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Portal 2 (PlayStation 3) artwork

Portal 2 (PlayStation 3) review

"So there you go. Portal 2 might not have been the brain-teaser I’d hoped for, but it is too much a breath of fresh air in a world of stale design for me not to be impressed by it. If more designers did things like Valve we’d have... well, we’d only have one game released every two years. But it would be a goddamn incredible game."

Screw introductions. It’s Portal 2. For an introduction, please play Portal 1.

The folks at Valve are masters of atmosphere. More than that, they are masters of second-person storytelling. I say second-person because, although Portal 2 is a first person shooter, it is a game that is happening to you. If it were to be written down on paper, it would go something like this...

You walk into a chamber that looks eerily familiar, despite the foliage that has burst through the tiled floors you remember being shined to a mirror-like polish. Now the flickering halogen bulbs reflect only grime and the scattering of leaves. The extent of decay is a further hint of how long you’ve been in cold storage. It was here, god knows how many years ago, that you were put to the ultimate test against GLADOS, the psychotic robot who ran the Aperture Science Labs. Her derelict form is still slumped over in the position you left her, vines beginning to creep up the sleek surface of her snake-like body.

Stephen Merchant’s Bristol accent floats down in frenetic tones from somewhere above you: “If you’ll just step into the elevator, I think I can turn it on. They told me if I ever turned it on, the world would end, so you might want to hold onto something or think about something really pleasant in the case that they were not being dishonest.”

The above scenario is lifted, more or less, from the actual game and the astute reader will notice immediately the main element which makes it work. The familiar landscape changed by the ravages of time, the plant growth that clashes with the sterile nature of the test chambers, and of course the derelict form of GLADOS herself; all come together to create something that many developers seem to forget when building their game worlds. It is something that the writer in me often screams in frustration to see left out of games.

A setting.

Somehow there has come to be a belief that, as a visual medium, video games create their own settings. That is, there exists the annoying notion that you can slap down some hills and forests, place a few buildings on one of the hills, copy-paste the whole thing twenty times and boast a world map like no one has ever seen. Such a landscape carries no weight to it, no story. It would be the equivalent of the following narrative:

You come to a room. GLADOS is in the room. She is powered down. Stephen Merchant is waiting for you up ahead. Stuff your fat face with excitement.

A setting has to do more than be a space in which the player walks around. It needs to tell a story. The greatest sign of this success in Portal 2 is not how often you will come across a locked door and wonder, desperately, what’s behind it. The sign of success is that, each time this happens, your imagination will go wild with possibilities. Portal 2 drops the player enough props and hints that the setting comes alive in their own mind. Much of the history and sprawl of Aperture Science is left to speculation, but never is there doubt that these things don’t exist... even if two fans may never agree exactly on what they are. That’s fine, by the way. Inconclusiveness is fine. Many of us have an expectation that things are somehow better when everything is tidied up and explained. I used to think this. What games like Portal 2 remind me is that mystery and the unknown are often better than their explanations and harder than we think to maintain.

Portal 2 maintains its mystery and provides a satisfying conclusion to its story. This is a far more impressive accomplishment to me than the portals themselves.

Go in red side, come out blue side. Such is the concept that launched a hundred million sales. Unfortunately, Portal 2 too often highlights the limitations of that idea. If you think about it, for as much as we all loved the first Portal and clamored for more, that game did just about everything you could do with the concept. Now you would think that bridges, hover beams, lasers, and goo that can propel you at high speed into the air would change that. No, I mean you would REALLY think that. Stop for a moment and think about it. There are lasers that have to be directed to distant receptacles to power doors and switches. You have to use a new form of the companion cube to bounce the lasers all over the place and through portals to get the aim right. That should really complicate things.

It really doesn’t.

One problem is that the rooms have become much more restrictive as to where a portal can be placed. By restricting the number of spots a portal can be used, the solution to a puzzle is often as easy as locating the next surface you can put a portal on. It is a long game of “hidden picture.” What to do with those spaces suggests itself almost immediately. Even then, too many of the solutions involve little dexterity. Occasionally something new pops up, but most of the time, these items don’t really change the puzzle all that much. The general idea is still too often to set up the map for some kind of long jump, only occasionally you’ll be holding a box that can deflect lasers. That was always ironic for me, because too rarely did I feel that real brain stretch of having to think outside of the box.

I remember, four years ago, when I placed my first portal on a wall and my second on the floor. I remember how awesomely disorienting it was to stare through a wall and up at a ceiling. I haven’t forgotten the lurch in my stomache that happened the first time I walked through that portal and began falling backwards... because I’d just walked into the air. I also remember how that feeling wore off by the time I’d attempted all of the speed challenges. The discoveries of what I could do with a portal were wonderful in the first game because they came from fooling around. The long jump I discovered by accident when playing carelessly near the edge of a pit. After I’d used it a few times it was still cool, but it had stopped blowing my mind. I thought that all the new elements in Portal 2 would recreate that almost-sandbox environment in which mind-blowing could commence, but it wasn’t until the last four or five stages that I really had to do anything incredible and out of the ordinary with those additions.

Now that I’ve said all that, I would be remiss if I did not point out one caveat to this situation. Portal 2 has a cooperative mode. And it delivers where goo and lasers could not. Let me introduce you to two robots. Their names are Orange and Blue. The following is a true story of a day in their life.

Orange was having a pretty good day. The single eye in his oval head focused on the box in front of him. Tall and skinny, he seemed to tower above the box, poised like a vulture to move it at the slightest signal from his rotund buddy, Blue. Blue had lost the last game of rock-paper-scissors, and had thus “volunteered” to cross the moving platforms across the deadly pit of acid. This box, and the laser bouncing off of it, was the only thing controlling those platforms.

Orange was pretty sure he had this one all figured out. Moving the box repositioned the beam, which caused the platforms to lower but a doorway to open for Blue once he’d crossed the pit. All Orange was waiting for was for Blue to reach the end of- and dear god he’d made it! With infinite haste and yet a calm sort of precision, Orange repositioned the box and listened with glee to the congratulatory cries of Blue.

Or were they congratulatory? Something was wrong. The platforms had begun to lower and Blue was still on them. He wasn’t jumping up to the opening. Why? He was just buzzing out sounds of robotic desperation and continually pinging the device which raised the platforms. But why should he be pinging that? They’d done that part of the puzzle. Orange was confused. Blue was sinking. He was sure jumping around a lot. Robots can’t scream, but Blue did anyway. A moment later, he was dunked in an acid bath and exploded.

A second passed. Orange did a little dance. And then Blue was back. He pointed to the platform and Orange understood it was his turn. He just hoped Blue understood what had gone wrong and wasn’t in a vindictive mood...

Unlike Mr. Suskie, I recommend not bringing a mic to the above cooperative experience. In fact, had my friend and I been using a mic, none of the above hilarity would ever have ensued. Cooperative mode utilizes an in-game form of communication that relies entirely on the players paying attention to each other, giving return signals, and hoping to god that their teammate is saying what they think he’s saying.

It’s learning a new language. I’ve never seen that before in a cooperative game but now that Valve has done it, I wonder why not? Communication is, after all, the most basic of cooperative functions. If people were better communicators then games like Left 4 Dead 2 wouldn’t be so damn frustrating and maybe everyone would stop calling me a pussy when I fail to headshot the specific zombie they told me to kill. By putting the two robots on an equally mute playing field, Portal 2 ensures that no single player can take command and start barking orders to the “newbie.” And if he does, you can just dump him into a pit of acid in the next test chamber. The fact that you can’t really die, mixed with the inevitable taunts of GLADOS after each death, makes Portal 2 the only game I can think of where you actually laugh when your teammate screws you over with their incompetence.

The other thing that makes cooperative mode rock is that it really does twist the brain around. Each robot has their own fully equipped portal gun and that complicates things beautifully. The main game expanded the metaphorical box but ultimately didn’t change its shape. With an unpredictable teammate and four portals to keep track of, the box is twisted inside-out and turned into some kind of trapezoidal rhombus. Yeah, the image isn’t supposed to make sense. There are still rules in single-player portal. Here’s where they get broken, and it’s so worth it.

So there you go. Portal 2 might not have been the brain-teaser I’d hoped for, but it is too much a breath of fresh air in a world of stale design for me not to be impressed by it. If more designers did things like Valve we’d have... well, we’d only have one game released every two years. But it would be a game worth the wait. The only thing truly lacking in Portal 2 is a turret voiced by Karl Pilkington. I’d really like to be targeted by something that couldn’t be bothered to shoot me and would start whinging instead.

Maybe in 2018.


zippdementia's avatar
Featured community review by zippdementia (April 26, 2011)

Zipp has spent most of his life standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox there. Sometimes he writes reviews and puts them in the mailbox.

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If you enjoyed this Portal 2 review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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Suskie posted April 26, 2011:

Hey, it's nice to see a new review from you, and I greatly enjoyed this one. You make an interesting point about the in-game cooperative communication system, too. I've never actually played co-op without a mic (or with a partner who didn't have a mic, for that matter) but I imagined that some of the more complex puzzles (particularly the very last room, the one with the cube covered in propulsion gel, etc.) would be an absolute nightmare if you and your buddy weren't constantly on the same page. But... somehow you make a case for it.

That's one of the reasons I like reading reviews here. Occasionally someone makes an argument that never would have occurred to me, and has the writing skills to sell it. Excellent work.
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Masters posted April 27, 2011:

One problem is that the rooms have become much more restrictive as to where a portal can be placed. By restricting the number of spots a portal can be used, the solution to a puzzle is often as easy as locating the next surface you can put a portal on. It is a long game of “hidden picture.”

This is very true.

Nice job, dude. I think, however, you have "stomache" in the review somewhere. I'm too lazy to find it again though.
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zippdementia posted April 27, 2011:

I'm glad you understood that I wasn't taking a shot at you, Suskie, in the review. It was really nice to write a review again for Honest Gamers. I've missed it. I'll go find that rogue stomache, ha!, unless Overdrive shows up to tell me it's okay to claim british spelling on it.
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joseph_valencia posted April 27, 2011:

Everyone's reviewing "Portal 2" these days. Must be the latest whizz-bang game the kids're into.
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zippdementia posted April 27, 2011:

Or, in Zipp's case, it's the only game short enough for him to actually complete.
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Masters posted April 27, 2011:

But seriously, it's not that short. I just beat it this evening... good times. It's Portal 1 with some new ideas, dragged out a bit too much. Still better than 99% of the games coming out these days.
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zippdementia posted April 28, 2011:

Oh, I'm not knocking it! It's just shorter than Dragon Age 2, is all I mean. I miss the days of 10-20 hour games.

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