PC Games Review: Portal 2

on Sunday, September 25, 2011 with 0 comments
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Portal 2 is an accessible, clever, and downright hilarious adventure into the eccentric world of Aperture Science.

The Good

  • Immensely clever writing   

  • Portal mechanics combine with new elements for delightful puzzles   

  • Cooperative campaign creates intriguing situations   

  • New characters are hugely entertaining.

  • The Bad

  • Frequent load times   

  • No challenge maps or leaderboards to inspire competitive play.

  • After the outlandish setting, ingenious gameplay, and hilarious dialogue had all run their course, Portal left you with some pretty big unknowns. Chief among them were, "What happens now?" and "How did that whole weird situation come to pass?" Portal 2 sets out to answer these questions, and in doing so travels both forward and backward from the conclusion of Portal. The result is a sequel that doesn't try to replicate the successful formula of its predecessor. Rather, it expands upon that original experience, creating something that feels initially familiar. Yet as you progress through the enthralling single-player journey and tangle with the clever cooperative campaign, any worries that things might be too familiar are swept away by the scope of your adventure and the characters you meet along the way. Once again, you are caught up in the fantastic world of Aperture Science, where hilarious and endearing dialogue is delivered by disembodied voices and artificial intelligences, and where inventive gameplay mechanics and a smooth difficulty curve make the sublime satisfaction of puzzle solving accessible to all.

    The single-player campaign starts by addressing the issue of what happens now that you've destroyed the malevolent AI who tried to incinerate you. "Now" may be a relative term in the bowels of Aperture Science, but the facility you enter is still reeling from your actions at the end of Portal. Almost immediately, you meet a very helpful and attentive AI who wants to team up with you so that you both can escape dire peril. Despite looking like a metal basketball with handles and a camera lens, this AI is physically expressive and immensely entertaining. His well-meaning yet slightly inept persona is an immediate source of laughter that consistently delights throughout the game. Like that of its predecessor, Portal 2's writing is a standout. Not only is it packed with splendidly witty writing and excellent voice acting, but it also manages to create robust characters out of metal parts and thin air.
    It's not long before you find an Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device (colloquially known as a "portal gun") and start slinging portals like it was 2007. Those unfamiliar with this technology need not fear: Portal 2 has a nice learning curve that quickly brings you up to speed. The basics are these: Using this gun, you can create two distinct portals on certain walls, ceilings, and floors. Go into one hole, and you come out the other. You start off learning basic navigation and then move on to transporting objects and experimenting with more complex moves, like jumping off a ledge into a portal below in order to fling yourself across the room. Getting the hang of this requires you to flex your spatial awareness, but the introduction is so smooth and intuitive that, before you know it, you're thinking in portals.

    This may sound like a slow start to Portal veterans, and from an action standpoint, it is. It's a while before you encounter challenging puzzles, but the scenery is so different that you won't mind getting your bearings once again. Aperture Science has seen better days, and the broken test chambers, malfunctioning robotics, and encroaching plant life are an early sign that Portal 2's environments are much more varied and ambitious than its predecessor's. Later levels reveal the true scope of the Aperture facilities to great effect, piquing your curiosity and spurring you onward. As you work your way in and out of the damaged test chambers, you catch some intriguing glimpses behind the scenes. You also see a fair number of empty areas where the scenery fades into nondescript gloom, and these dull areas are a bit disappointing, given the busy industrial vibe of the place. You also encounter a lot of load times throughout the game, and though they rarely feel excessively long, they are often long enough to make you take notice and wish they were shorter.

    While you are getting reacquainted with the basics of portals and trying to escape with your new friend, you run into your old test-administrator-slash-nemesis, GLaDOS. Though she isn't exactly happy to see you, she is glad to have a subject to run through test chambers and pester with sarcastic barbs. Her signature malevolence is alive and well, but those who have spent time testing with her before may find that her shtick has become familiar. She still has some wonderfully sinister lines, but her acerbic comments don't have the quite same shock value. Yet as you spend some time being shuffled through test chambers at her mercy, it becomes clear that her lack of bite is due to her injured self-confidence. After all, she fancied herself an omnipotent puppet master, and you tore her to pieces and threw every piece into a fire. She may be bent on your destruction, but GLaDOS is a complex character who evolves throughout these early levels. Before all is said and done, you'll once again come to cherish your relationship with that cruel AI.

    A few hours into the campaign, the narrative focus expands beyond "What happens now?" to include "How did that whole weird situation come to pass?" In your explorations, you encounter new characters who provide some of the best lines in the game, and your AI companions evolve in surprising and gratifying ways. You also encounter a variety of new testing materials, from catapults to bridges made of light to gelatinous goos that splatter on surfaces and directly affect the way you move through the world. Portal 2 does a great job of introducing you to new tools and then challenging you to use them in clever ways. Successful navigation requires careful study of your environment and experimentation with the materials and surfaces available to you. There are some very tricky situations that you must puzzle your way out of, and figuring them out is always immensely satisfying.

    As you journey through the massive Aperture facility, it becomes clear that Portal 2 does not merely come after Portal. Instead, it radiates outward from its predecessor, simultaneously illuminating the world that gave rise to Portal and continuing the adventure that began there. The sense of novelty is diminished, but the thrill of exploration and puzzle-solving is still intoxicating, and it's amazing how Portal 2 manages to tell a better story with disembodied voices and spherical robots than most games can with full-on humans. Your return to Aperture Science is a joyful one in this immensely appealing, laugh-out-loud funny, and thoroughly satisfying sequel.

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