PC Gamer

Pinball FX2 developer Zen Studios teasedValve themed announcement last week, and today we finally know what they are up to. Pinball FX2 will be getting an official Portal themed table towards the end of May or beginning of June. While it's not exactly Portal 3, it's definitely an amusing and detailed return to the Portal universe crafted by developers who are clearly fans of the series. Watch the video above for our hands-on look at the upcoming Portal table for Pinball FX2.

For those of you unfamiliar with Pinball FX2, it's a free pinball game on Steam that sells individual tables as DLC. Tables can be demo'd briefly, but eventually need to be purchased if you want to play them for an extended period of time. Zen Studios has done many licensed and themed tables in the past, but this is the first time the developer has worked with Valve. The level of detail on the Portal table is impressive, and makes me hope that this won't be the end of Zen Studios' partnership with Valve.

PC Gamer
PC Gamer

Reddit has dug up some brief footage of the Portal environment Valve used to demo the Vive headset to GDC attendees recently. It's taken from a talk by Valve's Alex Vlachos on advanced VR techniques, which he used to boast about the fidelity the development team were able to achieve using high-poly models in a small environment.

The demo has you repairing Atlas, one of the co-stars of Portal 2's co-op mode. He explodes into his component parts and you have to fix him using the Vive's motion-tracked controllers. Maximum PC caught some of Vlachos' commentary during the footage.

"Because you're in this tracked space with this guy and you can walk up and he has all these moving parts. The moving parts alone are like 600,000 triangles or more. I forget the exact number, but there's a lot of triangles there which means you can get incredibly close to this guy and all these parts and see the shape and the details."

Valve programmer later Tweeted confirmation that the demo was built in the Source 2 engine. Valve also announced that Source 2 will be free, but users will have to sell their game through Steam (though are free to sell the game in additional ways if they wish).

We've tried the VR demo. Here's what it's like to play.

PC Gamer

At GDC today, Valve has been showing off a demo of HTC's new virtual reality headset. We're going to see the demo tomorrow morning, but we already know a lot about it from our colleagues' reports: it looks a lot like a new Portal. It is not a new Portal.

I reached out to Valve and asked for a comment on how the demo is being interpreted: CNet, for instance, said it "sounds like" Portal 3, while Tom Parsons of Stuff claimed that he had actually played a Portal 3 demo during his Vive hands-on. I told Valve that I was skeptical that they'd soft-announced Portal 3. Valve director of marketing Doug Lombardi responded, "We have not."

I followed up to be absolutely clear, asking, "The demo being shown does not represent a prototype or indicate any plan for a new Portal?" Lombardi replied, "Correct. Just a demo." So no, this isn't Portal 3. It's just a tech demo until we know more—and I suspect Valve is just having fun with some existing art.

PC Gamer

The above trailer is the work of Portal 2 machinima-maker 'Harry101UK'. The mod powering it is Portal Stories: Mel. It's a new story, based in the Portal 2 universe, about new protagonist Mel and the new personality core that she's travelling with.

The mod boasts custom textures and animations, and over 20 new maps. It's also been Greenlit—meaning it will be made available directly through Steam. And, unlike last year's Aperture Tag, it will be entirely free.

For more, head over to the mod's Steam page. Portal Stories: Mel is due out early-2015.

PC Gamer

If you search Steam for nothing and then sort nothing by user reviews you'll get a neat list of the most popular games on Steam among user reviewers, based on the percentage of positive reviews on the system. Portal 2 wins. Of 35,550 reviewers, 99% like the game. Make more games please, Valve.

If you prefer raw numbers, Dota 2 (94% of 280k users like it) and Team Fortress 2 (97% of 200k like it) come out ahead. Skyrim also does well. 98% of 78,842 users like Skyrim.

One Finger Death Punch, Crypt of the Necrodancer and Nuclear Throne have 99% positive ratings too, which is good, because those games are totally ace. In fact, the whole list is a brilliant resource if you're looking for ways to spend your spare Steam wallet pennies in the Steam sale.

Here's a shot of the top ten. What do you think?

PC Gamer

In Mod of the Week, Chris LIvingston scours the world of user-created adventure for worthy downloads. This week, a Portal 2 mod that fuels our dreams of an above-ground Aperture City.

Apart from a guard booth and a small shed in a field, most of what we've seen of Aperture Science has been carefully hidden underground. Perhaps if things hadn't gone so horribly wrong in their massive subterranean lab, Aperture eventually might have built a proper above-ground campus, like Google or Microsoft.

That's the premise of Above Aperture. You're on an excursion to Aperture City, a large above-ground compound littered with buildings and devious test-chambers. 

Yes, you're still as trapped as Chell ever was, but the open-air nature of most of the chambers and the little outdoor strolls you take between the challenges give it a different feel than the subterranean labyrinth we're used to. Aperture City, naturally, is abandoned and crumbling, and armed with only your wits (and a cool handheld device), you're trying to find your way out, or at least your way through

Above Aperture features some custom models and art, as well as a really nice piece of custom music. Not only are the maps lovely to look at, but they're pretty challenging as well. I spent a good deal of time in the very first level wondering just what the heck I was supposed to do. I could clearly see the spots I needed to get to, and I knew I had the tools to get there: my portal gun, a light bridge, and a faith plate. There were even clues in a few spots, little arrows painted on the concrete... anyway, it was a challenge, a nice twist on the standard game-play, and quite satisfying when I finally figured it out.

Light bridges are a big part of most of the puzzles, but there are other familiar elements: laser-beams and mirror cubes, a bit of gel, a few turrets here and there. The chambers are nice and big, and for me, they're the best kind: where you sort of wander around for a bit before you even try anything, peering at the walls and ceiling, trying to put the solution together in your head before you actually start firing the gun.

I really do like being above-ground, too. I know, it's just a skybox, and the maps may as well be underground anyway because you're trapped in them either way, but it still feels a bit more freeing being able to see the sky (though no moon, of course). It's also one step closer to my ultimate Portal dream: a huge GTA-style metropolis I can fling portals around in.

If you spot a radio during your travels, make sure to take it with you: there's a cool custom song hidden somewhere in the maps, and you won't want to miss it. (I definitely missed it my first time through.)

Above Aperture is in three parts which you can subscribe to here. I certainly hope there will be more of this adventure to come: the puzzles are pretty fiendish and the maps are very well designed, not just in how the puzzles function but in the overall atmosphere as well.

You can also check out more of the modder's Portal 2 workshop items here.

PC Gamer
Aperture Tag review

Aperture Tag is a mod for Portal 2 that removes the portal gun and replaces it with one that fires gel: repulsion gel, which makes you bounce higher, and propulsion gel, which makes you move faster. Jumping and running, in other words, replaces portals as the main tools to solve puzzles with. Unfortunately, there's no replacement for Portal 2's other elements, like enjoyable voice acting, excellent writing, and a well-balanced level of challenge. And, unlike most mods, Aperture Tag adds a price tag, meaning the first puzzle to solve is: should you pay for this?

There are just over two-dozen test chambers in Aperture Tag, though a couple are recycled from the original game, spiced up by having no portal gun to solve them with. The early game is slow to evolve, giving you only the repulsion gel to play with for a long while. I understand the modders wanting to ease me into the mechanics of the gels, but you can't play the mod without owning Portal 2, and if you own Portal 2, chances are you've played it and already know how everything works. A shorter refresher course would have been welcome.

Once both gels are unlocked, the game ramps up the complexity, though unevenly. I found a couple of early chambers surprisingly vexing while some endgame puzzles were so easily solved I felt like I'd missed something. Even when puzzles are good, they can be spoiled by poor design choices: in one chamber, I'd solved the room in my head but it still took a while to beat solely due to the way a faith plate-launched weighted cube landed, which seemed unfair. I'm happy to have my brain and reflexes tested, but not thrilled to have to repeat a sequence because a cube took a few bad bounces. A small handful of test chambers, however, are genuinely satisfying to solve, utilizing gels, blocks, buttons, mirror cubes, force fields, and yes, even portals (they do show up from time to time, but can't be placed by the player).

No portal gun, but still a few portals.

It ain't the paint
Repetition is an issue. One of the first tricks we learned playing with gels in Portal 2 was that laying down a line of speed gel and ending it with some bounce gel gives you an awesome, rocketing leap. Aperture Tag requires this on so many of its levels that it feels like a pointless added bit of work, as if the modders just ran out of gel-related challenges and kept reusing this initially enjoyable gimmick. Also, while it takes just a mouse-click to reposition a portal in the vanilla game, slathering walls and floors in paint takes time and isn't particularly fun to do repeatedly in the same chamber. This becomes a problem since the mod's later chambers almost exclusively feature toxic floors, meaning that missing a jump is punished by death, often undoing all your careful (or sloppy) painting and discouraging haphazard experimentation. That said, the auto-save system works pretty well, saving your game at multiple steps throughout some of the longer and more elaborate puzzles.

Do you love poison floors? I hope so.

One nice addition is the "Fizzler," an energy field that switches one or both barrels of your paint gun on and off, and figuring out how to properly paint areas when your gun has been partially or completely disabled adds another level to the puzzle-solving. The mod could have used a few more new ideas like this. I was hopeful after spotting what looked like a new brand of sentry turret early on, but it didn't act any differently, and by the end of the game the turrets revert back to their original appearance not to mention that with unlimited bouncy gel at your disposal, turrets are easily beaten. I didn't notice much in the way of custom art assets, either, and there's no real use of cinematic physics (such as Wheatley mashing enormous test-chambers together in Portal 2) meaning the mod is mostly a static series of connected test chambers, with one exception.

The centerpiece of the mod is a time-based speedrun that requires you to zoom down a series of twisting corridors and launch yourself off ramps at breakneck speed, projecting gel ahead of you to keep up your momentum and bounce at just the right times. While exciting and satisfying to beat, this sequence is hurt by the lack of preparation for it, featuring only one brief sequence of gel-racing earlier. Also, when you're rocketing along at top speed, the gel you're splattering ahead of yourself actually lags a bit behind, making it tough to tell if you're painting the landscape ahead properly. Even the modders seem to recognize this sequence is overly difficult: they've provided a big red button that lets you skip it entirely.

Not the most subtle of traps.

Several attempts at a story, misdirection, surprises, and humor are made, but all fall flat. The personality core leading you through the test chambers isn't exactly irritating, but his jokes certainly aren't funny, and apart from "generally upbeat" it's a struggle to even pin down what his personality is. I wasn't expecting anything approaching Valve's level of writing, story, or performance, but if a mod is going to include lots of talking, its character should have something more interesting to say.

This mod is for sale on Steam. I'm all for modders getting paid for their work, and clearly a lot went into this mod, but I'd say their price is a tad optimistic for what you get. In the Steam Workshop, there are a few hundred thousand custom test chambers to explore for free.

Expect to pay: $7/ 5
Release: Out now
Developer/Publisher: Aperture Tag Team
Link: http://bit.ly/1qkNvz7
PC Gamer
Aperture tag

Mods, eh? The fun, free way to extend and/or fix your games. But what's this? Aperture Tag: The Paint Gun Testing Initiative looks like a mod, behaves like a mod, and even has the word "MOD" in the corner of its Steam icon. The difference: it's not priced like a mod. This premium package offers a new campaign for Portal 2 one that does away with portals entirely, in favour of puzzles centred around the base game's gels.

A recent trailer provides a brief glimpse at this janitorial nightmare:

"Aperture Tag: The Paint Gun Initiative is a mod for Portal 2, inspired by TAG! The Power of Paint," explains the mod's store page. "The familiar Portal 2 gels are now contained within the Aperture Science Paint Gun Device and it's your job to test it out!" The mod offers 27 levels, original voice acting, and an in-game editor and Steam Workshop support. Mod or not, it's a nicely sized chunk of game.

And yes, it costs 5/$7 although there's also a 30% discount for the first week. People will inevitably have feelings about whether mods should charge for content, but, given the shift towards easy-to-use game creation platforms, it does make sense. The modding scene is in a different place now, partly because it's so easy for game creators to pursue their own projects in Unity or GameMaker. If paid-for mods do catch on, it could not only tempt more people back into creating cool new things for existing games, but might also encourage those attempting more ambitious mod projects to actually finish them.

On the other hand, free stuff is great, and the possibility of a healthy amount of free, additional content is sometimes part of a PC game's initial appeal. Ultimately, it comes down to the individual game creators to say whether they're okay with people making money from their game. For Valve, in this instance, the answer is yes but likely that's decided on a case-by-case basis. Aperture Tag's premium release does feel somewhat significant, but it may not have that great an impact on modding as a whole.
PC Gamer
The new kings of comedy

Few games are designed to make you laugh. And among those that do, laughter is often a happy accident, the inadvertent by-product of a combination of systems that provoke moments of unintentional comedy.

People laugh at videogames constantly, says former Irrational Games alumnus Jordan Thomas, who recently worked as creative consultant on South Park: The Stick of Truth. But largely it s because they re laughing at the clumsy and often absurd intersection between the designer s intent and their own. Thomas insists there s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but the distinction is clear: we re laughing at games, not with them.

For comedy writer and director Graham Linehan, it s pretty low on his list of priorities when playing a game. For me it s like comedy in porn, he says. It s kind of beside the point. Valve writer Erik Wolpaw, who co-scripted Portal and its sequel, admits that he once likened the idea of comedy in games to the guy who talks between dancers at a strip club. Nobody cares what that guy says and anybody who does is probably kinda maladjusted.

Linehan suggests that in most cases the problem is that the writing simply isn t good enough. The desire to ensure the audience is in on the joke is perhaps why GTA s satire has all the subtlety of a wrecking ball (by design, arguably), and why parody rarely works Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon s attempts to mock bad tutorials by forcing the player to sit through one has all the wit of Scary Movie. I love that argument trotted out about a bad game: oh, it s a satire, Linehan laughs. When Alan Wake came out and the dialogue was just grim, ah, but he s supposed to be a bad writer. No. I really don t think they re good enough to do an impersonation of a bad writer.

And yet it s easy to sympathise with writers attempting interactive comedy. There are intractable problems with a medium in which authors cede control to players: if the secret of comedy is in the timing, how you do ensure the player delivers the punchline at the right time? Nor does the natural repetition of core game mechanics lend itself to humour. The point of surprise is the punchline in a joke, says Luis Hernandez, one half of indie duo Necrophone Games, developers of Jazzpunk. And by virtue of having a core mechanic, you re expecting a certain outcome. I think that s less conducive to surprising people and as a result comedy.

Perhaps that helps to explain why there are so few blockbuster comedy games around. Hernandez cites the desire for efficiency among large developers working on big-budget productions as an unavoidable issue. Comedy by its very nature is an inefficient thing. It s not a survival skill, it s sort of a peacock feather. The loss of individualism in a large team, he says, means that it s harder to reach consensus, so you end up with a designed-by-committee feel.

Necrophone s Jess Brouse agrees that larger developers aren t best positioned to explore comedy, simply because they re less free to experiment during production. A lot of triple-A developers don t just play around and see what happens or rarely get to do that. Whereas we do it all the time, we do a lot of experiments and stuff that we don t end up using. I mean, we made another 40 to 50 percent content for Jazzpunk that ended up on the cutting room floor. But we got it to the level of prototype rather than just designing it on paper. The secret of Jazzpunk s success, he suggests, is down to the two-man team s ability to test and play their ideas, without having to run them past a superior.

Which isn t to say it can t be done, as the two Portal games have proven though as a studio Valve can hardly be said to be typical of large development teams. Erik Wolpaw suggests that financial concerns are part of the reason why so few big publishers will take risks on comedy. I think in film and TV, comedies are generally cheaper to produce than big dramatic spectacle movies. In triple-A games, where you have to make everything from scratch, they cost about the same, so you don t mitigate the risk with a cheaper budget. Plus, failed comedy tends to fail a lot harder than failed drama. Bad comedy is pretty much unbearable to sit through, whereas bad drama can at least crater into unintentional comedy.

Ignoring the financial barrier, he s unsure why people don t attempt to write more comedy games. It s probably because they think it s hard. That s why I don t write more drama or horror or romance or whatever I m pretty sure I m not good at it and it seems like it d be a ton of work to become good at it. So, fear and laziness mostly.

And yet for all the issues inherent in creating good videogame comedy, it does feel that we re seeing the first real resurgence of humour in the medium, arguably since the classic point-and-click era, where LucasArts games in particular offered a rich seam of wit. The two Portal games, Hernandez and Brouse s Jazzpunk and South Park: The Stick of Truth have all made players laugh, and while the likes of Goat Simulator and Octodad stretched their one joke a little too far, for all their flaws they re indicative of a culture that s daring to explore an untapped area of the interactive medium. The recent rise to prominence of indie games is undoubtedly an influence, as smaller developers such as Necrophone have easy access to tools like Unity and are empowered to build games without needing to break the bank the democratisation of technology, as Hernandez calls it.

In that environment, South Park: The Stick of Truth is something of an anomaly while its budget might not compare with a GTA or a BioShock, it s a reasonably high-cost comedy from a large publisher. Its risk as a business venture is, of course, mitigated by the fact that it s based on an established licence, but that in itself has proven to be as often a hindrance as a help in the past. Yet with the involvement of Trey Parker and Matt Stone at every stage in the process, it plays out like an extended episode of the show. In that sense, it could be argued that it s funny despite being a game, and yet, as Jordan Thomas explains, part of the reason it works so well is that the player becomes a participant in the joke; they re not merely a passive observer of the game s comedy.

The Stick of Truth was an excellent crash course in the problems of timing as exposed to the player, he says. A lot of the best jokes in South Park were hard-won because they were our attempt to anticipate what the player might do and respond only if they chose to take that action, and that s the stuff I m the proudest of because that s the stuff that s hardest to do well. You can make someone laugh in a cutscene trivially that has been around for thousands of years. But to get them to be in on the joke, and not just that, but be the person who has the best line, so to speak, there s very little precedent for it. There was experimentation in adventure games, and then a long drought, and finally we re coming back here and there.

The direct involvement of the player in the comedy is an idea that still feels relatively untapped, but it s one that Necrophone Games terrific Jazzpunk manages to exploit. Many of its jokes rely on the element of surprise, often subverting the player s expectations, or simply offering an unexpected result to a simple interaction. Attempting to speak to a man on a bridge, for example, causes him to jump off, emitting a Wilhelm scream as he falls. Reaching out to manipulate the hands on a clock reveals your arm to be a wooden prop. What makes it so consistently funny is that you re never sure what the results of your interactions will be, and that only encourages you to explore and discover the surprises for yourself.

It was very important to have that possibility space, Luis Hernandez says. The open world aspect ties into that the fact that players are missing things and a joke doesn t really work if you see it coming. A lot of games are structured around a core mechanic, and even in comedy I feel that s the wrong approach.

The kind of comedy we re doing is more like punchlines, adds Jess Brouse, likening the game s humour to a jack-in-the-box. It s that kind of sharp I got ya surprise that pops out at the end.

Every bit as surprising is the revelation that Jazzpunk didn t begin life as a comedy, and only developed into one as Hernandez and Brouse began to add Easter eggs into their spy fiction while they were building it to amuse themselves. Slowly, they began to consider how comedy could be used as a central game mechanic, and Hernandez began studying other games in order to better understand how to make their own work better. Looking at how other games at the time were being built, like shooters and puzzle games, I realised that a lot of games are structured around some kind of resistive element, he explains. Most games are built with a start and end state, and they throw in a bunch of stuff along the way so you can t just walk to the end of the game. In most games that s guys that shoot at you or something that shoots at you. And in other games it will be puzzles that impede you, and you have to walk around and find coloured blocks or keys and fit them into doors.

Hernandez s boredom and general dissatisfaction with these two base types of resistance helped to shape Jazzpunk s development. I realised that some of this comedy stuff we were gradually adding to the game could actually function as a kind of resistive element. Even if it was something passive that players could walk past, you d still have curious players that would seek out this material. So while our game has some simple puzzle elements, they re mostly very straightforward. And rather than shooting or outright puzzle solving, comedy became the resistive element.

If the secret of Jazzpunk s success is that element of surprise, its comedy is still very much scripted, and yet most players would probably admit that the biggest laughs they ve experienced in a game have emerged from entirely unplanned moments of comedy. In some cases like the aforementioned Octodad or even its spiritual precursor, Bennett Foddy s hilarious QWOP the games are purposely designed to result in moments of physical slapstick, but is giving players the tools to create their own comedy moments a valid approach to making funny games? Short answer yes, says Erik Wolpaw, before wryly adding long answer Chet and I are out of work if comedy writing gets replaced by tools programming. So while I admit it s entirely possible and truly effective, I m against it.

Indeed, often the moments that provoke the most laughter come from the most unexpected sources, sandbox games often proving a rich source of humour. Battlefield does make me laugh a lot, admits Graham Linehan. The things that can happen in Battlefield are obviously unscripted but maybe that s why it s funny. Maybe that feeds into emergent gameplay lending itself to comic timing like when you wander into a building and throw a few grenades and the building suddenly collapses onto you. It s unexpected. It fulfils a lot of the rules of comedy, you know, it s a mixture of the surprising and the inevitable.

The common link, it seems, between systemic comedy and scripted comedy is that they re both at their best when subverting expectations. Linehan agrees that a degree of spontaneity is as welcome as a dose of wit. Maybe what all these games have in common is that they re playing the player they re messing with your expectations more. In that respect, I always think there s been a link between horror and comedy. Like in Silent Hill, where you have that toilet door that s closed, and you knock at it three times and there s a pause and then knock knock knock from the other side. It s terrifying, but it s very funny. The best comedy is really where you re being played to some extent.

Could the likes of Portal, Jazzpunk and The Stick of Truth bring about a comedy revival, or are we a little way off from audiences actively seeking out comedy games? I like a bit of intelligence, I like a reference that seems neat and clever and takes me by surprise, says Linehan. I value wit over comedy , I guess. Valve are really good at it, and I always think something like Left 4 Dead is very witty in how it s constructed. But when I need a good laugh, will I watch The Producers or play a videogame?

Hernandez believes that more people might begin to develop a taste for comedy if more games attempt to make players laugh. I haven t played it yet, but The Stanley Parable, Goat Simulator, games like that if they come out and start building up a Blockbuster shelf of comedy that people can see every time they go to the Steam Store then it could happen.

I think people go into games to be amused, he continues. I don t think receiving comedy as a reward is really any better or worse than receiving points for stepping on people or killing-spree notifications for shooting people in the face. Essentially, people play games a lot of the time to get an endorphin release in their brain, so whether that s a joke or solving a puzzle don t think there s that much of a disparity between the two.

Brouse suggests that if interactive comedy is to take off, it will take time to manifest, while Hernandez believes that it s too soon to judge whether or not their game has influenced other developers to follow their lead. We won t know if they took it to heart yet, he says. I keep imagining a student in, say Japan, and that Jazzpunk is close to what they want to make. I mean, I ve met people who say that Jazzpunk is something close to what they re looking for in games. There s definitely a huge audience looking for things other than shooting and puzzles, and for them Jazzpunk scratched an itch that perhaps they didn t know they had.

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