Reviewed: April 22, 2011
Released: April 16, 2011
What are the odds of an FPS becoming the 2011 Game of the Year? Now what are those odds if that game is rated E10+ and you never fire a single bullet or kill a single alien or living person? And what if that game were “educational”, teaching core values like environmental awareness, spatial analysis, puzzle-solving, and working as part of an integral and cooperative team (of two)? And what if those puzzles seamlessly integrated cleverly disguised lessons on physics, inertia, momentum, and even some fluid dynamics? Are you ready to have fun with science? I just asked a whole lot of questions and Portal 2 is going to answer them all. |
Personally, I came in a bit late to the Portal party. I have owned the original Orange Box since it launched but had only played the Half-Life games. It wasn’t until more than a year later out of curiosity and a bit of summer boredom that I decided to check out Valve’s original puzzle game. It was original and mildly entertaining but it didn’t grip me as much as it did what can only be described as a legion of diehard Portal fans. So when the sequel was announced at last year’s E3 to the thunderous applause of ravenous zealots I didn’t see what the big deal was.
Well now, after 10 hours spread across two consecutive days of playing Portal 2 I was ready to count myself as one of those zealots, ready to preach the Portal gospel to all who would listen, but then something even more special happened…co-op. Normally, co-op is tossed in more as an afterthought or marketing gimmick; games like Kane and Lynch and Army of Two notwithstanding. But Valve has created a cooperative component to Portal 2 that not only rivals the single-player experience, but also offers a deeper and more challenging set of puzzles that will inspire a whole new era of cooperation amongst gamers.
But before I get too far ahead of myself we need to talk about story and presentation. The first game had no story and was merely a set of training puzzles and test chambers to introduce gamers to the clever concept of portals and a bit of physics. Just about the time we were ready to take our skills and portal gun into a real game world the game was over. Portal 2 picks up 999999999999999…..years after the events of the first game. You play as Chell, or perhaps one of her many clones, if you subscribe to any of the theories on Aperture Science and their testing labs.
You are quickly teamed up with Wheatley, a spherical maintenance robot who will serve as your mentor for the initial stages of the game, and thanks to the brilliant voice performance by Stephen Merchant, will also provide countless memorable moments of comic relief. The quote-worthy dialogue in Portal 2 is astounding – 95% of every sentence uttered is worth sharing at your next gathering of gamers.
Once Wheatley gets your boxcar…err…I mean your bedroom relocated to the testing facility things will start to look slightly familiar, assuming you played the original Portal. You’ll grab a portal gun and slowly grasp the bi-directional functionality of the device. At first the orange (receiving) portal is fixed, so you only need to place the blue entrance to solve a few minor navigation puzzles. But all too soon you’ll get the dual portal gun and be in charge of firing both orange and blue portals to solve an increasingly more complex series of puzzles.
Unlike any (and I truly mean “any”) game before, Portal 2 expertly ramps up the difficulty of the puzzles, both in their construction and in your tools for solving them. You have companion cubes, lasers, laser redirection cubes, light bridges, tractor beams, and in a brilliant stroke of genius for the latter half of the game; three new types of fluids that not only serve as their own puzzle components, but also enhance everything you have learned up to this point.
Each time a new puzzle component or tool is introduced you get a simple lesson teaching you the basics, then something a bit more advanced, and finally you’ll be combining portals, lasers, fluids, and cubes, like a pro. Who knew science could be this much fun, especially when the game controls are so easy? Chell isn’t your traditional FPS action hero. She can walk but not run, she can jump but only a few feet, she can carry a cube but can’t throw it. But she overcomes these limitations through science. If she needs to jump she has to place portals in such a way to use physics and momentum or perhaps find a floor launcher to catapult a cube to the desired location. Portal 2 basically forces you to rethink everything you have ever learned about playing an FPS game.
As previously mentioned, the original game suffered from a complete lack of story. Portal 2 eases us back into Aperture Science, currently in ruins, but once the evil robotic administrator, GLaDOS is resurrected in one of the game's earlier climaxes, the testing facilities are slowly brought back to their original high-tech glory. Then, after events that I won’t be spoiling here, Chell will find herself in the subterranean wasteland of the original Aperture Science facility for some startling revelations in storytelling and even more compelling puzzles that work more on a naturally existing level rather than simple test chambers.
While the story is brilliant and the humor of both Wheatley and GLaDOS surprisingly fresh and witty, Portal 2 does boil down to a puzzle game and with only a few rare exceptions there is only one or two ways through each puzzle. This makes any future attempts to replay the game aside from achievement hunting, a bit pointless. I would have loved a speed challenge or a time trial mode with leaderboards. That would have kept me playing for a long time.
But Valve has included a two-player co-op that works brilliantly online or with local split-screen. I despise split-screen gaming, so believe me when I tell you that Portal 2 might actually work best when you divide the screen in two. The level of mandatory cooperation in this game, not to mention critical timing and portal placement, is beyond words. The game seems to play so much smoother when your partner is sitting next to you and you can see what each other is seeing and plan your strategy.
But online co-op is completely functional and more fun than any other co-op game I have ever played thanks to the designers and their clever set of tools that allow you to point and place a target on a surface, so when you are telling that person over the mic to “place your portal here” they know exactly where “here” is. You can even activate a 3-second, on-screen timer for those rare moments when simultaneous actions are required, and there is even a PiP window you can activate and see what the other player is seeing.
Portal 2’s online play is cleverly staged around a central hub facility with entrances to each of five unique testing areas, each with their own series of increasingly difficult puzzles. Once you reach each hub entrance you are free to access any previously complete puzzle chamber. You’ll play as one of two robots – think Laurel and Hardy – both in physicality and humorous antics. Armed with your own portal gun, you now have four portals at your disposal for solving puzzles that make the solo game seem like a training exercise.
The co-op is completely standalone with its own limited story arc and will take as long, if not longer, to complete than the story mode. Again, the downside is that this is a puzzle game, so if you or your partner has played the game previously you will already know the solution. You may or may not have the same solution, so there can be moments of revelation when you learn an easier way through a chamber.
Portal 2 succeeds at every level of competent game design. There is a fantastic 10+ hour solo story that you will completely immerse yourself in, and then you have another 10-12 hour co-op mode that will have the most introverted gamer trying to make new friends. Dozens of creative achievements will have you coming back for some very specific challenges, but sadly, your long-term interest in Portal 2 will likely fizzle out a few days after you have completed the solo and co-op modes. It will certainly be fun to revisit again in a few months or even a year when I have forgotten all those solutions.
But what I loved most of all about Portal 2 is that sense of pride and accomplishment each time I finally figured out the solution to a puzzle chamber or how to navigate that vast subterranean realm of the lost facility of Aperture Science. Admittedly, I was usually my own worst enemy whenever I did get stumped, almost always overthinking the situation. The puzzles are so elegant in their design that when their solution finally did wash over me in a warm wave of realization, it was like an endorphin rush. And yes, I do have a perpetual red handprint on my forehead from smacking myself for 20+ hours of playing Portal 2.
Visually, Portal 2 is unique, both in its simplicity and its originality. Proving that the Half-Life engine from 2004 still isn’t dead, environments range from small testing room interiors to massive underground caverns. The levels seem alive at times, with moving panels attached to robotic arms that quickly assemble themselves when you enter a new area. The game is clean, simple, polished, and flows with a consistently smooth frame rate. There is a certain elegance in being able to create so many unique (and often breathtaking) moments from a mere handful of textures and architectural constructs. But this also makes me wonder why the game suffers from severely annoying, frequent, and lengthy load times between each level regardless of how small or simple. You can install the game to your 360 hard drive and shave a few precious seconds from each load.
The audio is fantastic with the voice acting for Wheatley and GLaDOS stealing the entire show. Chell never speaks a word, silently absorbing all the verbal abuse GLaDOS can deliver. JK Simmons also lends his voice to the role of Cave Johnson, the original Aperture Science administrator. His incessant pre-recorded ramblings really lighten up what would have become a dreary second act in the story. The Dolby Digital mix surrounds you in the environments with great positional audio and reverb effects, and the music is pure perfection, both in its sparse use throughout the game and that epic song during the closing credits.
Portal 2 may be the best game of 2011. It may be the best game of all-time. It is certainly the best game you can play right now. I loved every moment I spent with Portal 2. I’m even enjoying looking at the game sitting on my shelf knowing how much fun I will have again someday when I revisit Aperture Science, alone or hopefully with a friend who may not have played the game. Portal 2 proves that you don’t have to kill things to make a great game and more importantly…science is fun!