Friday, 13 May 2011

Portal 2 Review

Back again, long after the last post, long after the release of the thing in question, but hopefully not long after my few readers have withered and crumbled to dust awaiting more of my exquisite prose. More video game shit; I don’t know if the few people that I know read this want that or other stuff, but this one’s a biggie. Portal 2- the latest release from industry legend Valve Software- came out, er, embarrassingly long ago, in a time when the Playstation Network was still a thing people talked about as something that worked, and now you get to read my thoughts about it.

Surely everyone knows what Portal is? That first person puzzler bundled in the Orange Box alongside Half Life and Team Fortress as filler, but became a smash hit. You know, the game where the player used a special gun to apply mind and physics bending portals, functioning as tunnels through spacetime to one another, to surfaces and solve increasingly inventive puzzles, set within the bowels of dubious corporation Aperture Science’s enormous research facility. There was that supercomputer, GLaDOS, whose coldly delivered lines were so constantly entertaining, those charming but deadly robotic turrets, that companion cube thing. Yeah, I knew you’d remember. This is the sequel, promising to be a full-length experience to the original’s taster course.

There might be some spoilers, but it’s so damn long since it came out I doubt that bothers you.

Portal 2 begins an indeterminate but seemingly quite long period after the original- Chell, mute, jumpsuit-wearing heroine has, after defeating GLaDOS, been seized by one of the laboratory’s robotic caretakers and placed in long-term stasis; too long, as it turns out. Aperture has been falling apart in the interim without its supercomputer overlord keeping the place neat and tidy, despite the efforts of various other automated personality systems. One such system is Wheatley, a little white sphere with a big blue eye, who awakens Chell on the basis that they could work together to get free of the facility. Voiced by Stephen Merchant, long-time collaborator of Ricky Gervais and all round funnyman, Wheatley busts Chell out of her stasis chamber and the adventure begins.

Wheatley is an amicable, if breathtakingly incompetent, little fellow.

I have to admit, I wasn’t so great a fan of the original Portal. I enjoyed it, sure; it’s a clever little game, but I didn’t go as wild as some of the rest of the world about it. Portal 2 is a big step up as far as I’m concerned, I’m happy to report. The puzzles have retained the entertainment value, a commendable feat, given the considerable novelty value of the original and the sequel’s vastly increased length. The new elements to the puzzle play are all welcome- gravity defying excursion funnels, movable light bridges and motion-inducing gels are all fun and add more depth to the portal-based gameplay. One complaint more professional reviewers than myself noted was that many puzzles had far fewer portal-able surfaces than counterparts in the original, giving a notion that the player was simply carrying out a prescribed solution rather than finding their own. While this is at least partially valid, it seems to me that most of the original game’s puzzles were similar, but just allowed more goofing around. The challenge level could maybe be higher- only a couple took more than a little thought on my part, but I still enjoyed them, and even though this was a far longer game than the original, the core mechanics didn’t get tiresome, a good indicator of their solidity.

While the puzzling was good, to me the real charm of the game came from the storyline. Portal had GLaDOS’s taunting throughout but most of the storyline coming in the last half hour or so, but P2 has brought in a whole lot more. Ellen McLain reprises her role as the icily polite GLaDOS, but she’s joined by some celebrity names in the form of the brilliant Stephen Merchant, playing Wheatley, the venerable J. K. Simmons of J. “PARKER I NEED PICTURES OF SPIDERMAN” Jonah Jameson fame, voicing the charismatic, shoot-from-the-hip CEO of Aperture Science, Cave Johnson, and legend of video-game-voice-acting Nolan North voicing various robots and such like. The presence of such talent shows the extra attention to narrative. Characters are chattering away often, really making them come to life; GLaDOS, understandably upset at having been torn asunder and partially incinerated, is on murderously cutting top form, Wheatley’s general babbling, though sometimes inane, is amusing and endearing. I’d like to give a special nod to the Cave Johnson character- I was genuinely moved (as well as hugely amused) by the voice recordings he’d left behind in an older part of the facility, charting his fall from fame and fortune to bankruptcy, deathly illness, and, worst of all, obscurity. At the risk of sounding like some sort of pretentious literary nerd, there was a distinct Heart of Darkness-y vibe to witnessing the downfall of this brilliant, but ultimately monstrous, individual. Portal 2’s excellent voice acting and inspired writing conspire to make it one of a very few genuinely funny video games.

Aperture's janitorial standards have gone way down in our absence.

The voice actors are only half the story as far as story is concerned, however; Valve, masters of atmospheric storytelling, have included so much detail in the game world itself. In the early stages, chambers are overrun with vegetation, walls fall apart at your approach, and what automated systems persist are on post-apocalypse self-preservation mode; as GLaDOS regains control of the facility, the walls are alive with movement as hundreds of robotic arms try to repair themselves; later, when Wheatley has assumed operational control, the sheer scale of Aperture is revealed as he smashes the facility’s huge movable chambers together in a fairly ghetto attempt to construct functional test chambers. It’s all very clever and very cool, but, honestly, I’d expect nothing less from Valve.

Something totally new to Portal 2 is the cooperative mode- here, two players team up as a pair of portal-gun toting robots for cooperative test chambers. I’ve played this twice, in splitscreen due to the PSN’s continued nonexistence, and it was damn good. While it wouldn’t be unfair to say that some of the original game’s puzzling purity was exchanged for enhanced narrative in the singleplayer, the coop campaign, while noticeably shorter, probably has more puzzling value; while GLaDOS is still present, the story format is far closer to the original’s. We have here a seriously well-designed mode, where the two players must use their four portals together to find a solution. Despite the very streamlined suite of interactions, such as a ping tool to mark out a portal location for a partner and a three-second countdown shown to both players for those timing critical puzzles, some of these are definitely trickier than anything found in the singleplayer. One had my buddy and I totally stumped for almost an hour, and when we finally looked up the solution we, naturally, kicked ourselves- seems to me like that’s good puzzle design. The final chamber in this mode is a masterpiece, the staged design and multiple elements taking a solid but hugely enjoyable bit of work to get through. I’m not normally all that wild for cooperative gaming, being a lone-wolf/anti-social narcissist type, but this was a damn good one.

Portal 2 uses the same Source engine that has been Valve's workhorse since Half-Life 2 way back in 2004, albeit souped all the way up. Despite the almost archaic tech under the hood, the game manages to look good. It's not stunning, but the engine has aged very gracefully, not least due to the constant updates and tweaks Valve has been adding with every new release. The clever art direction definitely contributes to the game's visual appeal- I've always held that a game doesn't need to be a technical powerhouse to be graphically pleasing, and I think Portal 2 proves it.

Complaints with Portal 2 are few and far between. A little extra challenge to some of the puzzles would have been welcome, but it was still no cakewalk. I’ve not felt too compelled to replay, though the presence of heaps of easter eggs and a developers’ commentary will probably tempt me to doing so eventually. In truth, my only real issue is a petty and possibly even irrelevant one; despite being within the setting of Valve’s benchmark Half-Life franchise, Portal 2 includes precious little reference to the overarching events of the HL games. Aside from a nod to the Borealis, Aperture’s mysterious research ship set to be featured in the possibly non-existent Half-Life 2: Episode 3, and a cursory mention of Black Mesa, the shared universe is barely mentioned. I realise criticising a game because it isn’t a different game from a different series really shows the HL fanboy in me, and I can understand Valve’s apparent wish to keep the two series distinct, but come on! It’s been four god-damn years since we had any Half-Life, Valve, throw us a fucking bone. I hope and pray that we see something from the series at next month’s E3, but that’s by the by. Portal 2, standing on its own, is damn good.

1 comment:

  1. Another damn good review.