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Now you're thinking with portals...
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Now you're thinking with portals... and excursion funnels, and hard light tunnels, and kinetic gels, and thermal discouragement beams...
on September 04, 2012 at 12:40 AM
There were times when playing Portal 2 that I didn't know quite how to feel about it. My initial instinct was to try to compare it to the experience of playing the first Portal for the very first time, but it became clear pretty quickly that that was neither fair nor feasible. To begin with, the two games are simply two different beasts; Portal was a small, simple game, whose narrative conceit of a rogue, embittered AI running a pristine, pseudo-scientific laboratory / funhouse held a lot of fascination to it, and the singular portal mechanic was both novel and surprisingly deep. At the same time, the game was a complete pop-fly, appearing out of now-where, the product of Valve's unorthodox (yet, even at that point characteristic) support of a small team of college kids' senior project. Nobody anticipated Portal as a game, let alone a successful one, so the surprise factor of finding that little gem tucked inside of what most people viewed as means of getting access to Half Life 2: Episode 2 is clearly not something that could be recreated. Portal 2 simply felt... different. The dry, blackly comedic atmosphere of Portal had become more light-hearted and goofy, and things felt bigger, grander and less intimate. At the same time, I can't say that I didn't enjoy many of the changes they had made, or deny that the game would have been better if it had simply aimed to be a level pack rather than, in many ways, an attempt to expand upon the strengths and accomplishments of its predecesor.
So, instead of getting bogged down in comparisons, let's consider Portal 2 for what it is. The first thing that'll hit you is that there's a lot more "Portal" in this game than was in the original. There's not only a single player campaign, but a cooperative campaign as well, on top of integrated tools to create, share and experience community generated content. Additionally, the main campaign has been expanded from the first Portal, clocking in between 10 and 12 hours for your first run-through, as apposed to about 6 hours, and the cooperative mode adds about another 5 or 6 hours in addition to that, meaning all things considered, you're looking at nearly three times as much content for the in-box content alone, not counting the theoretically infinite amount of time that could be spent playing around with active community involved in making, playing and sharing fan-made puzzles.
Dubbing itself "The Perpetual Testing Initiative", Portal 2 includes a set of tools geared towards community generated content. These include a simple GUI level editor well suited to quickly and easily produce single test-chambers, a more complex and flexible scripting editor, which can allow more experienced users to create their own independent, fully-scripted campaigns, given enough time and skill, and the option to browse other's levels individually or jump into automatically generated play-lists. Overall, the tools work very well and there's actually a few really neat examples of high-quality user generated content that have been produced - and, of course, a lot of garbage, too, but hey! It's to be expected. You're also treated to some bonus narration from JK Simmons in character as Cave Johnson, which is, as per the status quo, hilarious.
Portal 2 also brings with it a stellar new soundtrack,
volumes of which are officially available, for free, at thinkwithportals.com
. If that's not generosity, I don't know what is. And that's not to mention the quality of the new tracks, either. The bulk of the soundtrack is a blend of grungy electronica and synthesized orchestral instruments, blending the jagged tones and bleeding rhythms of electronic music with the sweeping sounds of a symphonic orchestra to create a unique sound that's as good on it's own as it is as an accompaniment for the gravity-defying puzzles and brilliant performances of the three voice-actors.
But I'd be lying if I said that Portal 2 wasn't without it's problems. I've been very consciously trying to avoid direct comparisons with Portal, but it has to be said that the first Portal was a game of simplicity, and that simplicity lent the game a certain beauty and grace, and was, ironically for a puzzle game, one of its greatest strengths. By keeping things as clean and streamlined as possible, Portal really let players come to know and emerse themselves in the game on many different levels - for the base mechanics of using the portal-gun as a puzzle solving device to more complicated things like the character of GLaDOS - who she was and how she related to Chell, and by extension, the player. In Portal 2's attempt to upscale every aspect of Portal, some of that cohesion and ability to laser focus on a single aspect of the larger game experience is lost under a mountain of additional narrators, game modes, locations, and puzzle mechanics. There's also no narrative explanation given for the visual overhaul the Aperture Science Enrichment Center has been given - while the new graphical stylings are very sharp and look great, it's still a little unnerving to see things like the ubiquitous Weighted Storage Cube, or the end-of-level elevator looking similar, but not
the same as they did in the previous game.
And I've mentioned this a time or two before, but Portal 2 dumps a
of new puzzle mechanics on you throughout the course of the game. And, unfortunately, though you do get to go a little deeper into things like the tractor-beam-like excursion funnel or the physical-property altering effects of the kinetic gels in the cooperative mode, you still feel like a lot of these additions simply come and go, none of them ever really getting the time or attention they deserved, nor being as fun or interesting as the simple mechanics of buttons, levels and platforms that Portal relied upon. At the same time, even playing on the PC version Portal 2's default settings include a pretty heavy dosage of aim-assist, going beyond simple auto-alignment, and actively managed my placed portals' location, orientation, and - in some cases - color-order (that is, discretely swapping blue to orange and orange to blue if it noticed you messed up in a time-sensitive puzzle). Frankly, I just felt like that was too much. Part of the fun of Portal was the satisfaction of executing strange, complex, M.C. Esher-eque arial maneuvers, and knowing that the game was so careful to hold my hand when things got a little too messy severely undercuts that sense of accomplishment.
Portal 2 also likes to spend a pretty good deal of time in-between test-chambers, as you run around through some very linear "back-stage" environments, and while those sequences do offer a nice break in the action to really indulge in the game's great comedic dialogue, or enjoy some great atmospheric moments (at times, bordering on set-pieces), or do some more open, free-form puzzle solving, there were times when I found myself wishing I could tell the game to just shut up and drop me back in a test-chamber where I belong, so I could dig into another one of the series' delightfully fatal puzzle-rooms.
All in all, Portal 2 is a great game. Despite some flaws, it's still a very enjoyable experience,
manages the almost impossible in actually being able to hold a candle to the first Portal, which was regarded by many as being a "perfect', or near perfect, game. In stacking-on new puzzle mechanics, the game does sometimes lose sight of the seemingly simple, yet paradoxically complex wonder that is the portal gun itself, and the result is a game that isn't quite able to focus as narrowly on the one mechanic it has that is able, on a ludic level, to distinguish itself from other 3D puzzle-platformers. That being said, it would be unfair to ignore what this game does well, and does differently from the original Portal for the sake of raw comparison. The script is uproariously funny, with Ellen McLain triumphantly reprising her role as GLaDOS, and newcomers Steven Merchant and JK Simmons doing their best to match her beat-for-beat and succeeding, and altogether it makes for a smart, comedic experience that truly has to be played to be fully appreciated. Portal 2 is a rare, charming wonder, and truly worth experiencing both for fans of the original and newcomers interested in seeing what the fuss is all about.
Game: Portal 2
Published by: Valve Corporation / EA
Developed by: Valve Corporation
Available on: PC/Mac, PS3, Xbox 360
MSRP: $19.99 for PC/Mac, $29.99 PS3 and Xbox 360 (~$17.99 used)
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