Thursday, May 5, 2011

Portal 2 Review: Lemon-Free*

Article first published as Xbox 360 Review: Portal 2 on Blogcritics.

Portal 2Portal 2 is pretty much like Portal.

Maybe that didn’t come across the way I intended. Let me try again:

Portal 2 is pretty much like Portal! Hurray!

If you liked Portal, you’ll like Portal 2. If you like ingenious physics-based puzzles wrapped in a fun, well-written story, you’ll like Portal 2.

This should come as no surprise. The same writers wrote the funny dialogue, and the same designers made the clever puzzles. The amazing Ellen McClain returns as the voice of the passive-aggressive computer antagonist GLaDOS, and several other great performers join the cast.

So Portal 2 is good, but is it worth sixty bucks?

As I’ve discussed previously, Portal had the decency to leave before it wore out its welcome. It was only about six hours long, but as one of five games included in Valve’s Orange Box, it was a ridiculous bargain.

Portal 2 has more content to it. It includes a single-player campaign that lasts around 10-12 hours and a separate co-op campaign with a completely different set of challenges.

Once again, you play as Chell, the defiantly mute test subject who must navigate a series of increasingly difficult test chambers. Once again, pleasantly menacing computer intelligences (three or them this time, sort of) simultaneously guide you and threaten your life. Once again, there is far more going on than meets the eye.

The game mechanics are largely unchanged. You “solve” each chamber by getting the door to open. Your only tool is the amazing portal gun, which lets you make two “portals” at a time. Drop into one portal, you pop out the other, no matter where it is.

Portal 2 adds a few new wrinkles to the formula. For example, some rooms contain blue repulsion gel, which lets you vault very high. Others contain orange propulsion gel, which lets you run at breakneck speeds. And finally, there’s white conversion gel, which lets you put a portal on any surface it covers. That last one spurts out in disturbingly Freudian geysers.

More like repulsive gel. Am I right?

As the game goes on, you have to use these elements, along with several others, in increasingly complicated ways to solve the puzzles.

For example, you might need to spray repulsion gel into the air so it gets pulled into a slow-moving “energy stream” coming out of a wall, reverse the flow of the stream, send it to another location via a new portal and then drop the gel so that it splats all over a line of turrets on the ground. Like I said, complicated. But fun.

Ellen McClain
Valve wisely brought back the writers and voice actors from the first game, especially Ellen McClain as GLaDOS. I believe her performance was one of the primary appeals of the original game, and she’s as passive-aggressive and murderous as ever in Portal 2. But she’s not alone this time. Stephen Merchant joins the cast as Wheatley, a lovably/terrifyingly stupid robot. J.K. Simmons plays Cave Johnson, the bombastic, psychotic founder of Aperture Science.

If I have a complaint about Portal 2, it’s that it follows the pattern of the first game too closely.

In Portal, you proceed through a series of 19 test chambers before you realize that the funny voice guiding you actually intends to kill you. You effectively step outside of the puzzle part of the puzzle game and start a different game entirely.

There’s no way this game could recreate the shear awesomeness of that plot twist, so Portal 2 doubles down on smaller plot twists. Triples down, in fact. You move through the following sequence a total of three times: test chambers, escape test chambers, confront the boss, plot twist.

As fun and clever as the puzzles are in Portal 2, the story overshadows them. The writing is sharp and interesting, and the voice talent is about the best a game has ever featured. I wanted to know more about the history of Aperture and the odd personalities surrounding it, and the game delivers that information. As the test chamber sequences progressed, however, I would get a sinking feeling as I entered a new one. Sometimes I just wanted to get through and see what was going to happen next.

In the end, that’s a good problem for a game to have.

(Minor spoilers ahead)

Do not try to give him lemons.
If you think too hard about some of the backstory, it starts to fall apart. For instance, you have to go through a series of abandoned test chambers that seem to have been built in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. But even the oldest chambers require the use of the portal gun.

So they had a portal gun 40 years ago? Why would they continue testing it all that time instead of selling it to the military for a gazillion dollars?

Or how, for that matter, could a deranged shower curtain salesman become a major defense contractor, inventing impossible technology?

Okay, complaint time is over. I’ll accept those flaws in exchange for the recorded lunatic rants of Aperture founder Cave Johnson. For Wheatley’s charming stupidity. For a brief glimpse of the human woman who became GLaDOS. And for GLaDOS spending the bulk of the game as a potato.

Oh, and the puzzles. For a plot-delaying device, they’re pretty awesome.

So is it worth those sixty bucks? Hell yes!

Pros: Clever physics puzzles, clever writing, clever execution

Cons: No real surprises, story overshadows gameplay

Recommendation: Play it!

* * *
*For an explanation, listen to Cave Johnson's "lemon rant," which is becoming this game's "the cake is a lie."

Check out more Shame Pile reviews, if you're so inclined.

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