Portal 2 (Single Player Review)
by Polly





Note: This review is only for the single player portion of the game. Writing this here again, because some of you are a little....slooooooow.

I'll also mention that this review and some screenshots and text may contain spoilers, so this is your last chance to turn back and read about Final Fantasy instead.

AAAAaaand here we go!


2007's inclusion of Portal in the The Orange Box collection of Valve mega-hit games couldn't have worked out better. It was an ambitious experiment for the first-person genre that not only forced players to think more deeply than "I shoot the guy and he dies," but also spun an interesting and mysterious narrative that packed a shitton more character in its only two leads (one of which was perpetually silent) than most "cinematic" games even came close to. 'Course, there's all those dumb "cake is a lie" memes that some idiots still find funny too, but while a lot of titles find it hard to escape only being known for their popularized gimmicks and memes (Mortal Kombat and Fatalities, for example), Portal has endured and stands on its own as a triumph in originality in modern gaming. Its only crimes are the shameless retconning Valve did prior to Portal 2's announcement, that it was over before you blinked.

Rightfully so, Portal has gone on to receive much acclaim in the gaming world since its release, both for its innovative turning of the puzzle genre on its ear with its fancy connected holes + physics-based brain teasers and straightforward, yet excellently executed, storytelling. With its resounding success, it would have been easy for Valve to do the Activision/EA (or hell, even Left4Dead) thing and just turn it into a "product," churning out a quick sequel with some new test chambers and another silly robot voice, or nickel and diming players with map packs. Thankfully, Portal 2 had better minds behind it -- Better minds with a lot of passion and enthusiasm as their driving force to create a sequel worthy of the fans' money and trust.

The original Portal's loose narrative was told mostly through the menacing AI GLaDOS's constant interaction with the player. Later in the game, the Aperture Science Enrichment Facility took center stage with its "behind the scenes" dark and withering environs that were completely devoid of life, giving the player a much bigger picture of the situation they were in. Portal 2 expands upon that by not only switching up the AI vs Player dynamic in very dramatic ways, but also delving deep into Aperture Science's origins in a way that makes the entire experience feel more immersive, informative, entertaining, and refreshing than ever.


This is your final Spoiler Warning. Though I'm trying not to spoil anything significant, some details are discussed below that may be better left unread if you've yet to play the game.


















I FUCKING TOLD YOU!

I doubt at this point that it's a big surprise to anyone familiar with the first game (or that has already seen the trailers...you monster) that their favorite neurotoxin-obsessed rogue AI, GLaDOS will at some point make a glorious return. It should also surprise no one that she is in no way happy with how things panned out for her in the previous chapter. But rather than being outright fixated on revenge, she picks up almost where she left off, with her passive-aggressive demeanor leaning only little more toward the aggressive side. Being blown up has that effect on a person, you see. GLaDOS's restrained hostility toward the player shows that the writers were very careful in making sure that the game's story didn't stray too far from the tone of the first game, but also effectively shows that she's seriously got a bone to pick with you.



The second most brilliant star of Portal 2's story may very well be Chell's new AI sidekick, Wheatley, who aids her in escaping the certain doom that awaits her should she remain at the facility. He's a chirpy, chatty, and helpful (if a bit on the dim side) AI core that will be with you throughout most of your journey through the game in some form or other. British Comedian Stephen Merchant turns in what may very well be one of videogames' best voiceover performances of all time, delivering Wheatley's lines in an erratic and charming style that constantly bounces from easily excited, to nervous and frantic, to never 100% sure of himself or Chell. His range of emotion is even more astounding when you consider that he's just a big blue mechanical floating eyeball, given life by the graphics designers' keen attention to detail in how his model expresses using many various mechanical parts to simulate nervousness, fear, anger, and so on. Wheatley's presence not only serves as a good bit of comic relief between test chambers, but also adds some extra spice and variety to the GLaDOS vs Chell dynamic which could have easily worn thin without his involvement.



Portal 2's biggest treat, however, is simply returning to the Aperture Science Enrichment Center. It was a fascinating place to run through in the first game, especially when you escaped to its guts, but returning to it post-destruction is an even more rewarding experience, thanks in part to the amazing work put forth by the graphics designers and sound engineers. Post-destruction Aperture, as unbelievable as its experiments may seem, simply pops to life the moment you're first plopped right back in, thanks to an incredible eye and ear for detail on the part of the developers.

In the early going, you're run through the ruins of test chambers you'll easily recognize, and it feels so damn cool to look around at how broken down the whole place is and bask in that "Yep, I did all this!" afterglow. As you portal gun your way through the still desolate and decaying halls of a clearly once prosperous Aperture Science and see everything just falling apart, it's hard to not be amazed at how a place so technically dead can feel so alive and real. Once again, the details are what bring everything to life. Briefly scoping out your surroundings you'll find lots of neat little touches like air tubes with scores of companion cubes being shot haphazardly throughout the facility, and even witness the step by step construction of mass-produced turrets being boxed up and shipped out. It's that kind of flair that makes Aperture Science itself a hell of a main character as well as an interesting place to be stuck in. Even if the computer lady in charge is hell-bent on making sure the remainder of your existence is far from a pleasant one.



Once you've met up with GLaDOS again, things become even more fun when the scripters and graphics team whip out their massive Source Engine Schlong™ and put on a fantastic display of environmental wizardry, only furthering the test facility and your situation's believability. As you gain your bearings getting used to test areas again, you'll bear witness to test chambers actually being created and modified right in front of you as you enter them. None of this is done via cutscenes. It's all in game and in real-time, which makes the effect all the more impressive when you can see entire rooms being shifted around, with individual floor, wall, and ceiling panels being hastily slapped into place wherever to accommodate whatever test that wacky computer's got in store for you.



Awesome as the environmental effects already are, Portal 2 truly breaks out when you find yourself knee-deep in bricked-up failed experiments from Aperture Science's past. During this portion of the game, Aperture Science itself is allowed to tell you its story of high ambition and prosperity, as well as its eventual descent into almost pure insanity. Once again, the graphics and sound teams are your kind narrator, providing period-accurate office designs and props, burned out and ruined test chambers, and great sound cues like boards creaking under your feet with every step to sell that feeling of immersion as hard as they can. To say much more would be spoiling too much, but for those of us that always wondered "just what the hell was Aperture Science up to?" a good bit of those questions do get answered, leaving only the most microscopic of details to the imagination, where I would argue they rightly belong.



Of course, Portal 2 wouldn't be a true sequel if all they did was weave a solid (if a bit smudged up by that aforementioned retcon) story and just threw in some new puzzles, now would it? It's true that Portal vets are going to be immediately familiar with and likely able to bum-rush their way through the first half hour or so of the game, but the start isn't nearly as slow as its predecessor and its tutorializing is a lot more subtle thanks to the quick pacing. Once you start solving chambers, you'll immediately start running into some of the new fun puzzle-solving toys GLaDOS has devised for you, such as deadly lasers, laser redirection cubes, hard light bridges and aerial faith plates. By themselves, they don't sound like much, but when you factor in the portal gun, things start getting mind bending real quick. Early on you'll learn that "thinking with portals" is still very necessary as you're asked to set up elaborate flings through portals using aerial faith plates, redirect hard light bridges as walkable surfaces and barriers, or devise complex portal configurations with laser redirection cubes to make lasers activate certain switches or illuminate all the switches in a room at once.

Just when you think Portal 2 is out of surprises though, it drops even more variety into the mix with three different types of gels as well as excursion funnels.



Gels are ooey, gooey paint-like substances that you splatter all over the area, more often than not with tricky use of portals, to change how the environment reacts to you. Repulsion Gel is blue and makes any surface it's painted with bounce you around with an equal amount of force with which you hit it. Propulsion Gel is orange and continually increases your speed as you move through it. Finally, there's the white Conversion Gel, which makes any surface or object it's glooped onto become a brand-new "portalable" surface. As the game progresses you'll be asked to use these tricky fluids in interesting combinations with one another, sometimes using all three many times per chamber. I had my doubts about this stuff at first, but found myself having quite a bit of fun with making them all work in concert, and they're a terrific addition to the formula.



On the other hand, I found Excursion Funnels to be a bit hit or miss. They appear as blue ripple waves that continually flow in one direction, and any object inside of one, including yourself, will continue to float along its path until it's either shut off or redirected using portals. Puzzles involving Excursion Funnels tend to go a lot slower due to the device's slow-moving nature, and since the wave itself is much bigger than a portal, sometimes lining them up can be just a tad finicky. It can be a bit of a bummer to have to re-do portions of puzzles involving Funnels because you fell or didn't direct an object correctly, but they're still put to very clever use thanks to the top-notch level design.

And there's no need to get all intimidated or feel overwhelmed by all these newfangle-dangled lasers, cubes, funnels, and fluids, because Portal 2 is very careful in presenting its new ideas to you. The game always spends an appropriate amount of time (usually two or three "gimme" puzzles) making you learn all the various ins and outs of using each new mechanic so that you become familiar with them, and then gradually begins layering them on top of one another. The new mechanics are spread out just enough so that you never feel you're being hammered with doing one specific thing for too long, nor do you feel constantly bombarded with new things to try and figure out.

Portal 2's pacing is what keeps the learning from ever feeling too much like a tutorial (which was a problem with the first game), but it also has the good sense to pull you away from complex puzzle solving every now and then to do something else fun so that things never become stale and predictable.

Usually after a long string of difficult puzzles, you'll be thrown into situations where your goal is no longer just "solve the puzzle in this room." Sometimes it'll be okay to portal around and have some fun, other times you'll be using your portaling skills to try and maneuver around tricky environments in order to progress, and in a few instances, the slow and methodic puzzle solving will give way to high-speed action sequences where split-second decisions are your key to victory. Portal 2 always tries to make sure you're never doing one thing for too long, and it always knows when your poor little brain needs a break.



Though it can in no way be considered as ground-breaking and ambitious as the original, Portal 2's single player campaign is just about as flawless and satisfying as anyone could want one to be. It hits all the right notes, adding just enough to the established formula to make itself worthwhile without alienating anybody who loved the original. On top of that, it never loses its spirit of relaxed fun and undeniable charm, nor does it feel like a lifeless cash-in like so many other "products" do today. A game has not left me feeling this thoroughly satisfied for a long time, and that's the very reason I'm letting co-op sit in the corner for now. I just like the idea that there's still more Portal 2 for me to experience sometime in the future.






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