Saturday, April 23, 2011

Video Game Review - Portal 2

Anyone who's ever read this blog before probably knows I'm quite fond of Portal. As in, it's my favorite game ever made. I consider it a masterpiece in every respect, the puzzles were hard and mind bending, and the humor was pitch perfect, never failing to deliver laughs. Needless to say, when a full length sequel was announced, 3 times longer than the short original game, with a separate Co-Op campaign, I was a bit excited. As in, I've been looking forward to this game for AGES.

But now that I've played it, did I love it? Did I hate it? Did it take the masterpiece that was Portal, and make it better, or did it fail to impress, simply rehashing the previous games triumphs? Read on to find out as I tell you just what I thought of Portal 2.

Portal 2, as if you didn't already know, is the latest game from Valve, and as I said is the follow up to the surprise hit of 2007's The Orange Box, Portal. When Portal first came, very few people knew what to expect from it. It was being developed mostly by a new team Valve hired on after seeing their student project "Narbacular Drop" and saying, "Hey, we want you to make a longer version of this."

They bundled it together with Half Life 2: Episode 2, and Team Fortress 2, both long awaited sequels, in a bundle known as The Orange Box. When many people bought The Orange Box, they didn't expect Portal to be anything more than a little bonus they got with the other two games, but while Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2 are both fantastic games (among my favorites, in fact) Portal ended up being considered by many people, myself included, the best game in the pack.

The game set you in a deserted laboratory controlled by a sinister A.I. GLaDOS, using a "Portal Gun" which let you shoot two portals, which linked to each other. The result was mind bending puzzles, and some of the darkest humor and possibly the most memorable villain, in all of gaming. Lines about murdering your best friend (a box), baking you into a cake, and of course the meme-tastic song "Still Alive" led to the game being warmly received by all.

Of course, a sequel was needed. The original game was only 3 hours long.


Portal 2 takes place several centuries after the original Portal. Your character, Chell, has been in stasis for the past several hundred years, and is awoken by a personality sphere named Wheatley, one of the many which awoke at the end of the first Portal, telling you that the Enrichment Center's nuclear reactor is about to meltdown, killing you (and him) and that you need to escape together. You run around, go through some tutorial stages, and end up in GLaDOS's chamber. She's off. You go down to her central core looking for an escape pod, or some route of escape to turn on. This goes as well as you might expect. Of course, GLaDOS wakes up, and sends you straight back to testing.

There are a few new characters, Wheatley being one of them, who really add something to the game. Don't get me wrong, Ellen McLain reprises her role as GLaDOS and does an absolutely phenomenal job, but each of the new characters add hours of laughs, and a plot with some twists I genuinely didn't see coming. The plot is absolutely great, and the dialogue is just as good as it was in the first game. You'll be laughing hysterically throughout the entire game. I promise that. My family watched me play through large portions of the game, and said it was a blast to watch me play it, because of how well written it was, and how darn funny it was.

Again, it only ties in loosely to the Half-Life universe, but the connections are there (including an Easter Egg about a certain ship...) and are quite fun when you do catch them. Really though, Portal 2 focuses on being it's own thing. It's not Half-Life 2: Episode 3 like some (stupid) people seemed to be expecting. G-Man isn't in it. The Combine isn't in it. Gordon Freeman isn't in it.

Instead, the game focuses on building up the world of Aperture Science, and it does this spectacularly. One thing I remember hearing in the Dev Commentary for the original Portal was that they tried to convey in the escape portions that the facility was designed to reassemble itself at GLaDOS will, using pistons and panels to change around test chambers in whatever way she wished. This was something I never thought was all that well expanded upon in the first game, and I never would have known they intended that if I hadn't done the Dev Commentary. However, Portal 2 shows this, and the absolutely massive scale of the Aperture Science facility beautifully from the very first moment of the game. You can tell how the rooms fit together, and the very opening of the game gives you a shot of the inside of the facility, making it obvious it's bigger than you ever would have expected in the first game.

This also changes the atmosphere of the game. Not that the way the original game felt was bad in any way, the original Portal is still a masterpiece of game design in every aspect, but this game really felt like they cemented what the world of Aperture science was. The Half-Life series is a straight up drama, and Portal 2 is more of a black comedy, something which made itself apparent in the dialogue of the first game, and something which becomes apparent in every aspect of Portal 2, including the atmosphere.

The graphics, though still running on the Source engine first released with Half-Life 2 in 2004, have been refined a LOT from Portal, and look absolutely great in this game.

Something which is either an improvement or a step back, depending on your opinion, is that unlike in the first game, where Chell was essentially a mask for the player, she feels more like a character, and an aspect of the Portal universe, in this one. She's still silent, make no mistake, but unlike in the first one where she was silent because she was nothing more than a mask, in this she feels more like your standard silent protagonist, much like Gordon Freeman, or Link.

There are more references to her being mute, and many, MANY, references to her being female, unlike the first game where the only reference to her was the Curiosity Sphere saying "OOOH YOU'RE THE LADY FROM THE TEST!", other than that, there were no references to her being female, and it felt more like GLaDOS was talking to YOU than to CHELL. In this, it feels like the characters are talking to Chell first, you second.

In my personal opinion, it's not really a drawback of the game... But I will admit I do prefer the "mask" approach they took in the first one. I can't say it's poorly executed, it isn't, and it does work very very well in this game, I just liked the approach in the first game more. It's not a flaw, and the story still works excellently though.

But, of course, what would Portal be without, well, Portals? So I'm sure many of you are asking how well the gameplay measures up.


I remember hearing in an interview, I think it was from E3 last year, that the Dev team wanted to make the same leap of introducing gameplay unlike anything you'd ever seen like they had in Portal, in Portal 2. That they were introducing many new concepts besides just the Portal Gun (which, again, is the only "weapon" you have in the entire game).

So really, Portal was about using the Portal Gun to solve problems. Portal 2 is about using the Portal Gun to influence other elements in the level, to solve problems. There are many new game mechanics, such as tractor beams, which can travel through Portals to influence the levels. All of the new mechanics (There are a lot) introduce entirely new ways to view the levels, and include mind warping new possibilities.

The Portal mechanic has been noticeably improved too. In the first game, unless you hit a Portal head on, you would get stuck. If you even clipped the edges a little bit, you'd get stuck, and would probably die. I never had that problem in this game, and it's much easier to actually travel through Portals.

Of note, is that they took out a lot of the twitch aspect of Portal solving puzzles in this one. Now it's more about setting your portals up correctly BEFORE going through them, than it is to shoot one off while in midair. There is still the occasional puzzle that requires to shoot off a Portal while flying through midair, but they are few and far between.

There are also fewer places to put your Portals now. It's more like the end of the first game, while you were escaping, where there were only a few spots to place Portals, and the trick was to figure out how to use those precious few spots to achieve your goal. The resulting difficulty isn't necessarily any harder or any easier, it just plays differently.

The difficulty itself is pretty much on par with the original Portal. The puzzles aren't really hard, but they all require thinking differently than you normally would, and if you aren't "thinking with portals" you'll be stuck. There are still many points where you'll find yourself boggling, wondering if the puzzle is even possible or if the game is somehow glitching, only to remember that one technique you were taught earlier in the game, and propelling yourself to victory.

This game, just like the first, is very good at preparing you for more difficult challenges. Every puzzle seems to teach you new concepts you'll need to remember for later puzzles. In a way, just like the first, most of the game is a tutorial.

That said, I would still recommend against jumping straight into Portal 2. If you haven't, you should most definitely still play Portal before Portal 2, because the original is a masterpiece of storytelling within games, will set up the story for the second one for you, is only about 3 hours long, and will ensure you're already "thinking with portals" when you try Portal 2 out, a skill which will come in handy.

I got the PS3 version of the game, which includes a free PC/Mac Steam copy. As such, I played through the entire game on both PS3 and PC, and the controls worked perfectly on both. I never found myself struggling to make a shot on the PS3, but I never felt the puzzles were dumbed down on PC.

Something I've heard a lot of complaint about is that there are frequent load screens. This is true, there is a load screen after pretty much every puzzle. Honestly though, the load screens are very short, and I prefer load screens to the intrusive "LOADING..." message that popped up in old Valve games. Also, the frequent load screens help the game run on even lower end machines.

I hear some people claim the PC version is just a console port. This is stupid. Completely and utterly stupid. The only evidence for this at ALL is that when you save, the save message says "Please don't turn off your console..." on the PC, as opposed to saying "Please don't turn off your PS3..." on the PS3.

Even if it were a console port (which it isn't) it wouldn't matter. The PC version plays perfectly. The controls work. There's no other way to say it, the game controls very well on both PS3 and PC.

One thing I do wish they had included is advanced chambers, like the first game had, but they seemed to favor including achievements in the standard chambers, which require going through them differently to get. Still, a level editor will be included soon, so I'm sure some extremely difficult maps will come out of that.


One of the biggest and most exciting aspects of Portal 2 was the announcement that the game would contain a co-op mode, where you and a friend control two "Co-Op Bots" nicknamed Atlas and P-Body.

The story in the Co-Op mode is very thin, and is really only there as a sequel hook for Portal 3, taking place after the end of Portal 2's single player campaign. GLaDOS taunts the two of you, as you solve tests spread over 5 chapters, involving the use of all those new features included in the game, all the while using up to 4 portals (each of you with two of them, obviously).

The Co-Op levels are fun, and some of the GLaDOS quotes are pretty funny, but this is probably where most of my complaints for the game come in. Don't get me wrong, the Co-Op for this game, which probably took about 5 hours to complete, was very fun, but I would have liked to see some more challenging puzzles, especially toward the end. Even the very last puzzle only took me and my co-op partner around 15 minutes to figure out and complete. Maybe that's because I had already finished the entire single played campaign, and was already "thinking with portals" but only a few of the tests seemed all that difficult, and we breezed through the others, unlike the single player where there were some pretty brutal puzzles toward the end.

Hopefully Valve will either allow custom co-op maps when the level editor is released (PC only, and it's not out yet, even for single player, though it is announced) or will release some more difficult co-op levels in future updates for the game. Or both. Both would be nice.

Oh, and in case you've heard people saying that there's already $80 of DLC? That's only a half truth. Much like the Mann-Conomy in TF2, there's an item shop in Portal 2. Everything in it is purely cosmetic and is in no way required, isn't even available on the console versions of the game, and though it's true there is around $80 worth of cosmetic purchases, there's a bundle for only $30 of all of them, should you choose to buy them all. I ignored the item shop, only equipping my Mann Co. hat which was carried over from TF2 (there are 6 items which are carried over, IIRC) and an achievement item I got later on. It really doesn't matter, if you like item shops, hurrah! If not, ignore it, like I did.


The single player campaign for Portal 2 took me around 9 hours to complete. The Co-Op campaign took me around 5-6 hours.

Make no mistake, this is not a long game. Compared to a lot of games out there for the same $50 pricetag, you're not going to play this for as much time. You could buy Fallout: New Vegas for that price, probably even less by now, and easily get a 100 hours of gameplay, instead of around 14-20. This would be completely understandable.

That said, the quality of those 14 hours is extremely high. This is a worthy addition to the Portal series, and just as good as Portal, my favorite game of all time.

Also, there are a lot of Easter Eggs and achievements hidden in the game you won't get on your first try, which will warrant a second play through, as well as a developer commentary which will warrant yet another playthrough. A level editor is also coming out soon, so I'm sure we'll see great maps coming out of that.

This game is short, but it's very good. You should, at some point, play this game. The only real question here is if you should buy it now, at the $50 price tag, or wait until the price drops. Honestly, it just depends on how much of a diehard Portal fan you are. Me? I regret nothing. Portal 2 was brilliant, and I am absolutely pleased with my day one purchase. But then again, I have 60 hours logged on the original Portal, a 3-4 hour game. I've played through it so many times, I've got each puzzle memorized, and I will likely do the same with Portal 2. For me, a day one purchase was a good choice. For others, waiting for the inevitable Steam Sale 6 months from now would probably be a good choice. Knowing Valve, it'll be $20 by Christmas.


Real quick, before closing out this review, I'd like to mention the music of the game. The soundtrack is AMAZING, and I would definitely buy it in a heartbeat if Valve were to release it as an OST. Not just the closing song, penned by JoCo himself, just like Still Alive (I won't post it here though, it describes in detail the plot of Portal 2 and is extremely spoilery) but just the background music, or songs like "Robots FTW" the piece of music which plays over the Co-Op end credits. It's spoiler free, by the way.

Buy This Game If: Like I said above, you really should buy this game, it's really just more a matter of WHEN you should buy it.

Don't Buy This Game If: You're a stupid moron? Seriously. Buy this game. Play it. Eventually.

*This review was based on around 19-20 hours of play, including one playthrough of the single player on PS3, one playthrough of the single player on PC, and one playthrough of the Co-Op, also on PC. Portal 2 is rated E10+ for fantasy violence and mild language*

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