Portal 2 Review

You awaken in a strange place, with no idea how you got there. An automated voice gives you instructions, and you wait for further information, trapped in your little room. Before long, you’re guided by a computer to whatever objective it has in mind for you. You’re trapped, caught in the machine’s machine, and the only way to gain your freedom is to follow its orders.

The above is the start of Portal 2, as well as its predecessor. Though years have passed since Valve first gave us a surprising foray through the Aperture Science Enrichment Center and its Quantum Tunneling Portal Device experiments, the beginning moments of both these games are eerily similar. Portal is an incredible and beloved game and much of its power and originality is because of this eeriness it invokes. You’re forced through a series of scientific tests of increasing difficulty and danger, all at the whim of a disembodied voice and apparent scientific observers.


Portal 2 (PC [Reviewed], PS3, XBox360)
Developer: Nuclear Monkey Software / Valve
Publisher: Valve
Release Date: April 19, 2011
MSRP: $59.99

Portal 2 fights to re-engage the creepiness, but in a different way. In the opening minutes, you awaken in the Aperture Science Laboratories, a test subject in suspended animation for so long that the facility has fallen into horrific disrepair, and who knows what the world has become in your absence. A friendly robot with a British accent called Wheatley on a rail professes to help guide you to freedom, and you’re off through the destroyed facility, following his lead.

We all know what’s coming — if you’ve seen or heard anything about Portal 2 up to now, you know what’s in store. GlaDOS, the psychotic and homicidal AI controller of the Enrichment Center, has been destroyed at your hand, but it won’t stay dead for long (the last game ended with a song called “Still Alive,” after all). And it will be back to put you through its insane scientific experiments, in which your primary tool is a gun that shoots an orange portal and a blue portal. Anything passing through the orange portal comes out the blue portal, and vice versa, leading to some brilliant puzzle-solving and forcing players to rethink their approaches to reality and physics.

That’s as far into the story as I’ll go, because like the original Portal, it is filled with humor and some unexpected humanity, expanding on the Aperture Science universe and the characters (now tripled, more or less) found within. Portal 2 is in many ways the exact game experience we’ve all hoped would follow up the phenomenal, unexpected incredibleness that was the original — more portals, more GLaDOS, more humor, and a cooperative mode. All things awesome.

The reality of Portal 2 is nearly as good as the conception. Portal is among my favorite games of all time — perhaps my favorite — so following that act is no easy feat for Valve or Portal 2. The sequel comes extremely close to matching its predecessor. It’s good in its own right, but not quite the pinnacle of robotic and hilarious perfection the hype would have us believe.

I’ll try to remain vague to avoid spoiling the game, but the one big flaw of the single-player campaign, which is big and meaty and will last around eight hours, is how uneven it is. The first half of the game is much, much weaker than the second half. In fact, it’s so weak that for much of it, I was wondering if this was really the Portal sequel for which I had been waiting so patiently, or if the cake was, indeed, a lie. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

But then Chapter 5 happened, and Chapter 6, and Chapter 7 and 8, and oh, man — Chapter 9. Quite simply, Portal 2 gets amazing in its latter portions. It’s fun and really, really funny, more than matching the trademark hilarity found in the original (the game’s opening discussion of brain damage and jumping is absolutely brilliant). It’s painful how weak the opening chapters are by comparison. The game softballs you, holding your hand by providing a funny but bossy guide to stick with you for much of your tenure and then switching you off into more of the same old Portal tests. Except while the tests in the original Portal quickly ramped in difficulty, the opening ventures through the test chambers are simple and often single-step affairs, so much so that it feels like treading water until you’re allowed to run free.

It’s disappointing how much talking goes into the game early on, and how much Valve treats you like a child and holds your hand. Much of the original’s greatness is in the fact that you’re left to your own devices, forced to rely on nothing but your own wits. The first half of Portal 2, on the other hand, largely removes this go-it-alone individualistic quality, and I have to say, it dragged the experience down for me.

I know I’m making a big deal of this one thing, but I’m doing so for two reason: 1. It’s the entire first half of the game that felt weak, and 2. it’s just about the only problem I had with Portal 2. Yes, other than the choice to make much of the Portal 2 experience feel like every other first-person game on the market right now by making it linear and demanding, Portal 2 is often a transcendent and beautiful thing to behold. It’s huge and does a great job of pushing the envelope of “thinking with portals,” introducing new techniques and mechanics without straying too far out of the bounds of familiar gameplay.

Valve’s puzzles now often involve things like Hard Light Bridges that can be moved by portals, lasers that can be redirected by cubes, and various gels that need to be sprayed all over the place to make new places to shoot portals or affect the way you run and jump. When they start working together, the game absolutely sings, causing you to draw on all your resources to find ways of avoiding becoming another failed experiment.

With a phenomenal sense of scale, great production values and a wealth of great ideas and characters, the single-player portion of Portal 2 really does become spectacular once it hits its stride. It’s just unfortunate that it takes so long to get there.

Here’s another nitpicking gripe, though: Gone are the many challenge levels that adorned Portal, as well as the game’s super-hard Achievements and Trophies. In their place is a co-op mode, and with that I have no problems — Valve has done an awesome job creating lots of two-player-specific puzzles that are challenging as well as fun, and also very funny. The co-op mode and all its adornments, which I’ll get to shortly, are great.

The trouble is, Portal 2 isn’t nearly as challenging a game as the original Portal, at least in many respects. The difficulty ramps up on co-op, but it’s left fairly lacking in the single-player realm. The puzzles are often a touch on the mind-bending side, but even the ones that look highly complex often aren’t really, and a few times you’ll find yourself sailing to the end of a long section wondering if you missed doing something important because it seemed to go so simply. Valve has done away with much of what provided Portal’s staying power in its sequel, and its replay value suffers because of it.

But there is that co-op mode, which supports both split-screen and online play, and is as much fun and carries as much heart as the single-player romp does. Playing as either “Orange” or “Blue,” a pair of GLaDOS’ robots, you and a friend get to work through five sets of Enrichment Center portal tests, all while being mocked and chided by the sarcastic AI along the way. There are a bunch of achievements tied to the co-op mode that encourage you to both work together and mess with your teammates, which is great on Valve’s part, and the co-op puzzles are really a shining point in the game’s design. Amazingly, PS3 players also get compatibility with Valve’s Steam PC network, allowing for cross-platform co-op and mod-sharing, as well as cloud saves. You’ll want to grab a friend to take these on, at least once or twice.

Once I got through Portal 2, I loved it — but I had to learn to love it, and it took a while for me to really commit to it. The original Portal really was a video game that was so much more than just a game, reaching beyond the barriers of narrative or video game conventions to become something no one expected. Much of Portal 2 can’t make the same boast: the game’s opening levels feel too elementary and run-of-the-mill for it to achieve perfection.

But it’s pretty damn close.

Pros:

  • Hilarious, engaging narrative and characters
  • Massive scope
  • Beautiful visuals
  • A whole lot of engaging puzzle-solving gameplay
  • Great cooperative mode
  • Steam compatibility functions on Playstation 3 (cloud saving, friends list sharing, cross-platform co-op) are truly awesome
  • A large amount of content, much of which is exactly what made the original Portal so great

Cons:

  • Weak first half
  • No single-player challenge levels or tough achievements; not nearly as much replay value as its predecessor

Final Score: 90/100

For tips, tricks, solutions and a bunch of other Portal 2 info, check out our full game guide.

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2 Comments on Portal 2 Review

bob

On April 28, 2011 at 11:51 pm

wow really the 1st half was bad? OK yes you did have to find a flaw, of course, if you didn’t then you would wind up getting flamed by the masses. But seriously though, take into consideration this. Not everyone playing portals 2 played the first. So if they dropped you into an even mildly complicated puzzle such as a momentum fall boost, but did not first explain the basic mechanics or portal-ing etc then it would have been a horrible game for anyone without prior knowledge. Nothing but frustration and absolutely no explanation. Either a “weak into” or a massive tutorial staging was required for those new to the series. Thus you would have had to break up story parts for that tutorial staging, which would have severely complicated and damaged the story. that being said the “weak intro” was the ideal solution.

Phil Hornshaw

On April 29, 2011 at 2:32 am

@bob

Two points: first, I’m not saying the first half was bad — I’m saying it was bad FOR PORTAL and FOR VALVE, which is a different situation altogether; hence the 90/100 review score. Even a lacking opening half is still better than most games in general, but the beginning of the game seriously lacks the magic, discovery and freedom that made Portal 1 so great.

Secondly, I agree completely that the game required some time to ease everyone, new and old players alike, into the world of Portal. My issue is that the game spends 40 percent of its entirety doing so. We’re not talking about a slow beginning chapter or two or even an easy opening act — we’re talking about half the game. Portal 2 has a major culture shift starting around Chapter 5 and becomes almost an entirely different game. The problem with the first half, and it wasn’t a gamebreaking problem because it only resulted in my deducting 10 points out of the 100 the game could have earned, is that it was too simple and too linear for too long.