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Portal 2 offers a look at the sequels of the future

In all my years of gaming (and I date back to the Commodore 64, friends and neighbors), there's always been one everlasting daydream: What will games be like in the future?

With Portal 2, released Tuesday, decades after I first played a video game, I get a wonderful answer: They'll be more than I or any other gamer could have hoped for.

You know the story, so I won't belabor the mythos of The Orange Box. You now are back in the confines of Aperture Science, being subjected to testing by GLaDOS, which provides you with the same interspacial portal gun that you had in the first game. So far, so good.

But now you have a partner, Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Marchant), and the addition of three gels that affect various surfaces. You also have the interjections of JK Simmons' Cave Johnson, founder of Aperture; light bridges; excursion funnels; refractor cubes; and a campaign closer to eight hours than the original three — not to mention a co-op mode with two robotic characters, P-body and Atlas. That's all boilerplate, and available in any review in all of video gaming. You don't need me to tell you that the game is good. It's been a highly valued franchise ever since we learned the truth about the cake. No, what I noticed about this much-hyped sequel from Valve is not how new and different it is, but rather how similar it is to the games I was playing as a youngster 25 years ago.

You see, at their core, all video games are puzzles. Whether the object is fitting blocks together, choosing the right combination of items or shooting and destroying obstacles, every title anyone has ever played is about problem-solving. Going back to the days of Frogger, the game was about threading together a proper time and location to race across a street. Metroid was about finding the right arsenal of power-ups in the right order to find a route to the end of the game. Any RPG is similarly full of fetch quests accomplished in the correct sequence to open a path to advance. Even FPS titles like Call of Duty are really just dressed-up versions of point-and-click puzzlers, except you point and click with a virtual rifle.

The key to making those titles interesting, however, is using the development tools in the right ways to make the games compelling and rewarding. I couldn't help but feel during my journey through Aperture's decaying rooms that this was a high-tech version of Tetris, and remembering that all I was really doing was finding the correct way to perform a series of actions and advance. But the intangibles of the production, the details and execution of the physics, makes this game excel in ways I could have never conceived when I was struggling through Riddle of the Sphinx on the Atari 2600 as a youth.

Portal 2 expands on its novel mechanics in a way that shows future sequels — not just of this franchise, but of any series — will always have room to improve (and to be fair, Portal 2 still has its own defects). The core gameplay is the same, but so much has been added and expanded, there's nothing else to call it but brilliant. And that's an adjective that's been conspicuously absent from my opinion of any follow-up since Resident Evil 4, really.

So many titles these days play it safe; they add a weapon here, they alter the gameplay there. Very rarely is there an enrichment of the experience so noteworthy that you almost feel like you're playing an entirely different game, yet are acutely aware the basics of the title are intact. Adding in the cleaned-up textures and riveting first-person presentation and storytelling — Wheatley will hack doors for you, but only if you turn around, since he can't do it when you're watching — leads to an engrossing product that succeeds where so many other sequels fail. It makes you want to keep going, no matter how stumped you get.

I infamously trashed Halo: Reach for having the opposite effect — no matter how great it looked or how well-acted the cutscenes were, disregarding how satisfying the assassinations looked or how seamless the co-op experience played, in the end, it was just more pop-and-shoot antics. Plenty of you let me hear about it, too.

But now I ask you to try out Portal 2, and think back to when you were impressed with two-button controllers and 2-D graphics. Ask the little kid who was so happy to make do with graphic flicker and mistranslated cutscenes what they think of the Portal 2 experience. As simple as it is, it displays a complexity and execution your grade-school self could only begin to imagine. And being fun to play sure doesn't hurt.

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com.

Portal 2 offers a look at the sequels of the future 04/25/11 [Last modified: Monday, April 25, 2011 5:13pm]

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