In most cases my interest in anything remotely puzzle-related is almost nonexistent; which is why I didn't feel any particular need to rush out and get Valve's latest and predictably overhyped game when it came out earlier this year. However, after getting Portal 2 during the Steam sale I have to admit that the game is just as impressive as everyone keeps saying it is, and already easily a contender for Game of The Year.
Given the generally poor quality of both the writing and the voice acting in most video games, it's refreshing to see just what can actually be accomplished when some remarkably good and genuinely funny writing is combined with a really professional voice cast (including British writer and comedian Stephen Merchant, opera singer (!) Ellen McLain and American actor J K Simmons). Erik Wolpaw's wonderful script is further accompanied by a significantly more expansive level design which, to a much greater extent than the slightly overrated first game, manages to comprehensively communicate a sense of place.
Or *places*, to be more precise. For whereas Portal 1 consisted mostly of hermetically sealed environments sprinkled with vague hints of the masterplan behind all those bloody test chambers, the sequel uses the gradual breakdown of Glados' perfect world as an opportunity to put the player in a perilously liminal place which only barely holds together, in which interesting information about the larger game world is constantly divulged and where it's possible to literally take a peek behind the backdrops much more frequently. Thematically speaking, the first game in the series was something of a one-trick pony which - and I realize I'm almost alone in this opinion - somehow managed to overstay its admittedly brief welcome and didn't give a sense that there was anything compelling to discover beyond its' one big idea. By contrast, Portal 2 is determined from the get-go to substantially flesh out its own fictional universe while constantly introducing new gameplay elements, defying the player's expectations and moving further and further away from the traditional test chamber with all its inherent limitations.
And then we have the actual puzzles themselves, which so far have been as cleverly crafted as ever and supported by a nice, impressively smooth learning curve. Puzzles are always going to involve a certain level of frustration for me since I'm inherently lazy (...or maybe it's just that I get up at 05.30 most days of the week and don't feel like straining my tired brain too much when I come home after work), and have thus never fully appreciated the intellectual ordeal of figuring out the solutions. But the combination of my strong interest in the story, writing and characters and the general thrill of finding out what lies just behind the next corner is definitely enough to keep me going. As always in Portal, though, the cake to lie ratio is statistically unfair...
In many ways, Dead Space 2 is the game Resident Evil 5 (or even RE4) should have been; i.e. a truly atmospheric survival horror experience which also happens to be a very solid third-person action game with well thought out mechanics which appropriately emphasize the protagonist's desperate struggle against overwhelming odds. Some people have complained that DS2 is not actually scary as such, but on the whole I've personally found it to be a rather unsettling experience which oscillates effectively between a nerve-wrecking sense of foreboding on the one hand and pulse-quickening terror (admittedly of the cheesy, monster closet variety) on the other.
Even more importantly, this particular Space isn't quite as Dead as one might think since Clarke is often in direct contact with fellow survivors, and the interactions with these additional unfortunate souls makes the player much more emotionally invested in the story. This is further facilitated by Visceral Games' somewhat controversial decision to do away altogether with the "silent protagonist" convention which characterized the first game. It's actually quite refreshing to hear Isaac Clarke talk with other people and discuss mission objectives; not the least because it gives the character some much-needed agency after the essentially drone-like state he was in for much of Dead Space 1.
In strictly narrative terms, Dead Space 2 is a slightly more ambitious take on the traditional horror story while still having both feet firmly planted in familiar genre territory. The "dead girlfriend" plot device was a rather contrived one-trick pony in DS1, but once DS2 gets going it takes the basic idea into some twisted but also unexpectedly poignant new directions. I haven't finished the game yet, but it's a testament to the improved storytelling that I really want to see how it all ends.
EDIT: I've now finished the game. The ending was fairly predictable but with a few clever parts and it opens up some interesting possibilites for the next entry in this series.