REVIEWS -- Portal 2 -- PC
This was a triumph... I’m making a note here: Huge Success.
by Lazare Gvimradze
Fun factor: Fun
Worth to: Buy
Let’s put our differences behind us, and agree that Portal 2 is a masterpiece. For science. You monster.
I guess it’s safe to say that a good developer isn’t just defined by skill at making good games alone. I mean, all the game design experience and marketing strategies and all that stuff aside, making games is also about taking certain risks, like it happened with Portal. You can assume that it’s just Valve, being the awesome folk they are, simply having an eye for a talent, but the fact that Newell himself made the call to shelter and support the developers for the questionable puzzle game is in itself puzzling. The industry was never short on ingenious indie ideas almost begging to grow themselves into AAA-sized blockbusters, so what WAS so amazing about Portal that deserved Valve’s attention?
The short answer is everything, and the long one mainly involves dissecting and praising every inch of this perfectly tuned and excellently executed piece of software, which ran and worked with a seamlessness of any other indie game built around a single, innovative idea. An indie game it also was by its weak length and lack of online play, but the shortcomings were, excuse the wordplay, short-lived. You had the die-hard Source engine and Valve’s witty story-writing expertise backing all that up, AND it didn’t exactly come alone.
In fact, Portal was a minor part of the Orange Box collection, which was also comprised of the legendary Half-Life 2 with Episodes One and Two (with the latter being the top of the show then, and the prime argument in purchasing the pack) and a damn nice effort at reanimating classics in the form of Team Fortress 2. But new masterpieces are hard to overshadow, aren’t they? With its intelligent gameplay and hilarious black humor, Portal garnered a massive fanbase – thus giving Valve the perfect sequel solution with which to kill time as they stretched the announcement of the next installment in the Half-Life franchise yet again. Can’t say I disapprove.
So now, Portal 2 has officially hit the shelves after a torrent of marketing bombardment and promises to up the scale of the original tenfold and add some sought-after stuff like online co-op play and a full-sized singleplayer campaign. As a now fully-standalone game charging standard prices on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3, you might think it’s a bit of a stretch for a game where you don’t shoot people and spend most of your time pondering how to progress through one chamber or another. After beating it, I was thankful Valve didn’t give in to the temptation to plaster a three-digit number on the tag.
Yeah, sorry for that, uh, “untimely appraisal.” So story-wise, the game might make little sense even to those who have finished the original, since the ending of the aforementioned involved a factor contradicting our starting point in Portal 2. However, disregarding this irregularity, you’ll find it pretty easy taking things in stride – mainly because nothing makes sense at all, and it’s delivered with such sublime wit that you’re simply inclined to find out more on pure instinct. Starting from a completely strange awakening from a cryo hibernation of unspecified length, and then with a hilarious meet-up with a central robot character named Wheatley, the story kicks onwards through the massive underground labs of Aperture Science, where everything weird and scientific is seemingly researched and tested.
Soon afterwards GLaDOS, the maniacal AI which was hell-bent on tricking us into death in the original, makes an uncharacteristic return and soon throws the silent protagonist (who is never properly explained neither in Portal nor in Portal 2, but outside info from Valve says her name is Chell) into the same loop of tests with portals. The thing is, the game deliberately establishes this de facto status quo to then later turn everything upside down – there’s the eventual, almost impromptu escape, lots of plot twists at a weirdly regular basis, and an ending which goes for something so radical that will most likely leave you applauding Valve’s out-of-the-box thinking.
And the characters, man, you won’t believe how many times I’ve just hung around aimlessly for minutes just to hear Wheatley exhaust his British accent at cracking ancient computer terminals or cursing his engineers who had told him he’d die if he turned on his head flashlight. On the flipside of comic relief, GLaDOS, the ever-sarcastic mastermind who’s in love with twisted metaphors and things designed to kill humans, is also more full-blown, and might I say, thoroughly developed here than in Portal 1. You won’t believe the things she’ll go through this time around.
But enough nudging spoiler territory, the fact that the story would only multiply in quality AND quantity under Valve’s traditional talent is not something to be gawking at, at least not while reading a silly review. It’s ideal and funny, true to please any diehard fan or awed newcomer, and sets the perfect background motivation for the mind-bending gameplay which will challenge the very ways you think – the very ways you perceive your environment. Whereas in standard games, walls and chasms are barricades and similar elements of stagnation, here, they are opportunities, your best friends at creating quantum passages through space, your… primary means of transport, even. And here, in this department only, I was genuinely taken aback, in a good way, at how Valve decided to approach the overall scheme.
Portal here, Portal there...
I mean, what do we see in sequels, as a standard? The basic premise is that if you’ve been greenlit on making one, it only points at something which resonated nicely with the audience of the original. So, you take it, refine it to the point of perfection, and then do some peripheral tweaking so that industry standards aren’t entirely forgotten. Voilà, you got your ideal sequel, which might even cash in enough for a third part, and you convince yourself that the aforementioned strategy is well-off to be incorporated in everything from now on. Isn’t what I described basically the problem with people disliking sequels? They continue to bend the same premise, making whole series ashamed of something they were once proud of.
It all leads me to saying that Valve here obviously figured that creating something new isn’t a feat only accomplishable with new IPs. The original Portal was great – a product of such quality that would have fed another company’s wallets for years through generic sequels. But Valve decided to cast away all of their accomplishments, leaving only that trademark gimmick of portals, and built a whole new experience around it, from the ground-up, without recycling old assets or reusing ideas, something that WOULD have worked just as great, but would be devastating in the long run. And by doing that simple math, they released a product which might play like Portal 1, but doesn’t FEEL like Portal 1. It feels like itself, something new, and I’d call in a second round of applause for the behalf of this wondrous company who decidedly goes on risks despite having everything they need laid out before them.
So this time around, yes, you still carry a gun which shoots two interconnected portals – the blue one, dubbed “primary”, or simply the entry point, and the orange one, the exit. You go through one, you come out of another – an ingeniously simple mechanic which was explored through and through in the original, and gets some serious outside boosting in the second part.
And testing chambers are back, albeit tad bit wrecked from the ages passed since Portal, but sporting crazy new puzzle elements which (here comes the best part) aren’t always meant to be used in orthodox ways – closer to the second half of the game, where the plot is running on all fours and environments are whooshing by at frightening speeds, you’ll find yourself thinking creatively to do some similarly creative things – and not just, for example, getting from point A to point B. We get some sort of plasma bridges which go through portals, anti-gravity beams which do just the same but offer much more room for finesse with switches reversing their direction and gels able to travel through…
Oh yeah. The whole gel business. Something unexpected entirely, but they do blend pretty well with the wacky world of Portal. Basically, you get three types of physically accurate goo, all with their own properties: the blue one makes you jump like a kangaroo to reach higher places; the orange one boosts your speed allowing for great kinetic buildup to transfer between portals (remember kids: like GLaDOS herself once told us, portals preserve physical properties of anything that passes through. In this case, speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out), and white gels allows to… create portals, wherever you happen to splash it. And directing the gels to serve your own perceptions of the chamber you’re in creates the illusion that you’re completely defying the preset design of the levels, making the epic resolutions to the puzzles all the more satisfying.
Then we get a whole bunch of ways to interact with lasers, like the laser redirection cubes which let you steer the lethal beam to activate platforms or doors – more funny ways to annihilate those adorably murderous turret bots who shoot first and sooth later – and lots and lots of stark humor to drive and encourage progress through puzzles, which are not as hard in execution as they were in the original, but demanding a bit more independent thinking-through and planning, requiring diverse ways of progression by combining all the aforementioned elements in various ways, like using lightbeams to block turret fire, shooting gel from portals to bounce other turrets to their death (or stand-by mode, or whatever it is they do when flipped to the side), hovering cubes AGAINST buttons to activate, ahem, plot devices, using speedy gel to gain momentum and bolt across chasms, or employing yet another new toy, a sort of trampoline-platform, to fling various game objects, including yourself, to pre-calculated destinations. And all that’s just to name a few.
Think Portals... with friends!
And while the campaign level design is more-or-less merciful towards the player (as it should be; with a narrative like that, who’d want to get stuck in the story because of an exhausted brain?), once beaten, Portal 2 doesn’t miss the opportunity to offer much more complex stuff via the co-op play, where you can team up with a friend and experience a parallel story to Portal 2. Nothing as profound as Chell’s adventure of course, but still, we got to have that motivation Valve never forgets about. You get two main characters: expressive robots named ATLAS and P-Body, who are converted into GLaDOS’ test subjects, and forced to rely on each other for solving some darn hard puzzles. Each player predictably assumes the role of one of the bots, and they proceed to progress through intricate chambers, creating independent portal pairs (that makes four quantum passages) and using simple gestures to hint at possible solutions and points requiring certain amounts teamwork.
While holding no candles to the single-player campaign in terms of consistency and balance, the co-op play is bound to gather quite the fame for the sheer steepness of its puzzles and the overall hefty length. And for some people it might be good news to say that this multiplayer component has a much stronger Portal 1 vibe to it, provided you can imagine the original with twice as many test chambers and thrice the difficulty. Opportunities for nostalgia, so to speak.
Visually, most of Portal 2 strikes a polar contrast from what you know of the series from the original, mainly in the artistic design. Aperture labs are now a sort of a post-apocalyptic mess, with GLaDOS’ return slowly but systematically bringing the place up to speed with little to no success. Chambers are wrecked, halls are overgrown with vines and various other vegetation, garbage is piled up in the lift shafts – it’s kind-of a gulp of fresh air after the conservative part 1, where the same white and gray labs where all that were until that tiny glimpse of sunlight in the last moments. And you get even more environmental variety further on – not to spoil anything, but let’s just say that this time around, Aperture will be explored almost in its ageless entirety.
Technically though, disregarding some amazing articulation on the robot characters and a little bit of next-gen post-processing applied along with nicer particle effects, the look of the game “evolutionized” little, with some irritatingly small details drawing stark parallels to the amazing world of today’s first-person shooters. But it really does make sense if you think about it though. Valve basically had to build spacious chambers filled with LOTS of physics variations AND make them support portal corridors. I’d say it even justifies the somewhat short length on the majority of the levels, and the immersion-breaking loading screens popping up after every one of them.
And even the loadings are mainly momentary, at least on the PC version. Granted, that does little to compensate their very presence after every bloody step, but it’s a small price to pay for an otherwise excellent technical execution, because while not gleaming with heavily detailed textures and fifty billion polygons per square inch, Portal 2 makes great do of what it has, drawing an honestly flawless picture complemented with equally sublime art direction.
And it’s all well-ported, too – or not at all. Because as far as I can tell, it was the console versions which needed the porting part, since the Portal 2 feels right at home on the PC, with Source making the very best of any more-or-less common rig and incorporating the mouse/keyboard controls to make portal creation even more fast and precise. There aren’t quite the loudout of graphics options for you to tweak as you’d expect from a Valve game, but you won’t necessarily feel their need that much anyway. I personally tested the game on a year-old laptop running an integrated GPU, and sacrificing some resolution goodness proved a deal well done once I booted the game up at watched the framerate soar.
But with Portal, it was always more about what you hear than what you see. The voicework, truly, is monumental at this point, provided there are only half a dozen actors doing most of the voicework, and succeeding, at that, to enrich the narrative more than most full-blown AAA titles nowadays. Ellen McLain as GLaDOS must have become a cult classic by now, and her extraordinary talent does not go to waste in the sequel, even having some powerful peripheral support from Stephen Merchant – who voiced the charismatic Wheatley – and none other than J.K. Simmons, Spiderman’s J.J. Jameson himself as the original head of Aperture Science, the eccentric Cave Johnson. It’s all a fun party to follow, and you’ll definitely feel a smile tugging at your lips as you tick the last block in Valve’s to-do-list-in-order-to-justify-their-damned-release-schedule. No exaggeration here, I know you have that list. Everybody does.
Anyway, to round things up, I know that overall my review was more concentrated on surface stuff and seldom went deep into boring analysis, and there are a few reasons for that: firstly, it is because the only thing I wished I’d done while playing Portal 2 was something akin to a media blackout, because just imagining that experience without any preliminary info at hand is… maddeningly regretful at this point. And still, if you’re reading this without having played the game yet, first of all, thank you, dearly, for your choice in advice, and secondly, shame on you for spoiling yourself an adventure worth walking blindfolded in.
You’d counterargue, of course, by saying “that’s what reviews are for you idiot: to gauge the probability at buying this game or another. Some “reviewer” you are!” True and true, but, to be honest, the second reason I wrote this was to do something, ANYTHING, as a sign of gratitude to the studio which was never really aces in my books, but just got to the top of the list after releasing this masterpiece of game design. And only THEN was it the whole reviewing games gibberish, irrelevant at that point (and sorry about the little deception). However, what’s important is this: Portal 2 is a game flawlessly executed from all angles, period. An upfront runner for Game of the Decad… I mean, Year, it will definitely put up a powerful fight to any of the upcoming blockbusters, who are no doubt shivering with fear in anticipation. I’m calling in a third round of applause, and let’s stand up this time people. So that science gets done.
And a little afterword: my whole being screams at me to give Portal 2 the maximum overall score possible (actually, right about now the smart part of my brain is attempting a manual takeover of my right hand to do just that). My reasons for NOT doing so are way too irrational, so I beg your deepest pardon...
But come on, Portal is to be merged with the Half-Life universe, AND will probably get a third part of its own soon after that, so where will I look for higher scores when that happens? Huh? Maybe Black Mesa?
That was a joke. Ha-ha, fat chance.
Developer: Nuclear Monkey Software / Valve
Release Date: April 21, 2011
Review Date: 16-05-2011
Numbers of Players: 1-2
Players Online: 2
Notes: Available for Mac
An outdated engine and no real feats in pure visuals do little to stagnate the almost ideally consistent picture Portal 2 produces. Every bit of art direction complements the overall quality in its unique way, and incredible animations will make you fall in love with even the weirdest of robots.
A real testament to true sequel-building, Portal 2 seldom builds on what its predecessor established, throwing in a thousand new gimmicks and creative gameplay mechanics to create a unique world needing unique thinking approaches.
Nothing gets in the way of the balanced campaign narratives spanning the most diverse characters and situations, and while the starting point may seem weird, it’s all justified in the grand finale, the funniest, and most brilliantly set icing on the cake – I mean, story of Portal 2.
New sublime electronic tunes and great ambience literally pale in the shadow of Oscar-worthy voicework from a talented handful of actors, breathing more life in the deserted labs of Aperture Science than you’d find in most other games.
Portal 2 feels perfect from start to finish, never missing one opportunity for a clever puzzle, a deadpan joke, or a hilarious Easter egg. And now it comes with co-op, and... are you seriously still reading this? Get out there and buy this game!