Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Game Review: Portal 2

Portal 2 is an incredible experience that tests your brain whilst being gut-wrenchingly funny at the same time.

Portal 2 was released a few months ago, and is the sequel to the multi award winning game from 2007 by Valve. The original game, initially part of The Orange Box (which included three Half Life games and another game called Team Fortress) was a very short but detailed FPS/puzzle hybrid that was considered more as a demo than a real game by the creators. However with its excellent and original game mechanics and its underlying storyline where you slowly figure out that everything is not quite as it seems at Aperture Science, was met with such strong praise by critics and even more so by fans that Valve probably felt forced to make a sequel. The ending of Portal was definitely open to interpretation to what happens next, and the questions of how the hell things came to pass in the original game definitely left fans wanting more. So Valve responded to the plea of fans in a way only they can – update the original Portal game to have an extended ending where Chell, the main character, gets dragged away by bots and to build an alternative reality game where players can start to piece some of the story together. The alternative reality game eventually leads to the official announcement of Portal 2 in the late spring of 2010. Plans were for the game to be released before the end of year, but it got postponed to the April of this year.

Before I talk about the sequel let me explain the game mechanics of Portal, in the event you’re not familiar with them. Portal, as explained earlier, is a first-person shooter merged into a puzzle game. It’s a truly unique experience, in the respect that instead of shooting bullets out of your gun, you’re shooting portals. And the purpose isn’t to kill people or aliens, but to use your portal gun to manoeuvre through level after level. If you shoot a portal at a wall, you can go through that portal and end up somewhere else. Later on in the game you get a dual portal gun, and from that point onwards your gun’s purpose is to shoot one portal in one place, and another to a location you can’t reach easily, to walk through the first portal and you come out of the other. This innovative game mechanic, which also combines the laws of physics to fly through portals, gain speed, and therefore gain air for long distances, became the staple of the game. Other elements are large cubes, which are predominantly used to put on buttons (usually further in a level) and also laser beams which activate switches for advancements into a level. There are enemies later on, which take on the form of turrets, which you can pick up or use your portal gun to dispose of. These all form Portal 1’s gameplay, which was a distinctive practice, yet a very short game.

So what’s changed in Aperture Science? And what of GLaDOS, the AI behind all the testing in the original game? What have Valve done to improve on Portal 1, is the game any longer than the original? How much of the gameplay from the original features in the sequel? Portal 2, unlike the original, has two gameplay modes, the single player game and the multiplayer game. I’ll talk about the single player mode first, which starts off an unidentified amount of time after the first game. Chell finds herself in the middle of what is insinuated as a potentially apocalyptic situation, where she finds herself ‘training’ how to deal with such extreme cirumstances. The training is basically simple tests not too dissimilar to the ones from the beginning of Portal 1. In fact, the first room you smash through is an exact replica of the room you start in, in the original game, albeit much older, worn out and with mould and nature growing through the walls. If you’re familiar with the original game, you’ll find this a nice welcome back to the series, but also becoming easily aware of the fact that, this time, things have changed. Aperture Science, with GLaDOS gone, has definitely had better days.

From the beginning of the single player mode, you find yourself attached to a little circular bot with a blue eye named Wheatley, who is very nervous and extremely comical. Wheatley, who is voiced by the fantastic Stephen Merchant from Extras, does an absolute astonishing job on his voice acting debut. Wheatley is basically your guide through certain segments of the beginning of the game, providing you with very funny moments, advice and storyline progression along the way. It doesn’t take long before you’re reunited with GLaDOS again, and to avoid spoilers, I’m not going to talk about how that coming together takes place. I will say however, it’s quite the reintroduction into the game. There are a few other characters later on in the game, which mostly have minor interaction with the player, that are all voiced well, whether it’s a human or a bot. It’s difficult to explain any other part of the storyline without spoiling anything, pretty much everything that happens in the game is a follow up of what happened prior, so all I’ll say is that the total storyline product is fantastic, one of the best told stories of recent times, and you’ll definitely enjoy the ride.
Portal guns, rainbow cubes and lasers. That's some party.
There are a few subtle tweaks to the gameplay, most notably being silhouettes where you have placed portals. I never thought about that as being a weakness in the original game, but this delicate touch shows that Valve have thought about even the slightest of shortcomings from Portal 1. Another example is that your cube, which is gray but has blue hues on its centre parts now lights in yellow if it’s placed on a button. As I said these simple improvements were not really a hindrance on the first game, but its inclusion is so subtle and welcome it really does show how much effort has been put into the game so that it’s an improved experience.

As well as the game mechanics from the original more elements have been added to the game to flesh it out, once you’re reunited with GLaDOS you start using a secondary cube, this cube changes the direction of a light beam (the original cube merely stops the beam) which adds a new layer of puzzle making.
Another added feature are the aerial faith plates – where you are literally flipped in the air to another side of the room. Multiple faith plates are used sometimes, where you flip in one direction, then another, and then another. You can portal mid air and get to new areas this way.
In the second half of the game you start using even more added features, most prominently the three gels; Repulsion, Propulsion and Conversion. Respectively the blue Repulsion gel lets you bounce across its surface, and the greater height you fall onto it, the higher you’ll bounce off it. The orange Propulsion gel let’s you run across it at high speeds, giving you a nice lift if you go over a ramp, and so on. Finally the white Conversion gel is spreadable across most surfaces, and you can place portals on this gel regardless of where it is spread, so if you have a surface that can’t be portalled (is that a word?) on, spray this gel on it and you can now place that portal on that surface. These three gels make up the second half of the game, and adds much variety to the gameplay.
The last major feature are the Excursion Funnels that are added to the last quarter of the game. These funnels, which can be reversed, let you travel through them across the entire terrain if portalled (I’m telling you, that word will be in the dictionary soon) elsewhere. The combination of the funnels and the gels add even more complexities to the game, which ante up the enjoyment factor immensely.
To your left is McDonalds, to your right is Burger King...
I haven’t really talked much about Portal 2 on a visual level. The graphics are great; I mean they’re not the most polished graphics in the world, but the art direction and the designs are definitely up there with the best. In the early parts of the game you see that Lab Rat’s artwork is still scrawled all over the walls and these drawings continue to add intrigue to the series as well as look good. The fact that some of the early levels are exact replicas or at least similar to the original levels of the first game adds nostalgia, and the fact that these test chambers are rusting and wearing out definitely adds to the game visually. Without spoilers once again, one thing I’ll say is that you’re not contained to these test chambers for too long, and the levels change as you get further in the game. These new areas and new designs are also designed very well.

We spoke of the voice actors and their incredible job earlier, but the sound production in general is top notch. The original Portal is not a game renowned for its fantastic music (apart from the track “Still Alive) but Valve need to be commended for both the original and the sequel for their production. No, there is no soundtrack full of excellent rock or pop tracks or anything like that, but the ambient music more than adds to the atmosphere in Portal 1 and continues to in Portal 2. There are many hidden Lab Rat dens, similar to those in Portal 1, and the music changes ominously when you find them. There are also small clips of music when you use the propulsion and repulsion gels, as well as the aerial faith plates, and these small clips of music add to the dynamic instruments you’re using, a more than welcome addition to the game.

I haven’t really spoken much of the multiplayer game. Pressure was put on Valve to make a multiplayer experience with Portal and they have delivered very well here. The developers claim that half the game is the single player mode and the other half the multiplayer but that’s not quite true, you can complete the single player mode in a good 8 to 10 hours of gameplay, where as the multiplayer takes a good 3 or 4 hours. Multiplayer puts you in the position of two robots, specifically designed by GLaDOS to be able to go through tests that are deemed far too difficult for humans to do. So instead of putting one human through the gauntlet, she puts two bots through, and worst case scenario is that they fail and GLaDOS simply can rebuild them to start again. That’s the basic synopsis of multiplayer mode, although there is a nice little reward at the end. Multiplayer is pretty much what you would expect it to be, two players with their own set of portals, going through a level. It feels more like Portal 1 than Portal 2, as the levels, especially in the beginning, are relatively short and sweet (where as Portal 2’s maps get quite long towards the end). They do get quite difficult later on, where timing is at the essence of both player’s to get the job done. The intention with multiplayer mode was to give you an experience where you communicate with the person you’re working with without the use of a microphone, particularly online. The idea is that your robots can’t speak to each other, so you and your partner shouldn’t either. They can communicate however, with the use of their body language. For instance, you can use the D-Pad to pinpoint a section of the map for your partner to ‘look’ at. Another thing you can do is set a 3 second timer, to help you do a task at the same time. These actions, while they feel relatively old school (and you can’t help but want to use the microphone if you have an annoying player you’re partnering online), make an experience that is actually in today’s modern technology world, feels different. The two bots also have charming personalities, and you can get your bots to hug each other, high five, dance, or you can be cheeky and place a portal underneath them and kill them comically. It’s all in good fun and GLaDOS also takes part, usually in a disapproving way once in a while.
You just can't help hurting your partner in Co-op mode. That's what happens when he steals your last Rolo though.
Portal 2 is an absolutely amazing experience. For me, it’s one of the best games ever created. "Portal was a test bed. Portal 2 is a game", Doug Lombardi told us. He wasn’t wrong. Portal 2 is a game that can compete with anything in terms of its overall value. It’s charming, it’s fun, it’s laugh-out-loud funny, it’s got a story made from gold, and it’s got one of the best character sets in video game history. The learning curve is spot on, and while some of the puzzles are challenging, they’re never off-putting. I wouldn’t say the game is flawless but it’s as close to flawless as they come. Some nitpicky issues are that there are a quite a lot of loading screens and while they don’t deter from the game too much, they’re frequent enough to note. Other than that they could have probably had some form of online leaderboard or possibly a bit more online play, maybe in a competitive competition, but these once again are possible additions in the future and don’t make the game any worse as a lack of inclusion.

I’m serious when I say; Merchant deserves every video game voice acting award available for his role as Wheatley. There’s so much passion, so much comedy, so much character put into the role that it’s stands out so well. Fans came into this game drooling over the idea of seeing GLaDOS again, what with Ellen McLain doing such a great job in the first game; Stephen Merchant and Wheatley steal the show. All the characters are great and they all have fantastic one liners, some of the best one liners in video game history I’d say, and all the characters can be funny at some point but as I say, Merchant steals the show and deserves the most praise.

To wrap up, Portal 2 is the game of 2011. It’s one of the best games ever made. It’s just an incredible experience that tests your brain whilst being gut-wrenchingly funny at the same time. It's that funny. And that’s all we want in a game right? To be tested mentally, and to feel like you’ve come away from a video game smiling. And you will with Portal 2, it’s just a game that’s more than worth smiling over. I started working on this website just over a year ago and I give Portal 2 an unprecedented review rating, in terms of this website alone.

Rating: ****3/4 stars

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