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Portal 2 (Mac) artwork

Portal 2 (Mac) review

"The many extra obstacles add plenty of freshness and the counterpointing speech of Wheatley and GlaDOS (plus Cave Johnson’s flamboyant tycoon-like persona) are highly entertaining themselves. However the cinematic blemish can unnecessarily stretch the game, whereas the co-operative campaign is straightforward and thus more entertaining."

When marketing a product, nothing is as cost-effective as brand recognition; it’s a lot harder for an unknown product to succeed on merit alone. The use of established franchises and characters has always been prevalent in games, but as development costs have ballooned in this current generation, an overreliance on household names is fuelling a bubble. The initially experimental Portal had the huge benefit of Valve’s weight behind it, but even then it was conservatively bundled with highly awaited sequels to Half-Life and Team Fortress. Like its free-to-play spiritual predecessor, Narbacular Drop, Portal would've otherwise struggled to gain recognition without the hit developers credentials.

The original Portal had the innovative air of originality akin to an independent studio, which cut its own niche as a first-person puzzler. The pristine test chambers portrayed the experimental concept as a no-nonsense affair with twenty puzzles, accompanied by GlaDOS’s sardonic voice. However it became apparent that the Aperture Science Facility’s course was a trap, with the final showdown being against the evil supercomputer itself. Portal 2 is set well after this, as the protagonist Chell wakes up from suspended animation to find the facility in a completely dilapidated state. Wheatley, a robotic eyeball, initially accompanies Chell and provides a stark contrast to GlaDOS’s calculating manner. His frantic speech manner and unserious West Country English accent always come across as engaging and friendly, even when his relationship with Chell changes somewhat.

Despite the cosmetic changes, this sequel retains the same formula of placing portals with the portal gun; enter through one portal and exit through the other, with strategic placement of these portals a necessity to solve the challenges. The retro-chic design is still apparent in the remnants of the facility with familiar obstacles highly emphasized visually: walls that ‘accept’ portals are coloured white, buttons are red, and moving platforms are ubiquitous squares. Cubes and timed buttons have to be negotiated, while energy balls and lasers must be placed into their appropriate receivers. Although a few puzzles are re-used, new puzzle components have been implemented also. Tractor beams alongside light-ray walls and platforms can be diverted through portals, and prismatic cubes can help redirect light into receivers.

However the environments become increasingly unrecognizable throughout, as the settings appear more industrial. The paths begin to diverge away from the puzzle chambers, where portals have to be experimentally shot at random surfaces in increasingly expansive environments. In the latter part of the game, recordings from Cave Johnson, the deceased co-founder of Aperture Science, guide Chell through a new set of puzzles that have to be solved by manipulating special gels. Blue gels can be bounced upon, orange gels allow a burst of speed and portals can be placed on a surface where white gel has been in contact. Just when the end appears looming, Portal 2 transforms into a startlingly different game midway.

It’s not uncommon for the finale to cry wolf after becoming accustomed to the length of the original. It’s unimaginable how the four-hour campaign could have been lengthened; yet this has quadrupled it for size and has done so rather well. A much more cinematic emphasis is placed in the post-acopalyptic style adventure, plus seismic changes to the environment that almost kill Chell, intentionally or not, add surprises. GlaDOS’s deadpan humour contrasts well with Wheatley’s ‘pally’ approach. Some of the changes make the experience drag on unnecessarily though. The ‘off-piste’ sections just don’t suit the nature of the game; attempting to fire portals on unfamiliar surfaces is cumbersome and makes getting lost a little easy. Going outside of the usual puzzles is well intentioned, but it loses focus from the purpose of the formula.

By contrast, these flaws do not apply to the two-player co-operative campaign, as the campaign goes back to basics with one chamber directly following another. Played either split screen or online, this is easily one of the greatest co-op experiences of all time. The outrageously complicated puzzles make this game a digital leapfrog, one player might have to push a button for the other to pass through a door, for instance, in new purpose-made maps. Playing as the test robots Atlas or P-Body, live communication and the use of graphical cue overlays is essential to negotiating four portals between them. Unlike the needless padding that can blight the single-player, the two-player chambers directly follow one-another.

Chell’s travails may draw a few too many parallels to Gordon Freeman’s escape from Black Mesa than is necessary for a puzzle game, but the Half-Life polish does carry its benefits. The evergreen Source engine adequately meets the greater graphical demands of eroding chambers and cumbersome upholstery, and ambient electronic music is smoothly dispersed as a respite from Wheatley’s Bristolian charm and GlaDOS’s villainous style. Portal’s stand out feature is the frequent meta-humour and references, and how many things are just a staged façade. The original showed the innocent puzzle game as a giant trap, the game here starts with Chell waking up in a fake hotel room in the facility, whilst GlaDOS and Wheatley state an addiction to ‘testing’ and bicker about which puzzle Chell should do.

Valve have done well to make the experimental concept a serious game, but this could well have been what they were planning all along. The many extra obstacles add plenty of freshness and the counterpointing speech of Wheatley and GlaDOS (plus Cave Johnson’s flamboyant tycoon-like persona) are highly entertaining themselves. However the cinematic blemish can unnecessarily stretch the game, whereas the co-operative campaign is straightforward and thus more entertaining. Nonetheless these setbacks do not prevent Portal 2 from being an essential for any Steam account. Not many games offer the combination of finely crafted humour and fiendish puzzles, and there is a vibrant online community that allows the sharing of custom maps once the included campaigns have been beaten. Just don’t go expecting any baked deserts here though.


bigcj34's avatar
Community review by bigcj34 (October 18, 2013)

Cormac Murray is a freelance contributor for HG and is a fanboy of Sega and older Sony consoles. For modern games though he pledges allegiance to the PC Master Race, by virtue of a MacBook running Windows.

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