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Portal 2 review

by Jeff Mattas, Apr 26, 2011 9:30am PDT
Related Topics – Portal 2, Review

When Valve released Portal in October of 2007, gamers were pleasantly surprised by its unique ability to tell an entertaining, well-written story through a puzzle game seen from the first person perspective traditionally reserved for shooters.

Portal 2 puts players back in the role of an orange-jumpsuited test subject named Chell, who awakens deep within the labs of Aperture Science many years after the events of the first game. In the first Portal, players had to navigate a series of puzzling science experiments, confront a malevolent AI named GLaDOS, and escape the facility alive. Portal 2 sends players back to the lab and stays true to the series' roots, while offering a bigger, prettier, and crazier storyline along with a new arsenal of tools.

As the action for Portal 2 kicks off, Chell meets a talkative spherical robot named Wheatley (masterfully voiced by Stephen Merchant) who seems eager to help her escape. What starts out as a fairly straightforward attempt to flee quickly becomes much more complicated. Throughout the journey's puzzles, twists, and turns, players discover more about Chell's predicament, the ethics-free legacy of Aperture Science, and the colorful denizens that helped shape it.

Due to the fact that Portal 2's story is one of its biggest draws (and rewards), I'll refrain from spoiling the proceedings further. (Suffice to say, Jonathan Coulton's closing song for the original Portal is a big hint.) More so than in other games, the dialog in Portal 2 is so consistently laugh-inducing that it actually functions to reward the player and the hysterical voice-over bits become extra incentives to soldier forward.

As in its predecessor, the puzzles in Portal 2 are incredibly well designed. Though Portal vets may find themselves slicing through the first third of the game's puzzles like a hot knife through butter, they soon become markedly more complex. A first glance into some of the later puzzle rooms can initially feel overwhelming, due to their massive size and number of interactive pieces. Trial and error are often necessary parts of discovery, and the sense of accomplishment achieved by getting through a particularly troublesome area is palpable. It’s no small design feat that solving some of Portal 2's more intricate puzzles can actually make the player feel incredibly smart.

Portals aren't the only tools players will need to use to succeed. This time around, the portal gun is supplemented by special cubes that can redirect lasers, as well as re-directable light bridges and gravitational fields. Managing momentum is as fun as ever, and many of the puzzles require you to figure out a way to launch yourself across vast spaces. On top of that, three types of gel are eventually introduced. Blue gel turns any surface into a trampoline, orange gel increases movement speed, and white gel allows the player to shoot portals onto previously unaccommodating surfaces. While it's nearly impossible to describe the scores of clever ways these tools are used without spoiling their associated puzzles, you can imagine how crazy things can get when all of these elements must be made to work in concert. What I will say is that each of the new tools is a ton of fun to experiment with, and practically beg the player to do just that. Of course, the addition of these tools greatly expands the possible types of mind-bending scenarios.

Portal 2 also includes a cooperative multiplayer mode for two players. Rather than simply having friends run the single-player gauntlet together, co-op in Portal 2 is a completely separate storyline, complete with clever voice-over work. Co-op centers on two robots though, instead of human test subjects. The circular-bodied Atlas, who appears to have been based on the same type of robot as Wheatley from single-player, is joined by P-body, who looks like one of the game's turrets modified with arms and legs. Players team up to complete a series of themed chapters containing eight tests apiece - for science!

In addition to each being equipped with a portal gun, Atlas and P-body also have a series of gestures and commands that can be issued in-game. The gestures are mainly just humorous ways for the players to interact (high-fives, dancing, rock-paper-scissors), but the commands are more functional. They allow players to do things like point to a specific surface or issue a countdown clock, which is helpful when simultaneous button presses are required.

On that note, playing with voice communication enabled makes things a lot easier. Certainly, the suite of commands and text-based chat give players the tools they need to communicate without speaking, but I found that some of the games' more intricate puzzles became much easier when I could discuss the solution.

Progress in multiplayer is based on a per-player basis. Each time you begin a co-op game with someone you haven't played with before, you'll start from scratch. In one respect, this makes sense. Due to the progressive nature of the challenges, it's not unreasonable to want players to experience them chronologically. That said, this implementation almost guarantees that folks won't be playing a whole lot of co-op with random strangers, unless they simply want to play the first dozen levels over and over again. Once you've beaten a puzzle, the game lets you go back and replay it with the same partner; however, there's not much incentive to do so once the puzzle has already been solved. (I was pleased to note, however, that the PC to PS3 co-op test session I conducted with Shacknews' Steve Watts worked quite well for several levels, until the server crashed.)

Portal 2 also includes an in-game store, where players can spend real money on hats and other cosmetic enhancements for their co-op robots, including extra gestures and taunts. Though these knick-knacks only run a buck or two each, I still can't quite get my head around purchasing such stuff for a linear, puzzle-based experience. Unless Valve plans on releasing reasonably-priced co-op level packs at a regular clip (which I'd happily purchase), spending extra cash on virtual swag that only my co-op friends will see seems pretty ridiculous.

I had an absolute blast playing through both of Portal 2's campaigns, but I'm not sure that there's much reason for me to play through them again, beyond wanting to re-experience the witty script and impeccable voice-acting. A striking lack of replayability aside, Portal 2 still manages to serve up some of the best solo and cooperative experiences I've had in quite some time, thanks to its great puzzles and truly memorable characters. Provided that your notion of a game's value isn't tied too heavily to the number of hours you spend playing (or replaying) it, I'd highly recommend seeing what Aperture Science has in store for you this time. You monster.





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