Entry 21: Portal 2

The original Portal, which can be found just a few entries up on this list, was a surprising anomaly. Included in the famed Orange Box along with Half-Life 2 and its episodic sequels, what some originally saw as a neat, experimental bonus became an instant classic. Still, for all of its impact, Portal remains a brief, limited experience. Though I would call it a complete game, it’s much more limited in scale and scope than its “cousin” Half-Life 2. However, after seeing Portal’s runaway success, Valve (somewhat predictably) decided to create a “full-sized” (and full priced) sequel. The result is Portal 2. But do mechanics originally built for a 4 hour game still work for a 12 hour long experience? In my opinion, the answer is a qualified yes.

My time with Portal 2 has so far been restricted to the single-player campaign. The cooperative experience is likely quite different, and there may be a further entry dealing with that exclusively.

For the most part, single player Portal 2 is a longer, larger, more “epic” Portal. The narrative is a direct continuation of the previous game’s to the point of sometimes perhaps over-referencing it; to a degree it feels like the entire, longer game is all the aftermath or consequence of its experimental predecessor. I am happy to report that GLaDOS is still hilariously insane and happily amoral. New characters are added to the cast and all fit well with the tone and quirky humor of the originals. The story of Aperture Science is revealed, as are the origins of GlaDOS. An extended visit to old, buried Aperture facilities see the environments altered to reflect various earlier time periods. Facilities from the 40s, 70s and 80s are all meticulously detailed and flavored to fit in their eras, while demonstrating that “the more things change, the more they stay the same”; even from its earliest days, the leadership at Aperture Science seemed to love performing insane experiments with living test subjects.

The final encounter in the game both references the original encounter with GlaDOS and elevates the series to whole new levels of insanity. My overall opinion of the narrative? I was certainly entertained and enjoyed it greatly, but in many ways I think I’ve had my fill. I’m not sure how it could be continued or even why it would be.

I would also extend that sentiment to the gameplay. The early challenges in Portal 2 are very much like those of its predecessor, right down to giving the player a single portal at first, then adding a second. It is still a string of “spatial” puzzles, each with essentially a single solution. These are still very clever, and punctuated with segments that are nearly “combat-like” where the player must use the portal and other environmental tools to defeat turrets and other defenses. In some of these areas the game feels a little more freeform; still, Portal remains a first person puzzle game at heart.

It all holds up well; I still felt a great deal of satisfaction from the “aha!” moments when I discovered the solution to a particularly fiendish chamber. New  puzzle elements are introduced, each with its own mechanics and effects on the 3d spaces the player must navigate in Portal 2. Light bridges, repulsor beams, jump pads, and three different kinds of gels all add new, creative elements to the puzzles of Portal 2, and in general all are welcome additions. At times, though, I felt that the puzzles based on these new elements dragged on a bit. It reminded me a bit of a feeling I got while playing the original Half-Life 2; I call it “Valve-itis”. Valve designers seem to have a talent for inventing fantastically creative new gameplay elements, then over-focus on them to the point they slightly overstay their welcome. Perhaps still trying to justify the much higher price tag of this second game, at times I felt like the game was subtly padded as if to reach some minimum length the designers felt acceptable.

Portal 2 was definitely an enjoyable experience. It’s still wonderfully clever, darkly funny, and very sleek. It also looks better than ever.  But perhaps with this longer and more ambitious game, the formula has run its course. As I mentioned, it’s quite possible that the cooperative experience may significantly alter the game and lend it new life. I am eager to find out.


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