For anyone that hasn’t noticed, Portal 2 was released a few days ago. I’ve already played through the single-player portion of the game (the only portion that I’m interested in, to be honest), and thought I would write up a review.
Long story short, my feelings toward Portal 2 are a bit mixed. Viewed as a game in its own right, Portal 2 does not disappoint. It’s really hard to find much to fault it for in this context. But viewed as a continuation of the original Portal, the game just doesn’t quite live up to the sky-high expectations that I (and probably other fans of the original game) had for it. GLaDOS is back, and just as sarcastic, humorous, and passive-aggressive as ever. At least for the first half of the game. Something seems to happen to the writing about halfway through; it loses its clever wit, that special something-or-other that left you anticipating the next catty remark from GLaDOS and laughing-out-loud when it finally arrived.
Much of the dialog towards the end of the game becomes just matter-of-fact moving-the-story-along chatter, with one AI acting loopy and another AI trying to provide a plausible explanation for why the first one is acting loopy. After a certain point, it just doesn’t feel as clever. At first I thought that it might be just because your antagonist changes, but that’s not really it. Wheatley’s early game dialog is on par with anything GLaDOS ever said, but as the game progresses his lines become less and less inspired. By the time you reach the end some of them are so bland that you pretty much have to force yourself to listen.
In the end, I think the developers erred in putting too much effort into trying to explain and justify their game world. Why should I care about history when there is a sarcastic, witty, and antagonistic AI practically goading me into dismantling it? Such was the case in Portal, but unfortunately not so in Portal 2. Instead the game distracts itself in trying to explain the origins of its world and the players within it, and the result is that some of the drive to keep pushing forward is lost.
Moving along, Portal had its fair share of fiendishly difficult levels. Levels which would leave you genuinely stumped and probably kill you once or twice before you puzzled your way out of them. Portal 2 has a couple of moderately challenging levels, but for the most part the puzzles are straightforward and easy to solve. I’m glad that for the most part the developers fixed it so that going through a portal won’t arbitrarily rotate your character’s orientation (and/or they made it easier to avoid placing portals such that they force you to rotate), but apart from that I think the game was nerfed a bit too much.
Portal put you on a conveyor belt heading towards an incinerator and left you with very little time to work out an escape plan. The situation felt very tense the first time through, and if you did not react very quickly to locate the way out then the game had no qualms about killing you for your shortcoming. Portal 2 has a similar scenario, but the way out of it is much too obvious and the element of danger just isn’t there. Rather than being compelled to react, it feels like there’s plenty of time to just stand their and listen to the AI gloat about its triumph. The sense of imminent danger just isn’t there like it was in the original game.
That said, there’s very little to complain about in terms of graphics, sound or gameplay. Any reviewer who gripes about Portal 2 (PC version, obviously) suffering from being a “port of the console version” is just being a fool. Portal 2 was implemented using the Source engine, an engine which began its life first and foremost as a PC game engine. It cannot be a “port” of anything if its implementation engine natively supports the PC as a target platform.
Yes the graphics in Portal 2 are a bit simple/dated-looking, but such has been the case with every Source-engine game released (even the very first games to use the engine). Valve has always favored attaining playable framerates on lower-end hardware over throwing in lots of hardware-crushing eye-candy, and I’m not about to fault them for their decision. If you need hardware-crushing eye-candy, play Crysis.
On top of its solid graphics and gameplay, Portal 2 gives you quite a few new puzzles to play through. In fact, there are almost certainly more puzzles in the Portal 2 single-player game than in Portal’s single-player game. But, because of the decreased level of difficulty, most of these new puzzles can be breezed through in a handful of minutes, even on your first play-through. It took me less then 7 hours to complete the single-player game, and I wasn’t rushing or trying to solve puzzles as quickly as possible.
I spent time exploring the environment and looking around, trying to knock off as many achievements as I could, and still I only needed 7 hours to complete the game. That’s a bit short, but the problem isn’t that the game itself is too short, rather it’s that the level of difficulty has been reduced too much. Once you know the solutions, Portal can be completed in far less than 7 hours. Portal 2’s real problem is that too many of the solutions are a bit too obvious.
Portal 2 does introduce a number of new gameplay elements, from the propulsion/repulsion/conversion gels, to mirrored “discouragement redirection cubes”, to hard-light bridges, excursion beams, and “aerial faith-plates”. The last of these I find a bit questionable, as their real purpose seems to be replacing some of Portal’s more challenging jumps (the ones where you have to work out some way to build sufficient momentum to bridge an impassable chasm of some sort or another) with a prepackaged solution that “just works”.
Unlike the gels, mirrors, bridges, and beams, the aerial faith-plates function less as a tool for solving the current puzzle and more like a quick way of hopping between Point A and Point B without using a portal and without having to worry about where you land. I think the game could have been better without them, but apart from that I also think that the rest of the new gameplay elements function very well within the context of the game, and I’m surprised that Valve was able to come up with so many new physics things to add to the game.
One last thing that leaves me a little confused is the decision to replace the guided missiles of Portal with generic unpropelled exploding boxes in Portal 2. It doesn’t really change the gameplay that much, but personally I found the missiles to be a lot more threatening and fun than some nondescript red boxes that just happen to explode when they hit something. Perhaps Valve decided that they didn’t want to renew their missile targeting AI license?
Anyways, though I have picked the game apart over a few minor issues, I still think that overall Portal 2 is a very fun game and worth a play-through or two. Play it and enjoy it as a game in its own right, as its biggest flaws only become apparent when you hold it to the candle that is Portal the first. It doesn’t quite satisfy as a sequel to that original magical title, but as a first-person puzzle game with a completely unique mode of gameplay there’s still nothing else quite like it.
Overall score: 8.5 / 10.0
P.S. The Portal Song is an order of magnitude better than The Portal 2 Song. So don’t get your hopes up expecting an epic musical ending like in the first game. You still get a musical ending, but it’s not quite as epic.