The lights are on
Portal 2 is a masterpiece. It’s a concord moment in the gaming industry, a point to which we will all look back and truly appreciate its genius. This is, hands down, one of the greatest games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing.
Just in case you’ve never played the first Portal, let me give you some background information. A bunch of students from the DigiPen Institute of Technology created a game called Narbacular Drop. It’s main gameplay element featured the use of physics and movement of both the player and objects, through portals. Valve saw the potential of the game and hired the team to create what is now the original Portal. Packaged in The Orange Box along with Half-Life 2 (including both Episode 1 and 2) and Team Fortress 2, Portal because a smash hit, winning awards from the GDC, IGN, and Wired, just to name a few. Valve, surprised by the success of a game that could be beaten in less than 2 hours, promised us a sequel. And this is it.
Portal 2 builds upon the success of its predecessor and shows that Valve completely understands how a game should be tailored to the person playing it. Everything from the controls, to the characters, to the way it presents itself to people who are new to it, is flawless. For example, if you’ve never had the chance to play the first Portal and you’re still trying to understand the concept of how everything works, don’t worry. Valve has put thousands of hours into play-testing Portal 2, ensuring that you’ll be able to play like a pro after the “tutorial”. The game has been polished to the Nth degree, making certain that it has fully communicated to the player the point and function of each new element. There are several new additions in the game–things like Arial Faith Plates, Excursion Funnels, and Pneumatic Diversity Vents, all of which are explained to the player with great care. Even though the game takes certain measures explaining itself to the player, it never drags. I flew through the first few levels because I already knew how to play and I understood all the basics. But even when I came to a point where I actually had to think about how I was going to work out a puzzle, I was never completely stuck; there’s always an obvious answer right in front of you.
One of the biggest leaps that Valve took with Portal 2 was the introduction of more characters, all of whom are voiced perfectly. Ellen McLain reprises her role as the murderous, psychotic GLaDOS, a super computer who is responsible for creating the test chambers you navigate throughout the game. McLain brings a huge amount of life and plausibility to a character who is clearly insane. She created one of the most iconic video characters ever created and it’s a pleasure to hear her auto-tuned voice once more. The next character is actually the first one you meet in the game. His name is Wheatley, a personality sphere who guides you through many of the puzzles and provides a lot of comic relief in the game. He’s voiced by the incredible Stephen Merchant, and he’s absolutely hilarious. Wheatley is written so well, it’s hard to even think of him a character, rather than someone you actually know in real life. He’s dumb, but not to the point of being unbelievable. The part he plays in the game is larger than what it first seems to be, and when the reveal finally happens, I was heartbroken and exhilarated. The last main character is the CEO of Aperture Science, Cave Johnson. He’s voiced by the unforgettable J.K. Simmons, in a role that is very much like his character of ‘J. Jonah Jameson’, the head of the ‘Daily Bugle’ from Spider-Man. You never see Cave, other than some pictures of him in later levels and, much like GLaDOS, he communicates with you through speakers and prerecorded messages. The introduction of Cave allows Portal 2 to give the player a bit of back story on how Aperture Science came to be, and how testing became so important to the company. It also introduces my favorite new element of the game: The gels.
These new gameplay elements present the player with some of the most challenging puzzles of the game. There are three different types of gels, each of which is introduced in a separate section of levels. There’s the orange gel, which makes you run fast, the blue gel, which makes you bounce, and the white gel, which allows you to shoot portals onto surfaces that you wouldn’t be able to normally shoot them onto. The levels with these gels are so well done, it’s hard not to be impressed while playing them. Once again, Valve gives players ample amount of time to get used to each gel before moving onto the next one.
Portal 2 also features a co-op campaign, which is just as much fun as the single-player. With four portals flying across the screen instead of just two, things eventually get extremely complicated. But Valve compensates for this by adding a few features that make the play-through much more bearable. There’s an ability to tag a surface, which lets your buddy know where you want him/her to place a portal. A lot of the time, this is much easier than telling your friend to place a portal “right there!!” There’s also an option to look at what your friend is seeing, which makes navigating large maps much more easy. But by far, my favorite new feature is the ability to engage the other player using the emotion wheel. Throughout the different test chambers, you’ll learn new levels of interaction, such as dancing, hugging, and fighting, all of which can be done to and with your partner. After accidentally killing your friend, sometimes it’s just best to hug it out rather than having them shout at you over the headset. Be sure to play with someone who you trust though; things can get extremely trying at points and you’ll want to be playing with someone who understand how you think and vice versa.
The last thing on the list is Portal 2‘s soundtrack. Games, like movies, rely on getting the player (or audience) to invest in the story and the characters. If there’s no emotional connection between either of them, then the developer has failed to get the player to care about what happens in the game. The soundtrack to Portal 2 achieves this in a way that is much more unconventional than usual.
The music is subtle, preferring to remain in the background for a large part of the game, slowly pulsing behind whatever the player is doing. But there are certain point in the game, when the players emotions are at their highest, that the music deftly adds a new level of feeling to the characters on-screen. It’s not something that many people realize, but it’s there and it works. Valve also brought back Jonathan Coulton, who wrote “Still Alive” for the original Portal, to write a song for Portal 2‘s credits. I like it even better than “Still Alive”, and that’s not something that many people will say. It’s a great addition to the game and it exemplifies everything that’s great about the series.
Portal 2 is not simply a sequel. It’s a culmination of several years of hard work and strategical thinking by Valve. They’ve created something that had the potential to be awful, just like many sequels are. But it isn’t–It’s wonderful! Developers should learn from Valve because they completely understand what players like and what they don’t. They have always made games that have challenged or even changed the industry, and Portal 2, while not a complete revolution, is certainly a lesson on how to make a game that truly stands out from all others. Even down to the tiniest detail, Portal 2 is just about flawless. Sure, the graphics might be a little outdated, but no game running on the Source Engine has ever looked better. Personally, I’ve played and beaten the game three times, and I plan on playing it much more in the future. I love looking for faster and easier ways of beating each level. But for some people, it will be a “one run” game. They’ll play the single-player campaign once, they might even beat the co-op once, but then they’ll be done. It all depends on how your style of play. But there is absolutely no denying the fact that Portal 2 is an amazing game.
This is a triumph.
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