Portal 2 Is The Better Portal, But You Better Bring A Friend

You probably won’t read much of this review.

If you know what Portal 2 is you probably just want to know if the new game is great like the old one (it is) and if it is long enough to pay full price (depends on how much money you earn each week).

If you don’t know what Portal 2 is, you just shouldn’t read further. Unlike legions of Portal 1, fans you can actually be stunned by what a Portal game really is. Saying more would ruin things.

But there will be a review below this sentence, because there are things to discuss.

Portal 2 is the sequel to the 2007 surprise critical hit Portal. Before its release, that game was always shown as a first-person puzzle game. You were this person, this lab test subject, who had this gun. It shot two portals that could adhere to most surfaces in the game’s world, the labs of Aperture Science. You could walk into one portal and you would exit the other. That was it, though what you could do with it was amazing: imagine, for example, shooting one portal at a wall and another on the ceiling and then walking through the wall in order to fall down the ceiling.

People who played Portal discovered that the game wasn’t just what was advertised. It had a story. It had a villain. It had a great song and memorable jokes. It was an excellently written black comedy that sometimes made the player feel guilt.

Portal 2 is the longer storyline sequel to that first game. It offers new puzzling portal challenges, some new abilities and a separate co-op campaign that in and of itself exceeds the length of the first game. It’s still a black comedy.

Why You Should Care
It’s the sequel to one of the most-praised games of the past decade. Of course it demands attention. This game is a test of whether Portal worked strictly as a gem or whether it can be a series.

What We Liked
The Returning Excellence You are once again a voiceless wielder of a Portal gun, a glorified lab rat who has to use her portal gun and your wits to get through test chambers in the Aperture science labs. Each chamber is a challenge of chasms that must be spanned, switches that must be hit and impossible leaps that must be made not via quick reflexes but through inspired placement of two portals.

You are once again subject to devious puzzles that are as much fun to sort out as they are to solve once you know the solution. You’re once again a silent player in a black comedy, this one arguably better-written and better-acted than before. I could tell you the plot, but that would ruin things. Let’s just say that if you enjoyed the passive-aggressive torment of Aperture Science super-computer GLaDOS in the previous game, the gaming world’s most nefarious computerized puppet-master, then you’ll like the goings-on in this one.

The New Abilities The sequel’s puzzles are more complicated than the original’s, thanks primarily to the addition of new contraptions in the environment, such as tractor beams and some special paint that changes the properties of the surfaces on which it splashes. (That latter idea was great enough that the people who first cooked it up in an indie game called Tag: The Power of Paint, got hired by the makers of Portal, Valve Software, to bring their idea into Portal 2.)

The Better Look Portal games are visually spartan, illustrated mostly in the blacks, whites and grays you’d expect to see in a high-tech science lab. The design of that look had already been strong, so strong that even the little gun turrets in this serious have fan followings.

The new game livens this visual scheme not by changing the palette but by animating the world. Where games such from Super Mario Bros. to Assassin’s Creed presented mostly still landscape, the damaged labs of Portal 2 are full of moving pistons, shifting walls, collapsing ceiling panels and more. This sequel takes the idea of “destroyed beauty” from Gears of War — a style that invites the player to imagine the events that wrecked the terrain they’re playing through — and intensifies it by animating the restoration of much of its destroyed beauty before your eyes. The result is a marvelous animation of an intriguing world that happens before your eyes. (See the video in this review for a spoiler-free example of this.)

The Excitement For all of the first game’s excellence, it was mostly a restrained experience, a thinking person’s game that invited a lot of pondering and poking around. The new game is often just like that but mixes in events of extraordinary scale and heart-racing intensity. These sequences that never make the game too hard but do bring it closer to an Uncharted as a game that can offer some of the same thrills as the best sumer action movies. The energetic, mostly-instrumental score helps achieve this effect.

That Whole Co-Op Thing Most of my favourite Portal 2 puzzles are in the game’s co-op campaign, a separate chunk of missions that puts players in control of a pair of robots, each capable of generating their own linked pairs of portals. The storyline for this campaign is thin, but it’s little bother. The main event in co-op is the series of locked-room puzzles that comprise each of the campaign’s five chapters. A co-op chapter will last two new players one to two hours, unless those players are freakishly smart. Progress can be saved after completing each challenge room, but players will probably find it more rewarding to give each other the commitment of gamers embarking on a Left4Dead campaign, soldiering through an arc of co-op until its climactic chapter end.

Just be warned: when a puzzle can involve two people placing four total portals, those puzzles can be very hard. Co-op gives headaches that single-player didn’t. I didn’t mind. There are few games out there that allow two people to enjoy un-rushed collaborative problem-solving. Credit to Portal 2 for doing that rare sort of multiplayer, which was as fun for me and teaming up with a friend to solve a crossword puzzle.

The Elegant Assistance Portal 2 writer Erik Wolpaw told me prior to the game’s release that the new game will teach players its crazy portal maneuvers gradually and would not demand of its gamers crazy ninja twitch skills. For the most part, the game doesn’t and even sometimes fixes the orientation of a placed Portal to ensure that small misfires don’t lead to large frustrations. You can see the Portal 2 creators’ helping hand if you pay attention, but they certainly don’t make things obvious, just less tedious and finicky.

The Humor The potato stuff is funny. I also liked the stuff about lemons. But you don’t want me spoiling these jokes, do you?

What We Didn’t Like
Rapid Exhaustion It will be hard for most Portal 2 gamers to avoid burning through the game. While the main adventure took me more than nine hours and the co-op campaign at least seven, all of it is so fun and transitions so smoothly into interesting sequence after interesting sequence that it will be tough to stop playing. This is not a flaw of the game; it’s simply a trait. Portal 2 will pass in a rush. Once it is over it may be hard to go back. This isn’t a Mass Effect, in which the story can change the second time through, and it’s not even a modern Mario in terms of inviting replayability to unlock new areas. While there are interesting nooks and crannies to discover, some of them teased via smartly-written Achievement goals, there’s little chance that playing Portal 2 a second time will feel like a fresh experience. Given that the primary challenge of Portal is solving its puzzles — and that you burn most of the game clock just trying to figure out how to get out of each of these damn rooms — replaying the game will likely being given a crossword puzzle to complete that you already solved last week.

The inclusion of multiplayer in a video game is often a value-extender based on the idea that competitive play can have everlasting appeal. But Portal 2’s multiplayer is all co-op and puzzle-based. It’s a great experience the first time but one that many players may not derive much pleasure from repeating. If you enjoy games that can be savored in a single weekend, then you have nothing to worry about. But if you need the constant pull of novel experiences, the appeal of Portal 2 will expire quickly.

The Bottom LinePortal 2 has much in common with last year’s BioShock 2. Both games are sequels to beloved originals that transported gamers to extraordinary, unique locales. Both games impressed their customers with unusually sharp writing and won themselves grand affection through late-game twists that confounded gamers’ understanding of what they were enjoying. Portal 2 players who know Portal 1 can’t be shocked by those things again. They will expect them.

Without the ability to feel like a newly-discovered species, Portal 2 has to get by simply by being the better Portal game. It’s not just bigger, it is more clever. It’s puzzles are more ingenious and — I must emphasise this again — it earns high marks for presenting puzzles whose solutions are enjoyable to execute even once you’ve identified the labour needed to complete them. The original Portal may have had a simpler, more pure narrative, but the sequel gets by with more interesting gameplay and the unmissable opportunity to bring a friend into a must-play co-op adventure. Valve hit the right notes here. This is a great game.

Portal 2 was developed and published by Valve Software for the PC, Mac, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, released on April 19. Retails for $US59.99. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through the solo campaign and the co-op campaign, the latter via a mix of online and local split-screen. Hugged my fellow co-op player — robot to robot — a few times, only one of which times was followed by intentionally sending my buddy to his virtual death.


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