Valve Portal 2 Game Review
Portal was one of 2007ís greatest surprises. Not only did it offer a ground-breaking and mind-blowing experience, it did so in style, offering a script still quoted (some might say excessively) to this day and one of the most memorable characters this side of the 16-bit era. Rather than deliver an incremental sequel, ala Left4Dead 2, Valve has spent the last four years building, refining, and polishing their follow-up to this amazing title.
Portal 2 picks up hundreds of years after the events of the first. Chell awakens from a medically-induced hibernation to find herself in the remains of what appears to be an old, decrepit hotel room (not terribly dissimilar to many of the hotels Iíve stayed at...). Youíre soon greeted by the jovial, and especially British, Wheatley. This robotic orb, who watches over the facility's test subjects, explains that the facility is in danger and he wants to help you escape...in the most comical way possible: transporting your shipping container-style room through the collapsing facility. He finally ďdocksĒ (crashes) it into a wall, all the while apologizing for his deficiencies with his usual hilarious British charm. Wheatley, like GLaDOS before him, is an outstandingly well-written character brought to life with a brilliant performance by Stephen Merchant.
Wheatley will escort you through the first hour or so of the game as you explore the remains of the facility and regroup with old friends. It is this beginning that marks one of the finest introductions to a game Iíve ever played. The opening hour is so perfectly paced and constructed, I was worried if Valve would be able to maintain the quality throughout the entire 10+ hour adventure. And fortunately, they mostly do.
In retrospect, the amount of diversity Portal derived from its single core mechanic is amazing --using a pair of portals for instant travel--which makes it all the more impressive how much Valve has managed to add for the sequel. While youíll still make use of Newton's laws and companion cubes, youíll now find yourself being introduced to new concepts on a regular basis, such as the prism cube, which is often used to reflect a single laserbeam through multiple objects; with the help of portals of course.
Like with the laser, youíll find yourself manipulating and funneling different kinds of substances through the portals, such as light-based walkways, tractor beams, and some very unique liquids. These liquids come in three varieties and enable a special ability when stepped on. Blue allows Chell to jump high, orange to run fast, and any surface adorned in white will allow her to plant a Portal, regardless of whether the surface itself is portal resistant. All three play a factor through much of the gameís second act, delivering some of the gameís more devious puzzles.
Oh yes, the puzzles--the crux of Portalís gameplay. Luckily, the game covers the basics from Portal 1 quickly before launching into puzzles with much more involved -but never unwieldy- mechanics. To offer any specific examples would be to ruin the fun, but I can say that the puzzles offer a similar level of difficulty as those in the first, and were almost never frustrating. Regardless of how punishing some of them may appear, theyíre almost always fair, and make sense within the gameís logic. However, there was a time or two when I found myself stuck for longer than I care to admit, only to discover an easily overlooked wall where I was supposed to attach a portal. And there was one specific instance involving a pipe-filled room and a HORRIBLY steep slope that was a chore simply to navigate. Minor issues aside, the puzzles are creative, fun, and almost entirely frustration-free.
The visuals, art design in particular, are a significant advancement from the original--which already looked great itself. The bulky elevators have been replaced with a modern, streamlined appearance and the facility as a whole has been given a fantastic layer of polish. Youíll now watch as test chambers are constructed before your very eyes, which is simply a joy to watch. Though perhaps most worthy of praise are the spectacular looking liquids. And I donít just mean in the typical ďpretty water effectsĒ kind of way. These liquid gels actually look and behave much as you would expect in real-life, with blobs assimilating together when close, but breaking apart when in free-fall. Itís a fantastic effect that actually gives them substance and volume, in stark contrast to the flat water effects of many games.
Sound too has been improved, with music now used much more frequently. The game actually dynamically creates these tracks to correspond to the action youíre performing. Itís a neat touch and helps accentuate your actions.
Of course, Portal became famous for much more than just its gameplay conceit. It also featured a memorable antagonist and an engrossing narrative, largely thanks to the gameís very mysterious setting. And this is perhaps the one area where Portal 2 falters slightly by comparison. Though the characters are still strong--Wheatley may actually be my new favorite--the story simply isnít as engaging, due at least in part to the fact that the mystery of the facility and your role within it were largely resolved with the first game. Sure, there are still some mysteries to be solved, complete with a twist or two, but itís hard to care as much about the story when it seems so familiar.
Speaking of the twists--donít worry, no spoilers--I found them a bit disappointing because of their effect on the characters. One of the twists, in particular, is so silly, that it actually undermines the sense of immersion the series so greatly captures. The ending, as well, lacks the emotional punch of the original, partially due to the same twist even if itís still very satisfactory.
One final criticism is the amount of loading screens. Because one pops up after every testing area, youíll be seeing them a lot, particularly toward the beginning of the game. Fortunately, the load times themselves arenít bad, but they still break-up the gameís otherwise perfect flow.
Despite these minor problems, Portal 2, like with the original is one of the best games Iíve ever played. Though it doesnít quite capture the sense of mystery or the initial ďholy crap, that was amazing!Ē reaction of its benchmark predecessor, it exceeds it almost every other area. The grander scope, new portal mechanics, fantastic puzzle design, and hilarious script more than make up for these deficiencies which, I canít stress enough, are only evident by way of comparison. And though the game more than doubles the length of its predecessor, it seems to pass almost as fast--a true testament to the gameís design.
Whereas Portal 1 engaged my mind, Portal 2's single player mode captured my heart. It is a fantastic sequel to a benchmark game and serves as the most effective argument against the annualization trend burdening many popular series. I *companion cube* Portal 2. Skip to the next page for our multiplayer review.
The Verdict: Portal 2 Single-Player
As brilliant as the British are funny. A near perfect follow-up to 2007's classic.
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