Published on April 22nd, 2011 | by Kole Ross, Editor
Portal 2 Review
Portal 2 defies cynicism. From beginning to end, it elicits childlike delight and reminds me why I love video games. The only person who wouldn’t like this game is a person who dislikes fun.
Let’s back off of the effusive praise and drill down into some specificity. If you’re like me, you’ve been avoiding anything that vaguely smells of Portal 2 spoilers, so I will be as careful as possible to balance vagueness with information.
Portal 2 takes place hundreds of years after the first game, with Chell having defeated the insane AI GLaDOS, only to be dragged back into the depths of the Aperture Science testing facility. Chell is awakened from cryogenic stasis by a disarmingly British AI core named Wheatley, who promises to help you escape from the rapidly-decaying Aperture Labs, aided by the ever-so-useful Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device.
That’s all I’m comfortable saying about the story. Suffice to say, Portal wouldn’t be the same without GLaDOS, masterfully voiced by Ellen McClain. She returns to make your life a living hell. Wheatley steals the show, and makes a great addition to the Aperture Science family, given great charm by Stephen Merchant from the British version of The Office.
The game is excellently paced over its 8-hour duration, as you alternately navigate deadly test chambers and the derelict portions of the facility.
In many ways, Portal 2 makes the first game feel like a demo, or a proof of concept. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the setting and mechanics.
It quickly becomes clear that we only explored one small corner of Aperture during our previous visit. Portal 2‘s facility is so massive that it puts the castle from ICO to shame, both in terms of size and cohesiveness. Every chamber and hallway in this hulking maze introduces a new portal mechanic, a new way to use previous mechanics, or more information about Aperture’s comical and sinister history.
Portal 2 is built on Valve’s Source Engine, which turns 7 this year. It shows its age compared to modern games like Crysis 2, but that is well compensated for by fantastic visual design. The environments vary from pristine and white, like the first game, to overgrown and tetanus-y, and hitting all notes in between. Every visual serves to guide you in some way, providing graphical cues for solving the increasingly complex puzzles.
The sound aids you in your tasks as well, as every action you do has a unique signature effect assigned to it. These add to the soundtrack, and while the effect is subtle, it contributes greatly to the ambience. This is in addition to the music which varies from ambient and chill to heart-pounding, depending on the situation.
The principal tricks from the first game, including basic portal techniques and the conservation of angular momentum, are reviewed within the first 20 minutes or so of Portal 2. Then, the game introduces new toys, including bridges of solid light that can be redirected through portals, tractor beams, lasers, and various forms of goo that bounce you around and increase your running speed.
The game doles these out at regular intervals, and does a great job of teaching you the basics before making the puzzles more complicated and, ultimately, mixing all the the toys and techniques together.
Valve could have easily made the puzzles impossible at the start, but the levels are designed in such a way as to stump you for a while, and then make you feel incredibly smart for having figured out the trick. The game is a constant dopamine drip that is always rewarding, but never forgiving. Each puzzle builds upon the last, teaching you new ways to navigate and perceive your surroundings.
If the constant stream of new mechanics doesn’t compel you to move forward, the writing will. Portal was famous for being infinitely quotable, and Portal 2 one-ups its predecessor’s hilarity in every regard. Hold on, dearly, to your expectations, because doing so will make you all the more delighted when the script subverts them.
Wheatley and GLaDOS are genuinely funny. Not just amusing, not just entertaining, but they actually made me laugh. Something a game can rarely accomplish. GLaDOS is a paragon of passive-aggression, and Wheatley’s prattling digressions always take you to Giggletown. There’s enough foreshadowing to justify every one of the plot’s outlandish turns, and the whole product just oozes care and craft.
Single player is only half the story. Portal 2‘s co-op mode is a worthy addition to the franchise, making the puzzles more complicated by orders of magnitude. Having two brains instead of one makes these puzzles more manageable, and the process is aided by voice chat and interface elements. This might be the only co-op mode I’ve played that requires actual, honest-to-God cooperation.
Players can place markers in the environment with their cursors, drawing their partner’s attention to important objects and letting them know exactly where to shoot a portal. You can also press a button to see through your partner’s eyes, giving you more perspective on the situation at hand.
Like any game, co-op is best played with a friend. I dove into the first chambers with a coworker, and we had a great time making fatal mistakes and learning the ropes. Matchmaking with strangers is painless, but a crapshoot.
One round left me astonished: I was paired with someone whose English was limited, at best. The previously-mentioned interface tools were so well-thought out that we were able to solve about 10 test chambers without a common vocabulary. Yes, Portal 2‘s excellence spans the language gap. If that doesn’t speak to the effectiveness of the multiplayer design, I’m not sure what can.
A special note must be made about the animation found in co-op. Atlas and P-body are brought to life in a way that rivals Pixar films. More is said in the darting and contracting of one of their electronic eyes than is said in the combined gesticulations of thousands of dying Call of Duty mooks. There are several animated gestures that can be initiated by the players for no other purpose than to communicate triumph or frustration. Or just to give a hug because, hey, hugs are great.
Co-op has a story, and a definite progression in the relationship between the bots and GLaDOS as the tests get more complicated and GLaDOS’s mission becomes more clear. This narrative intersects with the single player story in surprising and satisfying ways, tying the disparate elements of the product together into a cohesive whole.
The co-op missions will run you about 6 hours, depending how quickly you can solve the puzzles. In addition to the 8 hours in single player, Portal 2 is substantial enough to warrant its price point. Anyone who complains about Portal 2‘s length is part of the problem with gamers today, and has dire entitlement issues.
This game is so densely packed with joy, so utterly devoid of filler, that it puts any 50+ hour epic to shame in the scope of its value. To quote Justin McElroy from the Joystiq podcast, “It’s not the length, it’s the mirth.” I doubt you’ll find a more mirthful product on this planet, or even the moon.
A note about platform: I played the game on my mid-2010 Macbook Pro, and it ran beautifully on High settings. Having spent a small amount of time around the console versions, I can say that those look and run great as well, with little discernible difference between the two. The PS3 version has a significant edge, due to its Steam integration, cross-platform play, and the included download code for the PC/Mac version.
Portal 2 is very nearly a perfect game. Any failings it has are minuscule compared to the greatness of the whole. Every inch of the game displays such a tremendous amount of care, thought, design, and love that I don’t hesitate for a moment in calling it an essential experience for anyone who cares about games. You’ll smile like an idiot, but feel like a genius. The only disappointing thing about Portal 2 is that it ends.
+ This is the funniest game.
+ The environments are a master class in level design.
+ Delivers on the promise of the first game.
+ It runs great on most systems.
– It ends
– Might look dated, if that matters to you (it shouldn’t).
[xrr label=”Rating: 10/10″ rating=10/10]