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Portal 2 Review

Richard Naik's picture

She has a Medical Degree. In fashion. From France.

Portal 2 Screenshot

HIGH My co-op partner's reaction to me falling onto a springboard and being flung to my death.

LOW If I think of one I'll you'll be the first to know.

WTF Has anyone ever seen Chell and Zoey from Left 4 Dead in the same room at the same time?

Innovation. That's a word that gets thrown around a lot in game reviews, and rarely is it ever really deserved. Portal was an exception. From its humble origins as a student project at DigiPen, Portal's innovative (See? See what I did there?) yet stunningly simple mechanics did things that truly had not been done before. On top of that, the game managed to do those things with a very distinct style and fantastic writing. Having aced all areas of the test, Portal is a legitimate all-time classic.

So it's worth asking the question—does Portal 2 need to exist?

Just because it's a classic doesn't mean there aren't things to criticize in Portal. For example, the game was only about three hours long, the environments were sterile, and some of the puzzle mechanics became repetitive by the later levels. Don't get me wrong—it's a fantastic game, but it felt...small. Even considering how good it was, it still didn't seem to have reached its full potential. Fortunately for us, Portal 2 fills that potential with luscious, gooey gel.

The Portals are, at their cold and dismissive hearts, puzzle games. There is a succession of levels with steadily increasing difficulty and a specific solution (usually) that the player has to find. It's a very traditional setup that gaming has used since ancient times—here's your goal, now figure out how to get it. Of course, the key to making all of this unique is the portal gun itself. "Thinking with portals" is a very apt phrase, since the portal gun makes the player think in a very different way than most other puzzlers. The challenge is not simply "how do I get past these obstacles?", but "how do I make the obstacles work for me?"

The single-player campaign of Portal 2 clocks in at about twelve hours (give or take depending on your puzzle-solving prowess), assuaging anyone who thought the first game needed to be beefier. The obstacles are much more varied this time around, and new toys are introduced at such a rate that any sense of staleness is kept safely at bay. The "ohhhhh" moments of finally realizing the solution to a given puzzle are as enthralling as ever, and if you'll permit me to get a little less serious for a moment, the portal gun is still just plain cool.

Portal 2 Screenshot

Fun toys and good puzzle design would be enough to make a good game on their own, but Portal wrapped all of the goodies in a funny and memorable package; GLaDOS. The cake is a lie. Weighted companion cube. Still Alive. Anyone who hasn't been living under a cube probably knows what those things are even if they've never played Portal. Its notoriety far outpaced anything the game itself could have possibly achieved with mechanics alone, and Portal 2keeps the flame going in this regard.

The humor on display is still crisp and biting as GLaDOS picks up right where she left off with her gleefully condescending monologues. However, Portal 2 takes quite a few steps beyond simple gallows humor and inserts a bit of real character. The story that is steadily revealed about the Aperture facility and the origins of GLaDOS, while still amusing, actually made me feel for her. (Just a little bit.) Add in Stephen Merchant's Wheatley and a delightful appearance by JK Simmons (who arguably outshines GLaDOS herself) and we've got an experience that matches the original in terms atmosphere. Writing and voice acting can make the difference between a good game and a great one, and it's a concept that Erik Wolpaw and company seem to understand perfectly.

Now if what I just described was all Portal 2 had to offer, then it would be more or less a meatier version of the first game. That's still a damn good game, but it's not quite in the upper echelon with some of my other favorites. However, Portal 2 also comes with one of the most ingenious and enjoyable co-op modes that I've ever played. It's this aspect that pushes it beyond the original and makes it a great game in its own right.

The addition of a second player with a portal gun makes for some wonderful possibilities. The process of solving puzzles collectively with the other player is an absolute blast, and GLaDOS's amusing little chats carry over seamlessly. It's also a riot when one of the players (usually me) thinks to himself "oh yeah I know how to do this" and then proceeds to throw himself to an incredibly amusing death. Besides, the co-op robots are just so... cute. Both my partner and I developed a childlike fascination with messing around with the extra portals and the robots' various gestures. Again, adding that extra sense of feeling is what pushes it past a merely mechanically impressive experience.

However, because the enjoyment of co-op is so strongly tied to solving puzzles together with a partner, I very strongly recommend that the co-op mode be played with someone who doesn't know the solutions to all the puzzles. Playing with someone who had already been through them all made me feel like I was just tagging along, and GLaDOS was all too quick to reinforce that notion. Besides, the little race to see who can solve the puzzle first is quite thrilling.

So do we need Portal 2? Do I need it? Maybe not, but I'm sure as hell glad it exists. The portal aspect has probably reached its zenith in Portal 2, and given the way the game ends I don't think there's much room for a Portal 3. Indeed, I would say it's time for portals to branch their physics-defying awesomeness into other genres. Think of it—someday we critics might snarkily dismiss "run of the mill portals" as a mundane, outdated mechanic like key fetch quests or unskippable cut-scenes. However, in the meantime we can give Portal 2 the jubilant praise it so rightly deserves. Rating: 10 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via Steam purchase and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 12 hours of play was devoted to completing the single-player mode once and 3 hours of play in multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains fantasy violence and mild language. Only the harshest moms and dads will have anything to worry about here. However, be worried if your kids start building testing facilities for the dog.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The game is totally accessible. Not only can spoken lines be subtitled, but even incidental sounds like explosions and the opening/closing of portals can be shown as text.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3   PC  
Developer(s): Valve  
Publisher: Valve  
Series: Portal  
Genre(s): Puzzle   Online/Multiplayer  
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+  
Articles: Game Reviews  

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Wow

10 out of 10? Seriously?

First we have hipster/"witty" humor that didn't make me smirk even once (ohhh, I get it...because the robot has a British accent, he's funny...I feel like the people who "just crack up" at Portal 2's humor are either very young and/or have never been exposed to British comedy and indie comedy...Portal's Wheatley and GlaDOS aren't that terribly unique). Second, yet another game with a good guy/bad guy flip-flop halfway through...great. Third, what's up with the retro Aperture bit halfway through? Again, reminded me of Bioshock, Fallout, etc. Fourth, I hated the gel. Did it add more stuff to play around with? Yeah. Did it get extremely old trying to "paint" levels exactly so you could run, bounce and fling yourself to the exit? YES, OH YES. OH DEAR GOD YES. O_O

Fifth, Portal 1 worked because it was short - there's not much to portal gameplay and turning a 2-4 hour experience into an 8-12 hour one simply doesn't work. Sixth, I get that Valve was going for more "open" environments, but why is it every "open" environment had just a handful of portal surfaces and almost always featured a bottomless pit? Awfully convenient. Shoddy level design if you ask me. Seventh, is anyone going to mention the Source Engine holding the game's graphics back? The times when lighting/shadows are at play look great - the rest looks "meh" (Source, whether you want to argue specifics or not, is a 7+ year old engine).

Eighth, the "Still Alive" attempt at an end song is just...lame. Ninth, "portal" gameplay felt fresh and exciting in '07. Portal gameplay 4 years later? been there, done that. Not every game NEEDS a sequel you know. Finally, WTF is up with the Turret "Symphony" at the end???? O_O

The **only** cool thing I will say is how the game ends by using a portal to a distant object - that was unexpected, clever and took advantage of the very thing the game was supposed to be about (she didn't shoot a bunch of gel out there).

I guess the way I see it, Valve played it extremely safe with Portal 2. Their solution to Portal (which was just a tech demo of an unused Half life 2 concept) was to try to throw "MORE" into the mix, regardless of whether or not it deserved to be there. Did we need a 10 hour long story with snarky/chatty/witty robot AIs going back and forth? Probably not? Did we really need to go through endless crazy complex (Who the hell designed that facility? Makes NO sense. No sense...). And did we need to devote a very large portion of a game about PORTALS to GEL?

Portal 2 to me is slightly above- and just-average in pretty much every way. Valve fans will eat it up and sites/pubs will be terrified of speaking their minds (and just award it unanimous praise)...but Portal 2 just isn't a very good game. It's not bad...but I don't think it needed to be made if this was what Valve had in mind. There are better games for people to play and something like this would have been better suited in something like "The Blue Box." It's just not standalone material.

Oh, Richard. =[ I never

Oh, Richard. =[

I never thought in a million years you were gonna give it a 10 after hearing you on the podcast. I know you sounded very positive and enthusiastic about the game, but when Brad fairly criticised it you didn't seem to disagree much, which tells me right there that you know this isn't a genuine 10/10 game.

I guess it comes down to, once again, how someone perceives a 10/10 score.

Good review

Scott C. wrote:

(which was just a tech demo of an unused Half life 2 concept)

That isn't true at all. The first was a tech demo, but it was never an unused concept of HL2. Otherwise, I don't agree with anything you said.

Anyway, it is rare on this site I ever get the feeling the reviewer was trying to have fun playing a game. This review, however, is from someone who truly had fun playing a game and awarded it so.

Isn't that always what games should be about?

Scott C. wrote: which was

Scott C. wrote:

which was just a tech demo of an unused Half life 2 concept

Unless you know something I don't, this is wrong. Portal began as a student project at DigiPen, and in a nutshell Valve caught wind of it and decided to bring the guys that were making in-house. The portal mechanic (as we know it now) wasn't even being tinkered with when HL2 was being made.

Crofto wrote:

Oh, Richard. I never thought in a million years you were gonna give it a 10 after hearing you on the podcast. I know you sounded very positive and enthusiastic about the game, but when Brad fairly criticised it you didn't seem to disagree much, which tells me right there that you know this isn't a genuine 10/10 game.

I guess it comes down to, once again, how someone perceives a 10/10 score.

I didn't disagree with him much because it comes down to a matter of taste, as with any sort of creative work. He said that some of the puzzles really got him frustrated, which simply didn't happen to me. And I think I made my feelings very clear when I said I didn't have a very nuanced position on it and said I flat out loved it. Acknowledging Brad's criticism as fair doesn't invalidate my own opinion.

I was always under the

I was always under the impression that Portal was created because there wasn't enough time and it was too hard to merge with HL: Episode 2, so that's why it was left out and made into its own separate game (in The Orange Box). Sorta like how Valve made changes to their gravity gun in 2004'S Half Life 2 because they encountered development issues in the "pick up and throw objects" process. I can't find an exact article on the subject via Google but I do distinctly remember reading that in a couple magazines back when Portal came out - that it was the "leftovers" of a concept Valve unsuccessfully tried to incorporate into Half Life 2 (Episode 2).

I have a couple hundred old gaming magazines sitting nearby that might have the direct quote but this is as good as I can offer. All I can say is that I doubt Valve brought Digipen students in specifically to make Portal – they most likely wanted to see if there was an easy way of getting that gameplay mechanic in Half Life, first and foremost, since that was they main franchise. And, as evidenced by the short length and tiny development cycle/team for 2007's Portal, that game was not meant to be a serious, standalone brand new IP but rather a "bonus" game of sorts, again, suggesting portals were meant for HL content more than anything else.

I will say I think it's pretty crummy you address only one sentence out of an entire laundry list of points just to argue semantics over whether I meant Half Life 2 or Half Life Episode 2. In my opinion, HL2, HL:E1 and HL:E2 are all the same game (like WoW and all of its expansions are considered just WoW)...I guess I could've been clearer in my wording but you're clearly avoiding the many points I made to call attention to my omission of "Episode 2" from a sentence and trying to make it seem like [even if I am mistaken about Portal's origins which might be the case] that somehow invalidates the Portal 2 flaws I brought up. :/

...and that's fine, everyone has their own opinion. But like others said, after listening to the recent podcast (which I didn't do before I wrote my post) I have to agree that with all the flaws brought up and even based on what you said, I don't see how you could call it a 10/10 game. The words and score just don't match.

Portal 2 was a fine game,

Portal 2 was a fine game, but not a 10.

Considering it's ancient level design (room, hallway, room, hallway), how heavily it leans on it's predecessor, and the absolute lack of replay value, this game is not a 10.

It's that last one that bothers me the most. Games are going online to artificially pad the amount of time you spend playing it. Multiplayers are a great way to turn a 6 hour game into a 60 hour game.

Bioware goes for broke with it's singleplayer, and I have 100 hours into 4 playthroughs of ME2. And ME2 has enough content and player choice to legitimize that expenditure in time. But Portal 2 didn't last 10 hours on my first playthrough, and after going through again picking up all the dev commentary, why would I ever play through this one-trick pony a third time?

There is no choice. You're on rails the entire game. And while the rails are pretty - there isn't even the illusion of choice. Unlike Portal 1, there is only 1 way to solve each puzzle and it's pretty much "you're stuck until you figure out how the dev's want you to solve it."

The game is just so small, how does it justify a $60 pricetag for 1/2 of a complete game?

I heard a rumor that free DLC was coming later this summer. I hope it's true.

But this game... is a 6/10. If Portal 2 was a car, it'd be a little two-seater. It's pretty, and it's fun, but it just isn't a complete car the way, for example, Halo: Combat Evolved is a complete game.

Love the review, Richard!

Love the review, Richard! Portal 2 had everything that I wanted: a longer campaign, more complex puzzles and a deeper story. I am playing the co-op game now, and it is truly brilliant. I don't know why you are getting so much criticism for this review. The only thing I can gather is that this game was overhyped in some peoples' minds to such a great degree that Valve could never have made them happy. Sure, the game is linear, but so was Portal. And so are plenty of other games that I just adore. I loved the humor, the graphics, and the atmosphere that this game oozes. I am also playing through the single player a second time, and just can't stop smiling. I am an early adopter and paid $60 for this game, and even after learning that various stores are now selling it for $35 new, I have no regrets. In the end, a review is just one person's opinion. And this is mine.

"So, how are you holding up? BECAUSE I'M A POTATO."

Totally Agree...

I couldn't agree with you more. This game has all of the makings of one of the best games of all time. Great puzzles, a cool new take on a brand new approach to puzzle games and fps games alike, a superb story with witty humor, cool new technology, impressive graphics and a challenging single and co-op experience. I'm not entirely sure what there is to harp on about this game other than it's length. If you play both modes though you have well over 30 hours of gameplay unless one of you already knows how to solve all of the co-op puzzles.

Honestly, this game is one of those games you just can't seem to put down and I think Valve should see people wanting more gameplay hours out of this game as a huge pat on the back

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Immortal Gamer - A blog about games, gaming products and events - http://www.immortal gamer.com

Portal's Origins

Just to clear it up, BOTH Portal and Portal 2 mechanics were originally from DigiPen student projects. See this story: http://www.npr.org/2011/04/19/135511250/portal-2-a-student-video-game-project-all-grown-up.

Eric Wolpaw

Eric Wolpaw gave a talk about making Portal 2 (and OldManMurray, and other stuff) at the NYU GameCenter last week, thought I'd share some highlights:

* The original plan for Portal 2 was to replace portals with a completely different gameplay mechanic Wolpaw called F-Stop (he wouldn't talk more about it as they may still use it in a future game), and development went with this new mechanic for a good half year. But it was scrapped when Valve noticed that everyone they brought in to playtest was asking for portals/glaDOS/more-of-the-same-but-better.

* Someone asked for advice about becoming a writer for games. Wolpaw said basically "learn to write good, but also learn to perform (because you will have to sell your lines to the team) and to code at least a bit (so you can control the splicing of your script into the game)."

* Wolpaw and the other writers originally tried to get Richard Ayoade to voice Wheatley, but he couldn't do it because he was making that submarine movie.

* Wolpaw mentioned that he thinks of the Portal games as fitting into the PC adventure game tradition.

* There are no people at Valve who just do design. Everyone has some technical skill, whether it's writing coding or animating.

* Eric Wolpaw thinks Godhand is the best game ever. YES.

Nothing wrong with seeing perfection in the world.

I just had to chime in and share with everyone: there's tons of games I'd give a ten, and few would agree with many of my choices. That's because, all that it really takes for me to give a game a ten is to LOVE the game.

No one should ever seek actual perfection in a video game...it doesn't exist. But something close exists, and it manifests itself when someone is just undeniably happy. Like when you see a girl/guy and think they are perfection...they aren't, but through the eyes of the beholder, they might as well be. They are.

For Richard, Portal 2 lit a fire in his brain and his heart, and for him, Portal 2 is top shelf (a superior way of defining a "ten" score). I thought Nier was a 10, and Nier has TONS of issues. It also had a story and characters that completely ripped my world open. That's a 10.

I, personally, feel sorry for people who grapple with the gifting of tens. Maybe I'm being dramatic, but to me, it speaks volumes on their own restrictive nature in regards to truly loving something. Either that, or they just don't love video games the way some people do.

Anyway, great review, Richard, and after I play Portal 2, I'll come back here and tell you why this game was so TOTALLY a 5. ;)

Not to denigrate Portal's

Not to denigrate Portal's timeworthiness, because I did find it a compellingly entertaining use of about ten hours of my life, but I must say the "innovative" label is applied to Portal more liberally than is warranted. What was most innovative about Portal was not, as most people celebrate, the game-changing concept of incorporating physics-warping portals and variable gravity into a first-person puzzler, though they were fundamental to the experience; the first time I encountered them was in the game Prey, which was released at least a year earlier than Portal after languishing in development hell as vaporware for more than a decade. No, what I found most innovating and compelling about Portal was not its core gameplay mechanic, but rather its design, execution, and narrative structure. I still haven't gotten around to playing Portal 2 yet, though I look forward to doing so; I look forward to reprising the role of Tommy in Prey 2 just as much.

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