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Portal 2 super review

Astonishing

Portal 2 isn't everything I wanted it to be, but how could it have been? In 2007, Portal jumped out from behind the release of Half-Life 2: Episode 2, catching us unawares and stupefying our faces off, and we've spent the past four years canonizing it with jokes about Companion Cubes, cake lies, and huge successes. Without the element of surprise, and with an impossible tower of expectations looming over it, the best developer Valve could have hoped to do is make Portal 2 the next best thing. It succeeded.


Above: If you don't mind light spoilers, here are the game's opening moments

Portal 2 returns the series' protagonist, Chell, to the testing grounds of the massive Aperture Science laboratory for another round of discombobulating puzzle solving, and another chance to escape. If you've somehow never played Portal, Portal 2 will ease you into its puzzles with a gentle learning curve. Go in one portal, go out the other - the primary mechanic seems simple enough, but as the complexity of the 'test chambers' increases, the solutions become increasingly unexpected. One of the primary joys of playing Portal 2 is surprising yourself with your own solutions - despite knowing that each test was designed guide me to toward one solution, I still felt like a genius when my seemingly hackneyed plans actually worked.

If you have played Portal, the first few chapters of Portal 2 will feel like repeating Kindergarten (put the cube on the button - got it), but once the game's new mechanics, such as the Discouragement Redirection Cubes, Aerial Faith Plates, and Repulsion Gel, are introduced, your brain will get its due stimulation.


Above: Portal's energy balls have been replaced with lasers (this is a very good thing)


Above: The gels can be cumbersome at first, but once you get used to their properties, they add a significant twist to the puzzles

Mindlessly solving the tutorial puzzles isn't so bad, anyway, because you'll be preoccupied with reveling at the grand set pieces and anticipating every new bit of sublimely witty dialog (GLaDOS is really, really mad) and enthralling plot progression. Unlike Portal, which only briefly pulls back the test chamber walls to reveal the facility's inner workings, Portal 2 is scattered with extended excursions into Aperture's monolithic, mechanical underground empire.


Above: One of GLaDOS' many taunts

Portal 2 fleshes out the rise and fall of Aperture Science, its maniacal AI overlord, GLaDOS, and its apparent last human test subject, Chell. To that end, it introduces the surprisingly expressive (for a cyclops) Wheatley, a bumbling spherical 'Personality Core,' voiced by Stephen Merchant, and Cave Johnson, Aperture's bombastic founder, whose voice, handled perfectly by J.K. Simmons, bellows from loud speakers in a condemned section of the original facility.


Above: Aperture is really, really big

To sustain a longer experience than Portal, and to offer eager fans the sustenance they craved, Portal 2 had to introduce new characters and tell a bigger, more explicit story, but that inevitably killed some of its charm. At the beginning of Portal, all we explicitly knew was that we were a test subject, and that we had to complete tests to progress. We assumed we'd have to confront GLaDOS eventually, but were given no solid explanation of our situation or purpose aside from what we could gather from GLaDOS' snide remarks and the mysterious scribbles hidden behind wall panels. Portal's understated story is part of what made it so intriguing, but while Portal 2 doesn't swing entirely toward direct exposition, it casts off much of that subtlty.

But what was it supposed to do? Portal 2 couldn't surprise us in the ways we wanted to be surprised and still be surprising, so it surprises us with, well, surprises that I won't spoil for you. Surprises are actually a major reoccurring theme in the game, which feels a bit like an indirect acknowledgment of our desire to be surprised by it. OK, it looks like my critical logic is now looping through portals as well, so I'll move on to my next point, which is that regardless of what anyone wanted from Portal 2, it does everything so damn well that our expectations seem moot.


Above: Chell's journey is far more varied than it was in Portal

Portal 2 is more emotional than Portal, without losing the tongue-in-cheek irreverence. At times, I was enjoying the gravity and humanity of the game so much that the silliness bothered me, but it's well-balanced overall. It's puzzles are some of the most refined and inventive challenges I've ever encountered, and every moment of every segment of every chapter felt like a piece of a puzzle that I wasn't aware was being put together until after the picture was in front of me.

Everything in Portal 2 is designed, crafted, and paced to eschew fatigue and keep you thinking, wondering, and smiling. The scripted events are so sharply written, well-timed, and fluidly mixed with the gameplay that by the end of the game, I felt like I was having a conversation with it rather than playing it. Valve is starting to seem more like a techno-psychology laboratory than a game developer (perhaps it outsources product testing to GLaDOS?).


Above: In a couple sections, part of the challenge is knowing where the hell you're going

I'm not saying that the single player experience is perfect. I got stuck a few times, especially during Cave Johnson's segments, not because I had failed to make a logical connection, but because I'd simply failed to see a distant platform, and spent ten minutes looking for a more complex solution. Some players will surely experience the same thing, while others will play through the game without ever being misdirected. It's a minor complaint, and may only be the result of the scale of Valve's ambition for Portal 2.

That ambition also includes a separate co-op mode, which is equally great, just in different ways.

Portal 2's "Cooperative Testing Initiative" pits a pair of lovable robots, P-body and Atlas, against 40-plus GLaDOS-designed test chambers. As you can only really experience the joy of solving each puzzle once, choose your co-op partner carefully - playing with someone who already knows the solutions is no fun.

The cooperation in Portal 2's cooperative mode is actual cooperation - that is, it's not one of those "co-op modes" which only entails running next to each other through what might as well be a single-player experience. How do you traverse a gap? Send your partner into an infinite falling loop, then launch her out of a wall. How do you reach an isolated platform at the center of a pit? Simultaneously launch yourselves over opposite sides of the gap and collide mid-air. If you're playing online, a mic is a necessity, though you're also able to mark spots you want your partner to shoot a portal, in case verbal explanation isn't doing the trick.


Above: We joined forces with a couple PC Gamer editors for an overview of the Cooperative Testing Initiative

The little mechanical testers can access the mode's five zones through a spacious hub room, which also displays a few stats (fun fact: my robotic avatar has taken over 20,000 steps). After a brief tutorial to orient the players to cooperative thinking, the test chambers quickly become baffling. If you're not confident with your portal puzzle solving skills, play the single player, which features a much gentler learning curve, before tackling the co-op.


Above: The hub

Once my co-op partner and I were an hour-or-so into the Cooperative Testing Initiative, our awareness of time ceased almost entirely. It was only at around 4 a.m., when the fog of exhaustion made "thinking with portals" nearly impossible, that we called it quits... only to resume the game ten minutes after waking up again.

Though you can't truly die in the mode (when destroyed, the robots are reassembled and ejected from a tube) there are plenty of opportunities for you and your partner to smash, crush drop, and otherwise mangle each other, making trust - or lack of it - a major factor. It's up to you how trustworthy to be, but you can always apologize with one of the characters' Pixar-esque emotes, such as a hug or high-five. Or, if your bumbling companion just stepped off an edge and fell into the void, a belly laugh may be more appropriate. The emotes can even be used to taunt GLaDOS together through her security cameras.

In the end, you can't help but to establish a fist-bump worthy bond with your partner. When the logical leap required to solve a puzzle "clicked" simultaneously for both of us, we excitedly rushed to make the physical leaps to the exit door, and never forgot virtually high-five each other before continuing to GLaDOS' next chamber.

Together, Portal 2's single-player and cooperative modes are massive...just not in length. You can easily complete both portions in a weekend, assuming you don't plan to do too much else. Metaphorically, though, it's massive as shit. You'll be propelled through a titanic, amorphous facility as it actively rebuilds itself. Everything is alive, even the music, which comes and goes as the science gets done, as if the facility is breathing out digital sighs. It's a huge production.

And really, how long would you want it to be? Portal was short for a reason, and to justify its stand-alone release, Portal 2 needed to be longer, but I'm glad it isn't too long. Making it longer would have come at the expense of its structure and pacing, increasing fatigue and diluting the experience.

So whatever, good pacing, neat set pieces, that's all cool, but is it really worth $60, you dumb over-hyped editor? Well, first of all, I don't appreciate the tone you read that last part in, but that is a good question, and it took a long time for the blinking cursor on my screen to tell me the answer, which is an anti-climactic "yes."

If I were reviewing Portal 2 strictly as an entertainment product which ended when you beat it, then I may be more skeptical. But even then, I can easily say that I think playing through Portal 2 is as valuable as, say, seeing six really good movies for $60 (a generously low estimation). I can also say that I've spent $60 on dates at lackluster restaurants and forgotten about the expense the next day - not because I'm rich, but because I've accepted the cost of luxuries and entertainment. I wouldn't recommend those restaurants to anyone, but Portal 2 'aint a bland casserole, it's a helluva good production, if not a long one.


Above: Not a casserole

Of course, I'm not reviewing Portal 2 with a categorically utilitarian mindset - I also have to consider its value as a creative invention, and based on what I've already written, I think it's clear how I feel about that. Valve has, again, produced a landmark for the medium which won't fade out of view for some time.

Sure, whatever, but aren't you just a typical Valve fanboy, you typical Valve fanboy? Again, watch it with the tone of your internal voice. And yes, I'm a fan of Valve, because Valve has a history of making great games. That doesn't mean I'm not open to disappointment, and I did approach Portal 2 with the concern that it would lose too much of what made Portal great. It did lose some of it, but it made up for it in ways that worked. And if you're wondering, no, the ending doesn't outdo "Still Alive," but again, what could have? Even so, Coulton's words are still stuck in my head, days later...


Is it better than...

Portal? Yes and no. Like I said, how could it be, really? Portal's experience can't be repeated, but the new, different experience of Portal 2 is still fantastic, even if not the same surprise revelation.

Half-Life 2? Yes. What? I know that Half-Life is un-fugging-touchable, but to me, Portal 2 is better paced, contains more interesting characters, is more thought-provoking, more mentally challenging, and far more original. I can fight masked soldiers any day, but what happens in Portal only happens in Portal. Half-Life 2 is great, and may be revered, but I believe that Valve has gotten better at making games since then. Is that so crazy?

Limbo? Yes. It's a weird, completely unfair comparison, I know. Limbo didn't strive to be anything that Portal is, and the reverse is true for Portal. But they are both unique puzzle-platformers, are they not? And I did have to include at least one non-Valve game in these comparisons, didn't I? What can you compare to Portal? Halo? Psh, that shit is too pedestrian to deserve comparison (I mean that facetiously... but not really). So there you go, Portal 2 is better than Limbo, not that anyone was asking. But they're both great.

lt;/p>

Just for you, Metacritic

Portal 2 couldn't be Portal, but it's the next best thing. It's a longer, funnier, more emotional plummet through Aperture's perplexing laboratory, and its meticulous detail, perfect pacing, and kinetic, mind-expanding puzzles make it a blazingly memorable experience. It's so damn memorable, already feel nostalgic about it.

Apr 21, 2011

More Info

Release date: Apr 19 2011 - PS3, PC, Xbox 360 (US)
Available Platforms: PS3, PC, Xbox 360
Genre: Puzzle
Developed by: Valve
Franchise: Portal
ESRB Rating:
Teen: Fantasy Violence, Mild Language

43 comments

  • Milliarto - April 27, 2011 12:29 a.m.

    I thought the game was fantastic. In fact, I thought it was a triumph. I even made a note here, "huge success." It's really quite difficult to overstate my satisfaction.
  • ZenRobot - April 25, 2011 8:56 a.m.

    Portal 2 has got to be one of the best games i've ever played. I've beat the single player twice now (once with the commentary, which was more scarce than i hoped for but a great addition nonetheless) and plan on playing it again and again on into the future. As someone else said here, the script and atmosphere are so cool that its fun to reenter the world despite knowing the puzzle solutions. But the co-op, oh GOD, the co-op. Portal 2's co-op campaign is the MAIN EVENT. to all you people out there criticizing the game for being too short, or not worth 60 bucks, then you must not have a cool enough friend to play the co-op with. Seriously. it is 5 or 6 hours of the BEST GAMEPLAY ON THE PLANET. That brings the grand total of Portal 2's game time to 10-12 hours, and THAT is a lot of game in this day and age. I cannot say enough good things about this game.
  • twinkletitsMcGee - April 25, 2011 4:57 a.m.

    I wonder if EA had to pay extra for you guys to give it a 10
  • eltonbm - April 25, 2011 2:52 a.m.

    10 is just too much, and the 60 value how the company see its costumers. Capcom launched SSFIV, a fantastic follow up, with 10 new characters, for 50,00. Very good game, but it is really not that much appealing to a lot of people. Just try to sell the game for someone who can't understand english. You already lost a lot of the appeal. It may not be the public Valve was looking for, but it's my case. It's not a very universal game if you can't "get it". As a puzzle game with a portal gun, I hoped for more variety in the ways to solve things, but this is something we will have to wait until Deus Ex gets out. And I hope Valve try anything out of the FPS genre someday.
  • 435 - April 24, 2011 11 p.m.

    @AlSwearengen Uh, yes, yes it will. The captcha was put in place because the site was getting swarmed by spam.
  • mdiaz033 - April 24, 2011 9:18 p.m.

    @AlSwearengenHatesCocksuckers not sure if you'll ever read this but i thought you should know that you make a good point. portal 2 is better than portal one in almost every way imaginable. that's a fact and for that reason it deserves a better score. My mistake was focusing on the "charm." Portal 2 has just as much charm as portal one, if not more. your comment made me think: "If P2 came out before P1, would i still think P2 deserves a lower score?" the answer is no.
  • jayajaya415 - April 24, 2011 6:15 a.m.

    Add on: Make sure you know everything about the first portal before you play this. The game made LOTS of referances to the first game, and if you don't catch them, you will not enjoy the game as much.
  • jayajaya415 - April 24, 2011 6:10 a.m.

    I enjoyed the H*** out of this game. The best story telling, voice acting, and humor in any game. I loved it. Storywise, it was more interesting then any movie I have ever seen. Gameplay wise, it was fresh in my otherwise "shooter filled" collection. If you plan on getting, it avoid spoilers. H*** avoid the internet. Don't risk ruining this game. It is THAT good. It was short, but that kept it from getting repetitive. Buy it!
  • NuclearXmas - April 24, 2011 3:13 a.m.

    Having played the game and beaten it, I'd give portal 2 a 7, because that's all it deserves. The 10 was way to generous and does reflect negatively on GR's standards.
  • WikiParazFTW - April 23, 2011 4:46 p.m.

    Damn, I would buy this today if I already didn't have a backlog of games I want to finish first. Definitely going to buy it soon though.
  • Lolicon - April 23, 2011 1:28 p.m.

    10? Thats a tad much for a mediocre game. What have you been smoking?
  • lovinmyps3 - April 23, 2011 1:12 a.m.

    I liked it more than the first Portal. Yeah it doesn't have the same impact but does any sequel to a brilliant new series? Still Alive is a better ending song though.
  • Zepaw - April 22, 2011 10:53 p.m.

    @Sexy man simply put you are a moron. Venetica had more ads on GR than almost any game I have ever seen. Did it get a 10? Nope, a 2! They had lots of ads and a contest for Body and Brain Connection. a 10 of course? Nope, GR gave it a 5. Several highly advertised games on GR have hit 5 and below. I enjoyed Portal quite a lot, but did not find it as monumental or "Best game ever" as others. Even still I get the hype thing. Funny how something so many agree is a 10 just cant match the experience of its predecessor.
  • EwoksTasteLikeChicken - April 22, 2011 10:31 p.m.

    This puts me in a tricky position. I'm short on money and was gonna wait a while to get it, but considering this game got a 10, I might have to brake down and get it. Great review Tyler, don't listen to assholes that think Valve paid you or something to give it a 10.
  • district9000 - April 22, 2011 9:29 p.m.

    I just finished the game this evening and i am ready to hop back into the single player. Not for the puzzles but for the great dialog, characters & setting. The games lasted a decent length, ballparking around 8 hours, but the more important part is I lost myself in the world of Aperture Science. Traveling through the detailed Aperture Science gave the games great depth and immersion. And I dont know how Valve makes me fall in love with omniscient voice and inanimate objects but i cant help loving all the characters. great review
  • Snoochie - April 22, 2011 8:48 p.m.

    Good Review Tyler. As if people need to be told that Portal 2 is a fantastic game. But you're still probably my favorite writer on staff, so I'll read whatever you post anyway :)
  • tomasspipass - April 22, 2011 5:28 p.m.

    This has been the most enjoyable review i've read about a game. GR your articles only get better :) The cost of the game is an interesting one. There has been an increasing trend of games coming out with incredibly detailed worlds but a shorter play time. Some full priced games can be finished in 6 hours on the first playthrough. As an example, if I can only afford one game, do I buy Portal 2 or Brink? Brink has many more hours of multiplayer gameplay so it is a game I would want to hold onto for longer. Portal 2 is certainly a game I plan to have in my collection however the length of the game (which is fairly respectable), but more importantly, its replayability is limited. This makes me consider waiting for the price to come down or to find a second hand copy in a couple of months time. However I find this a disservice to Valve who have created something unique, innovative and pushes the boundaries of gaming. Extending the life of a game is important, but needs to be done properly. Dead Space 2 added multiplayer which flopped. However they also added replayability of the single player which is excellent. Portal: Still alive made challenges harder and added replayability to existing challenges. This is what I hope valve will do for portal 2. New maps for single player and co-op, and extra challenges in the existing campaigns.
  • NightCrawler_358 - April 22, 2011 4:20 p.m.

    I love Portal 1, and have beaten it multiple times, but I think Portal 2's singlepayer blew 1 out of the water. they got rid of those stupid plasma balls, made more interesting scenery, it was about 3 times as long, and my favourite part was the sound. The dynamic music was really cool, but the voice acting was the greatest part. Wheatley really took the cake (not the lie one) in the voice acting. i have yet to try the co-op, but it looks super fun. My main feeling when going through Portal 2 was that it feels so much like i am going through a Pixar movie! Its a really nice feeling!
  • Pry0citer - April 22, 2011 4:02 p.m.

    Are you saying portal 2 is better than halo Reach?! oh wait, it is? Coulda seen that one coming. If you look at MetaCritic, GR is NOT the only website to give Portal 2 a perfect score. Calm down guys, it's an incredible game, so it gets the score of "Incredible" (a 10). It's MetaCritic average is a 95 right now. So it looks like most other gaming sites/mags gave it a 9 or 10. The reviewers can have an opinion, and usually if a game is good, then the review is good, not because they were bought out, but because they like the game. If you think it's worth a 9 good for you, but different scores mean different things to different people. I loved the review!! It was funny, informative and based on the way you described the mood you had while playing the Co-Op mode, I think I will buy this game, and a copy for my friend so we can Co-Op online :D nerd boner is huge right now, but I do have one question: Does it look like expansions/DLC Packs will be released for this game?
  • TanookiMan - April 22, 2011 3:36 p.m.

    Great review Tyler! Put into words a lot of the stuff I was unable to articulate to my friends after playing the game (having a conversation with the game, not knowing where to go next in the Cave Johnson sections, playing till the wee hours of the morning then resuming...)

Showing 1-20 of 43 comments

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