- Returns to the world of Portal with more crazy puzzles and added mechanics
- Somehow manages to take the 2-3 hour charm of the first game and reinvent and reinvigorate it for a 6-8 hour experience
- The new character Wheatley is one of the funniest in games, and plays an excellent foil to the stoic GlaDOS
- Surprising emphasis on specific story plot elements as well as setpieces could have gone very, very wrong, but it didn't
- I think that between Cave Johnson (the old Aperture founder) and Wheatley, this might have the best script of any game I've ever played
- New puzzle mechanics are fun and mesh well with the portal gun's previous abilities
- Full-fledged co-op mode injects the same goofy humor and difficult puzzle solving into a two-player experience
- Excellent soundtrack
- Has the single best ending to a video game, ever. Hands down. No argument.
- A few of the middle act's sections ("Old Aperture") drag, falling into the "find the one thing that a portal can stick to and go that way"
- Wheatley can take a bit to warm up to considering how chatty he is, but given time and he's just as endearing as the rest of them
- A few of the jokes and plot points feel a bit forced (the "Potato" thing)
- Some puzzles are downright...well, puzzling. You could easily get stuck for great lengths of time.
- This game really needed more Cave Johnson. Every game needs more Cave Johnson.
How do you create a sequel to a sleeper hit that doesn't piss everybody off?
I'll admit, I had my doubts about Portal 2, all the way down to when I was playing it on my PS3 the day of release. I (like the rest of the world) loved the crap out of Portal, but felt something about its magic was the fact that it was 1. Short and 2. Perfect. It didn't try to stretch the experience out, which worked wonders to its benefit. The portal gun mechanic was well suited for a 2-3 hour game but anything beyond that and it would start to feel like it was dragging (and it was actually starting to drag at the end of Portal, which makes it a good thing they ended it where they did).
So when they announced a full retail sequel, longer bigger and bolder, I was genuinely concerned with whether or not this game would work. After all, one of the biggest things Portal had going for it (aside from being perfect) was the fact that it was a complete surprise. Nobody expected anything that happened in that game, all the way down to its surging popularity. Portal 2 was slated to be a huge release for Valve, and we already knew GlaDOS was going to come back in it and be evil and all that...what could they add? Could they really succeed in doing the impossible: making a sequel to Portal?
The answer? Yes. In fact, while I'm not going to say the experiences are the same, I will say that on my personal list of favorite games I now rank Portal 2 higher than Portal. Yes, I went there.
I can stand and watch this turret creation animation for hours.
Where do I even begin with Portal 2? Well, let's first hit the elephant in the room: the story. Portal's story worked well because it was a slow build and escalation paired with a lot of unknowns that were never answered. Who wrote all those messages in the walls? What exactly happened that lead to GlaDOS flooding the science facility with a deadly neurotoxin? Are there any other people around now? Why does she keep testing when everybody is dead? What is the meaning of life?
Portal took care to take a step back and only answer that which was completely necessary to your personal story and that was it. It was an excellent example of storytelling restraint, something most video games just hamfist and blast you full of expository dialogue to get the point across. This ambiguity works for a shorter, tighter experience, but it was clear from the get-go that Portal 2 was going to be longer. So...what changed?
Well, lots. The whole tone of the story has taken a slight shift. Not for the worse, mind you, but to adapt to its new length. There are actual character this time that interact with you, some on a fairly regular basis and on a personal level. There's also an actual story rather than just hints at something bigger, and through this personal story the broader questions get addressed and several (but not all) get answered. It's a shift not in style (as it still feels very much like the first Portal game) but simply adaptation to fit its new length.
Run to freedom! Nothing bad will happen!
It works, and it actually works better than in Portal, for this reason: Portal was well written, yes. But 90% of that game's script could work in a vacuum separate from the rest of the game and still be clever writing and funny jokes. Yes, it works better within the scope of Portal, but there's obviously a slight disconnect there. Which, for a short game, works.
Portal 2 feels like a tighter knit experience, like the story and the game just fit together and flow better together. It still somehow manages to have very little filler despite being a full length game, with you rarely going for more than 10-15 minutes without either funny dialogue or a story element (though I'll admit the story sort of gets put on pause for the middle section of the game, where it should have been the strongest). It's a combination fake history lesson, character interaction, and answering questions from both games, and it works. I really, really feel like Portal 2 is better written that Portal, if only because of the reason I said above: Portal exists in its own la-la land. Portal 2 feels more intentional, and thus more concrete.
Plus there is only one cake joke in the whole game, and this is it. Good job showing restraint, Valve.
I think I need to make note of the characters in the game, because there actually are characters that you interact with this time around. GlaDOS is back, obviously, and her passive aggressive hatred of you produces some of the best lines in the game ("Test results are back. Let's see...'You are a horrible person.' That's what it says. We weren't even testing for that."). Playing foil to GlaDOS's irrational hatred and general genius meanness is Wheatley, a little robot orb with a British accent who is either brilliant or a total fool (usually the latter). However, since he's your only ally you have to tolerate him, and the way the story weaves bot Wheatley and GlaDOS's fates together is ingenious. There's also an underlying message here about power corrupting, but I won't go into that.
There is a hefty amount of in-game foreshadowing to the story, for those willing to pause and look at the scenery.
During the second half of the game you spend a good deal of time in "old" Aperture, remnants of the building in the 70s, and there you get to hear the voice-over of Cave Johnson, who apparently left old recordings lying around old test chambers. Considering during these parts you've gotten somewhat separated from Wheatley and GlaDOS, Cave does a superb job keeping the interesting history of Aperture hilarious while still being relevant to the main conflict. While the traversal in these areas gets a bit cumbersome, I was willing to forge through because Cave is so funny (voiced by J.K. Simmons, famous angry boss of Spider-Man), and his side story going on through dialogue snippets is also quite interesting.
Though I will say the third act is easily the best act of the game. A culmination of the previous Portal game, all the Cave Johnson backstory, and the main conflict of Portal 2 results in some difficult puzzles, shocking reveals, and some downright clever writing. The ending in particular, from the final boss to the final credit, is absolutely ludicrous, hilarious, and heart-wrenching. They somehow manage to tug on most of the heartstrings while still being loyal to the humor, which is commendable.
As I said, I think Portal 2's story is better than Portal's. I also think Portal 2 might be my favorite game in terms of story. Yeah, even more than Nier. It is really quite something.
Now on to the actual gameplay.
So the story is good. Wipe that anxious sweat from your brow and breathe a sigh of relief; they didn't ruin Portal. So now, what about the rest of the game? What about the puzzles?
Well, as I mentioned before, Portal was exactly the right length because 2-3 hours is about the time you start getting a little tired of using one mechanic to solve everything without much mixup. Valve clearly got this, because it only has you doing vanilla portal puzzles for about an hour before it starts throwing new mechanics in.
The mechanics fit the area you are in. Early on you get laser light boxes, which thankfully replace those annoying bouncing balls that can kill you from the first game. They can also fry turrets, which is a bonus, and have to be refracted in certain ways to solve puzzles.
Then you get to the gels, and things go bananas.
But the star of the new mechanics are the gels. Showing up in Old Aperture, they come in three types: blue (bouncy), orange (speedy), and white (moon rocks, which lets you put a portal on anything they cover). These lead to the best, most complicated puzzles in the game, and since you can chain them together and then mix them with portals to do some devious physics puzzles, Old Aperture is both the hardest and the most satisfying section of the game.
There are a few more things added at the end that I personally think should have been put in sooner to keep things fresher earlier, such as the light-bridges, but I guess they added the bouncing platforms and some other things early so maybe I'm just talking out my butt. The point is: all the new mechanics play very well with the portal gun's established ruleset, and if you thought the puzzles from Portal were clever than these ones are going to blow your mind.
Unfortunately, traversing Old Aperture isn't nearly as fun as the test chambers or listening to Cave Johnson.
It isn't all fun and sunshine, though, as Portal 2 does have a few (if minor) problems. The biggest one is the traversal during the second act. During the first and final acts the game streamlines you from one test chamber to another, which I will admit is a kind of boring and linear way to progress but hey: it gets me to the good stuff quicker, so I'll take it. However, during the Old Aperture part somebody was playing Portal and went (essentially):
"Hey! Remember at the end of Portal when things started to get frustrating? Like, where there was only a limited number of things you could shoot with your gun so the whole game turned into a 'find the one white square' instead of an actual puzzler? What if we did that in the second game, but made it bigger?"
Then instead of punching him in the face they did what he said, which was a mistake. It isn't all bad during this section; some areas force you to use gels from previous test chambers (using portals to get it out into the "real world") to aid your traversal, which is clever. But for the most part it's just seeing a far away light source gleaming on a white area, shooting a portal there, continuing. It isn't particularly interesting and, when put alongside the excellent puzzles especially in this area of the game, comes off as *gasp* padding the game's length.
Cave would fire you all for this.
There are a few more minor niggles, mostly pertaining still to the second section. The plot "twist" during this part is interesting but leaves you in long sections not talking to anybody, which shouldn't be the case considering the circumstances you are put into. The whole "Caroline" thing seemed a bit tacked on, though the resolution of it at the end of the game was absolutely perfect and I have to applaud Valve for breaking cliche. The pacing of the second section also feels more like a stretched out Portal rather than the fine-tuned, stuff happening constantly feel of parts one and three of Portal 2. I think they were hoping that the uniqueness and silly aesthetic/history of the second area would be enough to pull us through (having a "quiet" section of the game) but you can't put the quiet section right after a crazy plot twist and two-three hours of no quite, ever. If your game is designed to be a laugh a minute thrill ride, then you can't have everybody sitting around for several hours, no matter how funny Cave Johnson is. I think it's because the blend is off: in every other section you have both brilliant story and awesome puzzles. This one you are either solving an awesome puzzle in silence or listening to a brilliant story, not both at the same time. It hurts the pacing, which is unfortunate given how great the rest of the game is.
Just...dammit, Wheatley, you are too funny.
I feel I should briefly mention the excellent co-op mode. In it, you and a friend run around and basically try to ruin each other's lives and occasionally solve puzzles. It's a completely standalone story from the single player (I think it takes place...after the main story? Maybe?) and while the story itself isn't particularly enthralling, GlaDOS is there insulting you and trying to pit the two of you against each other (usually by giving "points" to the more abusive player) which is hilariously entertaining. The puzzles are also some of the hardest in the game, employing all the new mechanics picked up on the single player but with four portals to deal with now. Yes, you each have your own set of portals, which means some of the puzzles get fiendishly difficult. It's a good time and surprisingly long, clocking in at another 5-6 hours, and if you are the kind of person who thinks Portal 2 should cut back on its story and be more like Portal's "story" of GlaDOS insulting you while you solve tons of puzzles, than co-op is exactly where you want to be.
The soundtrack is unique, and has a great feel to it.
I also think the soundtrack earns a mention. In the first game it was mostly background nose, but in Portal 2 it manages to be both background noise and very memorable. Every section has its own sound to it, meaning when you head back to regular Aperture at the end and the music has a tonal shift it feels like going home. The music does well as helping you feel what you need to feel during the story bits, which is essentially what music in games should do, so...good work. Plus it sounds pretty awesome to boot.
|If you haven't figured it out, I really like Portal 2|
Many people said 2007 was the best year for gaming ever. And yeah, it was pretty great. But man...2011 was something else. Which says something when I think that Portal 2 might be my personal favorite game of 2011. Yeah, even alongside Skyrim, Dead Space 2, and all those other awesome games...I still think Portal 2 shines above the rest as an excellent example of what games can become. It goes to prove you don't need dark, gritty realism or blood and killing to be excellent. You can take one clever mechanic and, when paired with excellent writing and a few switchups, make a game that is far more memorable than any of those other gray shooters. It sets a precedent, one that probably will be completely ignored by other big game companies, that being clever and making sure all the elements work can produce something that transcends sales numbers: you can make something people won't forget.
Plus...that ending. Man, it's just...it is so good. Go play Portal 2. You have to. I command it.
Five out of five stars.