Better In The Worst Ways
Luckily for Portal 2, its writing is good enough to carry the rest of the game. Without the strength of the narrative the rest of the design of Portal 2 just feels lazy. Portal 2 picks up a good chunk of time after the original but ultimately that doesn't matter as the design of the game is identical to Portal 1 with the exception of the introduction of new elements like blue and orange gels. Portal 2 digs deeper in to the back story of Aperture science but the script seems to be more focused on being funny and over-the-top than providing any interesting exposition. Upon completing the game you don't feel like you know any of the (2) characters any better than at the end of Portal 1 – not that Portal is a story driven game to start with.
If there's one thing I could say about Portal 2's visuals it'd be that the Source engine still has some life in it. It's not the raw graphical power of Portal 2 that sells this point – it's the art. Sure, most everything is low poly-count but Valve's texture artists and superior lighting effects really sell you on a modern graphical experience. For the most part the aesthetic of Portal 1 is kept intact, however with new environments there is a bit of expansion on the original palate. Without going too deep into spoiler territory, the new environments that Portal 2 introduces don't contribute much to the visuals other than to add a small amount amount of arguably unneeded variety. That clean laboratory look that Portal 1 leaned on so much lends itself better to older tech and the new industrial environments look much less impressive in comparison.
Portal 2's soundtrack is it's strongest weapon. Ranging from 8-bit mixes to orchestral overtures the OST contributes more to the atmosphere of Portal 2 than any of the other aesthetics. Additionally, the voice acting in Portal 2 is superb. The dialog from both Wheatley and GlaDos is top-notch, in most part due to the excellent writing.
If you played the original Portal you'll feel right at home with the sequel. A vast amount of the game involves the fundamentals established in the original but there are some new items and procedures introduced. The additions of light bridges, bouncy gels, speed gels, and jump pads all potentially add to the many ways to solve a single puzzle. Unfortunately in Portal 2 there is only 1 solution to any situation. This might not be such a problem if the solution was not so obvious from the very get-go. In Portal 2 you're likely to spend more time pixel hunting for where you can pout your next portal than actually solving the puzzles. In most scenarios the solution is obvious – it just requires you to spend some time figuring out the order of operations. If you're familiar with how Portal plays you'll most likely find yourself flying through puzzles more like they're connect-the-dots than anything requiring abstract thinking. Given that Portal relies so much on its puzzler nature this makes for an ultimately unsatisfying experience – being more frustrating than it should be and not for any good reason. Oh, and there's co- op (it's portal with 4 portals).
For the most part, Portal 2 is a minor upgrade on it's predecessor. It looks better, sounds better, and plays better; but never enough to really stand itself apart from the original – an unfortunate side effect of inferior design. In opposition to the original I can count on one had the number of times I felt truly satisfied when completing a puzzle room. Perhaps this is a side effect of knowing how the “Portal experience” works but more likely it's just an unfortunate reality of the linear nature of the sequel. The addition of co-op adds replayability but, like the main campaign, it's a one-and-done scenario. Once you know the solutions to the puzzles there's no reason to play through them again. The loss of minimalism from Portal 1 is ultimately what makes it less special.
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