I actually tried writing a review of the original Portal back when I first started this blog, and had starry eyed ambitions of garnering something of a following. Yet I ran into issues when it came to elaborating the review beyond three paragraphs, as there is not a lot to say about the game unless you get into full blown analysis, in which case you could write a novella about how well designed that game is. It’s the sort of title I like to revisit every year or two, and walk away impressed every single time. But after giving it a whirl, this time on PC, I decided to reach into my surprisingly shallow backlog and give Portal 2 another go. Well, make that goes, as I went through it once regularly, and once with the developer commentary.
Portal 2 Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux, Xbox 360, PS3
Developer/Publisher: Valve Corporation
Long after the fall of Aperture Science a little prior to the first Portal, Portal 2 takes place after the facility has fallen into decay, with the protagonist Chell being the only human survivor, and one who is likely incapable of speech after a hundred year long nap. Unfortunately, in her attempt to escape from the half destroyed facility with a chatterbox of a robotic eyeball by the name of Wheatley, she inadvertently awakens GLaDOS from robot afterlife. As a result, Chell is sent back into Portal testing as a form of revenge, while the passive aggressive insults come rolling in. Things naturally shake up, sending Chell through the bowels of Aperture Science and to a conclusion that, four years after the fact, I wonder if I should even bother hiding.
Well, I feel I should if only for how much I admire the massive amounts of efforts lovingly put into the story of Portal 2. There is a large amount of detail given the the history of Aperature Science, and it effectively evolves as a character along with GLaDOS and Wheatley themselves. They both have complete and entirely natural arcs that leave them as both interesting and an absolute joy to listen to. The voicework and dialog in Portal 2 is still something that stands leagues above most other games, with every actor on display does a stellar job at bringing their respective roles to life, and the game managing to tell a good story while also being funny. Particularly the monologues of Aperture’s founder, Cave Johnson, which actually assist in making the setting seem all the more… absurd.
The developer commentary mentioned at several points how the team wanted to make Aperature come across as the most absurd, poorly planned out clusterfest of a multibillion dollar company, but while I understand wanting to show incompetence, there’s a level of suspension of disbelief that I can’t help but feel was set fairly low when you remember that this is set in the same universe as Half Life 2. The fact that Aperture’s defective turrets have a drawl to them, lack the white finish, and set themselves on fire is humorous, but even considering how incompetent the company is, that is certainly pushing it. Same thing with the poisonous moon rock goo, and skeleton destroying blue paint, it is funny, but after three playthroughs I couldn’t help but ask why.
I don’t even consider this to be nitpicking, as Gabe Newell himself said that the major goal of Portal 2 was to explore the world Valve built with the first Portal, and as somebody who is the type of writer who uses spreadsheets, stuff like this gets to me. However, that first commentary node also does confirm a suspicion that was brewing in my head during playthrough number two, that the puzzles were not the reason behind the game’s creation- okay, it probably was for the co-op campaign, but I’m only talking about the single player campaign here.
This does not mean that the portal based puzzles are in any way bad, as they were meticulously designed around player feedback, in an attempt to prevent any players from getting struck while wondering how they are suppose to reach the solution to any given test chamber or puzzle in general. It’s well designed, and does give off a sense of satisfaction whenever you get through a puzzle that particularly stumped you, but in regards to the greater design, I feel as if it could have made more use of the tools it introduced. The pliable paints, the light bridges, the aerial faith plates, the lasers, all of which are tools that I enjoyed using, but looking back on it, I felt that just about every element introduced in Portal 2 could have been built upon more. The newly added mechanics are never hard to grasp, but I feel as if more could have been done when it came to mixing elements of the game together.
I’m guessing this was done to a mix of time constraints, needing to make sure that players did not get stuck on a single puzzle to the point of complete and utter frustration, and wanting to make a very cohesive and polished game that does not get boring or outstay its welcome. But in its pursuit of achieving that, there is something I feel is missing from Portal 2, and my best guess is that it feels as if everything was a bit too carefully designed, and the developers went off of data rather than their own instinct. It leaves a mildly sterile feeling to the game as a whole, and not just because of its setting.
Portal 2 is an incredibly noble effort that I feel shows some of the best the modern game industry has to offer. Its fixation on design and player enjoyment are something I feel should be a standard rather than what I feel has become the exception amongst games with budgets reaching out to the the eighth and ninth digit, and it actually used focus testing properly. It is a punctual little adventure with a deluge of memorable moments, and manages to succeed in being funny on top of being an overall very well made game.