Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Portal 2: The best fun you can have from a first person perspective.

Platform: Xbox360, PS3 and PC
Certificate: 12
Developer/Publisher: Valve
Genre: First person puzzle platformer

The single most defining moment of Portal 2 comes fairly early on in the game when you are navigating the incinerators deep beneath the Aperture laboratories. Leaping from walkways to conveyor belts you will see unwanted debris and detritus falling into furnaces along with the familiar softly spoken gun turrets and weighted storage crates. As you walk across one of the conveyor belts you come across one of the turrets sitting on its side heading towards the glow of a most fiery demise. In one pathetic moment, as you pass on by, it whimpers pathetically “I’m different”. It practically killed me, the thought of this little robot designed for the singular purpose to shoot bullets at whatever crosses its laser sights, somehow finding itself on a conveyor belt, elected for incineration, pleading to be spared from its fiery fate on some notion that it believes itself to be worthy of salvation on some notion of a higher purpose. I mean, when was the last time a video game made you feel like this? 

To begin pretentiously enough, I would like to make a literary reference, because this is Portal we are talking about, one of the greatest games ever made. Perhaps one of the few games that is viable proof of just what gaming as a medium is capable of doing aside from the commercial dollar dimensions boasted by some of the biggest entertainment releases in the history of culture ever. I would like to draw a comparison to Edgar Allen Poe, a master of the short story. He wrote an essay on ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ a beat by beat explanation of how he wrote ‘The Raven’ a short story in the form of a poem designed to be read in a single sitting without interruption from daily interferences to create a wholesome unity of effect to maximize the reader’s immersion in the story. First released in Valve’s generous Orange Box in 2007 Portal was a similar exercise in composition as The Raven, albeit in video game form, a highly focused gaming experience that was so singularly perfect in its form. The very thought of a sequel seems to urinate on its memory.

Accompanying the vast Half Life 2 experience and the many hours provided by the Team Fortress 2 multiplayer, Portal was a first person puzzle platformer with a terrific sense of dark humour. Once you started playing you couldn’t help but be sucked into the game, from the addictive thrill of puzzle solving through portals to the dry wit of GLaDOS as she promised you cake, to the immediate story drip fed to you at the end of each of the test chambers and the more mysterious story implied through the feverish wall scrawlings of a supposed madman telling you the cake was a lie.The biggest challenge facing Portal 2: this time released as a standalone sequel, was whether Valve could break through the limited constraints that helped define the original so perfectly and make a longer more involving game. The result is utterly tremendous. Let me explain why.     

Once again Portal 2 puts you in the long-fall boots of silent female protagonist Chell. After destroying GLaDOS and escaping the claustrophobia of the Aperture laboratories, you were dragged off to another installation by the party escort bot. Portal 2 begins confined to what first appears to be a cheap motel room, it is not long until you find out that it is actually a cryogenic holding pen deep within the labyrinth that is Aperture laboratories. After several years, you are reawakened and are busted out of frosty incarceration by a neurotic though kind hearted robot by the name of Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Merchant). Once you are sprung, you reacquire the portal gun and start making your way through a dilapidated series of test chambers in an attempt to once again make a break for the surface. Things do not go to plan of course as you soon see yourself accidentally rebooting GLaDOS, who is just thrilled to see you again after you murdered her at the end of the last game. If it is any consolation, she does have more reason to remain buoyant as she faces the prospect of repairing her facility whilst obsessively putting you through a series of diabolical tests that require you to once again think with portals. All in the name of science. 

The bitch is back.
This is the mere setup for Portal 2’s storyline, a narrative that travels far into the depths of the Aperture laboratories. To reveal anymore would simply spoil the experience. This isn’t like other games where the story is predictable and conventional, where its excruciatingly generic plot is a cause for criticism (I’m looking at you Crysis 2!). Though Portal 2’s story will take at least 6-8 hours to complete, there is no downtime in the story, no flabby mid section or rushed third act. It is perhaps to be expected from Valve, who have long been champions of storytelling in games, even Left 4 Dead had narrative nuance but Portal 2 is easily the industry darling’s greatest achievement thus far. The story keeps moving forward, masterfully varying environments and expertly changing the dynamic of the plot.   

As with the first game, Portal 2 continues to be very funny and although Chell remains a mute, there are more characters this time around who will do all the talking for you. There are so many memorable lines of dialogue that will undoubtedly be turned into memes and quoted between fans for years. GLaDOS returns of course, voiced by Ellen McLain and continues to be ‘explosively indignant’ and coldly menacing and sarcastically bitch but the story will take the AI to new places that will affect you on an emotional level. Newcomer, Wheatley one of GLaDOS’s defunct emotional cores is also a great addition to the cast. Fans of The Office and Ricky Gervais will undoubtedly recognize Stephen Merchant’s southern country bumpkin vocals and bumbling convoluted delivery. I have read criticism that Merchant is merely doing what he has always done in comedy, which is true, but the same can be said for J.K. Simmons who provides the voice for Aperture’s founding father Cave Johnson. Just like every character Simmons has always played, Johnson is a tough talking, no nonsense ball breaker. An advocate of the more imperfect duct-tape methods of scientific investigation, the kind of experimentation that is more concerned with firing the rocket into space than it is concerned with the well being of the monkey test pilot. It brilliant foregrounds the ideology of Aperture science and GLaDOS herself.   

Pro tip #1: Lasers give nasty burns.
As far as the actual gameplay is concerned, Portal 2 expands on the formula of the first game by introducing a host of new elements. Blue Repulsion gel allows Chell to bounce off of the floor. The orange propulsion gel is essentially a lubricant which accelerates the player at high velocities. When combined the two gels will usually work to form a kind of runway designed to propel and catapult you across bottomless chasms. Other new additions include the light bridges which effectively serve as solid surfaces to walk upon or absorb turret bullets and of course the excursion tunnel, an antigravity energy tunnel which allows you to leisurely float in a particular direction. My favourite new addition is undoubtedly the aerial faith plate, a kind of acme styled catapult which when stepped on hurtles you across the room at bewildering speed. As with the first game, Portal 2 introduces each new element, each new twist to the gameplay on simplistic grounds, building up your puzzle solving repertoire so that when you tackle some of the harder problems you should be able to identify solutions. The puzzles that require you to build up momentum to soar through the air like a graceful swan (‘or an eagle piloting a blimp’) are usually the most enjoyable in terms of visceral thrills but working out a puzzle to its logical conclusion is again, thoroughly satisfying.  

The puzzles are of a particular nature that will at first seem dizzyingly daunting, but as you pick them apart and process each individual element , they become easier to figure out. I never found myself getting stuck to the point of hopelessness in Portal 2. Sometimes I would find myself overthinking puzzle rooms only to be left slightly disappointed that the solution was actually easier than expected. I had some real facepalm moments when I realized that the solution to clearing a particular chasm required placement of a portal on a neglected wall above me rather than the wall I had been using for the last ten minutes. It is a half assed point of criticism to note I suppose, would you rather have an easy game to progress through or a game that requires you to rely on only the most difficult methods, something that could potentially spoil your relationship with the game itself?

Pro Tip #2: Repulsion gel - don't get it on your skin
Though the campaign is great, there does seem little point in replaying it. There are a couple of juicy secrets to find throughout that will reveal backstory but apart from that you could criticize Portal 2 for being too linear and not accommodating for the level of immersive exploration that say Arkham Asylum or Bioshock had. You would think Aperture laboratories would be a perfect fit for this style of gameplay, though it is perhaps difficult to accommodate for the sheer freedom that portaling would give the player if the environment was a bit more open. It is definitely too big for me to demand something as trivial and shallow as collectables but with that said, the first Portal did have time trials and therefore a reason to come back and perfect the art in some of the more challenging puzzles. This is nothing DLC wouldn’t fix of course, which is fine so long as you have the PC or PS3 versions which will incorporate Steam (and accepting that the PSN isn’t experiencing downtime).    

Of course, Portal 2 also comes with a seperate co-op campaign, which is of a generous length somewhere inbetween the length of the first game and the single player story. Designed for two players, you take control of a robotic Laurel & Hardy styled duo by the name of P-Body and Atlas. Together, you and your friend take on a whole series of tests designed for completion by two players. You each have two portals that are connected to each other but not to the other player’s, placing the emphasis on integrating each other’s portals in such a way that they flow into one another. Communication is vital, and it will make it easier if you play with a friend rather than a random stranger. Valve have implemented several helpful additions to the controller interface such as markers, allowing players to indicate places of interest or perhaps where to pop a portal. There are also count downs which allow players to synchronize their maneuvers, which become increasingly important towards the end of the campaign. As in the single player, the feeling of working through a puzzle to its logical conclusion is thoroughly satisfying, perhaps even more so in collaboration with a friend. 

P-body and Atlas - will test the limits of friendship.
As far as cosmetics, Portal 2 makes use of Valve’s source engine once again. After six years it is still going strong even if there is perhaps little in the game that requires that intense level of graphical fidelity that the CryEngine displays. Lets just say that the Source Engine does deserted science laboratories very well, and there were definitely more than a couple of instances where I was wowed over by the particle effects as my surroundings collapsed and were ripped apart around me. The game does look brilliant and Valve have really opened up the location of Aperture science, varying the environments with great aplomb where other games would just administer the feeling of boredom as you walked down another subterranean corridor. Building on the promise of the first game, the game alternates between the normal test chambers and the environments existing outside and inbetween giving a fuller appreciation to the size and history of the installation that is Aperture Science. It also experiments with the formula, in the early stages of the game, you traverse old test chambers which have now have signs of nature poking through. Like Black Mesa, City 17 and Ravenholm or even the levels from Left 4 Dead, Valve enriches the environments of Portal 2 with an unparalleled level of detail and atmosphere. There are certainly more than just a couple of ghosts wandering around the Aperture labyrinth, and you do feel this throughout some of the lonelier sections of the game.

In conclusion, Portal 2 is the most fun you can have from a first person perspective and yes, that does include your real life as well. Whilst we have had our fair few of decent games as of late, we rarely get ones as original, as intelligent as genre bendingly bar smashing. Valve have taken the concept of the original Portal and expanded on it in a way that feels like a natural evolution of the first game. Portal 2 manages to occupy a bigger world whilst still supporting it with plenty of substance unlike the ‘bigger more badass’ mentality that usually defines the practice of sequel building (I’m looking at you Gears of War 2 and Dead Space 2). The only problem in my mind is that once you have waltzed through both the single player and co-op campaigns there is little to come back to, aside from secrets and the sheer quality of the game’s writing and humour (if that wasn’t enough already). Portal 2 can be completed in a weekend, and whilst it may feel as if it is all over too soon, it will be an experience you won’t forget. The only question you are left is where Valve will go next.       

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Sheena Bratt - Fire In Your Eyes

*Article was originally written and published within The Sentinel (08/04/2011)

Love for the music has gotten Cheshire based singer songwriter Sheena Bratt far in life, from busking and performing in various different countries, to hosting a radio show in Thailand. Ahead of the release of these two live tracks she is globetrotting once more to play the Earthday festival in Rio, Brazil. First track ‘My Muse and I’ is a short and sweet introduction to Sheena as an artist singing about her mixed relation with her muse and the giddy creative energies that keep her from sleeping at night. Second track ‘Fire in Your Eyes’ comes with the full backing of a band and for the most part it is hard to find anything to disagree with. The music is sunny, the tempo is upbeat, the lyrics reflect motion and bustle and Sheena’s voice is distinguished enough to keep her from falling on the wrong side of country.

All The Young - The First Time

*Parts of the following article were published in The Sentinel (25/03/2011)

Formerly playing as New Education, four piece All The Young are a new band that Stoke on Trent can truly be proud of. A debut album is in the pipeline, to be released later this year after the band secured a six album contract with Warner Brothers. New single The First Time is nothing revolutionary in musical terms, but it is a solid and rousing dose of anthemic indie guitar rock that you can easily imagine blasting over the summer festival fields. Similarities can be drawn to The Enemy or The Twang, and other bands that have followed in the footsteps of Oasis. It follows a tried and tested formula to great effect; an energetic drum beat drives the entire song forward, giving way to a breezy bass line, massive lead guitar melodies and big sing-along choruses. It all paints a picture of a band who know the music they play and how to do it well. Definitely worth checking out. 

Friday, 8 April 2011

Source Code - Film of the year 2011 anybody?

Certificate: 12A
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga
Director: Duncan Jones
Duration: 93 minutes

The 'unshaven man with gun side profile' marketing spiel does not do the movie's immense substance any favours.

Last year’s Inception may have paved the way for a new generation of movies set within dream worlds that bend the rules of our perceived realities, but Source Code stands up on its own as an absolutely brilliant piece of science fiction from the maker of 2009s Moon.

A US army pilot by the name of Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) awakes on board a train of commuters bound for Chicago. This is strange because he is supposed to be serving in Afghanistan. Further adding to the confusion Stevens finds that he is trapped within another man’s body, a man by the name of Shaun who is clearly in a relationship with Christine (Michelle Monaghan), the woman who sits opposite. Before Stevens can make any clear sense of the situation the train suddenly explodes in a ball of flame.

Far from being dead, however, Stevens wakes up in a dark room strapped into some kind of machine. In front of him is a computer screen where a Captain Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) informs him that the event he witnessed was a terrorist attack that occurred earlier in the day, relived by Stevens through the Source Code a new technological breakthrough which allows military intelligence to replay the last 8 minutes of a person’s life. Being a trained solider, Stevens has been called upon to enter the Source Code and identify the bomber responsible for blowing up the train. He must do this before the same bomber sets off another dirty bomb in the heart of Chicago, which will kill millions.

If you knew you only had one minute left to live what would do?
Source Code is Duncan Jones second feature film after 2009’s Moon which was quite rightly met with fervent critical acclaim. Like Moon, Source Code is another science fiction story that is less about the fantasy that the genre is usually associated with and more based upon the ideas that the question of science brings to the existence of mankind. There are many similarities between both movies, namely because both films involve a pawn like character in a highly isolated position by the will of a much larger organization whose motivations are largely obtuse and unclear. Source Code could have been a generic thriller, in the vein of Tony Scott’s 2006 movie Déjà vu which is what the trailer and marketing spiel will make you believe, but Jones really plays with the concept within the film’s tidy 90 minutes of duration.

The movie is a gold mine of themes and points of interest just dying to be read into and discussed feverishly by eager film buffs. I feel very limited in what I say about the movie out of fear of spoiling it for potential audiences, the less you know about it the better. I will say that there is the pervading question of the duty of the solider or the armed forces in general, and how they put themselves on the line for the salvation of the majority. However, in a neat twist, the whole idea is effectively turned on it’s head with the film set in an environment in which the people onboard the train have all died and are beyond saving, or at least in the mind of the military intelligence. Colter Stevens becomes a character who needs to see that he is making a difference to people’s lives even if it is within the artificial construct of the Source Code. He has little attachment to the people affected by the larger dirty bomb, but instead the people on board the train existing in his estranged sense of reality become the driving force to find the bomber. There is also the question how far the Source Code goes to replicate reality, which opens up an entire can of worms where discussion is concerned! However, when all those eight minute sessions explode with no clear resolution, you feel the character’s pain.

Jake Gyllenhaal really makes the movie. Bouncing back into form after last summer’s Prince of Persia once again proving how versatile he is as a leading actor. As Colter Stevens, Gyllenhaal isn’t an action thriller stalwart like Jason Bourne as his name may suggest, he is more of a grunt, his methods of identifying the bomber are initially blunt and based on stereotypical racial profiling. Almost humorously, like in Ground Dog day, it is by witnessing the same eight minutes over and over again that Stevens becomes more suave and sophisticated in his methods not only as a secret agent like character but also a romantic lead as he effectively knows what Christina is going to say next. Jones plays with this comedic angle in the earlier stages of the film, and Gyllenhaal plays it with the kind of goofy edge that reminded me of Donnie Darko, another cult classic that you will almost certainly draw parallels with when watching Source Code.

We've only got three minutes to save the world!
The supporting cast is also very good. I haven’t yet seen a movie in which Michelle Monaghan stars in which I haven’t liked her as a character. Her screen time is perhaps limited in comparison to the rest of the cast but she does provide Steven’s character a reason and motivation to succeed in his mission. It is made all the more difficult for the audience, as we know that she has basically died but is given extra life via the Source Code. Vira Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright play the two opposing forces supervising Stevens as he works within the Source Code. Though the latter plays something of a generic character, coming across as a cantankerous old scientist looking for promotion and possibly more funding from the military, Farmiga in contrast does well to humanize the army intelligence side of things, conveniently drip feeding Stevens with all the ‘need to know’ details in the advance of the plot.

Like the Adjustment Bureau, Source Code might not have the catchiest of movie titles but be under no illusions, this is an absolutely brilliant movie that you must see even if it means going out of your way to do so. It manages to be a successful thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat but the film has so many other things going. There are a lot of times during the movie that you think you’ll have the plot sussed but the movie manages to keep one step ahead or at least engage the audience be it through the Groundhog Day styled humour or the tremendous emotional weight the movie carries which is thankfully devoid of the usual Hollywood schmaltz and sentimentality.

Opening on the same day as Sucker Punch, a movie that has caused many a critic to start quoting Revelations heralding the death knell of a film industry bankrupt of original and new ideas, Source Code is proof that good films are still being made. Intelligent, slick, a veritable roller coaster thriller with an array of twists and turns and an immensely heart wrenching emotional core, Source Code is all the things that is great about cinema. You flocked to the cinema to see Inception applauding it for its intelligence and vision, now you should do the same for Source Code.