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Game of the Week: Portal 2

First-person singular.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

"First-person shooters are in crisis," wrote Dan this week in our Section 8: Prejudice review. "There's a sense that the tide is turning against the market leaders, that too many iterations in too short a space of time have burned out the hardcore, leaving little enthusiasm for new additions to the shooter family tree. We probably won't feel the impact for another few years, but there's a large meteorite headed for these lumbering, violent dinosaurs of the gaming scene."

He has a point, but don't be downhearted, because this week saw the release of three first-person originals that showed a broad and enticing future for pointing guns at things - one of them even in the overburdened military genre.

That game was Operation Flashpoint: Red River, Codemasters' second stab at taking the military sim onto consoles and in a more accessible direction. For the most part, it hits the mark, putting its money where Medal of Honor's mouth was with credible tactics, superb co-op and hard-bitten authencity worthy of Generation Kill.

"Find three competent friends to play through the game with and you will have one of the best shooter experiences currently available. No question," Simon found in our Operation Flashpoint: Red River review. "In communicating the camaraderie, banter, fear and glory of modern warfare in the Middle East, nothing can touch this."

So that's the dinosaurs' single-player solidering taken down a peg or two. And here comes a threat to their multiplayer hegemony - Halo included - from an unlikely direction. The sky.

Section 8: Prejudice may not look like much, but then it doesn't cost much either as a download-only release: probably a wise move in bringing the free-flowing cult multiplayer game, with its aerial spawn drops, to a wider audience. "Were it not for the outdated visuals and functional presentation, Prejudice would easily be worth a full-price purchase. It is, quite simply, the best multiplayer shooter since Battlefield: Bad Company 2," Dan raved, before decisively tapping the 9 on his keyboard.

Could High Voltage's second stab at an FPS blockbuster on Wii, The Conduit 2, continue this strong trend? We don't know, because Sega hasn't sent us a copy, which is hardly a good sign. We should also not let this week's first-person theme distract us from the release of a certain bloody fighter, which Matt awarded a cautious 7/10 in our Mortal Kombat review, but considered a strong return to form. "It's the best 3D game in the series by a long way, and that's because it embraces the 2D heritage which always made Mortal Kombat its own kind of game. Long may it kontinue."

Back on the twin-stick track, it was, of course, genre pioneers Valve who proved this week that you could see a lot more than enemy targets through a character's eyes.

Portal 2

Writing my Portal 2 review, I was surprised, as an inveterate game design critic, how little time I was spending talking about the unquestionably brilliant design of this puzzle adventure.

Perhaps that's because, as a sequel to the peerless Portal, you could take the ingenuity, wit and thrill of its mind-bending, physics-warping riddles on trust. But the fact is that the intricate clockwork mechanism of this game is the least of its achievements.

Here is a major game which borrows the controls, presentation, vocabulary, development budget and thrill-seeking ambition of the most automatically violent genre in games - and uses them to tell a personal story with no combat.

Your purpose in Portal 2 is to survive, not to vanquish; to solve, not to kill; to use the tool in your avatar's hand to find a new perspective, not to obliterate an opposing one.

The story that frames the game, despite featuring only one live human (who does not talk), is conversational, observational and funny. It manages to be on a human scale that many people consider the video game medium incapable of without resorting to the admirable but often laboured experimentation of a Heavy Rain.

(In an interview to be published on Monday, Portal 2's writer Eric Wolpaw told me how the team wanted to kick against the expectations of big-budget games - or virtually any games - and make something "intimate". "Video games tend to go really broad, like, if you're not saving the universe, then why even make the game? This being just about you and GLaDOS - and especially given the events of Half-Life, assuming those are going on outside, this is pretty small-scale - it matters to you and her, and probably Wheatley, and nobody else on the planet.")

These are the reasons I love Portal 2 so much, and the reasons I wrote this at the end of our review: "Portal is perfect. Portal 2 is not. It's something better than that. It's human: hot-blooded, silly, poignant, irreverent, base, ingenious and loving. It's never less than a pure video game, but it's often more, and it will no doubt stand as one of the best entertainments in any medium at the end of this year. It's a masterpiece."

Some of you called me pretentious for that. Maybe you're right. But if it's pretentious to applaud a game for bringing a little more humanity and a little less killing - for trading explosions for laughs - then I'll wear that badge with pride.

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