There are times when we can see quite plainly the combined efforts of a number of different talents: the passion of the actors; the keen eye of the artists; the craftsmanship of the designers and the builders; the careful instruction of the director; et cetera. Each is a kind of art that comes together to form an even greater whole, a superart if you will. Now am I talking about movies or video games? Truth be told, I could be talking about either one or neither of them in this day and age, but the point remains that we tend to know even on a subconscious level when we’ve found a true gem amidst the rubble. Portal 2, in many ways, is such a gem “â€ and that’s saying something, considering the praise its predecessor received.
Portal 2 takes the unique mechanics of the original game and expands upon it in terms of adding more levels and new mechanics, as well as scripting a longer story that takes us to the underbelly of Aperture Science. That mix of humour and darkness is still present, but much like the mechanics, there’s more of it. Let’s take a more detailed look at this through the rating system, shall we?
Story / Modes
Portal 2 offers two main modes of play: the Single Player and Two-Player Co-Op modes. Each has its own set of puzzles and stories, the latter of which is relayed in ways to allow players at least some amount of control instead of completely interrupting the game. This is good because Portal 2, like its predecessor, draws its basic gameplay from the format of first-person shooters; you’d expect to have control at all times, even if you can do nothing except scan the surrounding area. After finishing the game once, you’ll notice an option to activate the Developer’s Commentary, which you can listen to at any time as you play. Just remember that, when you activate it in co-op mode, you’ll be going solo.
In single player, you’re once again in the role of Chell. She and the infamous GLaDOS return from Portal, but they’re now accompanied by Wheatley, who is best described as a dopey British Companion Sphere. One other character rounds out the cast, but giving a name would tread into spoiler territory. While Chell is one of gaming’s many silent protagonists, the interaction between her and the AIs is nonetheless a great source of entertainment regardless of whether they’re in front of you or are just a disembodied voice. GLaDOS has plenty of new lines that are sure to be quoted, but Wheatley’s motor-mouth tendencies lets him deliver loads more and in a way that’s just plain funny. Throughout, you also learn more about Aperture Science, the company behind such technologies as the Portal Gun, repulsion gel, and the AIs that control the facility. The nutty AI dialogue and pre-recorded messages serve as both the chief source of exposition-on-the-go and of endless amusement. To go into any further details would run straight into spoiler territory, but needless to say, you’ll learn just what has made Aperture Science the place it is today from bottom to top, complete with a surprise or two.
In co-op, you and your buddy play as two robots who take on the forms of a modified personality core and turret gun respectively. GLaDOS has set the two of you on a task to find something and talks to you throughout, providing some hilarious commentary to any actions you and your buddy may take “â€ failures included. The robots you control, Atlas and P-body, don’t say much outside of little mechanical quips of no discernible language (sans robot, of course), but their various motions convey all the characterization you’ll need. Over all, co-op is lighter on the story than the single-player mode is as you’ll be spending most of your time trying to coordinate through the puzzles with your buddy, all while GLaDOS entertains you with the occasional comment.
Rest assured, whether you’re playing alone or with a friend, you’ll find yourself entrenched in some delightful dialogue. I know I’m not the only one who wanted to see more or hear what the characters would say next.
The first few levels show something very obvious to those who played the original Portal, and it’s more than in the state of decay that’s overtaken the Aperture Science facility. What it shows is that the general graphics quality has improved on both the old and the new. Vegetation has seeped through the walls and floors of several rooms. Panels are now strewn everywhere including the walls and floors, accompanied by a myriad of broken gratings scattered all over the place. Said gratings are coated in rust, if they’re not dripping wet from the water that’s slipped inside the facility. Perhaps the best part of the graphics is in how lighting is done, whether it be how a flashlight bounces around in a dark passage or how shadows recede as light comes pouring in from an overhead source. I can sum up my opinion on the graphics as a whole with a single word: Wow. One other wonderful step up from the original Portal is in the new details on certain machines. Adding mechanical eyelids to the personality core, for instance, allows for a greater show of emotion. Wheatley even provides a demonstration in one of the developer commentary bubbles. All this said, does Portal 2 display graphics that are superior to what you’d find in your average first-person shooter? Not really. Is that a bad thing? Again, not really, because it’s still pretty impressive regardless.
The game takes place entirely indoors, just like the first game. As it turns out, though, you don’t stay in one particular area of the facility. Regardless of where you are, the pristine-looking test chambers of Portal are fewer in number this time around because they’re often bisected by the more run-down and decayed areas described earlier. Despite this “â€ and lucky for you, during the latter part of the game “â€ there’s always a spot to place a portal. The indoor environments are far from bland due to the sheer variety of the designs, and any repetition is justified by the narrative. Over all, the graphics serve to add to the game’s atmosphere. Sure, you hear some funny dialogue throughout the game, but putting that over the dreary setting reminds you of how dark comic insanity can really be.
The co-op mode allows for local multiplayer, at which point the screen splits in half. Whether it splits horizontally or vertically depends on how you set it up in the options (by default, it’s the latter). I found both kinds of splits perfectly workable, but having the option is a plus.
While the few bits of music you hear is good, special mention must go to the voice cast. Let’s start simple: Wheatley is awesome. Something about his constant babbling is just flat-out funny (I found it funny, at least). Then again, much of the dialogue in Portal 2 is great; half the fun is in listening to what the characters will say next. And why is this? It’s due to the performances of the actors; the talents of Ellen McLain, Stephen Merchant, and J. K. Simmons make this game really come alive. Even the generic announcer voice has some funny stuff to say, like when it instructs you to look at a painting to become mentally reinvigorated. The occasional quirky quip from a few defective machines is just the finishing touch on the canvas. The music is like this, too: vigorous when necessary, catchy even outside of the context of the game. When you add in how all the sound effects are appropriately chosen and placed “â€ e.g. landing on a grating creates a clang noise “â€ and you realize that every audio clip couldn’t have been played any better. The only downside is that much of the dialogue can be heard only if you linger around an area for a while, and the speed at which players complete the puzzles will inevitably vary. What you’re bound to hear is pure gold, though.
Control / Gameplay
The mechanics of Portal 2 take the basics presented by its predecessor and expands on them in unique ways. Though it’s more of a puzzle-and-platformer game, the format takes after the first-person shooter genre. If you’re used to playing first-person shooters on a PC, you may find the controls on a console-based FPS to be clunky. This doesn’t make the game harder to play necessarily; it just means you’ll have to adjust to a loss of precision. This won’t matter if you’ve always played FPS games on a console, of course. Also, if you’re new to the FPS format, it may take you some time to orient yourself every now and then. After however much adjustment you need to do “â€ and it might not be any at all “â€ getting into the controls is actually pretty easy. A funny in-game tutorial helps this along by familiarizing you with the basic controls.
The puzzle-and-platforms part kicks in about as soon as you start. At first, the puzzle format will be very similar to what you found in the original Portal, but this changes half way through thanks to the addition of some new features: Aerial Faith Plates, gels, hard light bridges, and excursion funnels. The repulsion, propulsion, and conversion gels look like blue, orange, and white paint, respectively, and they do exactly what you’d think they’d do. The repulsion gel acts like a painted trampoline that you can use to make even more crazy jumps than you could with just the flinging technique, while the propulsion gel allows you to build up momentum very quickly on a horizontal surface. Combining both will cause you to soar across great distances. Similarly, the Aerial Faith Plates will spring you either straight up or across pits. If you think you’re out of places to put portals, don’t fret because the conversion gel makes any surface it coats into a portal-friendly surface. The hard light bridges are exactly what they sound like: bridges of light that are solid enough for you to walk on. Because they’re generated by a wall emitter, you can use portals to extend the light bridges to appear over certain pits of doom and whatnot. The excursion funnels are similar, except they look like tunnels of spiraling light that cause you to travel in the direction in which it’s spinning. Every now and then, you can change the direction by pressing a nearby button. When you mix together the use of all these different features with the portal mechanic, the thrill of having accomplished the feats you’ll run into can’t be understated. Lastly, like any good game, each of these different mechanics return in some fashion during the end stretch as a final test. As the accompanying picture shows, one of the last new features is a laser beam that you can use to unlock doors, which is made easier by the use of a special laser-redirection cube. Just don’t run into it by accident.
The best part of all of this is how everything connects seamlessly “â€ not only together, but with the original game’s features as well. Valve really did think of some creative ways to expand upon the mechanics of Portal.
Whether it be the single-player mode, the co-op, or the hilarious and enticing script, the sheer fun of the basic gameplay is going to bring players back. How you solve any of the puzzles is completely up to you, whether that involves excessive amounts of repulsion gel or only the bare minimum you’d need. You can apply this to the co-op levels, too “â€ never mind all the potential hilarity that you’ll run into from the inevitable mistakes you and your buddy will be making. Also, if you’re into earning achievements, Portal 2 has plenty of them even when you don’t count the ones you gain just by reaching certain points in the game. The developer commentary provides some interesting insights, but I don’t know if that would count towards the game’s replay value. Not that this matters too much. Portal 2 has enough content already to bring players back again and again.
The game balance comes in how often you stumble upon that eureka moment, i.e. when the light blinks on in your head when you’ve figured out how to solve the puzzle at hand. How often players become frustrated with solving the puzzles will vary depending on the individual, but every single puzzle is perfectly solvable. As such, the balance is pretty good; you’re never left so frustrated that you turn off the system.
I can think of only one exception where the solution isn’t quite as obvious as it should’ve been. This particular case requires some propulsion gel to reach an object, but both aren’t readily visible in the chamber you’re in. For one, the object is in a spot you’ve likely not seen at all by the time you have to look for it because your attention has been so focused on the room’s centerpiece up until this point. For another, the propulsion gel doesn’t appear until several seconds after you might’ve spotted the object, which means you’ll have to wait. Add in the surprisingly short time limit “â€ i.e. a prime source of nerve-rattling “â€ and you have a spot many players may have to do over just because they won’t see all the components for their stunt until literally the last second. Thankfully, this is the only instance of awkward timing; the other puzzles don’t have this issue. And honestly? It’s not that big of a problem when you take the entirety of the game into account.
Believe it or not, the plot actually takes from a type of story we’ve seen before. I don’t mean in the sense that it takes after a famous book or movie; I mean it in that it follows a plotline akin to stranger comes to town or hero goes on a journey, only more specific than either “â€ more specific than human versus environment, actually. I’ll leave you to name what kind of plotline we have here in Portal 2 because for me to reveal the answer would, again, tread into spoiler territory. Don’t worry if it’s not obvious at first; it wasn’t for me, either. The fact I’ve described Portal 2‘s basic plotline like this should tell you that the originality factor, at least in terms of delivery, is quite high. The co-op mode also stands out quite a bit since many multiplayer modes found with in other games (e.g. FPS) usually feature a competitive angle. With Portal 2, the multiplayer consists solely of cooperative gameplay as you and your buddy will need to use all of your portals to solve many different puzzles. You really don’t see things like this too often.
The writing alone keeps players hooked, so once you add in the puzzles and the ability to replay any level you’ve completed, you have a very addicting game on your hands. Of course, this also means you’ll beat the game before you know it. Portal 2 isn’t short “â€ in fact, I’d guess it’s at least twice as long as its predecessor “â€ but either the just-one-more-level or the what-happens-next feelings will keep bringing you back to play some more. How much the addictiveness sticks after completing the game depends on the individual, but all the parts that contribute to the replay value I mentioned earlier will definitely serve to make this an addicting title. Whether it be single-player mode or co-op, there’s much fun to be had in Portal 2.
Portal was already insanely popular, and Valve has struck gold again with this title. Who would’ve thought we would grow to love all those crazy robots that want to kill us with innumerable test chambers? The fans are already turning some of the more memorable lines into Internet memes as I write this, but that’s only inevitable when much of the dialogue is rich in humour. Also, the basic portal mechanic and the physics it influences provides another source of endless entertainment. Assuming you don’t suffer motion sickness from all the beyond Olympian-level leaping you’ll be doing, hurtling through the air at incredible speeds while watching the scenery below you has a certain appeal. The co-op mode adds some hilarity to this because you’ll hear a distinct crashing noise whenever your robot self has collided with a solid wall. You also do this in the single-player mode, but without the metal-to-metal klang noise upon meeting the wall (you actually hit walls with the most quiet of thuds, which totally wouldn’t be true in real life but we don’t care). Whether or not you were a fan before won’t matter as Portal 2 is sure to charm its way into the hearts and minds of many players.
About the only things I haven’t covered up until now are two issues, one of which is negligible and another of which isn’t. The negligible issue is the inconsistency between what the characters are saying and what’s written in the subtitles. Aside from one intentional case, every other instance seems like an error. You won’t notice this if you turn the subtitles off, of course, but they provide a means of clearing up any dialogue that may have flown over your head. For instance, you’ll be able to catch more of what Wheatley’s saying when he’s gone off on one of his rapid-fire ramble fest (yet somehow, this seems to have made him quite endearing to most players, myself included, rather than the reverse). On the plus side, the text is color coded to suit the speaker to make identification easier, and all the text is overlayed on a semitransparent black box in order to remain clear without obstructing too much of your view.
So what about this other not-as-negligible issue? It’s a glitch I ran into while playing the co-op mode with my brother. He was riding an excursion tunnel that was taking him up towards the ceiling, but he jumped well before he could reach it since he didn’t need to travel that high. He landed on the nearby grating but then found he couldn’t move. As it turned out, he was stuck in the grating. We had no other means of fishing him out aside from quitting and then restarting the entire test chamber. While it was good that we could do this without having to reset the game console, it still sucks that we had to reset at all. We haven’t tried to duplicate the glitch, and we also don’t know if there are any other potential glitch spots in the game; the one I’ve just described is the only one we’ve found. So, while you’re playing, be aware that such a glitch could occur, and that it actually doesn’t detract much from the rest of the game.
Rating: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Very Good
Final Rating: Incredible Game
Short-Attention Span Summary
Portal 2 has everything a good sequel has: a more lengthy but just as compelling story, more levels, and more gameplay twists. Like with the original Portal, every part of the game ties together seamlessly, each component’s serving to build upon another. The new gels and Aerial Faith Plates supplement the already awesome portal mechanics to create even more fun and opportunities to solve the puzzles strewn across all levels of Aperture Science. Seriously, Portal 2 is a gem. Go buy it.