Game: Portal 2

Genre: Puzzle/Platformer that happens to be First-Person

Developer: Valve Corporation

Publisher: Valve Corporation

Platform: PC, Mac, Xbox 360, PS3

Score: Doing science, and still alive.

It might be boilerplate to say, but I truly relished Portal.  From the moment it was released it became an indelible landmark on gaming.  It was a short but robust game, filled with witty dialogue, truly humorous comedy, some physics, and a great punch line involving cake.  As a bonus, the credits play what can only be described as The Greatest Video Game Song.  I recommended that friends buy the game despite criticism about its length. It was too short – but Portal was a mythical, flighty creature – a rare work of art that we didn’t deserve to play at full length. A short, stolen glance of what games could be.

So imagine my unease when Valve announced Portal 2. Did I dare hope that they could rekindle the magic – and make it full length too? I’d been burned before. Keeping this trepidation in mind, I cautiously pre-ordered Portal 2 the second it was available to do so. My only regret is that I couldn’t swagger into Valve Headquarters and personally hand Gabe Newell my money.  Not as a thank you, but as a challenge.

Portal 2 picks up where the first one left off; sort of – it’s the future but all the players are in their places.  GLaDOS is still offline and Chell has been placed in a party-posture induced stasis.  You come to in an Aperture Science Extended Relaxation Center and are told to look at the ceiling and then the floor (the gymnastics requirement) and then engage in a cognitive test (look at a painting for five seconds until a loud buzzer stops you) before being returned to cryo-sleep. Something goes terribly wrong at some point after this, because you wake up 500 years later. It’s the same room, now decrepit, and the helpful PA voice has been replaced with the loud ramblings of a personality core.  Ricky Gervais the Robot, or Wheatley as the game calls him, loquaciously ‘helps’ Chell escape. Somewhere along the way GLaDOS is, of course, rebooted.  The storytelling of Portal 2 is a bit of an unsung hero among reviews.  Paintings, signs, recorded messages, and the occasional robot are all skillfully used to advance the plot. It gets into the how and why of Aperture Science, all the key characters, and is classy enough to draw from Greek Mythology to do so.  The story itself is deep and engaging, but also a bit of a puzzle in its own right; there’s plenty of pieces for the player to assemble if they care to.

The story in the first Portal was a little thin and mostly implied – and Portal 2 exceeds it (Yes, it’s even twice as long). So that’s all well and good, but what about the humor? Fans of the first will be relieved to know that it doesn’t lose its charm or silliness. I can’t say I was in tears, but I was laughing in my computer chair throughout the entire game. Good comedy is difficult to sustain over a long period of time – even more so for a sequel to hit the same mark without becoming tired or missing the point. There is a brief hiccup near the beginning where it feels forced and almost a parody of the first game. I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt on that theory, as it doesn’t take long for Portal 2 to hit its own stride – and never slow down again.  The addition of Cave Johnson, the president of Aperture Science, easily stole the show. J. K. Simmons, who voiced him, delivers some of the best comedic lines in recent memory.

Portal 2 is funnier than its predecessor, sure, but what about the gameplay? The puzzles still mostly involve finding where to shoot a portal and which platform to launch Chell from.  Gone are most of the twitch-based puzzles, which have apparently been ground up into gel. There were enough of them in the first game for three different colors: orange slidey gel, blue bouncy gel, and white ‘you can make a portal here’ gel. As with the original, the puzzles get more complex as the game progresses, many incorporating each of the elements to solve – but they never actually get hard. In Portal, you die a few times from a misfired portal shot; in Portal 2, you stand around for awhile shooting portals at lights in the distance. In neither will you get a challenge, but there’s a co-op mode where you and a friend play as silly robot friends with double the portal guns and some story to boot – if you’re into that.

Some of you may know that pacing is one facet of gaming I tend to stress.  Perfect pacing allows for a game to be an experience.  Poor pacing leads to boredom.  Portal 2 is perfectly paced.  Rooms vary in size and difficulty.  Too much time is never spent in the same type of environment.  Scientific ruins, clean labs, the city of Rapture, factory bowels, and even [REDACTED] are amongst the locations explored.  The action ebbs and flows naturally with the shifting scenery.  That story I ranted about fills in the gaps between puzzles and action.  Humor is omnipresent throughout but shifts between light mental chuckles and riotous laughter.  The cleverly named final chapter in particular paces itself quite well.  It recognizes it is the end of the game and moves it along while not skimping on the dialogue.  The final boss itself is a relaxed but amusing encounter that serves mostly as the shot of espresso after eating a delicious meal.  In other words, Portal 2 never leaves you bored.  The game may speed up or slow down but is always entertaining.  This variance is an evolution from Portal 1’s, at times, formulaic ‘puzzle, humor, puzzle, humor’ pacing.

If I were forced to say something bad about the game, I’d mention that there were two loading screens that stopped me during a chase scene.  I’m not sure what the devs were trying to do that landed them mid jog but they were unfortunate.  I’m pretty sure I said, with my mouth, as they popped up, “Aw, that’s too bad.”  The following things I would not complain about, even if forced to say something bad about the game, but have heard Portal 2 criticized over:

•         The game is too short

Seeing as it’s twice as long as Portal 1 and has a co-op story with hours of extra puzzling in addition to third-party map support, I am forced to assume that the real criticism here is that Portal 2 ended at all.  I can sympathize; I also wanted to play Portal 2 forever.

•         $85 of DLC on day one

It’s not DLC – It’s a stupid hat store for your stupid robots.  If you want to pay real money for stupid hats for your stupid robots: you’re stupid.  This isn’t Dragon Age selling you day one gameplay content.  This is the skinning team spending 45 minutes making your robots pink and shit.  Moreover, if you’re upset that stupid people buy stupid hats for their stupid robots, well you can see where this is going.

•         The game isn’t worth $50

Cave Johnson alone is worth $15.  Whether or not the game is worth $50 is an interesting question, but I have a better question: Who wants to make 60 bucks?

The system that I use to evaluate a game, all things considered, is an extremely complex mathematical formula – the cost to fun ratio.  I had well over $50 worth of fun with this game.  I’ve long said that if I were to introduce someone to video gaming as a whole, someone completely new to the medium, out of all the games in history; I’d give them Portal.

Portal 2 is a fitting sequel to such a game.

This game was reviewed on PC.