reviews\ Apr 18, 2011 at 8:00 pm

Portal 2 Review


Back in 2007, Valve Corporation released a little game known as Portal in their video game compilation The Orange Box. One of the newer titles, Portal was also short, clocking in at a measly three hours to completion. A multiplayer mode wasn't included, and the visuals left a lot to be desired, with the action taking place in stark gray rooms and rusty old warehouses.

However, Portal went on to become Valve’s biggest cultural hit, no small thanks to the unique gameplay. Players controlled the almost unseen test subject Chell through orange and blue portals with a portal gun. These portals allowed players to travel instantly from point to point in increasingly confusing and puzzling test chambers. Portal, coupled with the character of GLaDOS, became one of the most notable successes of that year.

Here we are today with Portal 2. So not to give away too much of the storyline, just know that the gameplay is as tricky and exhilarating as before. Sending Chell soaring through the air in an expertly calculated jump while passing between different portals never gets old. For fans of the original, the controls are as tight as ever. Three new gels are introduced: the bouncy-blue Propulsion Gel, the orange speed enhancing Repulsion Gel, and the white Conversion Gel that lets players place portals on previously unusable surfaces.

Finally, Hard-Light Bridges allow players to traverse great distances by guiding the bridge across stages. Aerial Faith plates launch Chell (and any objects placed upon them) on preordained paths. Weighted Cubes and balls make a return (a necessary one for puzzles) and require some out-of-the-box thinking. Finally, the Excursion Funnel tractor beam can be used to move items and players in a unique way.

Puzzles can make the game very complex, but Valve has done an amazing job of making sure these never feel unfair. While the game can become more difficult near the end, the challenges don't exceed the capabilities of most players. Additionally, there are fewer turrets in the game compared with its predecessor, a fresh change. There are also fewer instant deaths, as laser beams and the turrets punish Chell for going where she should not but don’t immediately decimate the player. Portal 2 also has a new E10 rating, so there’s no blood now, and the cast of characters are a little more humorous and a little less overtly malicious. It’s a slightly lighter game, but the dark tongue-in-cheek tone is ever present.

Characters are where Portal 2 shines the most. The puzzles are amazingly fun, but due to the writing, players have an addictive and compelling reason to keep moving forward. In the first Portal, evil computer AI GLaDOS played the role of guide and antagonist to Chell, making her the much brighter star of the franchise. GLaDOS is back, and the player’s interaction with her is absolutely amazing to watch. She is as vindictive and bitchy as ever, coating pure unadulterated hatred with a veneer of cool science. For fans of GLaDOS, her return from her unfortunate death in the previous Portal is fabulous, and her literal transformation within the game will shock, wow, and humor even jaded gamers tired of cake quotes (and there are no more of those).

However, unlike the original Portal, Portal 2 is a veritable hodgepodge of personalities. Wheatley, the cute but stupid personality core that looks like an eyeball, guides Chell through the early portions of the game. There’s the generic “scientist” who helps Chell past the ruins of Aperture Science (which is her fault, of course). Later on, Cave Johnson steers Chell through some of the original pre-GLaDOS test chambers, chronicling the history of the company through voice-over and snark. Chell is always guided as she explores these areas, and Valve has succeeded wonderfully at telling the story of Aperture Science, the history of GLaDOS, even hinting a bit at Chell herself through visual cues and expertly written implications.

Much of the overt world isn't addressed directly, but merely implied. Players can read about the science center’s location (Michigan) from small trophies in the Aperture laboratories, for example, so exploration and a note of detail are very rewarding. Players can listen to stories from the voice-over guides or sneak around in the old “Rat Man” lairs with scribblings on the walls. Chell herself isn’t exactly deep like the others, but she has become a figure of sorts for those who somehow once survived Aperture Science, as the new artwork around the game indicates.

Each of these new characters fit with GLaDOS well. Wheatley is adorable and bumbling, a lovable little guy who is much more involved than you might expect. Cave Johnson (voiced by J.K. Simmons himself) is the typical tycoon mastermind/crazy man, so stubborn in his ways, government and basic human rights be damned. He is all prerecorded, but his suggested history with GLaDOS provides an amazing focal point for the second entry.

Finally, two new characters emerge: robots ATLAS and P-body, the new faces of Portal and the player characters for the new cooperative campaign. Each of these robots are passably interesting, lighthearted and cute. In the PC and Mac version, players can customize these guys with hats and color options, although with prices ranging from $2-$5, I’m not sure how much interest will be rounded up for that.

Regarding the co-op campaign, the game is equally as much fun with an extra player as it is working through puzzles alone. Literally handing each other objects is a new, if simple, element in the game, but one that works well. A second set of portals makes for interesting new puzzles, with some of the later ones truly teasing the brain. Communication is key for co-op, so Valve has installed indicators that players can use to tag various areas of the map with different commands. Unfortunately, since I reviewed the game on Xbox 360, I didn’t have access to many other players for online play, but the common accessibility of headsets on the 360 is very helpful for this game.

PS3 users will probably benefit most, though. Valve has worked out a special offer with Sony to let players purchase the PS3 version of the game and unlock the PC/Mac version for free. Even better, Portal 2 is cross-platform for PC/Mac and PS3 users, placing this game in one of the most unique situations ever seen. Seriously, the PS3 is the best version solely because you get a free copy of the true definitive version: the PS/Mac SKU.

The game has a few minor problems. The 360 version, at the least, has some loading issues (loading … between … every … single … puzzle). And once players beat the campaigns, there is very little to come back to. A plethora of Easter eggs, achievements/trophies, and the compelling developer commentary helps offset this lack of content. Thankfully, the campaigns are substantial, at 8 to 10 hours for single-player, and 5 to 7 hours for the co-op mode, so gamers have plenty to see and do before the downloadable content packs arrive.

Portal 2 is pure genius. With gameplay growing ever more addictive and new characters always threatening to steal the spotlight, Portal 2 is one of the best games of 2011. A perfect and true sequel to the 2007 hit, Portal 2 provides everything that a fantastically designed sequel needs. The graphics and style are noticeably better, the writing is top-notch, the gameplay is as enthralling as before, the developer commentary keep players entertained, and the rest is tied nicely together with beloved characters. With “still alive” quotes and cake references kept to a minimum, Portal 2 steps the franchise out from the small tech demo with a neat story and into a work Valve can proudly place next to its Half-Life franchise.

[Reviewed on Xbox 360]


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