May 3, 2011

Review – Portal 2

Filed under: Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — Brad Johnson @ 8:53 am

Portal 2
I think it’s fair to say that probably every game is made, at least in part, by committee. The results can be fairly obvious; it’s easy to see when some executive has made the decision to pursue a Call of Duty or a Gears of War.

Valve, by contrast, produces perhaps the purest product available on the current market; the games where it’s clear that most decisions have been made in the interest of making the best videogame possible.

Portal 2 exemplifies this condition; it is pure game, straight through, with each facet specifically calibrated to produce what, undoubtedly, becomes an instant classic the moment the disc enters the tray.

The sequel returns the player to the life of Chell, unknown Aperture test subject, as she awakes hundreds of years after the events of the original game, once again trapped in the Aperture facility. If this change of circumstance is somewhat mystifying, then I recommend reviewing the updated ending to Portal (dispensed via Valve-patch), or better yet, reading the online comic bridging the events of the two games.

Portal 2

Some familiar test chambers reappear, ravaged by time.

The condition of the Aperture laboratory has understandably deteriorated, and the state of the facility becomes a major influence throughout the game. Aperture has become run down and overgrown in the absence of GLaDOS’ controlling intelligence; test chambers are in shambles, and nature has steadily worked its way in, growing into and rusting out the once pristine complex.

As events unfold, the resurgence of GLaDOS brings with it renewal, and she dedicates herself to repairing and rebuilding. Pieces move and shift mechanically back into place, wall panels scrape away garbage, and test chambers restore themselves to their former glory; when GLaDOS returns, she brings with her sudden life to the entire facility, and the evidence of her influence creates an air of oppressive omnipresence.

Later, the player is flung down into the depths of Aperture to see the origin of the complex; test chambers from the forties (and later the seventies) that have long since been forgotten and fallen into disrepair.

Later still, returning to the modern areas of the complex reveals that the events of the game (which I will not describe here, of course) have shattered it once more, with test chambers broken and even crashing together—chaos that is distinctly different from the tranquil early chapters, the methodical return of GLaDOS, or the isolated hours in the forgotten lower levels.

Portal 2

Aperture is alive, full of interesting sights and constantly changing.

In Portal, the Aperture labs were empty, barren and cold—isolating the player, creating an air of loneliness and abandonment. In the sequel, Aperture itself is alive: it’s going through a life cycle, and moving with the player as the action builds and climaxes, and the environment itself is telling a story.

Rendered through wonderful art, animation, and physics, it is one of the most satisfying and intriguing environments I’ve ever had the opportunity to explore in a digital space.

Chell’s journey through the evolving Aperture lab is narrated, in this installment, not only by the voice of GLaDOS, but also a selection of new characters. First and foremost among these is Wheatley, a simpleton of an AI that seeks to escape GLaDOS alongside Chell.

Wheatley is a far more human voice than GLaDOS, immediately making him more trustworthy and less alien to the player—along with his unrelenting comedy. From his manual overrides to his sophisticated “hacking,” Wheatley is an excellent companion in the early hours of the game, and remains a driving force for hilarity throughout.

Also new is Cave Johnson, eccentric (and long dead) CEO of Aperture, who speaks to the player through a wealth of pre-recorded messages. Voiced by J. K. Simmons, Johnson’s dialogue is some of the best in the game, with one tirade about lemons providing perhaps the funniest moment in the entire experience.

Finally, of course, there is GLaDOS. Though initially burned by Chell’s attempt to murder her, the events of the game bring GLaDOS through an interesting (and hilarious) character arc, giving her much more to do than the original game. She is now far more a character in her own right, and the addition of voices such as Wheatley gives her great opportunities for back-and-forth dialogue that simply did not exist in Portal.

Portal 2

The characters are expertly voiced and incredibly animated.

That the characters now have each other to sound off on creates a much richer narrative—and it doesn’t hurt that Valve, undeniably, writes the best characters in the entire industry.

What of the puzzles, though? Oh, I shall tell of the puzzles.

There’s a great deal of subtlety in the design and organization of the test chambers, such that Valve can and does hold your hand for the entire experience—and you might never notice. Puzzles are arranged carefully and deliberately to educate the player; solving one puzzle teaches key techniques for solving the next, which in turn solves the next, and so on.

A sharp eye has also been taken to the matter of pacing. Portal was a fairly even experience; Chell works through test chambers for the bulk of the game, and later moves into the background area of the facility to pursue GLaDOS.

In the sequel, however, Chell weaves in and out of test chambers, routinely experiencing alternate areas and dangers, constantly adjusting the pace, complexity, difficulty, and even the scale of the puzzles. One puzzle may involve a small chamber and a complex solution to puzzle out, while another may take place in the bowels of Aperture—with an easy solution that’s made harder to find in the massive surroundings.

In these scaled up environments—which take advantage of the incredibly massive Aperture facilities—it might be easy to lose track of where portals have been placed, and thus Valve has instituted the ability to see the position of portals, at all times, through walls and other obstacles. Represented by colored rings, this feature is extremely useful for the more complex puzzles, and because the simplistic graphic of a portal being seen through a wall is distinct from a portal being viewed head-on, it never becomes confusing.

Portal 2

Aperture is massive, seemingly infinite, and its scale is put to use in the puzzles.

Puzzles include an ever increasing number of elements for gamers to juggle; hard-light bridges can be rerouted endlessly to access new areas, gels can be applied to bounce objects, propel Chell, or even create new portal-able surfaces, and everything can and will be combined into bizarre, exciting combinations.

I sometimes talk about the butterzone in my reviews (and ten Sugar-points to the commenter who tells me what movie that’s from), and let me tell you: Valve is in the butterzone now.

The player is always made to think—later in the game, a new type of Aperture crate even threatens to crawl away from where it has been set if one isn’t mindful—but never in such a way as to frustrate or annoy. A careful balance has been struck with every puzzle, where finding the solution is never so easy that you don’t feel the immediate flood of discovery and accomplishment, but also such that no one will be stuck and need to consult the dreaded Internets for help.

What’s more, the expanded narrative allows for more exciting challenges where it’s not simply the puzzle the player has to beat.

I recall playing Portal and thinking that, as GLaDOS prepared to dump me in the incinerator, that unbelievably easy puzzle was one of the most exciting moments, because I had to act quickly. These moments return, infinitely scaled up and improved, demanding quick thinking and creating an atmosphere of excitement and danger.

In that respect, it’s interesting to note the synergy of gameplay and narrative; the way in which the evolved and scaled up story and characters bleed into the design of the puzzles. Commentary tracks describe dialogue (and thus character arcs) modified to account for the reaction of play-testers, suggesting a narrative that has been carefully tuned to inform gameplay, and vice versa.

Portal 2

The Aperture facility depicts the history of the Portal world.

Also intriguing is the exceptionally clever use of sound and music. Puzzle elements now have distinct sounds and musical tracks that activate as the pieces come together, creating a gradually building, evolving environment of sound that wonderfully enhances the atmosphere and pacing of the game.

When the game enters its more frantic, faster paced moments, the music breaks into an excellent electronic soundtrack that will have players wishing they could run for their lives forever.

The campaign will bring players slowly and steadily through the history of Aperture and its few remaining inhabitants, with secret details (and amusing diversions) to be found by those who see fit to explore, and the story closes with an unbelievably cool ending sequence that expertly ties together the various threads of the narrative.

Though the campaign runs only seven hours, it feels exactly as long as it needs to be, never becoming bored or tiring and leaving the player satisfied. It’s an experience that has been meticulously designed and calibrated to provide the optimum Portal experience, both in terms of gameplay and narrative, and in this it succeeds—surpassing its predecessor in every way.

Additionally, there is the co-op experience. This separate campaign offers a secondary tale involving the robots Atlas and P-Body that takes place after the events of the core game.

This is an experience reminiscent of the original Portal; GLaDOS is much more hands-off, once again taking the role of the methodical, mysterious observer with an unknown agenda. By this time, Aperture is once again pristine and sterile in its appearance, again recalling the previous game.

Meanwhile, Atlas and P-Body are decidedly more emotive than Chell, and feature a number of actions for interacting with each other or simply goofing off—even making appropriate digital noises to emote.

The puzzles in this component are decidedly more complex than the core game, so players looking for a ramped up challenge will be quickly satisfied. With difficulty multiplied by the management of four portals, two bodies, along with the new elements from the single-player mode, puzzles become long, winding odysseys through the Aperture chambers, never failing to engage the mind.

Portal 2

The co-op campaign is clever and features more challenging puzzles than the core game.

Of special note is the system that’s been put in place to help players communicate with each other. A countdown can by initiated to synchronize actions, while different markers can be placed to instruct a partner to stand in a certain spot or direct their attention to a particular point.

Not only does this promise to aid console players without headsets, but it’s also extremely helpful for splitscreen play. It’s pretty hard to point at a screen and expect your friend to know where you’re pointing, and thus the ability to mark where you want your ally to send his portal is a critical advantage.

GLaDOS’ hilarious commentary on your performance (or, indeed, failure to perform) makes the co-op as funny as the core campaign, and with puzzles that are even more elaborate, it’s as much a draw as the single-player, if somewhat shorter.

If you’re looking for the bottom line, it is as such: Portal 2 is the way videogames are meant to be. Without compromise, it provides a purely entertaining experience from start to finish, expertly realized, and I find it nigh-impossible to conceive a way in which Valve could have better achieved their goals. Completely charming, exciting, and unforgettable, this is the first serious contender for game of the year.



PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac (PlayStation 3 reviewed)

Singleplayer, Splitscreen and Online Multiplayer

Release Date
April 19, 2011

*A copy of this title was purchased by Gamesugar for review


  1. Thanks for the review Brad. Portal 2 is on my “to buy” list for the end of the year (along with about another 15 games for DS, Wii, PS3 and PSP). Right now my PS3 isn’t recognizing Bluray discs so all retail purchases are on hold. I’m just waiting for the PSN store to be back online to download some games I’ve got to review for, back up my saves to the cloud, sync trophies obtained in the last couple of weeks and then off the console goes to Sony.

    Comment by EdEN — May 3, 2011 @ 3:50 pm

  2. absolutely loved this game. very excited about the dlc

    Comment by sean — May 3, 2011 @ 4:39 pm

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