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Video Game Review: Portal 2

Posted By Adam Robert Thomas On May 7, 2011 @ 12:24 pm In Games,Video Games | No Comments

Portal 2

Release Date: April 19th, 2011
Platform: Xbox 360 (Version reviewed), Windows, Playstation 3
Developer: Valve Corporation
Publisher: Valve Corporation
Genre: First-Person Portal Puzzler Padded with Plot
ESRB: E for Everyone

CLR Rating:


There’s No Need for Cake in This Delicious Sequel

Never has a review felt as inescapable as one for Portal 2. In case you haven’t noticed, literally EVERYONE has given the game nothing but praise, even the hyper-critical among us, and it feels redundant to add to the chorus at this point.

I first noticed that it’s probably the best game to come out this year when I couldn’t obtain a copy. It took a week before any of my local stores had another copy. So obviously a large part of the public and the vast majority of the gaming crowd is already well aware of the game’s overall excellence, and the few minor faults that dwell within it. There’s almost no reason for me to say anything at this point.

(My detractors would point out that I never have a reason to say anything, but I digress.)

Yes, Portal 2 is great, there are no two bones about it. If all you want from this is validation, then boom! There you go. The less you know about it, the better the game will be, so go play it at a friend’s house, or nab your own copy and enjoy!

Seriously, take it on faith alone. Portal 2 is an excellent game worthy of your time. Go play it. Now. But since I still have to write at least a thousand words. . .

I’m going to take this time to analyze Portal 2 in a couple of larger contexts. It will probably break down into something resembling a review anyway, sooo this should sate the folks who want some more actual critical thinking from their critics (and my editor) right?

Let’s do it. For science. You monster.

Oh GLaDOS. You never fail to evoke memories of every crazy ex-girlfriend ever. It’s just most of them didn’t try to kill me with Deadly neurotoxins. Knives on the other hand . . .

For the uninformed, the basic premise behind both Portal games is relatively simple. Stepping into the shoes of the mute protagonist “Chell,” you wake up in a mostly abandoned underground complex of a corporation known as Aperture Laboratories. Here a rogue AI known as GLaDOS forces you to complete a range of tests focused around Aperture’s greatest invention, a two-way portal gun. You use this gun to move through a number of room-based tests to your skills at three-dimensional navigation, spatial awareness, basic physics concepts and timing, via the aid of the portals you generate with the gun.

Where the original Portal was a very dualistic affair, with only the player (as the ostensibly female Chell) and GlaDOS interacting with each other, in Portal 2 we have a cast that’s 150% as large as the first!

Meaning that there is exactly one new active character: Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Merchant).

Wheatley is one of the spare personality cores like those that you ripped off of GLaDOS at the end of Portal 1. At first it may be disappointing that he (well it’s a genderless orb, but it has a male voice, so let’s go with “he”) is really the only new character, but he makes up for it by being completely awesome and altogether hilarious. At the start he expresses a desire to escape the confines of the Aperture labs, along with an incredible ineptness to do so on his own, hence why he needs your help. Thus begins an adventure much longer, more personal and altogether more fascinating than the original outing, for the most part.

Meet Wheatley! He will be the perfect friendly idiot foil to GLaDOS’s genius. Just don’t call him stupid!

The game flow dynamic of Portal is simple: it’s a series of individual rooms with bits of character development from one of the omnipresent NPCS as bookends in each room. This leave most of the actual problem solving to the player (with comments thrown their way to humorously encourage or discourage them), before moving onto the next location. Each major string of rooms is broken up by larger, plot-centric turns that change the status quo and move the player to new locations, where they will begin to solve tests in another series of rooms.

Story and character are woven into the fabric of the gameplay in mostly unobtrusive ways, and the odd nature of the gameplay itself is justified by being set in an actual lab, with an Overseer demanding that you complete tests. In true Valve fashion, the player is always at the center of the narrative, even though the other characters are actually driving every single bit of plot. By making the player responsible for actually solving every little problem and coming up with every solution, Valve creates a near perfect illusion that you’re involved in the story, when in reality every step of the path has been meticulously engineered to make you act in the very specific ways that the story demands.

It’s the perfect microcosm of the best story-telling technique in games. You are on a rollercoaster of linearity, except it always feels like you are driving it forward rather than being led along. This is what Valve does better than pretty much everyone else in the business, and the main reason we’re always OK when they decide to go into “Valve Time” and push their releases back for a few more years.

The Superman movie made us believe that a man could fly. Portal 2 makes us believe a robot can hug. It’s much, much more adorable!

However, there is a fundamental problem, Portal 2 lacks the element of true risk.

Yes, you explore Aperture far more fully than in the first game and get some great puzzle-platform gameplay along the way.

Yes, you will learn much about the place’s history and those who created it (J.K. Simmons is hilarious as the CEO of Aperture in a series of recordings).

Yes, the dynamics between the GLaDOS and Chell are expanded and prove to be quite entertaining, and can even be touching from time to time.

Yes, there’s another Jonathan Coulton song for GLaDOS to sing at the end. No, it’s not as good as “Still Alive.”

But it’s really all a series of hedged bets. For most of the game and especially the first third of it (as the adventure is roughly divided into three acts) they’re trying a bit too hard to replicate everything that made the first game great, rather than tread truly new ground. When you have such a free-form device as a portal gun as your main instrument, it seems a waste of untapped potential.

This is especially noticeable with the puzzles themselves, as none of them seem as free-form or open to interpretation as those in the first outing. Everything has been perfectly refined to produce a minimal amount of frustration, but also a relatively minor amount of subjective problem solving. Oddly enough this seems due to elements added to the game rather than anything taken away.

Several new objects appear in the test chambers, from cubes that redirect laser beams, goo that can be poured on surfaces to change their properties and hydraulic launch pads that send you flying hundreds of feet into the air. Having so many different additional factors could easily have added too much confusion in any particular room, and so it makes sense that limits were placed on many of the solutions lest they go completely off the rails and become impassable.

And this is Cave Johnson. Like the best American Inventors, he throws science at the wall to see what sticks!

Having more limited ways to get through the game can’t be just a factor of an increased toolbox though. It also feels like Valve just honestly fell victim to “sequel-it is” though to a highly mitigated degree. If you’ve ever seen a sequel to a comedy, the situation is rather apparent.

You have your characters set up already, and so fewer introductions are necessary. A new character is introduced who helps new fans get acclimated to the world (Wheatley) and then as much of the first experience is replicated as possible. New elements and turns are added so it isn’t the same experience, but by the end, relatively little new ground has been broken, and things are returned to essentially where they were at the end of the first installment. For some film examples, look to Ghostbusters 2, Back to the Future Part 2, and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Heck, even the basic plot is kind of borrowed, being a more humorous take on System Shock 2.

It does make sense though, as Portal was never supposed to be such a raging mega-hit and Valve has readily admitted that they had no idea it would become as popular as it did. This betrays a sense that they aren’t entirely sure of themselves, sticking more to the known rather than experimenting into completely brand new avenues. But let’s be completely fair, a longer, fuller repeat of Portal isn’t a bad thing, it’s just perhaps not the best thing.

Besides, even if Portal 2 has a case of sequel-itis, in this instance it would be as if you had the flu, but learned how to breath fire when you coughed! The writing is as good as it was, the comic timing is spot on, and the characters are as enjoyable (if not more so) than in the first. Case in point: Portal 2’s Co-Operative mode.

Portal 2 takes place hundreds of YEARS after the first, thanks to the magic of cryo-stasis. The Animal King (represented here) is just one theory as to who rules the surface now. Hail Him!

Multiplayer is by no means a new concept, but adding it to Portal is. Here the players inhabit the bodies of two small robots, P-body and Mr. Sherma- I mean Atlus, as they navigate together through another contingent of challenge rooms under the watchful eye of GLaDOS. They each have a portal gun, and must use the maximum of four instant gateways to solve problems much more difficult, intriguing, and generally more open to interpretation than those found in the single player campaign, which does alleviate some of its problems.

As a wonderful addition, the two little ‘bots can employ a range of emotions under direct control of the players, from high fives, hugs, and games of Rock-Paper-Scissors. This tiny inclusion is a remarkable and simple way to build the camaraderie between the players, and hopefully will be aped by other designers out there in other types of multiplayer. I mean, really, why wouldn’t you want to punch the guy who keeps team-killing you in a game of Team Deathmatch? It’s a no-brainer!

The only issue that could be levied against this mode especially (though it’s also the case with single player) is that it seems very unlikely that you will ever play it again. After having gone through it once with a friend, aside from attempting to get a few achievements I missed, I don’t feel very inclined to have to work with someone new to solve the puzzles presented, as I know all the answers already, and it could end up a frustrating instance of hand-holding. Hopefully this slight problem can be rectified with further DLC that either adds more rooms, or changes up the current selection, in fact I’m pretty sure that this is already happening [1], so nix that problem off the list!

Sure, Portal 2 doesn’t tread new ground so much as it break-dances over old. Can you really fault that?

Well will you look at that? That’s pretty much a review right there! Lo and behold, it’s also quite positive. Just like everyone else’s.

Sorry, I wish there was more to say about the game, I really do. But I can’t without going to the land of spoilers, and honestly, I’d just be as gushing as everyone else is about them while at the same time lessening your ability to enjoy those moments for yourself. That would make me meaner than GLaDOS, and even I’m not that cruel.

Portal 2 is a case study of replacing innovation with perfection. It brings only a scant few new ideas to the table, focusing instead on expanding old ones and refining the game into a bit of total bliss. If Valve ever decides to make another sequel they will have to really innovate in order to win me over, but for now, they’ve proven (again) how to best use every storytelling device possible to create a brief moment of rapturous beauty.

And as Cave Johnson himself would say, ”We’re done here.”

Portal 2 Trailer


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[1] already happening: http://www.computerandvideogames.com/299762/news/portal-2-dlc-details-new-chambers-challenge-mode-more-free/