Portal 2 Review

I often wonder what a proper sequel should represent, should it be very similar to the original but with slight improvements? Or perhaps be radically different but with familiar themes? Even if I could somehow decide in my head which side of that argument was the “right” one, I’d still have probably booted up Portal 2 without the slightest clue of what to expect, or more importantly what I WANTED it to be.

I think the biggest problem is that the original Portal was a pretty weird game and, as is the issue with many games that get elevated to godlike status, many people often forget why. While I would never even think to suggest that it wasn’t a masterpiece of innovative game mechanics and postmodern storytelling, it was also in no way what people generally describe as a “AAA” game. It was very short, it was limited in scope, all the environments where quite small, the graphics weren’t much to talk about, the only promotional material was a seriously out of date trailer, it was a “bonus” game bundled with a bunch of far more anticipated games and by Valve’s own admission it was a small scale “experiment” more than anything else.

I’m not sure what it is that they learnt from their “experiment” but they seem to have spent over 3 years trying to turn it into a usable Hypothesis, and usually a development time of that length results in a title of staggering mediocrity. Thankfully when Valve’s involved it tends to work the other way around, with the amount of time spent on a given project being directly proportional to the number of GOTY awards it should pocket. That maxim certainly seems to hold true in this case, as while Portal 2 is a fairly significant departure from its namesake, it’s also somehow exactly the same in all the ways it should be.

Proof that blockbuster games don’t necessarily have to contain any gun- toting marines (space or otherwise) AND can actually be intellectually challenging, although sadly I doubt it will set much of a precedent in either respect

Within the first few minutes of Portal 2, I was gazing out at a huge industrial landscape whilst riding around in a motorised metal container styled as a crummy 70s motel room that was being controlled by a wisecracking robotic eyeball called Wheatley who has an amusing west country accent. I think my closest equivalent experience in the original Portal was when I first entered into GLaDOS’s extremely barren control room and thought to myself “Wow! This room is ever so slightly larger than the previous couple of rooms!” Technically it’s about as far removed an experience as you could get, but even so, it all still felt familiar even before I saw my first colour coded hyperspace gateway. I don’t know if it was just Wheatly’s perfectly written witty banter or any number of other factors, but whatever it was I knew what I was in for: Portal elevated to it’s logical extreme. This wasn’t an experiment anymore.

I can’t really say much about the Narrative without spoiling it, but sufficed to say it’s still retains part of its predecessors minimalist style. You’re still playing as Chell the total mute, and you’re still not directly given any key information about the game world. This forces you to piece together the nature of your situation by observing the inconspicuous hints doted around every environment and by listening closely Wheatly and GLaDOS’s exquisite expositions, the later being interspersed with some hilarious verbal beat-downs that have only got more cruel since the previous outing.

I’m sure there will be plenty of purists out there who will object to the much reduced subtleties of the dialogue and to how far it pushes the comedy element this time around. They’ll probably even cite that it violates the [insert pretentious over-analysis of Portal here] that they claim made the original game so good in the first place. It’s perfectly fine if they want to be like that, but meanwhile the rest of us can laugh our asses at a fantastically written script that manages to be goofy and comical despite the dystopian setting, but still somehow contains the deeply serious undertones that keep the narrative together.

A lot of the best comedy material is very easy to miss, often requiring you to postpone critical events for as long as possible or in some cases deliberately see to your own end. On all occasions: Totally worth it.

However what’s really changed about the story since the original isn’t so much the performance itself but more the method of its execution; the game makes very heavy usage of fully animated scripted events rather than just relying entirely on voice overs that play as you solve puzzles. These events vary from elaborate roller coaster rides through the production lines of GLaDOS’s (still adorable) turrets, to easily missable peeps at the almost organic inner mechanisms of the Aperture test chambers. Most importantly though, they rarely if ever take movement control out of the players hands which – excluding one rather out of place pre-rendered FMV – allows the story to blend beautifully into the gameplay in a way that I would hope that game designers have been pursuing since the dawn of gaming.

This is probably one of the few reviews where I can get away with spending very little time with describing the core gameplay, mainly because it’s extremely derivative of it’s predecessor. Basically you have a gun that can create two interconnecting portals on certain surfaces, if something goes inside one it will come out the other at the same speed it entered, which is still just as impressive and seemingly impossible today as it was 3 years ago. There’s no combat, no inventory and no branching paths, just a series of potentially lethal puzzles.

Thankfully the game itself spends even less time explaining the basics than I just did, as it more or less assumes that you played the first Portal to completion right form the get go. Oh, and if you haven’t done that then I would suggest there’s something VERY important you should be doing right now, and it involves something that’s £7 on Steam right now. That said, it doesn’t dwell much on the new mechanics either, as you’re expected to learn the ins and outs of the game purely though experimentation. Such a methodology can occasionally get frustrating when certain abstract solutions just don’t come together in your head for a while. But that feeling of accomplishment you get when you just solved a ridiculously complex puzzle without so much as a hint makes the pain more than worthwhile. Moments like that are a testament to how well designed the puzzles really are; none are so hard they’re impossible for (jokes aside) the average gamer to figure out provided they’re given enough time. Equally so, almost none of them are so easy that you won’t feel satisfied upon their completion, be you a returning portal master or otherwise.

As with all Valve games there’s a highly informative developer commentary mode available once you finish the game. It’s definitely a must try for fans or amateur game designers looking for some behind the scenes know how

Don’t think for a moment that it’s just a rearranging of old ideas either; there’s still the traditional cubes, buttons and gravity tricks to utilise in your solutions, but they’ve now been combined with several innovative new mechanics that require more lateral thinking than ever before. Particularly impressive are the paintable gels that can be used to affect your movement speed and jump height or allow you to place portals on otherwise disallowed surfaces. They also demonstrate some really impressive liquid effects which until now I would have never thought Valve’s Source engine would be capable of. I mean let’s be honest here, while it may have once been the graphical benchmark for gaming tech, the Source engine hasn’t exactly aged very well. So with all that in mind, Portal 2 looks……..good. Not mind blowing, not amazing, but good.

As you would probably hope by now, almost all the recycled stuff form Half-Life 2 has been replaced with original assets, a LOT of original assets. You see, one of the very few major complaints (more or less the only one actually) I had about the original Portal was that the environments were incredibly plain and boring most of the time. Obviously I wasn’t the only one who flagged that as an issue because every square inch of Portal 2 seems to be filled with junk, creating an extremely cluttered backdrop that oozes character from every direction and strongly encourages unnecessary exploration at every opportunity.

However the visual elements that really deserve praise don’t come from raw graphical prowess, but instead the quality of animation. Every time something moves, and there’s ALWAYS something moving, it’s in beautifully smooth motions that are spookily lifelike; which is pretty impressive when almost all the characters are soulless machines. Your robotic companion Wheatley for example, who is nothing more than a few plates of metal and some LEDs, manages to convey more personality in a single blink of his eye than you’d normally see in the entire screen time of an average video game character. I’d say the only way you’re likely to see equal or better mastery in the field of bringing inanimate objects to life is by watching a Pixar movie, which sadly tend to lack gruesome deathtraps or rouge AI’s threatening to physically and mentally torture you for the next 60 years.

There are however some alarmingly frequent number of truly ghastly textures and low poly objects that would have looked out of place in the original Portal, never mind in a fully fledged 2011 console title. The worst instance of this comes mere moments after starting the game where you’re required to open a door for Wheatley. This door, the second object in the entire game that you’re DEMANDED to see up close, lacks a physical handle. Instead it features an absurdly low resolution texture which from a distance looks a little bit like a handle if you don’t think about it too much.

Oh dear, I seem to have open a portal to a an early PS1 game. At least, that’s the only reason I can think off for this butt ugly pipe to be here

My confusion over how there could be such a thing in a game of otherwise flawless polish was only compounded when I examined an entirely unimportant and irrelevant row of desks later on in the game. I quickly discovered that all of them featured several fully modelled handles that probably contained more polygons each than the entirety of the aforementioned door. Trying to figure out how, or indeed why, some of these assets ever got signed off on by Valve’s creative directors will likely be a mystery I will take with me to the grave. Perhaps it was just their way of making sure journalists had at least one major thing to complain about, because other than that I’m totally stumped on what other negativity I can bring to this review without rather nit-picky.

Of course if my journalistic integrity metaphorically FORCED me at gun point to get nit-picky about Portal 2, then my first thought would likely be that on rare occasions during the “Test Shaft 09” puzzles it was slightly too difficult to determine where the exit to the next area was supposed to be. If (metaphorically) my journalistic integrity then said heads would roll if I didn’t come up with a more fundamental complaint, I would rather reservedly splutter that perhaps the gameplay can get a little formulaic after a while. Basically you enter a room, characters will talk for a bit, you solve the puzzle, characters will talk a bit more, you laugh, then you enter the next room etc.

However a complaint such as that would be like saying that the weekend sucks because it happens every week. That’s not to say Portal 2 is massively predictable or anything; every twist and turn that happened in between (and sometimes during) all the puzzling caught me totally off guard in a way that video games rarely do, and on may occasions I was genuinely shocked at how smoothly I had transitions from one situation to the next with no noticeable seams.

Portal 2’s dynamic background music turns the environment itself into one giant instrument, albeit one full of deadly lasers.

Now all that is well and good, but I’m sure you’ve probably heard the crazy horror stories about how it only takes 4 hours to wrap up the entire game or something to that effect. Theoretically speaking, if you know how to solve every single puzzle in in the fastest way possible, use a bunch of time saving glitches, don’t wait around to hear all the cool dialogue and generally don’t “play” the game in any meaningful way, then yes it IS possible to finish Portal 2’s story campaign in 4 hours. For those of us who aren’t heavily into the speed-running scene it’s more likely to take closer to 8-10 hours, and that’s not even including the totally separate multiplayer co-op mode which has a length mostly determined by how much each player enjoys sending the other to an untimely death instead of solving conundrums.

Even so, there was still one major issue that was troubling me once the credits started rolling, and it was the same one that had vexed me before I’d even started playing the game: what should a proper sequel be like? Portal 2 hadn’t helped me figure that one out at all, because the more I played it the harder it became to think of it as a sequel to anything. With the exception of the occasional dodgy graphics, it sets the bar so ludicrously high in just about every aspect that it makes the original Portal look like an early proof of concept demo. Valve might well have taken far too long by conventional standards to put this game together, but they’ve once again proven that, if you’ll excuse my language, they own this shit. What I’m trying to say is that Portal 2 is pretty great. You should really go play it. Seriously. Like, right now.

Good

  • Witty dialogue
  • Near perfectly paced difficulty.
  • Pixar level animation.
  • Not too long or too short.
  • Devious puzzles.

Bad

  • Bizarre instances of shoddy graphics.
  • We’ve probably got at least another 3 years until Portal 3.

Recommended similar games
Prey (PC/Xbox360)
Portal (PC+Mac/PS3/Xbox360)
Half Life 2 (PC+Mac/PS3/Xbox360/Xbox)
The Ball (PC)

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