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Portal 2 (Xbox 360) artwork

Portal 2 (Xbox 360) review


"Breaking free of the chains and finally seeing what lies beyond Aperture’s white test chamber walls was one of Portal’s greatest pleasures, and the sequel mimics that sense of discovery beautifully. The key difference is that when Portal 2 reaches this point, the game has only just begun."



Portal was a brilliant puzzle game, but I feel most people loved it for not stopping there. It introduced an ingenious mechanic, trained us to use it, steadily ramped the difficulty, and then unexpectedly threw itself off the rails. Suddenly, the rusty catwalks and empty offices suggested that there was more to this fictional universe than pristine white surfaces. Suddenly, GLaDOS had a role to play beyond dropping one-liners, evolving from malevolent overseer to outright villain. Suddenly, we were out of the test chambers, and the skills we’d spent the entire game fine-tuning now served a far more personal purpose. The reason it’s so difficult to distinguish Portal the puzzler from Portal the narrative is because they both peaked at precisely the same moment.

So, despite lasting only three hours, Portal ended at the only point it could have, on its highest and most tantalizing note. Where do you go from there? How do you expand on a game that begs for elaboration, yet garnered praise for its daring brevity?

Portal 2 toys relentlessly with our expectations. We wake up in a living unit that’s blandly decorated and doesn’t look the slightest bit out of place amidst Aperture’s boring white corridors. And then we see said living unit physically ripped from its tower and dragged through an enormous underground city full of similar-looking buildings. We’re accompanied by a robot named Wheatley, who has the distinction of being the first character in this universe who doesn’t actually sound like a robot. We get our hands on a portal gun and are sent through a familiar set of warm-up test chambers, except now they’re overrun with lush plant life. The collapse of civilization is briefly mentioned, and a computer that tries to tell you how long you’ve been in stasis breaks down after saying “nine” a bunch of times.

And then, for a while, it’s just more Portal. More bizarre physics-based puzzles set in white test chambers, all bookended with jokes by a robotic supervisor (a male voice this time). It’s not long before we’re inevitably reunited with a bitter GLaDOS, yet her idea of revenge is to simply put us through more tests. Wheatley pops up from time to time, assuring us from behind the scenes that he’s working on an escape plan. Meanwhile, we keep testing, and this goes on for just long enough to make us believe that there are no major surprises in store for us.

And then Wheatley makes good on his promise, and a getaway is initiated. I won’t tell you what happens after that. Breaking free of the chains and finally seeing what lies beyond Aperture’s white test chamber walls was one of Portal’s greatest pleasures, and the sequel mimics that sense of discovery beautifully. The key difference is that when Portal 2 reaches this point, the game has only just begun.

Portal 2 is a triumph of presentation, and it evokes the same wild range of emotions that made players feel so connected to the original game. We laugh when we should be angry. We feel regretful when we should feel triumphant. We love villains we should hate. We’re amused by the game’s abundant one-liners, and then we stumble upon a radio playing a poignant original song by The National and are reminded just how lonely this world is. It’s a much more visually varied game than its predecessor – which is a relief, given that it’s several times as long – and if Portal 2 isn’t as quotable as the first, it’s no less laugh-out-loud funny. Ellen McLain, J. K. Simmons and especially Stephen Merchant all seem to be enjoying their roles, and their enthusiasm brings the outrageous dialog to convincing life. And Nolan North arguably steals the show, though this may be the first time you don’t recognize his voice.

You’ll notice I haven’t said much about the actual puzzles yet, and there’s a reason for that: because of course they’re brilliant. Now that nearly every self-respecting gamer knows his or her way around a portal gun, Valve is free to steepen the difficulty curve, unveiling new mechanics at regular intervals and expecting us to have mastered them within minutes of being introduced to them. Portal 2 has you redirecting lasers, launching yourself from jump pads, and painting levels with several different varieties of gel, among many other surprises. As during its predecessor’s trickiest moments, the game makes you feel like an idiot and a genius in equal proportion, which is what the best puzzlers should do.

So Portal 2’s design builds upon the foundations set by its predecessor, as does its story. Yet if the game fails to live up to the original’s standards in any way, it’s that these two aspects rarely work hand-in-hand. Portal 2’s world and characters are so fascinating that it’s maddening when Valve puts major plot developments on hold for long stretches of time. The puzzles certainly stand up on their own, but getting stuck in a test chamber for an embarrassingly long period of time (which happened to me on a number of occasions) is all the more frustrating when you’re hungry for details, and it makes Portal 2 feel slower than it actually is. It doesn’t help that a few puzzles in the second act – mainly involving something called “conversion gel” – felt uncharacteristically clunky in comparison to the rest of the game. I guess a longer campaign leaves more room for error, and it only makes a stronger case that Portal’s short completion time was a good thing.

On the tighter and more concise end of the stick is the new cooperative mode, which has two player-controlled robots with portal guns acting as test partners for more of GLaDOS’s experiments. It’s exactly what it sounds like. The same rules apply, but now the puzzles require two people, four portals, multiple perspectives and constant communication. It’s roughly half the length of the solo campaign and there’s barely a story to it, but it never drags and houses some of Portal 2’s cleverest sequences, delightfully exploring mechanics that wouldn’t be possible in a single-player setting (like when one player builds speed with a classic “infinite fall” while the other sets up a portal elsewhere and launches his partner into the air).

I do recommend bringing a microphone to co-op, not simply because coordination is a must, but because the hilarity of playing a Portal game alongside a friend is something to take advantage of. Plans fail, strokes of genius prove unsuccessful, mistakes are made, deaths happen at the behest of the other player, and it’s all uproarious fun. The co-op mode also sports some of GLaDOS’s best dialog as she constantly tries to turn the two robots against one another. (On a side note, the Xbox 360 version of the game is the only one that’s not Steam-compatible, so I’d recommend getting it on another platform if you have the option.)

I mentioned before that Portal 2 isn’t as quotable as the original game, and I feel that was done intentionally. One line from the finale has already caught on as something of a secret handshake between players who have beaten the game, but little attempt was made to hammer new memes into the internet stratosphere or reinforce old ones; I didn’t catch a single cake reference, and Jonathan Coulton bravely wrote up a brand new credits song, rather than going the safe route and rehashing “Still Alive.” Portal 2 had a lot to live up to, but it doesn’t feel like it’s living in its predecessor’s shadow. Portal has rightfully earned its place in pop culture, and that frees Valve to expand on the franchise in ways they see fit. Portal 2 is a bigger and more organic experience, and even if it’s not as perfect as its predecessor was, that’s part of what makes it so much more human.

Rating: 9/10

Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (April 25, 2011)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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Suskie posted April 25, 2011:

Aw, I wanted to know what he said. But down to business:

Portal has rightfully earn its place in pop culture, and that frees Valve to expand on the franchise in ways they see fit.

Fix plz thx.
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zigfried posted April 26, 2011:

Fixed!
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Masters posted April 26, 2011:

Wonderful review. Hopefully, I'll beat the game this evening after work.
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Suskie posted April 26, 2011:

Thanks to both of you (for different reasons).

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