Portal 2 Review: A mechanical class act


Slight spoilers regarding the events of Portal. Also this review covers only the single-player experience. The co-op was unavailable to me at the time.

I’ll admit it. Offing multiple dudes with a variety of dangerous objects and guns can be very entertaining, but shotguns, machetes, rocket launchers, and plasma guns all do the job just fine–it’s simply a matter of efficiency and pints of blood. Outside of that, the creativity is lost. It’s for those reasons the lack of quizzical puzzles in most of these games is unsurprising. In 2007, Portal solved that mishap all while limiting you to one non-murderous weapon. Portal 2 aims for perfection with the original concept and throws in more mind-bending mechanics to boot.

 Portal 2‘s hand-holding is just enough to make you feel safe, and sparse enough to let you experiment freely.

Thinking like an engineer is key for most of the problem solving in Portal 2. You’ll quickly learn that the ease of jumping a gap with the “sling-shot” momentum you’ve learned in the previous game, will only be the first step in many of the elaborate Rube Goldberg-like contraptions. With all the new additions, you may even forget that your holding a gun that shoots portals.

Thermal Discouragement Beams (red laser beams for those who lack the wit) are the first new tool at your disposal,. Shooting a portal at the outgoing end and having it stream from your second portal to a light sensitive switch is easy enough. Try adding multiple beams and reflection cubes to the mix. The result is a lot of trial-and-error until you get the angles just right. I once had 3 separate beams shooting through my first portal ready to complete the objective, until I accidentally shot my second portal into the wall in front of me–my efforts had gotten the better of me. Mistakes like these lack frustration because you’re taught exactly how things should work. What you did wrong is almost always obvious.Portal 2‘s hand-holding is just enough to make you feel safe, and sparse enough to let you experiment freely.

 

Lasers are only the first of many other exceptions to Portal’s standard mechanic. Once you understand one, it’s not long until they drop more into your lap. Each new addition creates a steady pace to the flow of the game, without feeling overwhelming. Every now and then you will enter a large room with multiple sections that force you to mash together all the new ideas and apply them to a single goal. It can stump you for a good while, but I found that if you assess your goals and work backwards, it will almost always unearth new possible solutions. It’s occasionally unfortunate when you will mentally disregard a solution that could never work given what you see, and later find a white panel hidden somewhere to shoot a portal at–rendering the impossible suddenly possible. The feeling you receive for solving a head-scratching puzzle versus the feeling of realizing you only needed to look up through a grate on the ceiling for the answer, can be wildly different. In this case, I will chalk those up to human nature.

All this thinking can get to you after awhile and in the inevitable event that you think you are losing your “portal-thought”, it does no harm to take a break and do something else. Often that “something else” are the interactions with the charming characters that you meet along your way. Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Merchant) is by far one of the funniest and most personality-driven characters I’ve seen in a long time. He’s incredibly dumb, but he manages to inform you on the latest news surrounding Aperture Science while nearly killing you and damaging himself at the same time.

Valve literally couldn’t have released this game without bringing back GlaDOS. She’s continues to flaunt her dry humor and subtle anger every step you take. This time around she remembers to constantly bring into conversation the fact that you ended her life during the events of the last game. It’s apparent that Valve knew she was a well-developed character already and they avoided retreading any old material because of it. Late game though, her character becomes rather stale and felt more like she was running out of any real humor.

 Portal 2 succeeds in almost every way.

As you have most likely seen from the advertisements, J.K. Simmons is in the game. Well, his voice anyway. Cave Johnson, the founder of Aperture Science is introduced during the second half of the game, and he fits well within the Portal 2universe. His voice emits that of a powerful leader and man that wants nothing but the job done right. Unfortunately, most of this funniest quips are seen in the aforementioned promos. Some of his verbal propaganda is frankly lackluster and I’m not sure if Valve achieved a truly interesting character to go anywhere further with. He provided enough differentiation from the constant tone of the A.I that litter the world that I enjoyed him enough to stop and listen during the game-play.

Valve’s Source Engine continues to look stunning on the PC. Unlike the first game,Portal 2 has a lot of moving parts inside the environments. Panels will break and re-align, rooms will fall apart, and walls will fail to completely give way. Vivid green ivy hangs overhead in many areas and sunlight peaks through broken sections of the buildings. It gives an extra sense of immediacy and works well to contrast the static aesthetic of the testing facility. Speaking of the testing facility, you see a whole lot more of it this time around. You will stumble upon gigantic structures and shafts that are filled with countless insights into the inner-workings of Aperture Science. The scale drastically exceeds anything found during your first portal-filled outing.

In the broadest sense Portal 2 follows the structure of the first game albeit adding a couple hours to each segment. It is a solid experience, that lasts about ten hours give or take a few, depending on your puzzle-solving prowess. The last half of the game admittedly felt a little drawn out, but the exciting conclusion made up for it. Portal began as a small-scale game that was destined for a more elaborate release, Portal 2 succeeds in almost every way. Tackling life’s dilemmas will never feel as efficient. Always be thinking with portals.

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