- Street Date:
- April 19th, 2011
- Reviewed by:
- Thomas Spurlin
- Review Date:1
- October 5th, 2011
- Game Release Year:
- Valve Corporation
- Valve Corporation
- ESRB Rating:
- E10+ (Everyone 10 and older)
The experience in learning how to “think in portals” while playing Valve’s original brain-child Portal isn’t something that can be replicated, nor can it be erased from memory. Once you’ve learned how the positioning, the momentum, the physics, and the timing behind placing orange-and-blue portals all factors together, the way you see environments in games changes; in essence, it hardwires your DNA to keep a eye on those elements, whether you really want to or not. Valve knows this, and they also know that that a sequel wouldn’t be able to elude this baggage, where previous sessions in using the portal gun undoubtedly carry over to a new slate of puzzles. How does Portal 2 shake its awareness of the original and create a distinctive experience? By retooling the hauntingly ascetic atmosphere, continuing the original eerie narrative, and incorporating a shiny new cache of environmental tools at Chell’s disposal. And don’t, for a second, consider glossing over the multiplayer.
The Game Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
Chell, for the uninitiated, is a test subject for Aperture Science who, in Valve’s successful first game, navigated through a series of environmental puzzles to escape the depths of the research facility (and the clutches of a clingy mechanized test administrator), using only the walls and tools at her disposal in each room. One of those tools is the portal gun, which operates exactly as it sounds: create one portal against a wall or floor, create a second portal against another applicable surface, and pass through. “Passing through”, however, means a lot more than calmly jumping through A over to B; the game’s grasp on physics incorporates impetus, trajectory, and clever usage of the two – not to mention hurling boxes, capturing energy balls, flipping switches, and avoiding turrets -- to get Chell to her desired location, no matter how insane the acts seem. It’s alright if Chell falls atop a hard surface, as she’s outfitted with leg braces that cushion her, so long as she doesn’t plop into a deep pit or an acid bath.
Portal 2 offers more of the same as it continues the story following Chell’s open-ended “escape” from the original, though the sequel’s orchestration makes it so that anyone can jump in without a hitch. She finds herself in a plain, phony motel-looking room, where she’schatted up by an optical AI device named Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Merchant, one of the guys behind Britain’s “Extras” and “The Office”). Chell’s been locked away and preserved in a storage facility for many years, to a point where the Aperture Science grounds appear utterly unkempt, the clean, sterile-looking angles replaced by eroded walls, overgrowing foliage, and crumbled beams. Wheatley and Chell come to a form of an agreement – well, Wheatley’s incessant chatter persuades, while Chell silently goes along – to help each other flee the facility, which eventually leaves our hero, once again, carrying a portal gun, sizing up a series of walls, and sporting a yearning to escape. But an old friend reappears and attempts to thwart their advances: GLaDOS, the sadistic “for science” administrator from before.
GLaDOS begins reconstructing the decrepit facility to prepare for further testing, which creates an ever-changing environment in Portal 2 for Chell to navigate through. The easier “tutorial” stretches where Chell (read: the user) relearns the portal gun’s operations occur in the more ramshackle rooms with fewer surfaces to shoot, a clever way for Valve’s to simplify the “tutorial” stages. As Chell progresses further and GLaDOS oils her joints, the structures grow more stable and complex from a puzzle perspective; the portal-worthy walls steadily increase in number, lasers and other energy elements complicate the path, and the ever-dreaded turrets – again looking like angry suppositories – gleefully inquire about Chell’s location while she weaves around the room to avoid their trigger-happy sights. While it’ll feel like familiar territory for Portal veterans, there’s distinctiveness in the textures and shadows to earn enough characteristic ambiance as its own, innovative locale.
In terms of controls, Portal 2 doesn’t make any attempts to touch-up or alter the excellent fluid first-person shooter mapping that accompanies the original. The left and right triggers for the designated-colored portals respond without a hitch, the motion generated from the thumb-stick feels weighty and natural, and Chell’s leaps across trenches show a distinct awareness of gravity that satisfies with its realism -- though that’s to be expected from the folks who dished out the Half-Life series of first-person shooter episodes. The experience in solving Portal’s puzzles can grow frustrating, where sometimes it requires an inventive jump or a stray portal placed in awkward positions to obtain a grasp on the puzzle at-hand, and loose or aloof controls are the last thing needed when trying to come up with a solution. Valve’s execution ensures that never happens, where springing and jumping responds without feeling like a roll of the dice whether they’ll land or not. If there’s an error, it’ll mostly be human.
As expected, the puzzles develop in terms of complexity, and the concern over a full-length Portal sequel arises once things begin feeling familiar. Can Valve maintain enough intrigue with both the story and the puzzle intricacy to sustain its more sprawling bout with GLaDOS? The answer lies in the depths of Aperture Science’s research facility, which Chell explores to greater lengths than we’d expect. It’s here that the game’s designers go wild; without giving too much away, Chell finds herself in the antiquated halls of Aperture’s closed-down testing facilities, complete with morbid, era-appropriate intercom chatter from Aperture CEO Cave Johnson (Law and Order and Spider-Man’s J.K. Simmons). A new bag of environmental tricks are thrown at her in the old test rooms, from force-adaptive goop that propels and springs things in unthinkable ways to gravity columns that transport items – and people -- in obscure directions. When these elements combine with the portal technology, it becomes obvious that Valve can, indeed, integrate spicier, inventive puzzle components and still stay reverent to the original game.
What keeps Portal 2 moving, though, is the exquisitely-composed, witty, often chilling narrative, which takes a brief journey through the lighter side of human scientific experimentation – and of omnipotence. Chell isn’t really the focus of the game, as she really wasn’t in the first; instead, she’s an observer of sorts to a war of artificial intelligence between GLaDOS and Wheatley, as well as to a bit of the history that led Aperture Science to the point that ensnared her into her “research” position in the first place. The exquisite voice cast propels the momentum brilliantly, from Stephen Merchant making an electronic voice sound sweaty and neurotic to J.K. Simmons adding a thick, devil-may-care demeanor to the C.E.O lording over his test subjects. With no shortage of twists and turns, both figuratively and literally as it winds through the mangled halls of Aperture’s wheelhouse, it’s a wholly gripping and surprisingly accomplished branch-off from something once largely seen as the prize within Valve’s big orange cereal box.
If you’re set on charging solely through the single-player campaign– which, admittedly, will stand on its own, even if it’s a brisk yet brilliant 5-6 hour romp – you’re actually missing out on half of Portal 2 in the multiplayer component, arguably the better half. Put trust in the fact that it’s shocking for me to come away with that impression. The designers at Valve have really put their heads together to create something equally as rewarding in the co-op section, where two players, either locally or over an Internet connection, work towards solving the same brand of environmental puzzles through the same room-by-room progression as the core game. Learning how to use four portals instead of two, as well as two portal creators instead of one, comes damn close in inventiveness to the thrilling experience in learning how to use the portal gun in Valve’s first game. On top of that, it’s also debatable whether some of the puzzles in co-op mode outdo the main game’s difficulty and inventiveness. Yeah, it’s that good.
Each player takes on the role of a personality-rich, portal-gun-equipped Aperture robot -- Atlas, stalwart and round, and P-Body, nervous and lanky – and works through a series of five test chambers, which takes place after the events of the core game and features GLaDOS’ company as she aggrandizes and berates their efforts. Aside from the actual first-person controls, which mirror the single-player campaign, they’re also equipped with emoting gestures: waving, dancing, and Rock Paper Scissors, just for fun, but also helpful things like pointing to specific objects in the room. And when a robot “dies” (when it breaks, its consciousness goes to a new model), it starts by itself from the last checkpoint. Aside from those differences, everything here operates exactly the same as the core game, with the local co-op spread across a split-screen schematic that’s never debilitating to visualizing the puzzles or keeping an eye on your partner.
There’s one other, major difference: the approach in solving the puzzles. Naturally, momentum and portal placement are still key components, yet there’s a completely different layer that Valve explores when introducing two players. From creating portals for your partner in confined situations to hyper-extending the reach of gravity fields, energy bridges, and reactive gels, the complexity at-work takes everything up quite a few notches, though verbal communication is almost a requisite. A unique sensation pops up when you fly through a quadruple-aligned set of portals that’s very reminiscent of several gut-dropping launches from the original game, a harebrained experience that two players can get giddy over through teamwork. While there’s no real story accompanying the puzzle chambers, aside from GLaDOS’ philosophical comments about human test subjects to the slight cathartic thrust near the close, it’s just as exhilarating within its cerebral challenges as its single-player counterpart.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
Reaching back into their bag-‘o-tricks with their robust Source engine, Portal 2’s array of angular rooms, gritty textures, and consistent movement are often jaw-dropping impressive at 1080p. Part of it resides in the impeccable art and level design, which strategically uses shadows and textures to convey specific, escalating demeanors as the story progresses. The graphics engine captures the framerate flow and consistent motion without much in the way of hiccups, with only the slight slow-down and jagged line to be seen on a few occasions. Bursts of color really test the palette in-place within the engine, from Nickelodeon-caliber orange goop and deep greens in foliage to the array of textural slates, reaching far and wide with nice depth-of-field capabilities (glancing long into the stretches of the factory proves an attention-grabbing, ample viewing experience). Of course, this isn’t a game that prides itself on explosions and characters on-screen; instead, it’s the rendering of liquid elements, shifting laser beams, and balls-out motion blurs that it hinges on, and Valve have really knocked it out of the ballpark.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
Ahhh, GLaDOS and her echoing, robotic voice. Seriously, it’ll give you nightmares with its sinister passive-aggressive cordiality, alongside the eerie electronic score that back this 5.1 surround design. She – and, sure, Wheatley as well, not to mention ole Cave’s intercom chatter – tracks along with Chell’s rotation while you’re initially exploring each room, the harmonious or gloppy sound effects from the environmental tools flowing along with the same spatial awareness. The sound you’ll constantly hear, of course, is the jetting blast from your portal gun, which gracefully scoops into the lower-frequency channel for a mildly throaty burst, while the subtle thud from landing a lengthy jump, the splash into acidic water, or the ratcheted noise from spring-loaded platforms are vigorously thrusted from the surroundings with impressive mid-range punch. Valve’s all about immersing you in the world of the creepy, echoic depths of Aperture’s labs, and the capability for the layered sound design to keep you continuously observant of the atmosphere deserves praise, even if it doesn’t persist with punchy activity.
Here’s an analogy regarding replay value for the Portal universe: as long as you continue watching a magic trick performed without being told how it’s done, there’s a degree of allure in keeping your eyes glued to the performance, but once you discover the nuts and bolts of its orchestration, you can’t shake the solution from your head. Instead, you just observe the non-magical trick and enjoy the atmosphere. Portal’s puzzles operate similarly, which limits the replay value drastically once you’ve got a grasp on how to solve everything. However, in the original Portal, an option opens up once the game’s finished: Advanced Mode, which adds difficult layers to the levels. Portal 2 doesn’t even do that, which, aside from experiencing the strong story and atmosphere again, leaves little reason to crawl through Aperture’s depth for a subsequent visit. Sure, several (~50) trophies/achievements can be obtained that may’ve been skipped during the first play-through, from placing a cube on a button without touching the cube to busting test-chamber monitors, but there’s little reward besides narrative/atmosphere immersion.
However, plenty of fun’s to be had in playing the co-op mission repeatedly. Alongside earning a series of achievements for causing a raucous with your partner, from performing the slate of gestures to completing the Calibration Course online with someone who hasn’t played before, the actual experience in replaying the co-op mode makes for a more enjoyable experience than you might expect. If you know the answer to a puzzle and the other player doesn’t, you can offer subtle hints – launching, pointing, or even half-solving -- and it’s still rather entertaining to see them complete the rest of the infrastructure (given that the player actually wants this help, or you’ll run the risk of getting smacked). Of course, it loses its luster once both players have solved the extent of the test chambers’ puzzles, much in the way the single-player campaign does. But there’s added mileage to be found there.
The folks at Valve have succeeded in nailing a sequel to Portal. That in itself is an accomplishment; from the simple use of a device that creates orange and blue gateways which take you from Point A to Point B, they’ve managed to not only come close in matching the original’s puzzling inventiveness, but also find a way to differentiate the atmosphere, toss in new toys, and blossom the germ of a story told. Spectacular graphics, faultless voiceover work, and sublime sound design dress up the challenging test chambers, which aren’t quite as difficult for veterans of Valve’s universe but are just an involving and complex in arriving at their solutions. The main campaign’s plot offers a brief experience with limited replay value, but it’s one of the most gripping of 2011, by far, and also arrives with an equally-captivating multiplayer segment – which, as previously stated, might be more challenging than the core game itself. Portal 2 will assuredly be on many year-end lists (undoubtedly including mine) , and it deserves every accolade it earns.
- Dolby Digital 5.1
- Online Co-op
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