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A Slightly Belated Review

The last and most recent of my preexisting blog entries, this post serves as a casual, subjective review of Portal 2. Rather than providing a score, it discusses how various game elements come together to generate a particular feel.

Originally posted on April 26, 2011:

I’ve been juggling around three different topics for a blog post as of late.  One option was an angry rant about how game companies never seem to reply to my applications.  Another was a philosophical discussion inspired by my cousin concerning the role of free will in video games.  That one will likely see the light of day soon.  More recently, a third option arose in which I was to discuss my strange lack of interest in purchasing and playing new games.  In the process of writing about that third topic, Portal 2 was released and subsequently beaten (to a bloody pulp).  Long story short, it made the third topic feel obsolete.  Portal 2 is the kind of game that makes me want to go out and partake in new game experiences.  Thus, in lieu of expressing a lack of interest in playing games, I’ve decided to indulge in a review of sorts.

This isn’t a professional review, but rather, more of a personal experience piece.

The original Portal is one of the big things I remember about my junior year of college.  Montreal.  An eight-person suite.  As was a common occurrence, a suite-mate was playing a game out in the common area as I sat working in my room.  A couple of other people were there watching.  (Watching the game, not me.)  Though I largely dismissed it as usual, I could hear through my open door the occasional feminine computer voice, often punctuated by a bout of laughter from the viewers.  After a long enough period of this, I was intrigued enough to go and figure out what the hell was going on.  The rest of the suite followed suit, prompting our resident player to start over for us from the beginning.

After witnessing the entire 2-hour (give or take) Portal experience, I knew that I had seen something I had to play myself.  This is extremely rare.  Long story short, after a few days, several of us had free cracked PC copies of Portal, cake jokes abounded, and origami Companion Cubes populated desks throughout the Champlain College Montreal campus.  Ever since then, the preset sounds on my computer have been replaced by the voices of GlaDOS and her computerized counterparts.

This is what Portal 2 had to live up to.  How do you make a sequel to a game whose appeal was attributed to its strange new charm and delightful new game mechanic?  Here was a game that gained popularity through its sheer newness and surprise.  How do you create a follow-up to the new without it seeming old?  Ask the people at Valve Software.  They’ve found a way.

Portal 2
is very clearly a sequel to the original.  Its graphics have been pumped up, it takes place on a much more grandiose scale, it contains more features, and it’s altogether a bigger game.  That’s the idea of the typical video game sequel.  Bigger and better!  More stuff!  Prettier!  More epic!  These are all of the things that could easily kill a game like Portal.  So how does the sequel retain its edge?  While it’s clearly a sequel in terms of size and scope, in terms of attitude, it feels very much like a simple continuation of the original.

Wandering through the test chambers of Aperture Science felt a bit different at first, until at one point, that calming, atmospheric music from the original Portal began to ring out.  For me, at least, that was the link I needed.  From that point on, it no longer felt like the bigger, more epic sequel.  It felt like I was unraveling more of the original game – parts I had somehow missed for the past three and a half years.

I’ve spent a lot of time on this topic, but I feel it’s with good reason.  The most important thing about creating a different Portal game, strangely enough, is making it feel the same.  This is the game’s biggest victory.

In terms of gameplay, Portal 2 follows much the same structure as its predecessor.  Puzzles demand a careful examination of the environment.  As puzzles grow more complex, you’ll find yourself retracing your steps in your mind, prioritizing.  “I need to get there.  I can do that by doing this, and then do this by doing that.  But then…how do I do THAT?”  This is one of the hallmarks of good puzzle design.  All of the pieces are there, and for the most part, every piece has a clear purpose.  What takes time is determining how those pieces fit together.

The puzzles can easily appear nigh impossible at times.  The greater the understanding you have for how individual pieces of a puzzle work, the more frustrating it is to discover that you can’t make the connection between them.  Every time, however, at the height of frustration, there comes some new strategy…something that simply hadn’t occurred to you before.  Typically, that one piece is the key to sorting everything else out.  Fortunately, the difficulty curve is set up such that this progression of frustration isn’t constant.  Level designs vary just enough such that when one puzzle stumps you for half an hour, you may be able to solve the next with hardly any need to think.  Overall, this plateauing effect leads to some very difficult puzzles indeed.

With that said, there are certain faults in the field of Portal 2’s puzzle design.  Test chambers, for the most part, are well thought-out in the manner described above.  The open areas between tests, on the other hand, can prove a bit lazy at times.  Through the addition of much more massive spaces in relation to Portal, some areas of Portal 2 aren’t so much about solving puzzles as they are about standing around looking at a room.  It’s a process of moving to a seeming dead-end, placing a portal nearby, then scanning a space some hundreds of meters across for the one surface that can accept a second portal placement.  Really, all you’re doing is following a linear path from one puzzle to another.  The challenge isn’t in finding out how to get somewhere, but rather in finding out where you need to go, which, frankly, is a bit boring.  Apparently, some developers seem to be of the mindset that it’s fun to stand in one place looking around.  I’ve been seeing a bit of that trend lately.

Another strength of the first Portal was its writing.  Strange, seemingly random comments, a cake obsession, and the personification of a metal cube made for a comedic tone that hid a darker, more serious underbelly of a murderous computer managing a questionable scientific testing facility in an apocalyptic environment.  In a way, Portal represents the little-explored genre (at least in games) of dark comedy.  Portal 2 once again shines in the field of writing.  Though the tones of comedy and drama aren’t quite as in-sync as in the first game, the elements are all still there.  The balance is such that it can be difficult to tell is Portal 2 is a comedy with grounding in serious issues or a drama with a lot of comic relief.  As before, considerable credit must be given to Ellen McLain and newcomer Stephen Merchant for really selling the mood through brilliant voice acting.

Importantly, Portal 2 doesn’t try to dwell too much on the jokes of the past.  Unlike Saturday Night Live, the writers at Valve seem to have a sense of when a joke has run its course.  The entire game progresses with only a single cake joke and a couple of Companion Cube gags, all to pave the way for a new branch of topics to focus on.  I’m reminded of a Douglas Adams quote: “It is a mistake to think you can solve any major problem with just potatoes.”

Before concluding, however, I think it’s worth noting another small fault of Portal 2, particularly in comparison with Portal 1.  There are quite a large number of forced narrative events.  While I generally don’t have a problem with sacrificing control for the progression of story elements, I have to admit that this policy doesn’t fit well within the context of Portal.  Since the scripted scenes all take place from the same first-person perspective as the rest of the game, there’s a real sense that you’re about to start playing again very quickly.  When that moment fails to arrive, the story starts to get in the way.  Still being trapped in first-person view while being unable to so much as move feels uncomfortably restrictive.

Overall, however, Portal 2 has proven to be a worthy successor to the game that started it all.  I haven’t even played through the cooperative mode yet.  The ending moments left me craving more just as much as did the original Portal.  It doesn’t have the same pick-up-and-play spirit as Portal (by virtue of its much-expanded scale and scope), but it still has an unusual indie spirit about it through its focus on clever storytelling and unique gameplay mechanics, partially thanks to its fusion with Tag: The Power of Paint.  If you can tolerate a bit of mind-bending and the sacrifice of fifty dollars, you’re a fool not to play this game.

(With my review complete, I’d like to point out that I discovered a rather dangerous game-breaking glitch earlier today.  When you first pick up Wheatley in Chapter 1 and insert him into the control panel, you must pick him back up and proceed out the door.  If you put him down before leaving, when you pick him back up, it’s possible to reconnect him to the control panel.  If you do this, it seems to be impossible to pull him back off.  The door remains closed, blocking further progression.

Just, you know…a bit of a problem there.)

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