world to some extent has gone to shit, right? It's not a happy world she's exiting into. Although having said that we don't know how much time has passed – maybe the Combine have been beaten back and the world is nice. If nothing else we want to give her as happy ending as we can, entering into the Half-Life universe. It's a fairly bucolic scene, it's very nice. She gets serenaded on the way out, that's always pleasant. She does get a happy ending, there's no point in being negative about it, I just can't let go of the fact that we know where she gets that happy ending, and there could be some danger out there. I'm an adult, terrible shit happens to me all the time. I want happy endings for everyone, the kind I'm not gonna get in real life – I mean, we're all gonna die, let's face it.

PC Gamer
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title="Permanent Link to Erik Wolpaw on Portal 2’s ending: “the is probably lurking out there somewhere”">



Relax. All done now. Potatoes collected, game digested, portals spent.



lol



Time for more Portal 2! After finishing both of Portal 2's campaigns we sat down with writer Erik Wolpaw to discuss what was – and wasn't – featured in the return to Aperture, the game's ending, and a lady with an especially sexy voice. Needless to say, if you haven't played Portal 2 to the end, this is spoiler PACKED. So don't read any further until you've completed the thing.



PC Gamer: No more cake. Well, one reference. Were you sick of the memes?



Erik Wolpaw: Yeah we felt like it had kind of run its course and we didn't see any reason to – we knew, that particular thing, we were going to retire that and not push it at all. It wasn't even bait as far as I know, it was just that was one of the axiomatic design principles, you know – no more cake. Even though one might have slid in there it was with a light enough touch that it's hopefully done in good taste.



PC Gamer: Has Cave Johnson got a bit of Andrew Ryan in him?



Erik Wolpaw: I've heard that. Well 'the industrialist' is a fairly standard character – this is a bad admission, but I haven't played all the way through Bioshock. But from my knowledge of Andrew Ryan I don't think he's especially funny, which hopefully Cave Johnson is occasionally. We also like the idea of, Andrew Ryan aside, this guy who is kind of on top of the world and then takes this fairly precipitous fall and realises at the last moment that maybe his focus has been on some of the wrong things. For all I know that actually is Andrew Ryan – does that happen at the end of Bioshock? Anyway – I can say for sure, without hesitating, that they all come from a common genesis point though I don't know what that is, maybe whatisname from Citizen Kane. Kane?



PC Gamer: Did you use the same voice actor for Caroline and GlaDOS? Because Caroline has a very sexy voice.



Erik Wolpaw: Yeah that's Ellen McLain. I don't know the actual science that would turn Caroline into GlaDOS, but I assume it has something to do with DNA and genetics so it obviously makes sense. GlaDOS has this actorly affectation, she kind of speaks in this particular way, and then we give it these effects so it changes it from her natural voice. I'm sure she'll be happy to know that you describe her voice as sexy!



It's interesting you find that sexy. It is a sexy voice. She also does the voice of the announcer in TF2 and I always found that hot, kind of a sexy voice to me. You know she sounds kinda like a chain-smoking harpy but there's something kind of... I don't know... anyway, great actress!



PC Gamer:The script was great – was everything we heard scripted?



Erik Wolpaw: A lot of it is scripted. Probably the character who goes furthest afield is Wheatley, Stephen Merchant, a writer in his own respect and also a good ad-libber. So we'd write a bunch of lines, and sometimes he would spin off and do variations on it that he would just riff on something for a few extra minutes. But he also has the ability to take a line we've written and read it in a way that sounds very natural and ad-libbed, which was one of the things we really liked about him – we knew he was quick on his feet, we'd been listening to a lot of podcasts with him when we were initially writing Wheatley.



There's this thing. Video game characters tend not to feel very naturalistic when they speak and we wanted to attempt something that sounded more off-the-cuff, like someone is ad-libbing these lines as it goes. I think we pulled it off reasonably well, and Stephen Merchant did a great job of making that happen with Wheatley.



PC Gamer:Our favourite line is “Machiavellian!”



Erik Wolpaw: Machiavellian! Misunderstanding Machiavelli. He'd read it, but didn't quite grasp... or maybe he didn't read it. It's hard to say. There's a running undercurrent that neither he nor GlaDOS can actually read. We didn't really push it that much but it's kinda funny.



PC Gamer: And quite apart from the hot voicework, the co-op bots managed silent comedy very well in their gestures and animations – how did you go about creating those characters?



Erik Wolpaw: In terms of the nuts and bolts, I mean the general idea was that we knew early on we didn't want them to talk,because it would just add a bunch of noise to what is effectively a game about communication between two players that you're going to be talking a lot. We didn't want them competing with the player. So they would make their little robot noises.



And thinking back to the original design a lot of it is watching the other player do things or failing to and that is funny. It's physical comedy. So they were kind of designed with the idea of the classic comedy duo, you know the short fat guy and the tall thin guy. In terms of the moment-to-moment animation I don't really have any great insights to offer there, apart from the animators did an amazing job on it!



PC Gamer: It seemed a fairly happy ending for Chell, if you didn't think about what was out there.



Erik Wolpaw: Depending on how... yes, generally speaking. There's always that debate about 'ooh we could pull the rug out from under you at the last minute' which I guess we sorta did in Portal 1. I always feel that's a little bit cheap, I feel you the player as Chell have earned a moment of grace, right?



We did three endings, it's a long series of endings. We wanted to show you GlaDOS, show you Chell and then show you Wheatley – GlaDOS learns a lesson and promptly deletes it so she can set herself back to zero. You learn whatever you learn and you're out and it doesn't look so bad – but we know the Combine's probably lurking out there somewhere. And you get the Companion Cube back – that could be good or bad, it's not really clear. In my mind GlaDOS has given you the Companion Cube like “take your shit and go”, or the Companion Cube has been on its own adventure this whole time and just manages to escape at exactly the same moment you do, in which case it's probably pissed.



And Wheatley actually is contrite. He potentially has learned an actual lesson – he's up in space and relatively sad. I thought Stephen Merchant did a nice job of seeming actually apologetic. One of our dreams is to have a boss monster say sorry – because you kill boss monsters all the time, and they scream and they're dead. Never really had a boss monster offer me a sincere apology for all the trouble that he's caused me. I mean, he was a big pain in the ass for a large segment of the game!



PC Gamer: He didn't sound sincere to us.



Erik Wolpaw: He's sincere, he's sorry! He's floating in friggin space for christ's sake! And he even makes a point to say 'and not just because I'm floating in space!' He may not be sincere. If we ever need to bring him back for any particular reason, all his traits are there. Personally I think he's sincere – there's authorial intent versus people's interpretation of it. I think he genuinely does feel sorry for all the trouble he caused. Actually the only person who gets the unequivocal happy ending is the space sphere, who is now out in space and genuinely pleased about it – he loves it. No asterisk, no strings attached there, a happy ending.



PC Gamer: And is the Combine out there?



Erik Wolpaw: The only qualification is something we're just kind of saddled with – you know that the world to some extent has gone to shit, right? It's not a happy world she's exiting into. Although having said that we don't know how much time has passed – maybe the Combine have been beaten back and the world is nice. If nothing else we want to give her as happy ending as we can, entering into the Half-Life universe. It's a fairly bucolic scene, it's very nice. She gets serenaded on the way out, that's always pleasant. She does get a happy ending, there's no point in being negative about it, I just can't let go of the fact that we know where she gets that happy ending, and there could be some danger out there. I'm an adult, terrible shit happens to me all the time. I want happy endings for everyone, the kind I'm not gonna get in real life – I mean, we're all gonna die, let's face it.

Apr 18, 2011
PC Gamer
rel="bookmark"
title="Permanent Link to Portal 2 review">Excursion Tunnels are the best method for controlled ascent.



I may be the dumbest genius ever. At least, that’s how I feel after playing Portal 2’s fantastic single-player campaign. Many puzzles in the last third of the eight to 10 hours (perhaps less, depending on how clever you are) of its brain-bending puzzle “test chambers” had me convinced at one point or another that they were completely unsolvable, and that some bug or sadist game designer placed the exit just out of reach. I’d let out exasperated sighs as every attempt met with a dead end. I’d grimace in disapproval as I plummeted to my death for the tenth time. I’d consider surrender.



Then, through either sudden revelation, divine inspiration, or total accident, it would come to me: use the orange Propulsion Gel to reach the energy bridge, then catapult across the chasm and shift my blue portal to the inclined surface (in mid-air, mind you) to launch me up to the ledge, grab the refraction cube and redirect the laser beam to wipe out the turrets and activate the switch! It’s so simple, I can’t believe I didn’t see it until now. One half of Portal 2’s brilliance is making me kick myself for not thinking of the impossible; the other is making me feel immensely satisfied with myself when I finally do, again and again.



Note: while we've made every effort to avoid spoilers in this review, you cannot review a game without discussing what it does well and what it doesn't. Be aware that reading any review is going to take some of the surprise out of it.





Test Subject: Dan-01





That achievement is made possible by the wondrous Portal Gun, the game’s sole piece of equipment. Unchanged from the first game (except for some subtle but slick texture work and portals that can be seen through walls, Left 4 Dead-style) the easy-to-use gun reliably casts one orange portal and one blue portal against certain walls, allowing you to magically, instantaneously pass from one to the other, regardless of distance, obstacles, or line of sight, while preserving momentum. It’s the ultimate non-weapon weapon, a sort of physics-based Judo-bazooka that redirects the strengths of energy and objects in motion toward its user’s goals—including the user herself. Wielding it makes me feel more powerful—and smarter—than nearly any other gun in gaming.







The third half of Portal 2’s brilliance is its story. (Yes, third half. If Valve can disregard the laws of physics in its game, I can disregard the laws of math in my review.) Its chambers are cohabitated by hilariously well-written and acted characters that exude personality, despite none of them being technically people. All three major roles rattle off absurd dark humor and petty insults at every turn. Evil robot GLaDOS is in top politely murderous form right from the moment she appears on screen (spoiler alert: she’s still alive!), but Portal’s show-stealing monotone antagonist is challenged for the spotlight by Wheatley, the bumbling, chattering robot who helps you escape.



Fantastically voiced by British actor Stephen Merchant (basically playing the same mind-bogglingly stupid character from the Ricky Gervais comedy Extras), Wheatley’s a doofus AI who makes you turn around while he hacks doors (he can’t do it while you’re watching). Also in the mix is actor JK Simmons, who lends his fittingly cantankerous voice to the founder of Aperture, Cave Johnson, whose comically sociopathic approach to science is second only to GLaDOS’.



Sure, I saw the plot twists coming, but still looked forward to witnessing exactly how the characters would react. Through death, resurrection, revenge, and reversal of fortune, their charm makes what would otherwise be an empty and lifeless world feel boisterous and alive—and more than makes up for the player character being a faceless mute.



It does all this and more while recycling very few of Portal’s greatest comedy hits—there’s nary a nod to dishonest cake, and the beloved Weighted Companion Cube makes only a cameo appearance. And the finale? Not challenging in the least, but a spectacular and extremely clever finish to the story, with extra points for those who’ve paid close attention to Mr. Johnson.



New dimensions



Without changing the nature of the established and celebrated gameplay, Portal 2’s gentle learning curve begins by reintroducing us to its basic concepts, then keeps on introducing new inventions to use with portals until around three quarters of the way through, and chambers become complex jungles of hazardous obstacles. Lasers emitting from walls combine with moveable Refractor Cubes to create the closest thing Portal 2 has to an offensive weapon—an aimable laser—but more often your job is to focus the beam on trigger switches through portals. Infinitely useful Excursion Funnels (levitation beams) and Light Bridges are more than just here-to-there movers—they can be applied to block or push away turrets, halt a catapulting jump before it throws you into oblivion, or help you climb a sheer wall.



I’m a little less wowed by the three flavors of viscous gel, which flow with a hypnotic globular effect from spouts and coat the environment in bouncy, speedy, or portal-receptive ooze. Unlike most of Portal 2’s other devices, these have only a couple of uses at most, and can be difficult to control. It’s a hassle when you’re trying to paint an orange runway up to a blue bouncing patch that launches you through a portal cast on a white patch, only to have an errant blob of blue splash over everything. That’s not to say that it’s not great when your work of physics-defying impressionistic art comes together, of course.







Behind the science



Locations are amazingly varied, as they must be to support this extended-length puzzle-athon without becoming monotonous. Aperture Science has fallen into disrepair in the indeterminate length of time between the greatly exaggerated “death” of its caretaker overlord and now, and many of its once-spotless test chambers are now rusted, grimy, and overgrown with vegetation. Maps shatter in front of our eyes as Aperture collapses on itself, while GLaDOS’ hundreds of robot arms gradually repair and rearrange the chambers piece by piece. All of this scripted activity animates what would otherwise be still and samey-looking rooms due to Portal’s lack of foes other than stationary turrets.



The Aperture facility is far more vast than we could’ve imagined, and the quest to escape leads through its industrial bowels, a cavernous underground sewer-like area, and a long-forgotten retro 1960s version of Aperture, among others. Some areas are so dramatically different that even the basic button triggers and doors have unique looks to them, and everything is impressively modeled and textured, right down to the Easter-egg graffiti hidden throughout. Fine-brush touches extend to the sound, too, such as the wind wooshing in your ears during long drops, or tingly electric chimes that introduce themselves to the background music when you’re speeding on Propulsion Gel. Between puzzles, Portal 2 is full of thrilling showcase moments, such as a mad-dash escape from an angry intelligence that controls the very walls, followed by a surprising take on the boss battle that, without a shot fired, made me feel dangerously out-classed next to my adversary.







Size matters



Right around that time is when the test chambers become increasingly elaborate and intimidatingly huge—to a fault in some cases. These jumbo puzzles are so immense that, even using the handy camera zoom function, spotting the exit can take a few minutes of exploration. Setting out to solve a puzzle when you don’t know what objective you’re working toward is the wrong kind of challenge, and some will find it frustrating. Later levels have multiple contiguous puzzles that can seem like they might never end, and made me miss the pace of the early game where I’d get a refreshing break between challenges.



I always solved them, though. Even though a couple stumped me in a very serious way for up to a half hour, I couldn’t give up until I made it to the other side. If you like a challenge, it’s impossible to put this game aside until you’ve burned through all of it.



Portal 2’s story doesn’t end with the single-player campaign, however. Read on as my co-op buddy Evan takes you through the entirely separate and equally innovative and interesting multiplayer campaign.



Test Subject: Evan-02



Two heads > one



I played the first Portal cooperatively. I always had a backseat driver—a roommate or a girlfriend—hovering over my chair, feeding what-ifs on where to sling my colored ovals. In Portal 2, Valve has officially supported that functionality, allowing you to share the burden of crunching your spatial options with another human brain. With the right sidekick, Portal 2 co-op is some of the most social gaming you’ll have. The occasional headaches that you’d get when you’re stuck alone are alleviated by communication and dimensional horseplay.



You and your partner play as P-body and Atlas, a Pixar-esque Laurel and Hardy droid duo running the testing gauntlet at GLaDOS’s whims in a separate, sillier story. They’re not big talkers, only managing a few expressive squeaks and squeals of triumph and defeat, but their animations are lively and a joy to watch, and they’ve got some amusing celebratory co-op emotes.



Five different testing zones are accessible through a massive hub room, for a total of more than 40 chambers (many of which are multi-part puzzles). Next to the single-player tests these puzzles are doubly complex, but co-op wastes no time babying you with tutorials—it ratchets up the difficulty immediately. Just the second one had us scratching our heads for several minutes trying to wrap our brains around the idea of linking our two sets of portals to achieve even-more-impossible feats that couldn’t be navigated alone.







A handful of puzzles are wonderfully distinct from what you do in single-player: in one, I guided Dan through a contained rat maze of spiked walls that resembled GLaDOS’ grisly version of a Pachinko machine, carefully hopping on and off a pressure pad to reverse the direction of an Excursion Funnel to float him forward, juggling him back and forth to avoid death by giant stompy pile-driver while he cast new portals to change the path of the beam. Several times, Dan created a ceiling-and-floor loop that I’d fall through infinitely, until he re-cast one portal to launch me toward an objective at terminal velocity. Other rooms prompt careful timing: after many minutes pondering one, it finally dawned on Dan that we had to fling ourselves from opposite-facing portals and collide our bots in mid-air in order to safely land on a platform below. Gameplay-driven robot chest-bumps: Portal 2 has them.



On three



For the timing puzzles, there’s an awesomely simple, non-verbal tool for syncing with your partner: holding the F key initiates a three-second countdown timer visible to both players. Two other tools tremendously supplement your (totally necessary) voice communication: marking, which lets you tag any spot or gizmo in the environment with a temporary pointer that’s highlighted on your teammate’s screen, and a seamless picture-in-picture toggle that shows you exactly what your buddy sees in the corner of your screen. Both are effortless to use and completely unimposing to the UI and gameplay, and between the two of them there’s no confusion which acid pool he wants you to help him leap over.



I love the way that trust manifests as a gameplay mechanic, and the instant, painless respawning leaves room for antics: every few stages, I’d grief Dan a little bit by keeping him trapped in a levitation beam, moving a portal to remove the Light Bridge from under his feet, or overwriting his portal with mine at the last moment to steal a launch we’d set up.



These intangibles arise from the complex fun of moving and solving with another person, the most gratifying of which is having a gaming context where you can demonstrate your spark of awareness, creativity, or problem-solving knack. There’s a wonderful reflex when this is about to happen—your eyes widen, a corner of your mouth rises. You’re the only one in the class that knows the answer, and you are about to enlighten your teammate. It almost always starts with, “I have an idea.”







Eureka!



There’s also a fair amount of making fools of yourselves. In one of our prouder moments as a team, Dan and I spent 10 minutes trying to outsmart an Excursion Funnel/Faith Plate combo. We were so busy activating switches and scouting the room for new options that it was some time before I realized that we’d forgotten the most basic part of Portal science: you can walk through the portals, not just send things through them.



From beginning to end, the co-op puzzles are excellent but brief. Dan and I zipped through all 40 in around four hours, which means you’ll be able to finish both the single-player and co-op modes in a long weekend—partly because you won’t want to stop playing. It’s a minor shame that Valve didn’t use co-op as an opportunity for a handful of optional, brutal obstacle courses like Portal’s challenge chambers—some of those take a weekend to work out.



Glad we came



It makes us both a little sad that, having played through once, we can never look at these puzzles—in either single-player or co-op—with those same bewildered eyes again (barring, as Aperture would call it, “a very minor case of serious brain damage”). The included developer commentary, and of course an encore performance from the cast, would be the only things that might make us start playing again after Jonathan Coulton’s new song, “Glad You’re Gone” (which is good, but “Still Alive” is a really tough act to follow) rolls with the credits.



For that reason, our strongest words of caution are to choose your co-op partner carefully. You only really get one shot at these puzzles—don’t waste them with someone who’s already been through, as that would spoil the many surprises and the victory of discovering them for yourself.



We’ll definitely remember all of Portal 2 fondly, though, and as one of the best-written and finely polished gaming experiences in recent memory.
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