REVIEWS -- Portal 2 -- PC
I hope we can put our differences behind us, for science
by Mike Sicliano
Fun factor: Fun
Worth to: Buy
Portal 2 isnít just one of the funniest games youíll play all year, itís one of the best.
Putting an end to GLaDOSís dictatorial reign over Aperture Science in the original Portal, Chell escapes the confines of the laboratorial prison but passes out from exhaustion. When she finally wakes, sheís once again trapped in the fabricated living space of an Aperture Science relaxation chamber. Oh, the woes of being a lab rat.This time, Chell finds herself a companion as she races to escape the crumbling facility, now overgrown with vegetation and left in ruins after many, many years of disregard. The personality sphere, Wheatley, designed to be a bit on the naÔve side, discovers Chell, the only test subject still alive, and together the two make their destructive race toward the exit. But along the way, they must first contend with one major, artificial problem: the vengeful, homicidal, still-bitterly sarcastic GLaDOS, rebooted and reprising her role as queen bee of Aperture Laboratories.
Portal 2 picks up some several decades after the original (specific time unknown, but some have estimated upwards of 200 years later) with Chell having been put into cryo-sleep after she collapsed upon her escape. The re-entry into Aperture Labs has you running through familiar territory as you retrace some early tests from the first game, although the scenery has since changed quite dramatically. It isnít long before you start to see the bigger picture, though, and as you begin to explore the bowels and underbelly of the Aperture test chambers, a menacing threat looms in the distance. With Wheatley as your guide, you hope to make your final escape and return to the world above. But as we all know, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
From the onset, Portal 2 is a more driven and focused game. It has a story to tell and it never hesitates in that department, whereas in the original, things were handled with a bit more restraint and ambiguity. For a good portion of Portal, you were there to test and thatís all you knew. Now, in your attempt to escape the ruins, you uncover the dirty little secrets of Apertureís past. Plenty of easter eggs and secret rooms have been littered throughout the testing grounds for the player to explore, delving deeper into this enigmatic universe and perhaps providing a little more sustenance for fans (myself included) still pining for the release of Half-Life 2: Episode 3.
When it comes to characters, few developers in the business do them as well as Valve. GLaDOSís return is a spectacular treat, and even more so is the encore performance of the limitlessly talented Ellen McClain. Joining her this time are British comedian and co-creator of The Office, Stephen Merchant, who plays Wheatley, and J.K. Simmons, best known for his roles on Law & Order as Dr. Emil Skoda and as J. Jonah Jameson from the Spider-Man film trilogy, voicing the pre-recorded messages left by Aperture Science founder and CEO Cave Johnson.
The writing is impeccable. From the dialogue spoken directly to Chell or in the pre-recorded messages, there isnít a single minute of the game where I didnít find myself in comedic bliss. I guarantee this is one of the funniest games youíll play all year. Stephen Merchant is a master at making Wheatley sound like the appropriately lovable moron, but this of course is also thanks in large part to the text written for him. Frequently heíll ramble on about various situations as he ponders a way to get out of them, and in most games this would seem tedious, but because heís written and acted with such a level of dedication, none of it ever seems out of place or inappropriate. Much of the same can be said about Simmons and McClain, who voice their respective roles with absolute brilliance and deliver every line with the right amount of punch to make it funny, but not overbearing. Why we havenít seen much other video game voice work from these two gentlemen in the past is going to be one of the biggest mysteries moving forward.
More puzzle than shooter
But letís get down to the meat of what Portal is really about: the portals and the puzzles. The first hour or so has you tracing back through the early test chambers from the original Portal, now in ruin and decay after so much time has passed. This is a great way to provide veteran players that bit of nostalgia as they run through areas they vaguely remember from the first game, solving them sometimes in slightly different ways, but it also provides an adequate training ground for those who might be venturing into Portal 2 blind. It isnít long before things pick up in every respect: puzzles become much more involved and complicated and the main story comes into light much earlier this time around.
New mechanics are introduced in a smart way, giving you one or two early on and then introducing another one every handful of puzzles or so, never outstaying its welcome, so that by the end of the game when it starts to re-introduce many of the early mechanics combined with the new ones, it still seems very fresh. All of these are manipulated through the environment, never directly controlled by you or the portal gun. Such new mechanics include the much talked about Repulsion and Propulsion Gels which will either bounce you or slide you along the surface, respectively. In some cases youíll even need to combine both to create a speedy ramp with a launching platform at the end.
Where the original sometimes relied more on twitch-based gameplay to shoot off those portals at the precise moment while you hurdled through the air, Portal 2 takes a bit of a step back from that and opts to go for a more methodical problem solving approach. Very rarely will you be required to think quickly or act fast in a short amount of time, but often you will have to just stand there for a few minutes and observe your surroundings to really get a sense of the area and what can be done with it. This is a welcome change, but at the same time I will miss some of those moments from Portal. Iíll always fondly remember vaulting myself up those half-dozen platforms at the end of test chamber 18.
This brings up another point; the chambers themselves, for the most part, feel much more condensed. Around the gameís middle portion youíll start to go behind-the-scenes and put your skills to the test in much more open environments, but for the front and tail end of the campaign when youíre in actual testing chambers, they feel much smaller. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as in their shrunken states they have fewer places to throw a portal, and by association, require some more thought, but as with the original again, there was a certain level of accomplishment you felt after you completed one of the longer chambers near the end of the game.
Brilliant on so many levels
The single-player campaign will provide most players an average of five or six hours of gameplay, sometimes more if you take your time immersing yourself in the painful exile of Doug Rattmannís madness scribbled on the Aperture walls. Offering some extension to that life is the cooperative mode, featuring a separate companion story to the single-player. Youíll play as two service bots, Atlas and P-Body, in a campaign that coincides with Chellís own. In fact, while playing the game solo, you can actually see the little robots in some very quick scenes in the game, scurrying around on their own little adventure. This adds a solid four of five more hours to the clock, giving the total package a time of about ten or so hours.
What Portal 2 currently lacks is any sort of challenge mode or dedicated speed run trials. These provided players a competitive outlet in the original game, and their exclusion with the launch of Portal 2 is a little perplexing. There is little doubt that they, along with a level editor feature, will soon make their way onto the scene, however, so the potential for Portal 2 to live on long after both campaigns are finished is there.
Now, recently thereís been some community outrage over Valveís implementation of a micropayment shop for Portal 2, wherein players can purchase some vanity items for the game with real money. Some are quoting this as a betrayal of Valveís promise to never include paid-for DLC, but I stand to argue that a hat or a different outfit for the co-op campaign is not true DLC. Itís an add-on, one that holds no significance over the game as a whole nor does it in any way take from the experience by being absent. As stated, these items are strictly for the co-op and they do nothing tangible to affect the game. If people want something, they can purchase it. If not, you will not be missing out on anything significant. Thatís all there is to it.
Visually, the game looks great. Itís a testament to the artistic design choices made by the Valve team when they can make a seven-year-old engine still look polished. The lighting effects in particular are gorgeous, and there are some expansive locations in the bowels of Aperture Labs that are just awe-inspiring.
More notably, though, is the gameís vast soundtrack. From the opening scene as Wheatley breaks you out of the relaxation chamber, the music is intense and appropriate, changing ever so slightly scene by scene to adequately reflect the situation. The ending credits song is once again written by Jonathan Coulton, who penned ďStill AliveĒ (and yes, this one is just as good), while Valve enlisted the help of indie rock band The National for the original song ďExile Vilify,Ē a visceral and raw track about former Aperture employee Doug Rattmann (and for those unfamiliar, he is one of the only survivors of GLaDOSís original homicidal outbreak, and is the man responsible for all of the writings on the wall in both games). Though some defined tracks play during certain scenes, a lot of the music is also procedurally generated based on the real-time actions of the player, such as bouncing on the Repulsion Gel.
Itís a testament to Valveís ability to craft such an inspiring sequel out of a game that was, more or less, a very polished tech demo. There are few who would argue against them being the premier developer for the PC market, but with the release of Portal 2 on consoles, and the inclusion of the Steamworks feature for the PS3 version, the Washington-based company seems intent on bringing their hugely popular Steam service to multiple platforms. With the ability to link your PS3 copy of Portal 2 to your Steam account and play cross-compatibly with PC and Mac users, itís very clear that Valve seeks to break new ground with online multiplayer. And Portal 2 is the perfect way to introduce this milestone. With terrifically witty writing, an outstanding voice cast, and an improvement over the originalís mind-bending formula, itís not hard to accept that Portal 2 just may be game of the year material.
Developer: Nuclear Monkey Software / Valve
Release Date: April 21, 2011
Review Date: 27-04-2011
Numbers of Players: 1-2
Players Online: 2
Notes: Available for Mac
The engine may be old, but the art style is as new as ever. The test chambers look sharp and polished and the blend of colors, light, and dark come together wonderfully.
Improved physics, an array of new and dazzling mechanics, and the ever-perplexing portal gun combine for an outstanding ensemble of gameplay.
The campaigns separately are short, but they are of the highest quality, and together they make for the perfect Portal package.
Thereís only one thing to be said: brilliant.
As it stands now, both campaigns inadequately warrant a second playthrough on gameplay alone, but the terrific writing, achievements, and developer commentary may lure in players for a second or third time.