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What the Fun: Portal 2

I’ve finished the single-player campaign of Portal 2 in what feels like record time for me when it comes to games.

During the last few days, I have devoted lunch time and what free time I have after work (including some late nights) to hurling myself into the Aperture Labs test chambers, watching the narrative evolve from the familiar “GlaDOS wants to kill me in new and unusual ways while snarking” motif to a Bioshock-esque tale of one man’s ambition and greed while you run around with a potato fused to your hand to a final fight-the-clock showdown against a hideously incompetent  opponent.

A colleague stopped by my desk while I was playing and noted that the game looked good, but he wondered what happened in it. “Do you kill things? Do things try to kill you?” he asked. He’s a veteran of our daily Left 4 Dead 2 misadventures, so the expectation is understandable.

“Not exactly,” I said, struggling to line up two portals for a solution to a particularly tricky leap-and-fire style puzzle. “Right now, I need to get from this platform here to that platform there. There’s white wall that I could shoot a portal onto if this glass wall wasn’t in the way. So, I have to find a way to target that white wall while I’m free falling.”

“But things are going to try to kill you soon, right?” he pressed.

“Erm, no,” I said. “Well, wait. Yes. There are these cute little white turret robots that will shoot me full of holes, but all I have to do is pick them up and drop them to destroy them.”

“Oh,” he said, and soon left to the sound of my joyous exultation when my mid-air acrobatics sent me plummeting through one hole, up from another, whereupon I zapped a hole in that elusive white wall, fell again, and then lofted across the chamber to the platform I had so eagerly wanted to reach.

I’ve played a lot of video games in my day, from the old Combat tank games on the Atari to the epic RPGs like Dragon Age 2, and while I have enjoyed them all for what they were, I have to confess that Portal 2 is about as close to perfect (for me) as they come.

* Dialogue: Snappy. Funny. Sarcastic. It’s very dry, cutting humor from the school of Monty Python.
* Art design: A great mix of claustrophobic isolation, staggering heights, and misty wide open spaces.
* Playful game mechanics: The introduction of conversion gel (for making new portals on previously invalid surfaces), propulsion gel (for speeding you up), repulsion gel (for making you bounce), and excursion funnels (for levitating you around in straight lines) provide a lot of fun. I spent about 30 minutes in one test chamber just toying with the physics of conversion gel splattering around, like a kid in one of those little parks with the dancing fountains.
* No combat: I don’t hate combat. Truth be told, I have a great time with violent video games. Every day, when possible, I’m running around L4D2 with my co-workers, spitting acid on them, vomiting goop at them, pouncing on them, choking them with my tongue, or trying to ride them like a pony into hordes of zombies. It’s really a human resources nightmare. However, I adore games that prize wit over twitch.
* Clever puzzles: They probably aren’t much use for measuring qualifications for Mensa, but some of the test chambers in Portal 2 certainly make me feel like a wicked genius when I figure out the solution. It’s a little victory, no cure for cancer or anything, but that feeling of accomplishment is addictive.

After just a few days, I’m done with the single-player campaign. I won’t give away the ending for those who have yet to see it, but I will say that it was one of the few times I have just burst out laughing in my chair at a moment of surprise at a video game.

Now I’ll probably turn my attention to the co-op features.

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