Portal 2 – Review
When my copy of The Orange Box unlocked on Steam a little less than four years ago, I couldn’t have been any more excited to sit and play the next chapter of the Half Life 2 story. I’d been waiting just over a year to follow on from Episode One and no amount of hype or clever marketing was ever going to have me playing one of the other included titles first. Ignoring Portal until I had played through Episode Two was a mistake I feel I share with millions, sidelining one of the single greatest video game experiences that I never saw coming. These punishingly long years preceding Portal 2’s release last week have at least been filled with those spontaneous bursts of desire to return to Portal, with the experience never failing to put anything short of a great big silly grin across my face.
The anticipation for Portal 2 has been like no other. Knowing that some of the greatest, most creative minds in the industry have long been at work on the follow up to the sleeper agent of The Orange Box, I never once doubted that Portal 2 would be anything less than legendary. Bringing with it a closing to one of the best marketing campaigns seen, heard and experienced in recent times, the wait is now finally over and my dreams have become a reality. Portal 2 does not disappoint.
Disclaimer: Avoiding spoiling the events of the first game is sadly unavoidable although I promise with crossed eyes and needles in my heart to not reveal the story of Portal 2. Those who wish to keep the events of the first Portal a mystery should return to this review at a later date and direct your browser here in the mean time.
For the curious and completely un-initiated, Portal is a FPPPGWP (First Person Platformer Puzzle Game with Portals – yes, I just made that up). You play as Chell, a test subject of Aperture Science which is implied to be about as voluntary as the hamster with a 9V battery wired into its brain. Chell awakes only to be herded along a series of test chambers, acquiring a Portal Device along the way – a piece of technology which allows for two windows to be created that bridge space and time. Each test chamber is a puzzle of sorts, sometimes requiring you to activate switches in order to leave the chamber and other times simply challenging you to just reach the almost implausibly located exit. Traversing the portals is, at first, as simple as just stepping through but, in time, further complicated by having to factor in momentum gained from leaping from great heights in order to fling yourself with enough velocity to reach your intended destination.
Aperture Science, the testing facility, is ran by an insane A.I. construct named GLaDOS that eventually decides to kill you, having learned everything it could from your performances in the tests. Her sense of humour is completely twisted, making transparent promises of a reward for all your efforts and it was through her that the first game was able to charm its way into our hearts along with our minds. Much like Valve’s Half Life series, the game’s protagonist is entirely mute and all dialogue is simply one way, something that Portal was highly celebrated for with its narration occurring without any actual narration. It was purely through GLaDOS and the discovery of the Rat Man’s chambers (recently explained in the pre-Portal 2 comic, Lab Rat) that players were able to piece together this wonderfully bizarre puzzle.
Portal 2 follows on from the inserted ending of Portal where Chell was shown to have been dragged back inside the laboratories, waking in the most unusual of surroundings with an automated voice encouraging her to get up and move around the room to see if her induced sleep has left her brain damaged. It’s here, so incredibly early in the game, that I began to wonder if the ageing Source engine was finally reaching the end of its lifespan. The room is incredibly bland, missing the detailed texturing of more modern games, decorated with models of furniture that look so incredibly dated that you begin to wonder if Portal 2 was designed to be solely about the experience rather than the visuals. But, of course, this is not your average studio and in this department Valve have never let us down – once the game is actually out of course.
With a tongue firmly planted in cheek, the brief orientation tutorial concludes with the introduction of Wheatley, a loose personality core that resembles the aspects of GLaDOS you thought you had incinerated during the end sequence of the first game and within seconds you’re made to forget your surroundings and become completely transfixed on Wheatley’s spherical form, captured by his incredible emotive animation and mesmerised by Stephen Merchant’s brilliant voice acting. The events which immediately follow destroy any illusion Valve conjured of this being a game that’s just too big for it’s engine. The sequence returning you to the test chambers proves that there’s definitely a sparkle in Portal 2’s eye.
Havok’s physics engine and Valve’s new lighting technology are stunning and will literally have you in absolute awe as the introduction thunders on and delivers you into the game proper. Breaking from the first game’s plastic laboratory aesthetics, the opening of Portal 2 has you retracing those first steps through the initial test chambers which are now overgrown with plants and left in complete disarray from the destruction suffered at the end of the first Portal. Each stage is designed to refresh you in the ways of portals, but with each stage having been tweaked so that no matter how familiar the environment, the experience feels completely fresh.
Gradually, you find yourself in previously unused, undamaged test chambers which begin to challenge you that little bit more and introduce new elements of the gameplay beyond the benchmark system of two portals, a Companion Cube and button presses that were already explored in Portal. Following an initial test that is purely for you to demonstrate the requirements and effects of the new elements, the few subsequent stages really put you to the test and see how you’re coping with the new mechanics. The advertised propulsion and repulsion gel appear much later in the game with Leap of Faith plates, laser reflection cubes and light bridges giving you plenty to think about before getting to the goo stuff. As with the first game, everything you learn from your time with each of the gameplay mechanics all feed into the later stages of the game where the pace and tempo steps up, only this time the additional mechanics make for some much more complicated puzzles.
I can’t begin to tell you how many times I found myself well and truly stumped during Portal 2. There I’d stand, conversing with myself in a test chamber, considering my options and rationalising an entirely irrational solution before flinging myself from portal to portal, more in hope than conviction. The level design is of the same high standard that Valve has put into every other one of their titles, with each level outside of the test chambers carefully designed to keep you perfectly on track without ever being made to feel like you are simply being shepherded from stage to stage. Back inside the test chambers, you’re really made to feel in absolute awe of the minds that spent years constructing them, wondering just how it was that they came up with the idea and how they managed to make it work.
Clocking in at around eight hours (depending on your logic skills and desire to explore every nook and cranny that the game turns up), the brilliant pacing of the game dispels the fear that the first Portal’s four hour campaign was about all that was possible from a game of its kind. You never tire of working through each of the games nine chapters. Valve are even willing to show off a little with their proficiency here as they will literally grab you, stand you on your feet and tell you to run just when you’re starting to get comfortable throughout the game’s brilliant story and surprisingly varied settings.
Keeping you company throughout Portal 2 are some, again, flagship standard characters from Valve’s already incredible fleet, spanning over two decades in the video games industry. The already-mentioned Wheatley, the as-expected and advertised return of GLaDOS and the GamingLives nominee for anything we can possibly give an award for, Cave Johnson – the CEO of Aperture Science. Accompanying the main trio is a handful of minor characters, most of which are simply creations of Aperture that, in any other studio’s hands, would simply classify as ‘inanimate objects’. Turrets, a crow, and the testing facility’s emergency announcer keep you more than entertained in absence of any of the other characters, except for the Companion Cube, which you killed. You monster.
The great writing and scripting for the characters from Erik Wolpaw is impressive. The dialogue for all of the characters surpasses his work on Left4Dead, having you stop everything in order to take in every line and creasing you up with it’s unparalleled humour. But, of course, great writing can only take you so far; the delivery is where the magic really happens and Valve spared no effort or expense in bringing the much loved J.K. Simmons and British comedic marmite, Stephen Merchant on board to voice Cave Johnson and Wheatley respectively. Whilst Ellen McLain’s GLaDOS alone proved a major success with fans of the first game, the additional characters prove to be a refreshing inclusion to what is an otherwise entirely solitary experience for main protagonist Chell, the only character you’re likely to bump into around any given corner (providing that the corner is created by blue and orange portals of course).
The initial trailers introducing Wheatley premiered a slightly different vision for the character, using Richard Lord (one of Valve’s animators) as a placeholder, a cockney accented voice that is a million miles away from the final casting of Stephen Merchant’s West Country performance. It brings an undeniable charm to the character that you fall in love with straight from the off and every second spent with him is a real treat. For someone who is surrounded by West Country accents in my day to day life and who finds Merchant’s collaborations with Ricky Gervais grating at best, I never believed that I would warm to Wheatley quite as much as I did and were it that he drank tea, I’d have Wheatley over every day for a cuppa. I might even break out the Jammy Dodgers.
Cave Johnson, the main voice for Valve’s final marketing push, really set a high precedent for his greater contribution to Portal 2. The mystery of Cave Johnson and Aperture Science is a compelling part of Portal 2’s more exploratory chapters and J.K. Simmons is central to that delivery. To say anymore would violate the terms of my self-imposed disclaimer; simply know that we already loved him here at GamingLives and now we’d quite like to father his children. He’s that good.
Once you’ve satisfied yourself with the game’s campaign and enjoyed another of Jonathon Coulton’s excellent collaborations with the franchise, you’re then free go back and start the game all over again. If you’re feeling especially in awe of the experience you’ve just had and want to know how, why, and even ‘what if?’, Valve provide their unparalleled developer’s commentary straight into the game, voiced by those who worked on it from start to finish. The insights you get are truly fascinating, even if you aren’t of a design or VG engineering background. Learning why Portal 2 opens the way it does, what they had considered doing instead, and the problems and solutions they encountered once it got beyond planning and into production is a wonderful addition that you just don’t get with any other game. On which note, Valve have to praised for continuing to cater for those less audibly able, not only with their complete subtitles system but also that of their Closed Caption subtitles system, detailing every sound effect visually so that nobody is left out in the audio cold.
Beyond the single player experience, Portal 2 features its well advertised co-op campaign in which you and a buddy take on the roles of Aperture Science testing robots, Atlas and P-Body. Separate to the events of Chell, its self contained plot is more subliminal than that of the main story, with the emphasis purely on puzzle solving and making fun of your idiot friend who will no doubt try and rob you of the intellectual glory gained in solving the puzzles on their behalf. At this point I should give thanks to my great friend Al who selflessly took all of that glory in joining me for my co-op run as I plebbed my way along behind him. We actually shared that role for sections of the campaign and gleefully ribbed one another whenever one of us would make an idiot suggestion (and even more so when that idiot suggestion panned out pretty good). It’s no wonder that Valve are keen for you to share this experience with someone you know, reminding you of this when instead opting to search for an online partner, randomly. Without Al, I know I’d have had a lesser experience than the one I had, though Valve has made provisions for anyone who doesn’t have an Al to call their own.
Making a few tweaks to the control scheme experienced in single player, co-op adds in a gesture wheel for the players to express themselves when voice chat is not possible, and a ping function which allows a player to indicate to the other certain actions. A notable feature of this is the game’s internal countdown indicator, allowing for precision operations to be initiated by both players following an audio/visual countdown of three seconds. I trialled out the tools provided by connecting up with a random player, turning my speakers off (sorry random French guy) and still found every puzzle just as solvable when using nothing more than the on screen indicators as it was without the benefit of Steam’s recently upgraded internal voice communications. That said, being able to argue about whether or not it was ‘on three’ and not ‘after three’ is something that you’ll never get tired of even if, like me, you’re having to argue with a guy from Hull who has more creative applications of the word ‘spanner’ than you’d dare to dream. Despite the simplicity and practicality of the tools provided, you’re still going to want to experience co-op with a microphone and an Al.
Gameplay wise, co-op mode follows the same approach as the main story; players start in a testing/calibration exercise which teaches you the new features and runs you through Portals 101. Even to players who have played Portal and Portal 2’s stories to death will welcome doing yet another tutorial, accompanied all the while by Ellen McLain’s faultless GLaDOS who quickly begins to resent the cooperation between Atlas and P-Body, spending the best part of the five chapter campaign hilariously attempting to put a stop to that. Both players have control of two portals each, contrary to my unfounded belief that the colouration of both P-Body and Atlas was chosen to represent the standard 1 Orange, 1 Blue portal system already in use. Atlas can fire a Blue Portal which links to the Purple Portal whilst P-Body is able to link Red and Orange Portals together. The system takes what you already thought you knew about portals and how to use them and then completely turns it on its head. Some challenges even required sticks in the sand style planning sessions that pretty much always resulted in absolute denial that it’s possible by both parties and the implication that one of us is a ‘spanner’ for even thinking so/agreeing to it.
Completion of the testing phase drops both players into a World Hub, overlooked by a gigantic Aperture Science screen which cycles through useless and humorous stats comparing the two players. From here, players are entirely free to select from the available challenge rooms, allowing favourite sections to be revisited or sections to be skipped so that one player may finish their own personal run in order, without having to replay old sections so that the other can catch up. Each chapter features six to nine stages based around one particular aspect of the puzzle gameplay, slowly breaking you in so that players who have skipped the single player game are not left scratching their heads before ramping up the challenge as the chapter draws to its conclusion. In some circumstances, multiple elements come together to create the most difficult of challenges though these tend only to appear in the later chapters and only ever toward the very end of those select few.
It’s a crazy style of gameplay that I would never have thought could work, but each puzzle is so fresh in design that you forgive Valve for having such lengthy development times as the delivery really is flawless. Even when you find yourself confined to sitting on a button whilst your partner navigates further on in the level, players can activate a picture-in-picture view of the other player’s perspective, providing entertainment and often vital views for coordinating actions. We tried our best to break the puzzles, force the environment to lock us out and even attempted to skip entire sections by manipulating the chambers like the professional spanners we are, but we just could not do it. Even in the single player campaign, I struggled to find ways to complete puzzles that showed a lack of diligence on Valve’s part, as was soon discovered of the first game once it reached digital and store shelves. Co-op was just begging to fall foul of so many things in my mind that I never thought I’d have had as enjoyable an experience as I did with it. Clocking in at around five or six hours, those few that would be willing to run the game at face value, factoring in just one playthrough of both the single player and co-op campaigns can’t be disappointed with their investments.
Anyone wishing to further invest in the game can do so through the game’s Robot Enrichment store, where players can purchase aesthetic items in a semi-crossover of Team Fortress 2’s Mann Co. Store, allowing players to purchase trivial items such as hats, moustaches and monocles to decorate both Atlas and P-Body should you wish to set yourself apart in online play. It’s a move that has caused a backlash amongst the PC gaming world, with the most bitter of the subset happy to sabotage the game’s user rating on Metacritic in response. The belief is that this ‘Day 1’ DLC is an outrageous violation of the consumer’s rights and has been deliberately taken away from the purchase they were otherwise intending to make until this information found its way onto some angry corner of the internet. It couldn’t be a sillier argument unless it too was wearing a silly hat. Valve’s response 24 hours after the game’s launch to this unwarranted backlash of supposed ‘fans’ couldn’t have been any greater – they put in more hats.
Our friends at Rock, Paper, Shotgun have those still concerned about the internet’s bizarre backlash well covered, gladly countering claims that the game is too short at ‘four hours’ (a time which even Valve have denied being able to complete it in) and that the PC version is nothing short of a port of the console versions. The last one in particular tickled me as I first booted up the game for it to have already scanned my computer and set the game in my preferred resolution of 1920×1080, with every setting on ramped up full. It looked, ran, and sounded fantastic with no visual errors (save for an odd glitch in which Chell’s model appears to pass through textures when viewing yourself as you step through Portals, slowly) and was only ever brought into question when a stray piece of code caused for a common console message of ‘Saving Game. Do not turn off your console’ to appear briefly on some users’ screens. If I played through the console version, I thank [insert deity here] that my console brethren are able to share with me the same visual quality that my beast of a desktop provides, though I somehow doubt that’s the case. I have read complaints from those playing the game on the console that the load times are above what they expect from a game’s release in 2011, a fault I can’t comment on, never having to wait more than ten to fifteen seconds between test chambers that take anywhere from five to forty minutes to complete. It’s hardly a punishing experience that will require me to set my hatless head on fire.
I often feel sad when finishing a great game, like there’s nothing left to do, but hope that a few months on you remember that you still have it and have hopefully forgotten most of the way through it. I didn’t get that with Portal and I definitely don’t have that with Portal 2. Instead I feel content, a kind of contentment I haven’t felt in years. Valve creates games that last, experiences that matter, and characters that count. Portal 2 is no exception to that premise and there it shall proudly sit in my ‘Favourites’ section on Steam – with its little silver star next to it.Pros
- Brilliant story, full of twists and turns that you’ll never see coming
- Superb level design from minds much greater than [insert deity here]
- Voice acting like you’ve never heard before from such a small but talented cast
- Lighting and physics that will make your jaw drop
- Humour so funny and emotive you’ll never want the game to end
- A co-op mode like no other
- Developer's commentary unseen outside of Valve games
- You have to go find your own Al – he’s my partner in science
- I’m still waiting for Half Life 2: Episode Three (Although I now forgive Valve for the wait)
- Oh, you want some actual cons?
- Are you kidding?
- You Monster
I tried in vain to find fault with Valve’s Portal 2, I really did. I wanted to be able to tell you that the game was unresponsive in parts, that the puzzles were too easy or too hard, that the story was too short and that the game simply wasn’t varied enough. I can’t. From start to finish, the game is an experience unrivalled in modern day entertainment and will likely hold that title in my eyes for many, many years to come. The game's engine is surprisingly solid despite its age and the graphics are beautiful. The script is impeccable and the delivery is like a great big hug from friends you’re going to claim you now have as your own. The pacing is unquestionable and the content is rich. If you haven’t already purchased Portal 2, you’re missing out on the gaming experience of the decade.
Valve have created a masterpiece. A masterpiece I was able to experience alone, with my spanner of a friend Al and then here again, fondly, with you.
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