18. Portal 2
Format: Xbox 360, Mac, PC, PlayStation 3
There’s no-one quite like Valve, is there? You can tell in seconds if you’re playing a Valve game. There’s a level of polish, of sophistication, of confidence that no other developer really matches up to. And Portal 2 is nothing if not confident.
You can only really compare it to its prequel – a puzzle game, but one presented like a first-person shooter. A game with barely any characters that manages a better plot than almost any other game out there. Laugh-out-loud funny and quietly melancholy, with a sinister underlying layer. Whereas the first game was almost all questions, this is almost all answers, presented in a way that elevates Valve’s playable-cutscenes style to new heights, literally: you find out the eerie history of Aperture Science by dropping into a massive chasm near the beginning of the game, and gradually climbing up through layers of the company’s laboratories, built one on top of the other, from the Fifties through to the Nineties, with the decor changing accordingly. (They even have different logos on the loading screens depending on what decade you’re exploring.)
And the companions on your journey are just as wonderful. The first game’s antagonist, homicidal AI programme GLaDOS (voiced by Ellen McLain) reiterates why she’s often held up as one of gaming’s best characters, and she’s joined by another robot, Wheatley, who in a moment of casting genius is brought to life by Stephen Merchant, of all people. Quite apart from the wonderfully unexpected sound of a gloriously broad West Country accent emanating from a big-budget American game, Merchant is perfectly cast as the dimwit, easily distracted machine. Which sounds quite insulting, actually, but it’s Portal 2. Everything is perfectly judged.
MAGIC MOMENT: as part of the opening sequence, Wheatley informs you that he needs to check your brain functions (the player character, Chell, has been in stasis for years). He asks you to say “apple”. The command prompt comes up: “A – say ‘apple’”. Except A is actually the jump button. So Wheatley gets quietly concerned about your mental state.