Portal 2 (Single Player) – Review
Since Portal’s release in the Orange Box bundle four years ago, it has found a place as one of the most popular and most frequently referenced games of the the last ten years. Thankfully (and not surprisingly), Valve had the good sense to shy away from the stale references that made it an internet phenomenon when they created Portal 2. They even go so far as to symbolically kill those tired old jokes the first (and last) time you meet your trusty old friend, the Weighted Companion Cube. It isn’t so much a slam against Portal and the people who enjoyed it, but a statement that Portal 2 is its own game and won’t lean on the success of its predecessor to make sales, and it has allowed Valve to once again raise the bar for video game narrative.
Of course, Portal 2 does take some cues from the original. Portal did a fantastic job of setting up the basic gameplay mechanics of using portals to solve puzzles, and Portal 2 wisely decides not to fix what isn’t broken. What it does do is take those mechanics and build a full game out of them by adding a number of very interesting elements into the mix, specifically some new members to Aperture Science’s family of ground-breaking (and potentially deadly) technologies. For example, there are now “Hard Light Bridges,” walls of light that you can walk on and redirect with your portal gun (Caution: Even though rubbing your face on the Hard Light Bridges may feel like standing in the happy sunshine, they can and will set your hair on fire). Also joining the game are tractor beams, deadly laser beams, and goop you can spread on floors and walls that allow you to run faster, jump higher, or shoot portals onto those surfaces. Each new element is showcased to the player one at a time, making them very intuitive to adapt into the player’s puzzle-solving repertoire; however, Portal 2 doesn’t just want you to understand each of the tools. Portal 2 is the kind of game that teaches you how to use a hammer, then demands that you use it as a squeegee. No doubt you’ll be banging your head against your walls trying to figure some of the puzzles. Suffice it to say that if puzzle games are your thing, and the puzzle aspects of Portal 2 are your main draw to the game, you will not be disappointed.
Puzzle games are not my thing. I’m bad at them. Really bad. Even so, Portal 2 never gets frustrating. The puzzles get very obtuse, and a few of them took 30 minutes or more to finally figure out, but I never got fed up and wanted to take a break. This is, in part, due to the amazing atmosphere that Portal 2 provides. Even though it takes place in the same setting as the first game, Aperture Laboratories, Portal 2 does an incredible job of blending the setting with the story so that you never get the impression you’re just in the same old place solving puzzles. In addition, the atmosphere is very alive, and is practically a character unto itself, actively changing to fit the story right before your eyes. The ruined Aperture Labs facility rebuilds itself while you make your way through it, and you can see floor and wall panels straightening themselves out, some malfunctioning and just clanging around. Through the exposed walls you can see mechanical arms performing mysterious tasks. It really goes a long way to make each part of the game stand out.
Another vast improvement on the original is the music and sound. The music is done much better in Portal 2, and all the sounds that take place play right along with it. For example, when you’re learning how to use the bouncy goop, there’s a music track running in the background. Every time you bounce on the goop it plays a neat little noise that fits perfectly into the music track. Little touches like this help make Portal 2 such a memorable experience.
Your journey through Aperture Labs is a linear experience. You use your portal gun to navigate the ruined labs, making the task of moving from place to place a puzzle in itself, but in most all cases, there’s only one right way of getting from the beginning of the game to the end. Fans of Valve’s other titles will be familiar with this concept and realize that by knowing pretty much where the player is going to be going at all times they are able to script the story around it; however, no Valve game has done so much with this mechanic. Things are constantly happening around you as you make your way through the game, but you always feel like you’re being funneled in a straight line through the story (an appropriate feeling, seeing as though your character is in captivity for the duration of the story).
I won’t go into the specifics of the story for obvious reasons, but I will say that the voice acting and narrative is second to none. I defy you to find better writing in a video game. As far as the voice cast goes, GLaDOS reprises her role as the ruler of all things Aperture. This time around, instead of just being evil, clinical, and uncaring, she is all those things on top of being spiteful as hell. At times she even puts AM to shame with her hatred for Chell (you). J.K. Simmons plays a smaller role than I would have thought, but a very important one as far as the story is concerned, and he plays it well. No surprises there, though. What is surprising is how completely Stephen Merchant as the lowly personality core, Wheatley, steals the show. Every piece of dialogue written for Wheatley is hilarious, and it is all hilariously delivered by Merchant. There were no shortage of laugh-out-loud moments from Wheatley, as well as some great one-liners. One of the best parts about the humor in the game is that it is not as quotable as that of the original. There’s no Portal 2 equivalent for bad cake joke lovers to latch onto.
The only negative thing I can find to say about the game is its graphics. They aren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but the Source engine is definitely beginning to show its age. It’s not extremely noticeable until you try and read some fine text on a white board or when you see the goop flying through the air. Like I said, not a huge deal, but I could see it bother some people. Some nit-picky people. Bad people.
Some people may also take issue with the length of the game. The single player runs about 6-7 hours, shorter if you’re some kind of puzzle genius. Personally, I don’t understand people’s obsession with game length. Game length says nothing about the quality of a game. Either Portal 2 is worth the price of admission or it’s not (just to clarify: it is).
In conclusion, Portal 2 is a rare treat. It’s the kind of game that doesn’t come around very often, so I would suggest you play it. Right now. Go on, get!
[Oh, and if you have at least one friend, be sure and stay tuned for Evan and Dennis’ review of the Co-Op coming soon. I expect to hear amazing tales of their Bro-bot adventures.]