Friday, December 07, 2007

There Will Be Cake!

Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Portal

It's taken a long time but Valve have finally released the next episode of Half-Life, more than a year after the last one. It's a pretty sorry attempt at an episodic release scheme but when the results are this detailed and polished it's hard to complain that they've been taking their time to get it right.

There's not much to say about this instalment that I didn't say about the first episode, as the developers have found a winning formula and with fair reason see no reason to deviate from it. Expect lots of frenzied battles in a wide variety of locales, a spot of logical puzzle solving, and plenty of biffing stuff about with your gravity gun, just like in its predecessors.

While the Half-Life Episodes series has not thus far introduced much in the way of new gameplay, I am very pleased with their main contribution to gamedom: the use of actual real believable characters who look and act like like actual human beings, instead of ridiculous action movie clich├ęs. For once I actually gave a shit about what might happen to the supporting cast during the cutscenes, which is something that I don't recall ever feeling while playing a game before (there were a few games that came close (some of the Final Fantasies, Planescape Torment) but the mechanics of gameplay always ensured that nothing permanent would happen to any of your party members. Yeah, I'm not one of those people who cried when Aeris died. She was pretty boring really...)

Fortunately for the long-windedness of this post the new episode was released in a package with a unique new game, Portal. Using the same engine and gameplay as Half-Life, and loosely set in the same fictional world, the game puts you in control of a sketchily defined character trapped in some kind of research facility and forced to complete a series of puzzles using a gun that creates portals that you can use to teleport from one place to another.

It's a short, clever puzzle game, with a smart but simple plot that is revealed a little at a time as you explore. Definitely worth noting is the game's weird, perverse humour. The player is guided by a sinister, omnipresent observer who's gentle, upbeat manner is belied by the dangerous situations that it's forcing you into (“We regret to inform you that our last statement was an outright falsehood. We promise to always tell you the truth in the future.”) and the game as a whole has a general atmosphere of gleefully sarcastic whimsy that I, and apparently almost everyone else expressing their opinion on the internet at the moment, find delightfully refreshing.

It's great to see a successful, established game developer doing something like this. A short, smart, cheap game that doesn't wear out it's welcome fills a much neglected niche in a market dominated by huge, expensive blockbusters. Also, any game that features the vocal talents of Mike Patton as a gibbering ball of hate is already made of win and awesome.

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