Campus Life

VIDEO GAME REVIEW Portal sequel more than still alive

Valve pushes boundaries with Portal 2’s characters, plot, and visuals

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All photos Courtesy of Valve corporation
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Cave Johnson
3966 portal2 turret

The original Portal was released in 2007 to critical acclaim. It was a very short, polished game based on a novel concept — players wield a portal gun that can fire a blue or orange portal onto certain surfaces, and things that go through one portal come out the other, preserving their speed and relative direction. By applying this simple idea in different ways, the player navigated through test chambers of increasing difficulty, all while evading the once-helpful robotic test administrator’s attempts to hurt your feelings (and kill you).

It was a groundbreaking game, but by the time Valve, Portal’s creator, released extra Portal test chambers in 2008, the concept had been stretched to its limit. Not much was known about Portal 2 before its launch, but one thing that was certain was that it would have to be different from the original on some fundamental levels. And sure enough, Portal 2 was different from Portal — different in all the right ways. Portal 2 attended to each of the deficiencies of its predecessor, and the result is a truly great game-playing experience.

“Look at you, flying majestically. Like an eagle. Piloting a blimp.”

After killing the evil AI — named GLaDOS — in the original Portal, the player’s character Chell is dragged back into the Aperture Science research facility and put into cryogenic stasis. Hundreds of years later, she is frantically awoken by Wheatley, a chatty spherical robot, to a rapidly decaying Aperture Science facility. He guides her through the facility in search of an escape, but they soon stumble across a still-alive GLaDOS, as promised in her post-mortem hymn from the original game. The game then becomes a panicked rush through the dilapidated facility with the aid of your trusty portal gun, punctuated by an exploration of some previously-sealed chambers from Aperture Science’s past. The jaunt through these chambers are accompanied by the prerecorded voice of Cave Johnson, the founder of CEO of Aperture Science, who sheds some light on the history and downfall of his corporation. Portal 2 tells a story of companionship, identity, betrayal, and science, and it does this very, very well.

Where the original game had you explore various applications of the portal device in depth, Portal 2 focuses on a variety of new and distinctive game-play mechanics. Many test chambers involve redirecting lasers with special cubes, either aiming them at door-opening switches or using them to light innocent turrets on fire. And in the historical Aperture Science facilities you discover various colored gels, each with a distinct function. Landing on blue “repulsion gel” allows you to bounce to new heights; moving on orange “propulsion gel” makes you slide forward very quickly; splashing white gel (“ground-up moon dust”) on a previously unportal-able surface allows you to place a portal there.

While the gels were novel and made for some interesting puzzles, they were also involved in the more frustrating test chambers. Every other element of Portal 2 is based on precision — placing specific elements in specific places. The gels were less predictable — if they splatter wrong, you fail. Players will also encounter strips of force-fields (which can be redirected using portals for use as ad-hoc bridges or shields) and columns of light which carry objects (or people) inside them. For the most part these elements were smart additions and resulted in interesting and varied puzzles. It was a little sad to see the beautiful simplicity of the first game go away, but for a sequel that is double the length of the original, it had to happen.

Portal 2 is not a particularly challenging game. The puzzles are thought-provoking, for sure, but none are so complex or devious that the solution can’t be found within minutes of observation and experimentation. The difficulty is comparable to the original Portal, but Portal came bundled with truly difficult challenge levels, whereas players of Portal 2 must rely on the co-op mode for additional test chambers. In Portal 2’s co-op mode, two players work together, each with their own set of portals, to get through special test chambers designed for partners. It’s fun and it’s different, but it still can’t quite be characterized as “challenging”.

The low difficulty is partly because very few parts of the game require quick aiming or reacting. Portal 2 isn’t a game that challenges your dexterity — it’s one that challenges your reasoning. This makes Portal 2 accessible to people who don’t have experience with first-person perspective games, but it might leave something to be desired for those who do. This isn’t to detract from the quality of the puzzles in Portal 2; they are each very well-designed and rewarding. This just isn’t a game that will stump you for days — whether that’s a positive or a negative attribute depends on the player.

“She has a medical degree. In fashion. From France.”

Because there are no cut-scenes, the story of Portal 2 is administered solely through the characters’ dialog. This is where Portal 2 really shined. The quality of the dialog provided by the game’s three speaking characters is unprecedented. Ellen McLain, reclaiming her role as the evil AI GLaDOS, was particularly extraordinary — though she received critical acclaim for her work in Portal, her performance in Portal 2 made it clear that she had been previously under-utilized. One moment GLaDOS would be making fun of your character’s weight and dead parents, the next she would be vulnerably rediscovering her troubled past, and McLain’s voice made you believe it. Lines that would have seemed flat and ridiculous coming from a lesser voice actor were genius coming from McLain. She was also able to make use of her background as an opera singer in the form of an eerie sentry turret a capella group that made several appearances (yes, it is as just bizarre as it sounds). Stephen Merchant’s voice made the annoying, bumbling, and insecure robot Wheatley somehow likable as he followed you around on his fixed track. And J.K. Simmons, whose distinctive voice you can probably remember from his role as J.J. Jameson in Spiderman, introduced you to Aperture Science’s history through a series of voice recordings. His parts were predictably gruff and funny, but more notably they could be morose. It was impossible not to get attached to his character, despite his never interacting with the player directly.

Each of these voice actors brought their robotic characters to life with the help of brilliant, funny writing. There are so many clever lines, not just in the prominent character interaction, but also in the fleeting remarks the characters make as the player is waiting in an elevator or opening a door. It would be easy to take the superb writing and acting for granted, having played the original Portal, but such attention to the narrative portion of a game is rare in the game industry these days. These three non-human characters were more emotionally investing than the fleet of chatty human characters present in most modern RPGs.

“Do you see one that says ‘escape pod’?”

Visually, Portal 2 is impressive. The monotony and sterility of the visuals in the original Portal, which worked well to create a claustrophobic atmosphere, would have been too depressing and boring in a game that is twice as long. Instead we get large, open chambers with a much greater variance in color and scenery. We are also given many opportunities to break out of the controlled testing chambers and to enter the deep innards of the facility, where there are plenty of memorable sights: an enormous vault full of sinuous tubes, whisking hundreds of cubes throughout the facility; the inside of a narrow cylinder of an indeterminable height, coated with thousands of different-colored levers (“Do you see one that says ‘escape pod’?” nags Wheatley); walls that have crumpled away which allow you a glimpse of the true immensity of Aperture Science, making escape seem even more hopeless. It just never gets boring.

The soundtrack accompanying the dizzying visuals of Portal 2 is flawless. While the first Portal used almost entirely dark, ambient notes in the background, this game mixed in plenty of faster electronic beats, similar to the music that only appeared during the short climactic battle of the original game. The music was varied and interesting without being distracting. It went a long way towards making even the slower-paced portions of the game feel engaging. The soundtrack was especially impressive when it synced up with the player’s actions — when Chell makes a harrowing jump or darts through a series of “crunchers,” a series of quick, urgent pings are incorporated into the existing background music to correspond with her movement. It makes action sequences, in which you still have full control of your character, feel almost cinematic.

The high point of the game was its ending. Though the fight at the end was a little too similar to the one from Portal, the events surrounding the fight are unique, shocking, and satisfying, incorporating many small details of the game that you had most likely assumed were inconsequential. Apart from the final ending sequence, there are only around five seconds near the end of the game where players don’t have control of Chell’s perspective, and Valve makes such good use of those seconds — it is truly a mind-blowing finale. Of course Portal 2 had to end with a song (two songs, really), and they didn’t disappoint.

Portal 2 is available as a PC/Mac download at ($49.99), and for the XBox and PS3 ($54.99).

rhino about 13 years ago

Great review; thorough and insightful. Can't wait to play the game!

Walt Ribeiro about 13 years ago

Being fans of Portal, I thought you'd enjoy Jonathan Coulton's 'Still Alive' arranged For Orchestra.

It was a fun song to arrange, hope you like it.