Friday 27 January 2012

Portal 2

The Title Screen

Portal 2 is a first person, puzzle platformer released in 2011 by Valve. A sequel to the highly successful 2007 Portal on the PC, Portal 2 was one of the most anticipated sequels in recent gaming - due to the almost 'cult' status the first game achieved with its main adversary, sense of humour and memorable ending. Portal 2 is also available on the Xbox and PlayStation 3. Since it is by Valve, it is obviously Steampowered on PC.

The sequel introduces a cooperative mode which contributes to the plot. This review will be on the single player campaign only.

The First Thing
As a fan of the original, I entered with high expectations. What struck me first was something quite small, but I felt had large implications. All Valve games use their own Source engine, and consequently their games share a similar look and feel. The Portal 2 menu has that familiar layout, but has been fitted with fancy animations specific to the Portal theme. This indicated to me about how seriously Valve was treating this product. The Portal franchise is no longer a quirky spin-off game that originally came packaged with other, more successful games; it is now proudly standing on its own two feet.

Chell and GLaDOS

Plot & Devices
After an unknown period of time, Chell (you) awakens to find a personality-core robot, named Wheatley, informing her that she has been asleep for a long time in the Aperture science complex, which is now falling apart. Guiding her to safety, Wheatley and Chell attempt to escape Aperture using the portal gun. However, during their escape, Wheatley accidentally reactivates the head-computer GLaDOS, who has not forgotten that Chell "murdered" her (in Portal). GLaDOS forces Chell back into the test chambers for more testing  who must escape once again. The journey will take her deep into the history of Aperture; revealing the origins of the company and GLaDOS herself.

The plot of a puzzle game in terms of events is usually fairly simple, and Portal 2 is no exception: Chell tries to escape, GLaDOS prevents it. Chell continues to try to escape. However, the main focus of the plot is not events but character development. GLaDOS is a psychotic computer obsessed with putting people through puzzle tests. Her malevolence and humour, conveyed in a calm soothing voice, contributed immensely to the success of Portal and makes her one of the most iconic game villains of all time. Because she is such an engaging character, finding out her origins is an enjoyable backdrop to the puzzles.

"Cave Johnson, we're done here!"

The game does not use direct plot exposition. Opting instead to show information through location design or pre-recorded messages, the player is left to slowly piece together the history of Aperture. Portal 2 introduces two new characters: Wheatley and Cave Johnson, the deceased founder of Aperture. Wheatley is an unimportant robot who tries to assist Chell, and Cave is encountered through pre-recorded messages deep in the underground ruins. Voiced by the actor J.K. Simmons, Cave is a slightly unstable, egomaniac who wants to investigate 'science', at all costs.

The Game
The gameplay centralises around the 'portal gun', which the player always carries. It is used to create two unique and separate portals, on suitable walls, which are then connected - allowing the transportation of player and objects instantly between them. Rudimentary physics applies, so the speed of an object entering a portal will determine the speed at which it exits the other. The player must use portals not only to solve specific 'portal gun' puzzles, but to escape Aperture itself.

Using walls of light and portals to make a bridge

The buttons, cubes, platforms and turrets return from Portal, but the sequel expands into new puzzle ideas with springboards, solid walls of light, lasers and redirecting cubes. Like the first game there are two alternating environments: either solving fixed puzzles for 'someone' in test chambers, or moving through Aperture trying to escape.

The controls and physics are tight and controlled; necessary for a puzzle game. The player can move, look, jump, crouch and pick up objects (no sprint). Using Valve's Source engine the graphics are not powerful, but are solid and good looking. Depending at what stage the player is in the campaign determines the setting. Portal 2 uses art style to show the history and state of Aperture; from modern crisp and white, to a dirtier past with warm colours.

Chell does have health but there is no visual indicator because it is not relevant; if you fall into deep water or get shot multiple times by a turret, you die and restart the puzzle. Like the first game, you take no damage from falling no matter how far.

Although the soundtrack is not particularly memorable, it is atmospheric. Since the voice acting is considered key to Portal 2's enjoyment, the fidelity and script is of high quality; with professional actors and comedians playing the main characters. Like the first game, Chell does not speak.

The underground ruins of Aperture

Wrap Up & Negatives
The only negatives I feel someone can have with Portal 2 are opinion. Do you like games from the first person perspective? Do you like physics based puzzle games? Do you find the game funny? I can easily understand why someone would say no to any of these, and therefore not like the game. The contrast between puzzles and exploration is quite extreme and this may not sit well with those looking for just puzzles. Valve announced that the game would not be ported from consoles and that PCs were used most in the development of the game, so no negatives there.

Those worried about the length of the campaign will be happy to hear that it is longer than the original. Portal took about 2 hours to complete and Portal 2 took me about 8 hours (and there is the cooperative campaign as well). Portal 2 in no way requires previous Portal experience, although as with any sequel for full understanding the first game should be played.

A 'time trial' mode integrated with Steam, as well as an innovative 'developers commentary' mode adds further value to the game. Valve has also released the toolset for users to create their own levels - adding even more gameplay potential. However, those interested in the 'challenge' maps from the first game will be disappointed as Portal 2 currently has no such mode.

One of the best games of 2011, if you like puzzle games and do not own Portal 2 you are severely missing out. In my opinion GLaDOS is one of the greatest video game characters ever created and Cave Johnson is a very funny new addition. I was not a huge fan of Wheatley but he made me laugh more than a couple of times.

The game play remains true to the innovative original, and new features and characters are incorporated seamlessly into the sequel. Nothing that has been added takes away from simplicity of the first game. Not only an excellent sequel, but an excellent game.

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