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Portals of Fun

(This is all spoiler-free, so don’t worry if you haven’t played these yet.)

First off, to follow up on my first Games post: Overlord was lots of fun, and definitely worth playing. I did end up playing through both evil and goodslightly-less-evil paths, and had fun with both (although the evil path seems a little forced at times). But it’s got an excellent sense of humour and there’s just something cute about your minions. The only downside is that harvesting lifeforce (to get more minions) can be a bit of a grind sometimes, but you don’t really need all that much in the end except for use in the Forge to upgrade your weapons/armour, or if you’re trying to get the Jester to say specific things (the Jester’s pronouncements are the PC’s equivalent of the Xbox’s Achievements).

But anyway, enough of that, and back on to the main topic of this post. If you’ve been living under a rock, you may not have noticed that Valve’s Orange Box (Amazon, Mighty Ape, Steam) was released a couple of weeks ago. Being the Valve fanboy that I am, I preordered it and started playing almost as soon as it was unlocked.

The Orange Box contains three new games (Half-Life 2 Episode 2, Team Fortress 2, and Portal) and two old games (Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2 Episode 1). Since most purchasers of the Box will have already bought the latter two separately, they also did a coupon deal where anyone who already had one of the old games would get a “gift pass” to the game on buying the Box, which would let them essentially give a copy of HL2 or HL2:E1 to a friend for free. And Valve really did want you to buy the Box — while you can get each game individually, the pricing is a bit crazy. The OB is the same price as Portal + any one other game (except HL2:E1), and cheaper than any other combination of two games.

Frankly, the only games in the bundle that I was interested in were HL2:E2 and Portal, since I don’t really care about multiplayer (and thus TF2 is basically worthless to me), and I already had HL2 and HL2:E1, but as it happened the OB was US$5 cheaper (since there was a preorder discount) than buying those two games separately. Cunning marketing ploy? Perhaps. (Now, of course, buying them separately would be US$0.05 cheaper, since the preorder discount no longer applies. But then you wouldn’t get the “free” copies of the older games.)

Anyway, enough of the financial rubbish, and on to the games themselves. The first game that I played was Portal, since that was the one I was looking forward to the most. And I have to say, this was definitely one of the most fun games I’ve played in a long long time. (And the ending sequence is absolutely brilliant, and one of the best I’ve seen in any game.) The downside? It’s short. Really really short. On your first playthrough it’ll probably take about three hours — subsequent playthroughs can be completed in about an hour and a half (and that’s even if you’re taking your time). But don’t let that stop you — it’s definitely worth it.

The game itself is set in the same universe as the Half-Life games, but in a different research facility (one that’s in competition with Black Mesa, the setting of the original Half-Life). There’s very little character interaction and not a lot of story exposition — it’s mostly just a puzzle-solving game. But your main antagonist (the facility’s AI, “GLaDOS”) is very funny, and even the gun turrets have an amusing personality, so it’s by no means bereft of characterisation. Just like in the HL games, though, you’re once again the completely silent type — although that’s excusable here because there isn’t really anyone to talk to.

There are no weapons in this game (at least not on your side; there are the aforementioned gun turrets against you) — all you are armed with is a device that can create portals in specific surfaces. These portals basically act as linked doorways; no matter how far apart they are, you can just walk through one and instantly appear out the other. More interestingly, they preserve momentum while allowing redirection, which means that you can jump into a portal below you and then be flung out the other side (up on a wall somewhere), allowing you to achieve some quite impressive jumps. You can even reposition portals mid-jump, and in fact this technique is required in certain places.

Anyway, I’m starting to ramble on a bit. But everyone should definitely put Portal onto their must-play lists.

And finally, on to Episode 2. This is a bit longer than Episode 1, but is still fairly short (four to eight hours). There’s no significant changes to gameplay — your arsenal is the same as in previous games, and most of the same supporting characters return (with one notable omission). There’s also one new face, who was apparently also an ex-Black Mesa scientist (there certainly were a lot of those). There’s also a bit more emphasis on outdoors combat in this game, although only for the second half of the game. Gordon Freeman’s silent treatment continues on as well, which is really quite strange in the face of all the character interaction. You have to wonder if he has some sort of medical condition. Or maybe the microphone in his hazard suit is broken.

The quality of the game is up to Valve’s usual (excellent) standards, so you can perhaps forgive them that they don’t seem to have quite grasped the “episodic” concept. Ok, shorter: definitely; cheaper: slightly; frequent: not a chance.

I enjoyed the game; at least up until the final big boss fight at the end. This one completely killed the fun for me, since I could never seem to take down the supporting enemies in time to stop the big bads (and it basically forced you to do that). Possibly I just didn’t have the right technique. Anyway, as expected the game ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, although not as much of one as Ep1 did. There’s also an interesting tie-in to Portal near the end, too.

Both games have the developer commentary nodes introduced in Lost Coast and continued in Ep1, which let you hear some fascinating behind-the-scenes details. They also both have “Achievements”, which is an Xbox-Live-ism that hasn’t really made it into any PC games before (AFAIK). These are just little indicators saying that you’ve managed to complete certain tasks in the game; many of them you’ll get automatically just by reaching a certain point in the storyline, while others require specific effort (eg. finding all the hidden caches, achieving a certain time in the time-challenge mode). One achievement in Ep2 in particular is absolutely ridiculous, requiring you to pick up a certain object near the beginning of the game and somehow keep it with you throughout the rest of the game until almost right at the end — a task made harder by its tendency to not stay in the car, and the large proportion of driving sequences. Still, there are people who have done it anyway, if for no other reason than to see if they could. So it’s an amusing addition to the games.

In the end, though, I think I enjoyed Ep1 more than Ep2 (though Ep2 is still good) — but Portal definitely takes the prize. Even if you don’t care about the Half-Life universe at all, I think everyone will enjoy Portal. So go buy it! :smile:

(And once you’ve finished Portal, go check out the time-challenge videos on YouTube. Some of those are just scary.)

This is a bit of a tangent, but while I’m still on the subject of games I’d like to mention Zero Punctuation. This is a set of short but action-packed reviews/rants about various games, updated each Wednesday. They’re made by Yahtzee, a UK-turned-Aussie bloke with a great sense of humour — and he’s actually a game designer too. Don’t forget to check out his (free) adventure games (I’ve played most of them — they’re a lot of fun), and also his earlier reviews, before he got snapped up by The Escapist.

Why are you still here? You should be playing Portal by now!

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