Friday, April 22, 2011

Portal 2 (2011)

More information here.

The Plot. Portal 2 continues the story of Portal (2007), in which you you are a random test subject in a testing facility for Aperture Science Enrichment Center. In Portal 2, the story continues and the same test subject, after completing the first game, is woken in a strange room by a robot named Wheatley. He tells the protagonist, that she is the last surviving test subject after the facility has been shut down. She has been asleep for a very long time (you can see the state of the bed she was in) and the facility is collapsing. Wheatley then proceeds to assist the protagonist in her escape.

General thoughts. Ooh, I've been waiting for this for a long time and let me tell you - the wait was totally worth it. This game is really very good. Funny, interesting and sometimes a bit complicated. The whole Portal series introduced something completely different to the world of gaming. This is at the same time a story-driven first person adventure, an interesting puzzle and also a fascinating solution to thinking differently about the puzzles.
The main thing that differs this game from any other puzzle-oriented games is the portal gun. This is a device that is capable of firing up to two portals that are connected to each-other. As something passes through one of these, it comes out of the other. All of the game mechanics are pretty much related to this. However, to mix things up a bit, the portals can only be fired upon special white surfaces, so the placement possibilities are usually limited. To make things a little bit easier, the protagonist is wearing some sort of leg braces that allow her to fall from great heights and not get hurt. This means that you can focus on the puzzle and not worry about falling to your death. Unless there's nothing to stop your fall, of course.

As I mentioned, the story starts off many years after the first one and since there isn't anyone to take care of the place, it's in a really bad state. The producers of the game did an amazing job on visualizing a decaying modern facility. You are accompanied by a funny little robot called Wheatley (Stephen Merchant). With him you'll go through many of the testing rooms you saw in the first game and you'll see how broken and old it all looks. Don't worry, though, during the game some of it will be rebuilt. There's also a lighting and shadow demo, where Wheatley leads you through a dark place and you can see how pretty all the shadows are. This is more of a showoff than an important part of the game, but it's still nice.
In the first game, you are led and instructed by an artificial intelligence, a robot called GLADoS. This spoils the story for people who haven't played the first part so don't read the next part if you're planning to play the first Portal.

As you know, you, who played the first Portal, in the end you killed GLADoS and she wasn't too happy about it. Now in the beginning of Portal 2, you get instructed by a random robotic voice with some pre-recorded messages and I was honestly disappointed for a moment, that there was no GLADoS, with any sarcastic remarks, but worry not, GLADoS will return not too far into Portal 2. I've never been so happy to hear an angry robot voice before.
[end of spoiler]

Now, if you haven't played the first Portal, I'll assume that you've skipped ahead and haven't read the previous part. Don't read it. It'll totally spoil the experience of the first Portal.

A thing that makes Portal 2 really stand out is a great story. A really captivating story on a game is quite hard to come by these days and that is something Valve is really good at. I'm glad they didn't disappoint on this one either. When in the first game you really saw quite a small portion of the Aperture Science Enrichment Center with a few hints of it being a lot bigger, in the second game you actually get to see a huge part of the facility. Apparently it goes pretty far down. At one point you end up at the bottom of the facility and get to go through the very first testing facilities. You are led by a bunch of pre-recorded messages read by Cave Johnson (J.K. Simmons), the original creator and owner of Aperture. There you also get a sense of the history of Aperture and also how GLADoS came to be. There, at the lower part of the facility, at one point you can see that an old elevator shaft shows the depth of 4000 meters and that's not the very bottom. You also see a lot of impressive vistas of the underground and how huge it really is. However, while the story tells us a lot about the facility and GLADoS, it doesn't really tell us a lot about the test subject. GLADoS tells the protagonist that she's fat, adopted and a lot of other things. I think I even heard a hint of someone with the same last name. It could have been a husband or a brother of hers. I do wish there was a little bit more information on her.

While the basic gameplay mechanics are the same - portals, buttons and boxes - there are also a lot of changes. First of all, even when you are led through the original testing chambers, the elevators you use are nothing like the ones in the first game. There are also a lot of new things that are added as the game progresses. There is a blue repulsion gel, which pushes you back with the same force you hit it with and also pushes you upward a little bit (helpful on the walls), there's red propulsion gel, that gives you the ability to move very fast, there's a white gel that makes it possible to put portals on things that you normally can't put portals on and also a clear gel that cleans off any other gels. You can also cover an item in a gel, but other than the blue repulsion gel, there's no practical use in covering items in gels.
Besides gels, there is also a force field in which you float in one direction. You can sometimes reverse these with a button. There's also a light bridge thing that you can either walk on or use as a shield from turrets. Additionally there's a laser beam, which can hurt you. You can bend these beams with special blocks. The blue force field, the light bridge and the laser can also be projected through portals. There's also a bomb element, which you can lead through a portal and it explodes on contact.
In the first Portal there were two types of turret - a normal bullet turret, which could be knocked over, moved and restored, and there was a rocket turret, which was stationary. In Portal 2 the Rocket Turrets have been removed and just the normal turrets are used. In some places you see broken turrets, but all functional turrets are just the usual white, with the same funny voice-over as the first game. There were, however, hints of larger turrets and ultimately a huge weird-looking turret, but these were never seen in-game. There's also a weird combination of turret and cube, but it's story-related, so I won't dive into that one much.
Also, in the original Portal, there were a lot of hints on the walls and hidden compartments, that there have been others trapped in the facility, sometimes showing you where to go. In Portal 2, I only saw a few places where something was scribbled on the wall and nothing of it was actually anything interesting. That's a bit of a shame. I liked the 'the cake is a lie' conspiracy theory of the first Portal. Also, I could have used a few hints on how to continue, because in large areas I really spent a lot of time searching for the next spot I could place a portal on.

There was a problem with long loading times, but an update cleared that one right up. Also, at one point the game crashed as I dumped some repulsion gel on some turrets. The other time my game crashed, after the update, was right after all the end credits were done and the main menu should have popped up again. At least I saw the conclusion, which was really fun and nice. And yes, as in the first Portal, there is a song at the end of this one, too. Not as catchy, but still really cool.

All in all, this game is fantastic. I think I'll play it again soon. The game isn't short either, like the first one. I think the first Portal was more like an experiment, which people loved, so Valve sat down and made a proper second part. It took me about 8-9 hours to complete Portal 2, so it's quite lengthy, compared to most shooters and adventure types these days. Great job, Valve.
You can have my cake.

9/10 Flogs

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Stargate (1994)

More information here.

The plot. This is a story about an egyptologist, Dr. Daniel Jackson, who has some revolutionary ideas about the pyramids that nobody wants to believe. He is then taken to a secret military compound to decipher some Egyptian. There he finds out that some of the symbols are actually indexes to points in outer space. He then finds out that a weird round gate has been dug up in Egypt and is there, already functional, just missing the address. With the help of Jackson, the gate is opened and he is sent through with a team of military personnel lead by Colonel Jack O'Neil. After going through the gate, the team meets some people who have been living on that planet for a long time, mining resources for the original Egyptian god of sun, Ra.

General thoughts. This is the one that started the whole Stargate franchise.
First of all, this movie is quite nice. It's not really that magnificent, but given that it's from 1994, there's not much to expect, really. This was really weird to watch, since right now the Stargate franchise has had two series, Stargate SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis, a bunch of movies and right now there's also Stargate: Universe, which I've been watching with great interest.
There is a lot of the original story that has been thrown out of the window to produce the series. Before watching this movie, I watched the pilot episodes of Stargate SG-1, which is supposedly the story that happens a few years after this one. Also note that the actor who played Skaara, Alexis Cruz, is one of the actors who appears in the original movie and in SG-1 as the same character. The rest of the cast has been changed.
I personally don't think you can compare the Jack O'Neill of Richard Dean Anderson with Jack O'Neil of Kurt Russel. Richard Dean Anderson has always been more of a ironic funny type of actor, when Kurt Russel's Jack O'Neil is a jock bad-ass with a bad attitude and a melancholic personality. Some would say that Anderson ruined O'Neill, but I wouldn't have had much interest in Stargate SG-1 if it had Russel instead of Anderson. I mean, come on, it's MacGyver we're talking about here. Speaking of MacGyver, there was a quote in SG-1's pilot, where Amanda Tapping as Carter said something in the lines of "you can't just MacGyver this together". Be it said that Richard Dean Anderson spent 7 years being MacGyver, but just the SG-1 series ran for ten years and Richard Dean Anderson is still occasionally appearing on Stargate: Universe. But I digress.
As I already mentioned, a lot of the stuff from the original movie has been forgotten. For instance, the material that the Stargate was constructed from was supposedly mined from that planet. Chances are, that there are more than one planet that had that metal and even that these stargates were built by someone else, but according to the lore of Stargate: Universe, the gates were built by an ancient race, that disappeared long before man came along, leaving behind a vast array of different advanced technology, the most important of those being the stargate.
Another quite important fact is that the movie described the seventh sign as a point of origin of the signal, meaning that for every planet, the seventh symbol in the address would have to be different. In the SG-1 and all other series, every stargate had a specific address, which was dialed from earth and you could simply dial back without ever having to look for the local symbol. This made writing new planets much easier, of course, but sortof messes with the original story a little bit.
Another thing that bothered me a lot was that back on earth, the team of scientists couldn't make the gate work, but were somehow managed to build equipment that would run the gate, dial the symbols and even show the decomposition of the things sent through the gate, not to mention the exact destination on a weird glass two-dimensional map of the sky.
All things considered, this was still quite an achievement. Certainly something new and different.

I don't think Roland Emmerich thought that this simple little sci-fi movie could turn out to become one of the largest Sci-Fi series ever, with 3 different related series showing for over fifteen years. For that contribution to the Sci-fi world, we thank him.

6/10 Flogs