If you haven't played, and finished, the original Portal from 2007 I feel sorry for you. It's not the most complex game out there, it's on the short side (the speed round record is a blistering nine minutes and 25 seconds) and the graphics were nothing special.
You have just one "weapon" in Portal, the portal gun by Aperture Laboratories, and infinite lives as you work your way through a diabolical and deadly maze while a psychotic artificial intelligence named GLaDOS alternates between helping you and threatening your life. Essentially you're a lab rat with a yummy cake waiting for you at the end of the line - except the cake is a lie. Or is it?
Portal is one of those rare games that is so much more than the game itself, giving birth to memes like companion cubes, musical renditions of its closing song "Still Alive," epic speed rounds, "The Cake is a Lie" cakes, and other pop culture references.
The game was a huge hit, far bigger than Valve envisioned, and that kind of success inevitably led to a sequel. Portal 2 was available in stores on April 19, and all reports suggest that it ably builds on the original Portal's game mechanics to create something special.
The essence of portal is still the portal gun, where you create entrance and exit holes in walls for navigating around the various levels. You can use this tool for everything from travel to evading turrets, and accomplishing various tasks as you progress from challenge to challenge. There is often more than one way to solve a puzzle and the puzzles build in complexity as you go.
In the sequel, your first-person character is joined by a few helpful Aperture Laboratories robots and you can use up to four portals on some levels. The graphics look better, there's more dialogue (and humour) and the level of complexity has been ratcheted up a notch.
I fully expect Portal 2 to rank as one of the best games of the year when all is said and done, although personally I'm a little intimidated. The first game had its frustrating moments and the puzzles did require a fair bit of thought and experimentation to solve - I'm not sure I'm smart enough for the sequel, but I'm going to find out.
The good news is that the launch of Portal 2 might free up some resources for the Valve to get back to work on Half-Life - a new episode or sequel would be very welcome right about now.
On shrinking games
Are video games getting shorter? That's the question that Timothy Seppala asks in Ars Technica (www.arstechnica.com) in an article titled "The incredible shrinking game." If you're into games it's a good read and explains why some game lengths are shrinking.
The most interesting thing I learned is that in-game achievements serve a purpose other than rewarding players for their persistence - they also help game companies track how far the average player goes in their game and how many hung in long enough to finish it. It also answers questions like whether players care about side quests or ever replay levels.
Mixed reviews for PlayBook
Last week I took in about a dozen reviews for Research In Motion's new PlayBook, and I've reached the conclusion that if you're looking for a smaller tablet in the seven-inch range (as opposed to the 10-inch iPad or Android tablets) this is a really good machine.
Most of the reviewers tended to focus on what was missing. Yes, there's no 3G/4G wireless - we already knew that and that it's coming next year. Some focused on the small power button, but I'm pretty sure I'd get used to it. Others complained about the small number of Apps available at launch (though 3,000 are in development and you may be able to access 30,000 Android apps one day). Some wished that it was bigger.
And that's really all the critics had. I got the sense that most reviewers had already picked their favourite tablets and were looking for reasons to knock down the Canadian-made device - while grudgingly admitting that it does a lot of things very well.
Here's the good news: front and rear-facing cameras capable of HD 1080p video. Actual ports you can use to expand your storage or charge your device in different ways. An HDMI port that can show 1080p footage or presentations on any HD television or projector. A web browser that can render Flash. A great new operating system with multitasking. The ability to tether to almost any phone with a data plan to connect to the 3G/4G network. A fast processor. A competitive price. More added features than any other tablet - GPS with turn-by-turn navigation, accelerometers and gyroscope, digital compass, stereo speakers and mics.
In my opinion, if PlayBook can speed the release of its 4G version and follow up with the apps then Research In Motion is going to be a solid player in the tablet market - maybe even in the top three.