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Portal 2 (PC) artwork

Portal 2 (PC) review


"There will never be a Portal 3, and I'm okay with that."


I was enthralled, like most Portal fans, to find out there was a sequel to my favorite first person narrative puzzler by legendary developer and publisher Valve. The trailers teased and when I launched the game via Steam, I was thrilled that there was no marketing embellishment to let me down. Everything I had seen was true, and just a hint at the expansive worldbuilding the team was undertaking. It's understandable that we - as fans - want to see more of the world, but unlike Half Life, the end of this game culminates in an unarguable manner. There will never be a Portal 3, and I'm okay with that.

The Portal games are first person narrative puzzlers in which you utilize a bulbous, white retro-futuristic gun to shoot energy pellets that create portals. These portals form a passageway regardless of their proximity, within the confines of the level. At first you're granted access to the single portal gun which can create a blue portal, whereupon you rely upon the level to supply the orange connecting aperture. Later on, when you're comfortable with that, you're given access to the dual portal gun which replaces the former. You're then responsible for the placement of both portals and puzzles are limited only by the imagination and presented mechanics of the developers.

Portal 2 (PC) image

The story is what I'd call 'heedlessly intertwined' with its gameplay, having momentum that is both patient yet driven. You may ruminate at any point over copious details or rush along to the next stage without regard for any of it. Your experience would be so much the lesser should you choose the latter, however. Valve has crafted a game that supersedes its graphically limited engine by way of a story so strange it can’t help but be a psychological gut punch. There is a definite gravity to its sense of humour that grounds the tale it has to tell, in part thanks to the peculiarity of it all. So, how does a demolished A.I., idiot core and voiceless protagonist accomplish all of this?

So glad you asked. Portal 2 has to stand on its own narrative legs, teach you how to play, school you in its mechanics and give you sufficient cause to not just beat the game, but entertain the notion of its multiplayer mode. That is no small task, but fortunately Portal was one heck of an introduction. Once again Valve banks on their ability to create a world worth investigating to provide for the first and last points. The rest is just fun.

Yeah. Literally, it’s about fun. Valve wisely mirrors the introduction to Portal with a twist that leaves players inquisitive and hungry for more. Everything I could say is spoilery, so I’ll talk about the interactions you have with the world and its new mechanics. The reality is that you’ll either be a fan of vocal performances or you won’t, and though they are important, you can get along without being a superfan.

Portal 2 (PC) image

Portal 2’s soft introduction is environmental storytelling with more exposition than you’ll ever find in the Half Life series, but that’s because of this game’s run-and-gun style of deadpan humour. Delivered by robots and A.I., you might expect that, but it’s context that makes things funny. It’s classic ‘funny because it’s terrible’, but not depressing because you’re a) too busy solving puzzles, and b) can’t see the state of the world above. That said you are teased that things are great, above, to the extent it can't possibly be true. Especially if you know anything about the universe in which this title resides.

The fine art of timing, delivery and length of dialogue given by the idiot core, GLaDOS herself and an automated recording that guide you through testing “designed to function in apocalyptic conditions” are a product of rigorous player testing and quality assurance. Which, by the way, brings up the role that you’re fulfilling. You assume the role of a test subject, maybe a clone, maybe not, but who knows? Not even the A.I. clarifies that for you, and it’s probably better left alone, being rather off topic at any length.

Portal 2 (PC) image

After the introduction, you’re introduced to a new companion who bumbles you right into the grip of GLaDOS, the A.I. that controls the testing facility within Aperture Science. After retrieving the portal gun and completing a few chambers, everything changes. The ruins left behind in the wake of the previous game’s destruction are swept away in front of your eyes, with appropriate realism I might add, and replaced with a fresh coat of new textures, blocks and devices that are the means for more advanced puzzle solving and storytelling.

Never one without the other, which I rather enjoy because I’m not having to sit through cutscenes. I always find it fascinating to watch the wall panels wrestle with the old pieces they're supposed to replace, which tells a little tale of its own. Audio blurbs at the beginning and end of each level and the visual changes that accompany are more than adequate to communicate the havoc that you’ve wrecked, and demonstrate just how much control GLaDOS really has over your future. Once again, though, you slip between the cracks and everything goes quite awry.

Portal 2 (PC) image

The “tests” you’ve run through so far have acquainted you with the portal gun as a tool for traversing impassable pits, impossible leaps, and improbable puzzles involving weighted storage cubes, but there’s more in store before they bring out the heavy guns. Valve takes us to the past so that we can explore Aperture’s origins and get to know Cave Johnson. He’s a terrible, fascinating beast and quite entertaining to learn about, and listen to.

In Aperture’s past is a gel that is implied to cause cancer that can make surfaces portal compatible when they’re normally not. This gives you more control and options, though it is in fact the third gel you’re given to play with. The others increase your running speed and jumping height when you interact with them. In true puzzler fashion, you’re given them on a per level basis until you’re working with all three at once, though it’s nowhere near as daunting as it sounds.

Beyond this you’re tasked with figuring out how to solve more practical problems like having an idiot in charge. Hint: You’re all going to die unless you do something, so you’ve got to follow the instructions of a your guide who shows you how to well... do some sabotage. You’ll also get some insight into just why you were given so many chances in the first game. A big plus with Portal 2 is that you get the answers the first game raised, even when you're given new ones to ponder.

Portal 2 (PC) image

You see, this is also a setup for the third part of Portal’s story. Valve could have rolled it out as an expansion, but since there wasn’t enough story to support another whole game, you get what the multiplayer will give you. Not having completed it - I know, shameful - all I can say is it lacks a human component, except for the two players who pretend to be experimental robots. Testing with humans isn’t enough, apparently, though it does allow for more puzzles that require more than teamwork to complete. The downside to this is you need to hook up with someone you trust enough to complete the entire campaign, which can leave you hanging if for some reason you don't get around to that.

So how does Portal 2 fare so many years after its release? Built on the Source Engine for DirectX9, you might expect this to run smoothly on just about anything with moderate graphics acceleration. That's mostly true, with the relative power of GPUs these days, though your mileage may vary with integrated graphics. What this game lacks in fidelity, it makes up for in complexity and can overwhelm older hardware. There's not a lot of detail to lose thanks to the technically competent execution of the game and its superior art direction. There are juxtapositions of twentieth century design that serve as puzzles and fascinating set pieces that exist in the form of examples of the mess you left when you went away.

Portal 2 (PC) image

Oh, I almost forgot the music. Valve’s atypical relationship with soundtracks rears its head once again, but brings a note of inventiveness to the parade, this time. It is what I would call ‘neo-eletronic classical’, having an orchestral sound with synthetic instrumentation. Honestly, while I appreciated the creativity put into the score, I wouldn’t call it a soundtrack, exactly. You won't hear a strong theme or melodic backing of any sort while you play, but subtle hints of audio will sometimes steps in with a brief but foreboding tone. In an unexpected move, a series of sequential tones underscore your interactions with the coloured gel and thermal discouragement beams. It does provide a pleasant backdrop to the oppressive atmosphere of GLaDOS' demeaning humour.

I could say that this is a sure fire winner for any fan of the series, but both titles have one serious drawback, and that’s replayability. Of course that’s to be expected from a story driven puzzle, because there’s not a single moment of procedural generation in this game. This is an experience to be treasured once completed, discussed, and perhaps revisited in time. A lot of fans were disappointed that the end credits song wasn’t as memorable and/or catchy as its progenitor, but not only was it unlikely to be, there’s an element of truth to it that may be hard for players to accept.

Portal 2 (PC) image

At some point the story must end and the players must retire. They just “Want You Gone” because they have a life to live. Valve has largely gotten out of the publishing and development side of the industry, and it is clear in retrospect that this is what they wanted. We can lament their decision, or we can be grateful for the stories we got to be a part of. I choose gratitude, and suggest that if you haven’t tried this delightful example of game design, don’t hesitate. It can be had cheaply and truly is a steal even at full price. Now it's your turn to "grow old or die trying".

4.5/5

hastypixels's avatar
Community review by hastypixels (April 06, 2019)

At some point you stop justifying what you play and begin to realize what you're learning by playing.

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