Monday, April 25, 2011

Review: "Portal 2"

Pretty Much Alive
review for Portal 2, 2-player first-person action/puzzle, available on Steam

Aperture Science is a big place. According to Portal 2, it was build out of a salt mine some 16 miles deep, stretching down from the top layers, and like a chunk of Antarctic ice, is layered in years - with "old Aperture" at the bottom, and the Aperture of GLaDOS being built on top of all that. With this said, it is Aperture Science that is truly the main "character" of Portal 2. GLaDOS is all well and broodingly hilarious and Stephen Merchant's Wheatley character is as irreverently charming as any British robot ever has been, but it is the facility itself - like Half-Life's Black Mesa, or Bioshock's Rapture, that steals the show. It helps, of course, that GLaDOS has been given free reign to rebuild the facility on-the-fly at her whim - the courses she builds can be dismantled and rebuilt at any point, and it makes Aperture Science less of an establishment, and more of a living, shifting laboratory of unimaginably sinister proportions. Joy.

Portal 2 is more or less a direct continuation from 2007's surprise smash-hit Portal. Having passed out in the parking lot after killing GLaDOS at the end of Portal, you have been dragged back into the facility by a "helpful" automated robot, and placed in the Enrichment Center's relaxation vault - a faux hotel room, with all but limited resources. You start the game being woken up after 50 days under, due to government protocol. You stretch, get some intellectual nourishment, and you go back to sleep. ...when you wake back up, however, a nondescript yet obviously very long time has passed; the Enrichment Center having aged not so well after, supposedly, events of apocalyptic nature.

It is here that we meet Wheatley, a bumbling, yet well-meaning, personality sphere, who plans to enlist your help in order to escape the facility. It is in this opening scene that the player first witnesses what Valve has been working on. It's Portal, but... bigger. Way bigger. Funnier, too. An on-rails ride through the facility as a reactor core nearby melts down, we witness the sheer scope that Portal 2 offers - the place is huge. No longer is Aperture Science a linear succession of sealed-off test chambers and catwalks. Valve has obviously invested a lot of capital into creating this version of Aperture and making it feel truly alive - and this is an area where Portal 2 shines.

So, with the stage set and expectations well and high, it is where the game - split into four acts - begins. Valve's signature brilliant visual storytelling and expert pacing are all present as the mechanics of Portal are re-learnt, guided by a hilarious pre-recorded AI voice. From here,Portal 2 tells a thick, incredibly well-paced and gripping story of personal conflict and redemption. Valve's storytelling has never been a place of fault, and with Portal 2, we are presented with a small, interpersonal narrative, set against an incredible backdrop of madhouse science. The cast is kept small and manageable - there are only three or so main characters - but each is given weight and importance, and it breathes life into the decrepit old Aperture labs.

Likewise, Mike Morasky's musical score - an pseudo-electronic, atomosphere-building-lite sort of number - is a major step-up from Portal's slightly less profound musical stylings. The only music people would remember from Portal is the credits song Still Alive penned by Jonathan Coulton - in Portal 2, while there is an ending song by Coulton once more (that I shan't spoil), the incidental music is easily on par, maybe even excelling the quality of Coulton's track. Valve has implemented the layered soundtrack system from Left 4 Dead, so the music flexes and changes on-the-fly when you interact with puzzle elements, whiz through the air, or enter different areas - and it's a fantastic, memorable mechanic, that helps build up the aural atmosphere better than all the funniest voice acting and masterful sound design in the world ever could. Also, some of the "orchestral" music that accompanies certain set-pieces really helps create the insufferably dark mood that Portal 2 aims for, even when the cast is acting belated and whimsical. A scene early on is tremendously escalated thanks to Morasky's sweet electronic tunes playing ominously in the background - as a fellow composer myself, that just puts a great, big, somewhat smug smile on my face.

With visual design, aural atmosphere, and story mechanics reaching dizzying heights, it is Portal 2's gameplay on which these elements rest on. Valve has spent an obviously long time polishing, culling, and refining the experience into one that has a difficulty curve worthy of its predecessor, and it only just falls short of perfection for a few reasons. While the game still works itself around devious test chambers and two, interconnected portals that are used to manipulate yourself, objects, and physical forces, there are a lot of fun new toys to play with now, too - the best of which being three brands of sticky goo, "gels," that do things like bounce you high into the air, speed you along to help build momentum sans gravity, or place portals on un-portal-able surfaces. All of these mechanics are wonderfully implemented, from hard light bridges to laser cubes, and more - but they are wedged through the wringer of the plot, just a tiny bit. Now don't get me wrong, this almost works in the game's favour - the plot pacing effects the gameplay pacing. But with each toy being introduced to you methodically and slowly, you'll start to wonder if, perhaps, it's worth withholding gameplay elements simply to further the story's ends. There are a lot of moments where you may think to yourself - I wanna play with the gels now!!

That being said? I have to give Valve credit where due - unlike the original Portal, in which you could veritably build up a bunch of "moves," like flinging, portal jumping, and what have you, around every corner of Portal 2 is something new. Flinging is less of a crux now, and you are generally asked, not to be smart with what you know, but to think differently and to re-learn things you don't yet know. There's no more ball-and-catcher puzzles, for example. And while cube and button-based testing is well and present, it's never just cube and button-based testing. There's always something different, and while the game never exceeds moderate difficulty (Portal veterans may only rack their brains over one or two of the later puzzles), there's no doubting that everything that is thrown at you, makes you approach the situation with different parts of your brain.

The plot twists and turns at a wonderful pace, taking its time introducing characters, gameplay elements, and never rushes or introduces questionable elements. Which is why it may disappoint some people, particularly Portal veterans, that the game never reaches dizzyingly painful levels of difficulty, or doesn't take more than a good 10 hours to finish. Now, it took me 8 hours on my first runthrough, and that seems to be the average time for most people. That's a pretty damn good length considering the industry's painful standard right now of six hours. However; people claim that they have finished it first-time in four or five hours, but even so, the plot is wonderful, full of charm, wit, and pitch-black dark humour of which Portal is well-known for. The small cast of characters, as mentioned, makes personal retribution something a lot more weighty than if it were in a gameworld with a Half-Life 2-sized cast, and each member plays off each other so organically and hilariously that, even if the game was on average four hours long, it would still be a journey worth playing, and be satisfying in its own right, even without the interesting and mind-warping different uses of Portal's core mechanics.

Luckily, for those who are somewhat underwhelmed by the single-player (though any rational, fun-loving gamer couldn't possibly feel underwhelmed by the substantial inclusions and occlusions Valve has made to Portal's universe), there is a brand-new two-player co-op mode included, and it is - and this is without hyperbole here - the greatest social co-operative game-mode ever made. I'm serious here. Myself and a friend played through the co-op mode over the course of what I've dubbed a "Portal party," and it was probably the most fun I have ever had with a game in over three years. Honestly, it's the funniest, cleverest, most incredible experience I've ever had with my computer - and, dare I say it, with my friend.

With four portals to juggle instead of simply two, and a much longer, much leaner difficulty curve on which to rest, it is Portal 2's co-operative mode that is the highlight of the whole experience. The single-player is incredible, mind-bending, hilarious, and substantial - all words that I'm sure I can throw around like my own faeces should I ever wish to validate my own opinion again. But it is the co-op which is pure, undiluted Game of the Year material on its own. It took me and my friend around eight hours to finish over the course of a night - that's a pretty incredible length, really - and unlike the singleplayer, which never quite gets as difficult as one would hope - the two-player experience is more difficult from the outset. Valve has said previously that getting frustrated in single-player is terrible because you have only yourself to beat up - in multi-player, you can play off your buddy, so levels are inclined to be more difficult. The mode even has its own story twists and turns, though not evident from the outset - it is essentially a quest to "save science!", and it's one that everyone should partake in. Honestly.

Also, Dee Bradley Baker does the voices of the two new co-op characters: semi-mute robots Atlas and P-body (think the Sims when I say "mute"), and it is his voicework that is easily my favourite in the whole game. Stephen Merchant, J.K. Simmons, and Ellen McClain all do incredible work and out-do themselves easily, but Atlas and P-body are amazingly charming characters, and it is Baker's portrayal of them that makes them so charming. The visual design of the robots also helps, of course - they're mechanical and robotic, yet also human, and surprisingly cute, really. That's just a side-note, but it's one worth mentioning - Atlas and P-body are awesome.

So, Portal 2. Where does it stand? It's not a perfect game, but it is the perfect sequel. It's bigger, better, ballsier, and funnier. The plot is incredible considering its somewhat tiny scale, and character interactions feel real and organic, giving the game a homey, yet epic, atmosphere - one that most development studios would find impossible to create, and yet here Valve is pulling it off like they do it every day. The singleplayer is disappointing in some ways, mostly in lack of "extreme" difficulty and no advanced chambers, but it breezes along and is a story well-written, well-presented, and well-told; a top-notch experience and a ride everyone should hop onto. And the co-op is the game's true goldmine, a social, emotional, and absolutely fantastic addition toPortal that could well carry Portal 2 on its own - and very nearly does. Portal 2 is well on its way to being Game of the Year, make no mistake.

Oh. One last thing. You may have heard that Portal 2 includes and item store, almost identical to that in Team Fortress 2, where you can outfit your little co-op bots with hats, skins, and flags, in exchange for real-life moneys. Now, some will take offence to that - some have taken offence to that. It is, after all, Day 1 DLC - despite being insubstantial, and entirely optional, cosmetic enhancements. I'm undecided on whether it's a good thing, but I promise you this - Valve wouldn't let you buy a $5 skin only for one eight-hour campaign. It happened with Team Fortress 2, and both Left 4 Dead games - Valve will supply a stream of free maps and content for Portal 2 post-release. This game may be able to be completed in 12 hours, but it doesn't end there. Valve holds all the cards, and they're all aces. And they will provide the customer support and game content that they have striven for and achieved with other IPs - gaming as a service, they call it. There will be more of Portal 2 in the future. Cross my heart and hope to die.

A hair's breadth from perfection. The single-player isn't as challenging as the original, but the story and gameplay pacing is as pitch-perfect as ever, and it's the co-op that turns Portal 2 from a "great" game, into an undiluted, unimaginably INCREDIBLE game. It's hilarious, it's dark, and it's just damn, damn, damn awesome. Get ahold of it and play it, now. For science. You monster.
All screenshots for PC games are now taken by myself thanks to the recently implementedSteam Screenshots feature! If you want to see more amateur videogame screens, why not check out my Steam Screenshot gallery? There are funny captions, I promise.

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