Game Review: Portal 2
Release: April 19th, 2011
Genre: Action-Adventure Puzzler
Available Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
MSRP: $59.99 ($49.99 on PC)
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Website: Official Portal 2 Website
We seem to toss the word “polish” in games around a lot. What does it mean exactly? Perfect controls? A beautiful and near-flawless environment? A sharp, well-written script? Yes, pretty much to all of those things. It’s when a game brings them all together and marries them beautifully that it’s something to write home about. I am delighted to say that Portal 2 is that game. The perfect partnership of silky-smooth game mechanics and a sharp script melding together into a satisfying, mind-bending romp through one of my all-time favorite game settings in Aperture Science Laboratories.
Portal was something of an enigma back in 2007. A tiny game that came packaged with Valve’s best-known shooter and a sequel to the company’s fan favorite online FPS. It would have been easy for it to get lost in the mix, but it didn’t. It became a phenomenon, between the brilliantly evil A.I. GLaDOS, hilarious writing and unforgettable credits song. Building a sequel that surpassed the original would be no easy task for Valve. And here we are some four years later, with a proper sequel standing on its own, and proving that Valve accomplished their mission; because Portal 2 is easily one of my favorite games of all-time.
If you played Portal, you know what to expect. You have a portal gun that shoots interconnecting trans-dimensional portals. “Puzzles” are built around this concept, and build up by adding new mechanics throughout the play-through. Different gels that speed you up, bounce you around, and allow portals to be shot on any surface are introduced. Between that, tractor beams and launch pads, the game can be easily seen as a toy box that allows ample experimentation. Which you will have to do, because death is a part of almost every test chamber.
I will need more than a paragraph to relay what is “great” about Portal 2. Let’s start with the setting, Aperture Science Laboratories. In the original Portal, Chell made her way through the facility and got glimpses here and there of the “behind the scenes” part of the factory. Where the so-called “Rat Man” (former Aperture employee Doug Rattman) hid clues to GLaDOS’s treachery, and the dark and morbid part of the factory came to light. Those were the best parts of that game. Good news: that is all Portal 2 is. The facility is in disrepair after years with GLaDOS dead and no one running the place. Every time you walk into a test chamber, panels hurriedly fix themselves and turrets awaken; it’s amusingly like catching GLaDOS with her pants down.
Aperture itself is a mountainous and enormous place, and the scope of the game mirrors that. When you retrace your steps through the original game after seeing what was outside those walls, the sense of scale is gargantuan. Coming across giant chasms and seeing test chambers hovering disjointedly in the air for miles around you gives a sense of epic scale to such a modest and arguably tiny game that was the original.
That epic scale strings along through a multitude of different test chambers with a learning curve that is beyond perfection. Valve teaches you a simple concept like “falling from high on blue goo makes you jump higher” in an easy test chamber. Then, four puzzles later when you have all the toys you need to solve the puzzle and feel lost, you remember what was taught to you subconsciously earlier. The tools are always there in front of you. You can never fault the game for its smarts, it is always your own fault, but once you figure it out, well… It is more satisfying than shooting up terrorists in Call of Duty, burning Splicers to crisps in BioShock, or assassinating a politician in Assassin’s Creed.
And another thing: Valve knows how to play with player expectations, and does so brilliantly. There is never a dull moment, from a scary romp through GLaDOS’s grave early on, to a head-spinning twist in the game’s mid-section, and one of the most enjoyable end-game boss fight and cinematic I’ve ever seen; this thing is perfectly paced and constantly shocks and surprises you.
I’ve sat for a good hour pondering over anything negative to say about Portal 2, and I honestly keep coming up short. I feel like mentioning the length is redundant at this point. Everyone seems to be up in arms about it, and I am baffled as to why. I can honestly say single player took me 9 hours, and co-op about 7 or 8. I’ve always been of the mindset that if I’m having fun, getting heavily involved and feeling rewarded, the entertainment value justifies the price. In that sense (or any sense in my book) Portal 2 earns its price in spades. The only reason I can’t give it a perfect is the low replayability. Single player is fun to go through again, and with developer commentary (despite losing the ability to save). But co-op, when revisiting with a friend who’s never played, slowly loses the magic that was captured the first time through.
Buy this game. It is easily one of the best-made games of all time, with a sense of great reward that few games successfully capture. It should, and probably will, be studied, dissected and used as a teaching tool for level-design. From the humble beginnings as a group of college students’ senior project, to the massive sequel Portal 2 turned out to be, this series has grown into a truly impressive and unforgettable set of games. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.
+Valve are the masters at “show me, don’t tell me” storytelling in games, and Portal 2’s amazingly realized characters, plot and setting are no different.
+Wheatley, Cave Johnson, the broken AI cores, and GLaDOS herself are all written and performed brilliantly. Cave’s lemon monologue may be the funniest quote of the year.
+Co-op is addicting as hell, and makes you feel smart in front of friends; which is the best kind of smart.
-…But, its replayability is low, a problem which DLC hopefully fixes ASAP.