Domino Effect

26 Apr

My review of Valve’s new puzzle game Portal 2 is now online at Paste. I liked the game a whole lot, which is not a huge surprise given that it’s the sequel to one of my favorite games of all time and was made by probably my single favorite design studio in the world.

Everyone has had a lot to say about the game, so rather than get too nitty gritty with my criticism, I thought I’d try to illustrate how it felt to play. To do that, I headed down to Cliff’s Variety in the Castro, picked up a big box of dominoes, threw them onto our living room floor, and started taking pictures.

Let me tell you, dominoes do not make for very cooperative photo subjects. Many of the formations I made required a good deal of time to set up (read the review and you’ll see what I’m talking about), and a single mistake would send me back to square one. There are few things more frustrating than toppling a huge domino-heart for the fourth time while Stephen Merchant’s grinning face silently mocks you from the floor.

Interestingly enough, I actually learned a thing about design as I progressed. I was initially constructing the shapes from the beginning to the end, which meant that by the time I got twenty dominoes in, a single mistake could undo all the work that led up to it. In other words, I was unwittingly enforcing old-school game design upon myself, making a game with no checkpoints and a single life. Death resulted in starting all over again. It was stressful.

I quickly figured out that it would be smarter to leave a couple of empty spots in the row, thereby limiting my losses should an errant domino topple. This checkpointing system both of saved me time and helped me to relax, which in turn made me much more effective at laying the actual dominoes.

The moral of the story? Hooray checkpoints!

Anyhow. I had a lot of fun with the review, and even more fun playing the game itself. I still have quite a bit of the co-op campaign to play, as well as the full developer commentary on the single-player campaign. It’s really good.

I’ve noticed several people complaining about the single player campaign’s short length while others are saying that the pacing feels off, that the second and third acts feel bloated. I disagree.

I watched many friends online simply charge through this game, beating it in a single day. While I’m sure this would have been possible, I opted to take my time with it (ten hours for single-player), playing for an hour or two each night for a week. I’m glad I did.

I got stuck a couple of times, and rather than looking for an answer online, I turned off the machine and slept on it, returning the next day with fresh eyes. Personally speaking, I had no problem with Portal 2‘s pacing; with each new hour, I was simply happy to be playing more Portal. Sure, a few of the puzzles in the second act felt a touch too spacious and undirected, but that’s a fairly small complaint compared to the vast number of things the game does right.

There are so many great little touches, many of them musical—the way that lasers generate complimentary tones, the grooves generated by the electronic catapult-levers—as well as the seemingly endless amount of macho dialogue given to the malfunctioning turret bots and the scores of hidden jokes and references that I have yet to find. Valve’s Source engine might be showing its age in terms of its its ability to stream content and eliminate loading screens, but it remains clean and beautiful and is a joy to see in motion. And the big finale! While I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for anyone, suffice to say that I almost fell out of my chair due to the awesomeness.

Anyhow. You can get my official thoughts over at Paste, along with my dominotastic rendition of what it feels like to play Portal 2. Hope you dig it, and I hope you get a chance to play the game.

Read my Portal 2 Review at Paste

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