I have recently played two of the more anticipated releases of this month. The first is the long-heralded 4.1 patch for World of Warcraft titled, "Rise of the Zandalari" and the other is Portal 2. The Warcraft patch brings back the old raid of Zul'Gurub as a heroic 5-man dungeon suited for people at maximum level (85) with considerable high-quality gear. (the stuff you get out of normal heroic dungeons or even raiding) The developers also decided to retrofit the old 10-man raid of Zul'Aman that came out late in the Burning Crusade era into a similarly tuned 5-man for end-game players. the story linking the two is one that has played out in Stranglethorn Vale for the post Cataclysm quests, where the Zandalari troll tribe, once fighting to prevent the Blood God Hakkar from being brought physically to Azeroth, now stand as the pivotal villains, bringing the trolls of the world together in a united stand to fight back against all the other factions in the world in the face of apparent extinction. Only the Darkspears, headed by Vol'jin, refuse this offer to instead stay united with the Horde. In addition to old/new dungeons, the patch brought some changes to the U.I., primarily in how the character sheet is organized and that when you target someone (NPC or player) you get a dot on your minimap to help show you where it is. Guilds got a new feature called, "Guild Challenges" that will go a long way to assisting smaller guilds rank up to have access to the better perks that larger guilds are already enjoying. These challenges grant the guild XP when they are completed (separate from the XP the guild accrues through its members questing or entering into dungeons) and are limited to defeating a level-appropriate raid boss, completing seven level-appropriate dungeons or completing 3 level-appropriate battlegrounds (by level appropriate I assume it means that the raid/dungeon/battleground is near the level of the guild members who accomplish this, allowing guilds comprised of folk who are yet to be level 85 to get the bonus guild XP on their characters performing guild dungeon runs while leveling up) the last feature I'm going to mention is the Call to Arms for their Dungeon Finder system. In an attempt to alleviate the lengthy wait period some players (those who play damage-dealing classes) have experienced using the method of being assigned a random group to enter into dungeons with, Blizzard is now offering extra rewards (bribes) for players to queue up as the class roles most underrepresented (tanking). This feature is presently only in effect for the high-end dungeons, however, leaving those who wish to gain experience by way of dungeon runs still stuck with potentially lengthy queue times.
Portal. What is there to say about this game that has not already been said? The first game defined the subgenre of action-puzzle-platformer and the sequel is no different. Coming packed with roughly four times the amount of puzzles as the original, a storyline that delves into the history of Aperture science and the man behind it, and the same acerbic wit the original boasted from the writers, this game is amazing on all accounts.
Where could it possibly go wrong? Well, one part is the camera. As a first-person game that, at times, deals with dizzying physics, it certainly won't be for everyone. This is by no means a fault of the designers, but it does mean for those that get motion-sick or vertigo watching, let alone playing, any first-person game, they will be unable to enjoy Portal. The second possible down-side to the game is the main character, Chell. As the mute protagonist who acts as vehicle by which we, the player, enjoy this game, she provides nothing to the story, even as its about her and her trials in the Aperture laboratory. We learn nothing about her save the insults hurled at us by GLaDOS and even then that calls into doubt her rationale for trying to escape. We, the player, project ourselves into the role of Chell, and the fourth wall then extends behind us, it is not Chell trying to escape, it is then we, the players who now take leaps of faith and fall through portals over gaps and toxic waters. The co-op mode brings the sarcasm of GLaDOS onto two unfortunate robots with no personality save what we put into them by way of personal actions (taunts and emotes) in addition to creating puzzles that require communication in addition to timing, trust in addition to strategy, and frankly make for some wonderful moments of triumph and betrayal. As GLaDOS would say, "You are acting more like a human every minute."
Graphics: 8/10 (Nothing mind blowing here folks, but they don't suck either. The different chapters of the game each have their own feel, from Aperture overrun by plant life, to Aperture of yore to the newest and cleanest testing rooms to.. well, I don't want to give away any spoilers.)
Sound/Music 10/10 (Ambient music chiming in at key points, musical cues when you're solving puzzles with various tools and of course the dialogue and voice-acting are all top-notch)
Gameplay: 9/10 (You have to be able to use a first-person view, have quick reflexes in a few rooms, and understand the two-portal system to get anywhere. Sometimes challenging, but not impossible to overcome)
Story: 10/10 (You expect anything else? Seriously this game makes me invested in inanimate, imaginary objects. It's a fantastic ride form start to finish and the payoff at the end was really satisfying save for one niggling detail)
Overall score: 9/10 (Probably my number 1 nomination for game of the year when we get around to that, though L.A. Noire may give it a running. A must-buy for fans of the first game, fans of puzzlers who can stand first-person acrobatics, first-person fans looking for some story and brain-busting challenges and anyone with a good sense of humor.)