Portal 2 Review
Portal 2 is an ingeniously designed game that rewards and satisfies. Those who don’t analyze it too closely will find themselves relishing the solving of one puzzle while simultaneously craving the next. Those whose job it is to analyze will reflect and note with amazement the sheer number of obstacles and pitfalls the developers faced. Whether you simply let it wash over you or sit back and think about it, Valve’s latest is a fantastic achievement of the highest order, and one well worth your time. Longevity may be an issue for certain people and the stark sterility of the environments may chafe the artistic mind, but the combination of endlessly clever puzzles and highly entertaining voice performances is more than enough to compensate. This is a gem.
I will elaborate on the aforementioned starkness now, as we start with the graphics. There’s no doubt that visually, this is a meticulously created and ultimately clean presentation with unbelievable level design. There are virtually no common visual errors to speak of, and the crispness of both special effects and our surroundings is impressive. That being said, this engine is showing its age in some ways, as the futuristic, sci-fi sleekness borders on blandness. We just don’t have that richness of tone and color and so much of the game just feels…well, devoid of panache. That may be a bit harsh, though, and we have to remember that part of Valve’s goal is to provide the gamer with a lifeless, post-apocalyptic, atmosphere. And that, they do. Quite well, in fact.
The sound is better, and one of the major highlights thanks to supreme voice acting. The hilarious Stephen Merchant as the fast-talking Wheatley, the gruff and always recognizable J.K. Simmons, and the subtly insulting Ellen McLain (GLaDOS), are all excellent. They’re so good, in fact, that they become staples of the production, and you actually enjoy hearing their running commentary. It’s just so beautifully written and acted; it can’t help but be engaging. The soundtrack fits extremely well, too, as it’s a combination of faintly classical tracks mixed with refined electronic beats. If that doesn’t fit this production, nothing does. The effects take a back seat to everything else in the audio category, but that’s okay…this is a thinking man’s game, not a shooter.
First and foremost, Portal 2 is a puzzle game based around the concept of – if you couldn’t guess – portals. You have a portal gun and in order to progress and/or solve various puzzles, you must utilize this core concept: L1 fires an orange portal and R1 fires a blue one; obviously, you need two stationed in the environment in order for them to work. You walk, jump, or fall through one, and you will emerge from the other. This doesn’t sound complex and in fact, it isn’t. But what the developers do with this mechanic and how they implement other additions, such as switches, lasers, and different types of sci-fi goop (for bouncing, speed, and creating portals wherever you wish) is just amazing. At the start, you’ll go, “well, this is sort of cool,” and as time goes on, you’ll continually be blown away by the intricate design of these puzzles.
The control is great and that’s essential because there is some platforming involved. We still get that weightless, sliding-on-glass sensation that feels outdated, but we don’t need weight physics in this game. Besides, this type of control fits the style because it’s always uniform; it isn’t susceptible to any of the quirks that go along with more realistic movement physics. And if you’re looking for top-notch physics, just watch how that goop I talked about before interacts with the environment; it’s borderline perfect for our purposes. Perhaps best of all is the fact that Valve understood this game’s aim and remained faithful to it: we don't have to be great platforming artists, because much of the aerial stuff is done automatically.
What I mean is that if you have to solve a puzzle by utilizing a combination of the blue and orange fluid – say you have to speed across one and leap off the other to reach your goal – you won’t die because your reflexes and dexterity failed you. You solved the puzzle; the actual physical execution isn’t what matters, and you will be launched in the right direction. While you do have to be careful when moving along narrow spaces at great heights, and you do have to angle yourself correctly when free-bouncing, most of your in-flight stuff is uniform and reliable. It isn’t dependent on your own actions because after all, you solved the damn puzzle and it’s time to be rewarded. Speaking of rewards, we come to the best part-
Look, on the surface, it’s easy to miss the level of accomplishment that lies within. From a development standpoint, it’d be very easy to make a mistake. If a wall is off by an inch; if a block doesn’t fall just right; if the player can get anywhere that throws a wrench into the works, the entire puzzle fails. Given the complexity of the design, I was convinced I could find a way to mess it up. I’d get stuck somewhere that forces me to reload or die. …but that didn’t happen. I mean, even being able to see just the edge of a wall that will receive a portal; they have to get the view from our character exactly right. If I couldn’t move that extra step, I’d never see it and the puzzle becomes undoable. It’s pretty damn “wow.”
The story is another big bonus, even if it you often lose track during the course of your puzzle-solving. As for longevity, the single-player campaign will take most people 8-10 hours, although it may take longer if you take more time arriving at the solutions. Then there’s the co-op mode, which offers an entirely different – and equally satisfying – experience and adds even more appeal to the package. The pacing and unparalleled balance of the game is another big positive: the first four or five hours consists of intricate puzzles set within rooms, which range greatly in size but nevertheless remain enclosed. In the latter three or four hours, you’re typically in an outdoor environment where the goal is a little different; there are still puzzles, of course, but much of the challenge will lie in progressing. In other words, the “puzzle” might just be getting to a certain stairway or door, and it can be surprisingly tough.
Portal 2 is a memorable, challenging, beautifully designed sci-fi story. The developers walk the line between overly frustrating and underwhelming; most every puzzle will tax your problem-solving abilities, but none will cause you to throw your arms up in despair. They introduce awesome new mechanics and combine them in later puzzles, so you never feel blindsided or unprepared. The control is rock solid and smooth, the campaign is of an agreeable length, the co-op is a gimongous bonus, the audio and voice acting is some of the best you’ll ever hear, and the rewards are great. I still think some of the puzzles could be a little too obscure, especially in the second half, and I’m not the biggest fan of the plot.
There’s also the fact that, once solved, a puzzle is never so much fun again. Therefore, replay-ability takes an unavoidable hit. Still, this ranks right up there with the most accomplished and satisfying productions of this generation.
The Good: Fantastic voice acting and good music. Unbelievably intricate and rewarding level design and puzzle construction. Great control. Balance and pacing are sublime. Impressive, almost flawless presentation. Campaign is a good length.
The Bad: Graphics are slick but feel sterile and outdated. Some of the later puzzles are a tad obscure. Not much reason to play it twice.
The Ugly: “Wait…how do I get over there?!”
4/19/2011 Ben Dutka