Review: Portal 2

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Portal is probably THE surprise hit of the past decade, mostly because…well, it was such a big surprise!

Most gamers went into The Orange Box seeing the game as more of a side curiosity to play with once they were done with Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2, but low and behold, most players came away from The Orange Box treating Portal as the star. So much so that a more fleshed out sequel became an instant demand.

Now the sequel has arrived, and the question is simply this: now that the Portal experience is no longer such a refreshing surprise, can it hold up to the expectations that come with a full-priced standalone sequel?

For the small yet vocal sect of angry gamers who go into every game with a chip on their shoulder just so they can rant on message boards afterwards, the answer will likely be no. And to be honest, when I first began Portal 2, once again going through early beginner portal chambers and really not seeing a whole lot that was new or particularly taxing on the brain, I was admittedly worried that maybe the Portal experience couldn’t grow beyond its roots as a novelty bonus game.

But after the somewhat sluggish and predictable start, I was thrilled to see the game settle into a groove and establish itself as a necessary and much-improved sequel, and by the time I reached the can’t-put-the-controller-down closing stretch I was upset with myself for letting doubt creep into my mind.

Before going further, though, let me first take a step back and introduce you to Portal, for those of you who need to be brought up to speed. If you somehow never played the first Portal, first off — how dare you, you monster! Second of all, the gameplay is that of a first-person puzzle game in which you use a portal gun, a modified Half-Life 2 gravity gun that fires portals instead of random objects collected from the environment, to complete tricky experimental chambers. Your goal in each chamber is to figure out how to reach the exit, and to do so you have to think outside the box and start thinking with portals. All in the name of science, of course!

In the first game, puzzles generally involved placing portals to move companion cubes onto switches, to launch across pits or up to high ledges by using momentum, and avoid or knock over defense turrets. Portal 2 takes things a step further, introducing a bunch of new toys to experiment with, including tractor beams, panels, reflecting laser beams, and different colored gels that impart special properties to whatever surface you splash them on. Blue gel, for example, rubberizes surfaces so you can bounce into the air like a trampoline, red gel creates super-slippery runways that propel you forward with high velocity, and white gel simply turns non-portal-compliant surfaces into those that can open portals.

After the opening chapters which are laid out in smaller portal chambers like the first game, the levels broaden, the puzzles evolve far beyond what was previously done, and the atmosphere builds up an unexpected sense of tension, suspense and adventure. The graphics have also been upgraded nicely. The bright orange, blue and red glow of gels and lasers contrast beautifully against the sterility of the white and gray puzzle chamber walls, and there is just so much more activity going on in the background between the shifting panels, moving conveyor belts, and crumbling architecture. As Aperture’s labs fall apart, you get glimpses of the outside world, and in these moments you feel taunted by the unreachable freedom, but also draw hope that you will soon be free.

There is, however, a brief middle portion that has you strolling along on metal catwalks and riding elevators, only occasionally having to stop to portal up to a higher walkway or beyond a busted door. During this stretch the game does lose its puzzle feel, and — dare I say it — becomes kind of boring for just a bit. But after this brief lull the pacing picks up once again and the game gradually gets better and better until you reach the supremely satisfying ending and bop your head through the new end credits song (it’s not nearly as catchy or memorable as ‘Still Alive’, but it’s still a nice treat to look forward to).

The gameplay is inventive and tremendously fun, but honestly, the game wouldn’t be nearly as memorable if it weren’t for the real stars of Portal 2: the storyline, the characters, the humor, and the incredible writing and voice acting that mesh these elements together.

Personality core Wheatley, voiced by British actor/comedian Stephen Merchant, is the likeable sidekick, rambling away nonstop like Donkey from Shrek. He’s an annoying pest, but loveably so. Then there is returning AI villainess GLaDOS, who is constantly poking and prodding you with fat jokes and other hurtful jabs in her monotone, robotic voice, once again provided by voice actress Ellen McLain. And new to the cast is Aperture Science CEO himself, Cave Johnson, whose disgruntled personality is perfectly portrayed by actor J.K. Simmons.

These characters couldn’t have been cast any better, the writing and dialogue is quite possibly the best there’s even been in a video game, and the timing and delivery from all of the actors is pure magic. To divulge anything more specific about the story, though, would ruin the spontaneity of experiencing it for yourself. But what I will tell you is that cake has been replaced by talk of potatoes and lemons, and there are loads of little references and Easter Eggs to spot throughout the game if you have a keen eye. In fact, there is nearly as much unspoken humor to discover within the game world itself.

In Portal 2, you get to savor the storyline’s comedic brilliance for far longer than the first game. It’s actually funny how perceptions change in just a few years in regards to game length. When Portal came out packed inside The Orange Box, people raved and proclaimed that it — a three-hour game at the most — was worth the full price on its own. Now, in this entitlement age that we live in, gamers are crawling out of the woodworks to rage against Portal 2 for not being worth full price because they beat the game in four hours.

First off, from what I played completing Portal 2 in four hours seems like an impossible feat even if you know the puzzle solutions beforehand and you don’t stand around to listen to every last line of dialogue. So, anyone saying they have is either fibbing, figured out some kind of cheat, or rushed through the game just so they could scream about how short it is (or all three!). Portal 2‘s solo mode alone is two to three times the size of Portal — it took me between 8 and 9 hours to complete — and then there is the separate co-op mode with even more hours of fun to offer.

Personally, I play games for single-player content first, so Portal 2’s co-op is more of a novelty to me, as it just doesn’t have the same punch of charm and humor that the solo story does. But make no mistake; it is a fantastic new addition that I know many players will treat as the main mode of play. Solving puzzles with a friend is a fun exercise in teamwork and collaborative thinking, particularly when played in split-screen couch co-op so you can communicate directly and point each other in the right direction.

Online play is available if you don’t have anyone locally to share the joys of Portal with, though, and the PS3 version even brings Valve’s Steam service to a console platform for the first time (with a free code to download a companion copy of the game on PC/Mac). Pressing the Select button during play calls up a streamlined Steam interface with news and your friends list, and by linking your PSN and Steam accounts you receive the benefits of cloud saving, cross-platform play between PS3, PC and Mac users, and simultaneous unlocking of trophies/achievements across both services. Unfortunately, PSN has (presumably) been under hacker attack lately and is currently down, so I haven’t been able to test online performance as much as I wanted to before posting my review. But from what I have used, Steam works great on PS3, and promises to grow as Valve acquaints itself with the platform.

The one thing Portal 2 doesn’t have that I would have preferred over co-op is some form of a competitive component. Like maybe a time attack mode with individual puzzle chambers you would solve against a clock and earn points by performing different portal maneuvers, either with leaderboards you could post your times/scores to or, better yet, the ability to match portal wits with another player in puzzle races. I’m generally not a fan of downloadable content, but I would be all for Valve creating a competitive add-on like this.

With all that said, there isn’t much of anything to not like about this game. Portal 2 is longer, larger, livelier, and somehow even wittier than the original. Since the game is driven by story and doesn’t offer multiple solutions to its puzzles, it isn’t replayable in the immediate sense (by that I mean there is nothing to immediately return for beyond trophies/achievements). But trust me, this is the type of game you’ll want to hang onto and revisit yearly; that you’ll cherish forever (or at least until the next Portal comes along…if it ever does!).

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Pros:
+ Core Portal puzzling as fun as ever
+ Larger, more complex and more creative puzzle chambers
+ Hilarious storyline keeps you riveted from beginning to end
+ Some of the sharpest writing and most memorable characters you’ll find in a video game
+ Atmosphere is surprisingly tense and suspenseful
+ Long story mode and fun co-op offer plenty of gameplay for the spend

Cons:
- Starts off a bit too slow, predictable and easy (if you played the first game)
- Doesn’t offer much immediate replay value
- No competitive puzzle mode

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, also available for PC/Mac and Xbox 360
Publisher: Valve
Developer: Valve
Release Date: 4/19/2011
Genre: Action/Puzzle
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1-2
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is a 28 year old from-the-womb gamer turned video game reviewer/blogger and current editor/owner/operator of VGBlogger.com. Matt got his first taste of gaming as a youngster on the NES and Atari, and the rest is history from there. In 2004, three years removed from high school and still looking for a career direction in life, Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com, and after a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez Matt turned his attention to VGBlogger, and to this day is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary.