The original Portal was a sucker punch out of nowhere, a tiny gem of a game that completed the Trinity of Awesome that was the Orange Box. It succeeded because it was highly original (in a Valve absorption sort of way), very funny, and unheard of. The sequel did not have the advantage of surprise, but it does take the originality and charm up to twelve. Portal 2 extends the prototype that was the first game, but not necessarily as expected.
A Companion Cube of Laughs
You might think that gameplay would be the most successful part of Portal 2, but undoubtedly it is the humour that comes out on top. Portal 2 may be the first game to do comedy right. It isn’t mocking the medium in self-parody; it isn’t funny because it’s bad. The game is hilarious in it’s own right, and I guarantee you will laugh out loud from start to finish. Who needs the Citizen Kane of games when you have the Caddyshack? The amount of writing orchestrated by Erik Wolpaw, Chet Faliszek, and Jay Pinkerton is astounding. The dryness of the first game has been enhanced with vibrant caricatures who all give a freshness to the world of Aperture Science. And with minimal cake references.
It is these characters that drive the game. GLaDOS makes a welcome return, but carrying on from the end of the first game she seems much more human, and her character arc is quite the journey. Also coming along for the ride is Wheatley, a dunce of a machine voiced by Stephen Merchant, as well as Aperture Science Founder, Cave Johnson, voiced by J.K. Simmons. Each character has their own story to tell, and each is the source of conflict and hilarity. By the end, you will empathise with each one, which is more than can be said for many games in the FPS genre. Heck, these are robots and disembodied voices we are talking about. Even in co-op, as fellow reviewer Marc Dingena noted, the narrative is structured in an excellent manner. By completing each co-op puzzle course, you are rewarded with another piece of the overall story. The writing is by far the best aspect of Portal 2, and is what will keep you hooked.
Portals, Portals Everywhere
It surprises me that, at one point, Valve considered making a Portal game without, well, portals. Thankfully they regained their sanity, and have expanded greatly on what you can do with physics. Once again we are made to think with portals. There are some fantastic new elements that enliven the gameplay; light bridges, lasers and liquids all provide some refreshing puzzles. Of note are the Gels: one provides a super-bouncy surface, another increases movement speed, and the last allows the placement of portals on otherwise defunct surfaces. But while the individual elements are fantastic, it feels like it doesn’t quite add up.
The first Portal managed to build and build, culminating in some fantastic final levels. With Portal 2 it always feels that each segment could have had just that little bit more. The game is indeed longer than the first (single-player is about six hours, with co-op adding a few more), but mostly because you have to learn each new mechanic. You need to think laterally, but there is never an element of impossibility. The in-game commentary mentions that some levels were cut or changed if the challenge was too great for some players. It seems the needs of the story come before play. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there is definitely space for more experimentation. Single player is a bit of let down, and by the end you’ll be craving more.
That’s where co-op comes in. Co-op takes the gameplay to new heights. Four portals are better than two. This is where all the elements truly mesh, and the added variable of an unpredictable ally means that the laughs and delight come more from the gameplay than the dialogue. A microphone is highly recommended, and you don’t need anything over the top like the kind of headset that comes packages with high tech call center software. Though the spotting feature Valve has implemented means that mute companions can still achieve great things for Science. At times it feels like one partner is merely a bystander, but overall the experience is superb. This is where the true eureka moments occur. Even dying is wickedly fun as GLaDOS mocks you for letting your partner in Science die. The construction of co-op more than make up for the lack of Challenge maps.
When the Moon Hits Your Eyes
You can harp on about how Valve are still using the Source engine, but why fix what ain’t broke? Portal 2 offers a stunning rendition of their trusted, tiring steed. Things like the aforementioned Gels look gorgeous as 3D liquids, and surprisingly aren’t taxing on the old GPU. However, the game is a victim of typical Valve-map design: huge spaces, tight gameplay area. Valve keep it linear as always, but there’s a lot to look at along the way. Vistas range from overgrown chambers, to the very depths of Aperture Science. Indeed the time in the ‘retro’ section far, far below the surface are some of the more interesting.
The sound is a big improvement too. Fantastic voice-acting aside, there is a great amount of catchy electronic music to keep your mind on the prize, but the jury is still out as to whether the credits music is good enough to rival Still Alive. Not only is the orchestrated music great, but the use of ambient sounds is a lovely touch. Whether it’s gliding on Propulsion Gel or flying through the air, it’s an uplifting experience. Valve are excellent at integrating each part of a game, and here the sounds and visuals enhance play. Portal 2 is much more visceral than its predecessor, giving it a more well-rounded feel.
If Life Gives You Lemons…
The bottom line is that Portal 2 as a product is a great game, and one worth every penny. However, there are few discrepancies that sit uneasily on the mind. Firstly, as I mentioned, the game has undoubtedly been made easier so that more people can enjoy it. This is classic Valve: gameplay is refined in order to find perfect flow. But at what cost? Are they holding themselves back by making sure the player doesn’t die? There is a fine line between boredom and frustration, and while there is usually satisfaction in solving puzzles, there is also a nagging need for more.
This idea of finding flow revolves around progression, and with Portal 2 Valve are often too formulaic. Open with GLaDOS quip, solve chamber in timely manner, follow-up with snide remark by GLaDOS, fade to black (there are a lot of immersion-breaking load screens), repeat. Oh sure, it works, and at times Valve manages to break the pattern, but the overall linearity makes Valve seem cornered by their own pursuit of perfection. It never lets you experiment with portal-placing, except at certain co-op moments. It’s a very developer guided experience, and a big step away from the solitary brain-melter that was the original.
The final niggle is that co-op came with a little surprise: day one DLC. We’re talking hats and gestures for your robot of choice. It doesn’t seem fair to excuse Valve for this act, considering the backlash many other developers receive for the same thing. The length of co-op and the price of the additions are insidious, but with free map packs due soon (including challenge maps and leaderboards), then perhaps it is worth it. In the end, it isn’t a long-lasting multiplayer game like Team Fortress 2, where such purchases make more sense. Coupled with the huge income Valve has earned with the ARG through Steam, I’m wondering if they are saving up to make Source 2.
In the end, Portal 2 is a triumph. It’s a step forward for comedic writing in games. It presents a whole slew of new mechanics to play around with. It’s smooth and sleek, and a representation of how great Valve are at crafting games. They took a working formula and made it more than just a demo, with smarter humour and smarter puzzles. In a word, it’s genius. Though maybe not always in a good way.
- The writing is genuinely funny and clever, with strong characters and a real story to boot.
- A vast array of new toys that really expand what you can with portals.
- Co-op is devious. Change your portals as your companion floats across a giant pit. Laugh deliriously.
- Valve play it safe as usual. Well-crafted, but by the book.
- Pricey DLC for co-op feels like money-grubbing.
- So. Many. Loading screens.
Thanks to fellow reviewer Marc Dingena for his input and quotes.