The Greatest Games: Portal 2 (2011)

Portal 2 (2011)
Developed by Valve

Portal is a perfect little experience which proves games don’t need to be particularly long to leave a lasting impact. At the same time, I’m certainly not going to complain that they made a sequel which expanded upon the core ideas while maintaining the same consistent quality in both puzzles and comedic writing, all sustained over a longer experience.

The central concept of the portal gun is one of the best ideas in gaming. In the original Portal, the puzzles revolve around finding the right place to put the two portals, with harder puzzles adding elements of momentum. Portal 2 adds a bit more complexity through the introduction of colored gels. The blue repulsion gel repels anything which touches it, resulting in the player being able to jump onto it and bounce back to a similar height. The orange propulsion gel makes anything which comes in contact move faster, while the white conversion gel allows portals to be applied to otherwise impossible surfaces.

While these are initially introduced as static features, the player soon accesses tubes which endlessly pour out the gel. By placing a portal where the gel lands, the player can splatter the various corridors with the necessary paint. Understanding how all of this works is simple, but figuring out what to place where can be challenging. It’s also just fun to do things like coat the bottom of two adjacent towers with conversion gel, only to place a new portal ever higher up the opposing towers until they’re both completely coated – Valve knows how to make observing physics effects fun. Where the original was largely concerned with finding just the right angle, Portal 2 adds the fun step of first making those angles accessible. The best levels leave Chell in a massive room with little obvious guidance beyond the presence of these tubes.

While the original Portal had a lot of charm, the only truly developed characters were GLaDOS and the Weighted Companion Cube. With the latter being the tragic silent type, it was largely a one-character show. To play against GLaDOS’s cold passive aggressive nature, the game introduces Wheatley, another artificial intelligence who is literally programmed to just be the most unbearable idiot. Stephen Merchant plays the role with a perfect frantic energy, another stark contrast against GLaDOS’s robotic monotony.

And when you reach an abandoned section of the laboratory, pre-recorded messages by company founder Cave Johnson guide Chell through the puzzles. He’s an overbearing tycoon who puts new ideas and profits over safety, making it clear how the company ended up in this mess. He also has a wonderful performance provided by J.K. Simmons. All three of these characters form a perfect triangle of foils, all hilarious in their own distinct style.

There’s not much more to say about Portal 2 without diving too deep into specifics – the charm is simple and straightforward. This sequel expanded upon the already stellar concept of the original. This is the physics puzzle genre at its best, with a wonderful cooperative campaign adding an additional layer of complexity. Meanwhile, the entire experience is wrapped in some of the best writing the medium has to offer. Portal 2 is video game presentation at its sleekest.

The Greatest Games: Half-Life 2 (2004)

Half-Life 2 (2004)
Developed by Valve

The original Half-Life helped establish the location-based set piece shooter which would eventually take over the FPS genre, but Half-Life 2 was the perfected form. Few worlds had felt so detailed and alive. Like Super Mario Bros. 3 with the platformer, Half-Life 2 stands as the ideal form. Later FPS games would follow its lead, but nothing has ever outright replaced what Half-Life 2 offers.

Half-Life 2 exchanges the original game’s unending laboratories for a distinctly Eastern European setting. Where that first game could be sterile and blocky, every inch of this new environment is covered in little details. Gordon Freeman’s trip inside City 17 begins with an uneasy peace. Awakened on a train after years under the G-Man’s stasis, he finds the world has been taken over by an alien race as a result of the first game’s experiments. Any rebellion has been apparently quashed, and Gordon is led through checkpoints under the surveillance of a brutal police force. Being unarmed and surrounded by future enemies is a tense experience, which is a recurring atmosphere throughout. Any time this game gives the player just enough to feel capable, some new threat emerges to reduce all confidence.

This game is loaded with strangely memorable little moments. One of the first involves an abusive officer knocking over a can while blocking the path. He commands you to pick it up and throw it in the trash. You can do so and he’ll let you pass through. Or you can throw it in his face. He’ll chase you down, which just so happens to leave the route unblocked once you maneuver around him. Then there are the physics puzzles, such as loading one side of a plank with cinder blocks so you can jump to a ledge from the other side. These moments are largely cheesy excuses to show off the physics engine, but they are effective in doing so.

Half-Life 2 really ramps up once Gordon received the gravity gun. Seemingly meaningless small objects have been scattered throughout this land as trash. With the gravity gun, all of these items can be picked up and turned into makeshift ammo. After receiving this gun, the game throws you into what just might be the greatest level in any FPS – Ravenholm, a town long-abandoned after a headcrab infestation. Set in the darkness of night, the game temporarily becomes a zombie nightmare as Gordon must largely rely on his surroundings. Some previous survivor has set traps, which Gordon must set off without getting himself decapitated while doing so. But the easiest method of survival involves grabbing one of the scattered saw blades and chopping these headcrab zombies in half. The lead tension of the gravity gun is it’s only as powerful as your surroundings. This forces the player to keep their eyes on whatever they just shot. You do not want to lose the only saw blade in the immediate area while being swarmed. With the way it combines an inventive new combat method with an absolutely terrifying location, this section alone would be enough to call Half-Life 2 a masterpiece.

But the game just keeps being fantastic. Another level finds Gordon playing the floor is lava. While on a beach, any step directly on the sand results in being swarmed by antlions. With the trusty new gravity gun, this area can be traversed by building a moving path of stray parts. And then there’s the finale, where you lose everything but the gravity gun, which somehow becomes supercharged and suddenly starts working on organic matter. This is when the game finally gives the player a break and lets them feel all-powerful.

This game does have some notorious interruptions – while avoiding cutscenes, it instead locks Gordon into rooms while other characters talk at him. Later games would improve on this by having conversations occur while the player can still meaningfully explore. This is Half-Life 2’s one negative trait, a strong idea but poorly implemented. But this game does have some expert storytelling, and that’s all through its environment. Just seeing the state of the world after the end of the first game says so much, and you can tell the stories of each of these locations simply by looking around. Half-Life 2 set a new standard in narrative immersion.

There are a few obvious leaps forward as one looks through the history of gaming. Pong led to Pac-Man led to Super Mario Bros. led to Super Mario 64. Half-Life 2 was the final step into the modern era, the game which signified all tools being made available. There’s never going to be another vertical shift across the board on this level; graphics and physics engines will keep on improving, but Half-Life 2 signaled the end of objective technological leaps involving game design itself. Any game beyond this point had to prove its worth not by technological innovation but by making the best use of those available tools. But no game holds up merely through technical showmanship – Half-Life 2 is an unforgettable experience through and through, with its focus on in-game physics not just a gimmick but central to the entire experience.

The Greatest Games: Left 4 Dead 2 (2009)

Left 4 Dead 2 (2009)
Developed by Valve

With all our time waiting for any follow-up from Valve for most of their series, it’s hard to believe there was a moment where we collectively complained about them making a sequel too soon. Released exactly one year after the first game, Left 4 Dead 2 seemed unnecessary. A few new special zombies and weapons were nice, but did that really justify a full-priced sequel? Years later, L4D2 has now absorbed nearly every piece of content from the original. Between the first game being virtually reduced to a trap for the uninformed (why are these two games the same price on Steam?) and the sequel going from questionable to the definitive experience, there are few series with a more bizarre history.

Of course, people were willing to jump into the sequel anyway because the first game was that good; all these minor improvements only made things better. For whatever reason, video games built around cooperative gameplay are few and far between. There are plenty of team-based shooters if you want to play with friends, but the experience of fighting against AI feels a bit more focused. Where losing in something like Team Fortress 2 can be blamed on a skill gap between teams, failure in Left 4 Dead is almost always due to poor strategy and communication.

Left 4 Dead is built around an old horror trope. Well, there’s zombies, obviously. But what I really mean is this obnoxious tendency for otherwise well-equipped characters to suddenly split up. There’s always some player who gets distracted while their teammates are charging ahead who then fails to say anything until a hunter has them pinned. In many ways, Left 4 Dead operates as a babysitting simulator. You must keep your eyes on your teammates at all times and hopefully convince them to do the same. While the logic could be to wait up for the straggler, the game is also designed to punish lollygagging. Large swaths of this game are best handled pushing forward as a cluster. Special infected simply don’t have the numbers to stop all four players simultaneously. But getting people to understand the need for constant progression is the real challenge.

The game also wants to prevent that optimum strategy whenever possible, which is where the special infected come in. Despite having the least direct damage output, the boomer and spitter might be the most dangerous due to their ability to divide the party. Without quick reactions, the smoker, jockey, and charger will drag someone away. The tank simply knocks everyone about, and his ability to hit multiple targets forces the team to distance. But these are never insurmountable hurdles; enough attention to one another can mitigate their presence entirely. What can a hunter really do if everyone is in melee range of each other? This is a rare game where friendly fire is essential to the design, to put at least some risk in the dominant strategy.

The inclusion of various modes helps Left 4 Dead hold up as one of those infinitely replayable games. The basic campaigns are the central experience, with several levels of difficulty and each consisting of multiple levels to navigate. Valve clearly had a lot of fun designing these individual levels. From stealing a race car from a mall exhibit to a journey through a tunnel of love to a swampy shantytown, there’s always some set which stands out. Additionally, several sections are perfectly designed to amplify risks. There are places where you must jump down with no way to return; someone lagging behind becomes easy pickings for the infected.

Just as essential is versus mode, where two teams switch between playing the survivors and special infected. Simply being able to learn how the special infected operate is a nice feature. It still offers largely the same experience as the campaign mode (as the goal is to get as far as you can on each level of a campaign; whichever team gets further wins) but hopefully with more logical infected. Strangely enough, playing as the infected can feel even more desperate. Despite their dangerous presence, they really can’t do much alone. The game tends to cycle between a single Boomer or Spitter and three with pinning abilities – a skilled team could separate the pack and take down most of the team at once, but that requires perfect communication and timing.

Left 4 Dead excels at cooperative mechanics. Many cooperative games can devolve into each player playing their own part, but Left 4 Dead forces so many dire situations that constant communication is an absolute necessity. While this may be frustrating, playing with enough inexperienced people offers one distinct benefit. The next time you see a horror movie where the characters inevitably split up, you’ll realize that’s somehow one of the more realistic plot points.