Sunday, 24 April 2011

Review: Portal 2

This was a triumph.

It was inevitable I would say that in this review if Portal 2 was good. And Portal 2 is good. Very good. In fact, watch this.

Huge success.

There, I made a note.

OK, really, I'm getting all the Portal 1 quotes out of my system now so that I can actually give a proper review here. Despite my quotes and ramblings so far, however, my point is the same; Portal 2 is a staggering success and marks not only the release of a hugely entertaining, challenging and fun game, but also a return to form for Valve; a company that has been silent for almost 2 years (we don't count Alien Swarm, good as it is) since they made Left For Dead 2.

It's impossible to say that Valve isn't relevant in the modern gaming age; Steam is the number one, probably unmatchable Digital Delivery System in the world, and it has made Valve a lot of money name people can't forget, even if it has been about 4 years since the last Half Life game. You can say that their presence hasn't been felt as much in an industry that has been recently dominated by EA and Activision. Their return to the world of videogames is nevertheless a welcome one.

Portal 2, though. Portal 2. Some might say that, seeing as they acquired a development team (essentially buying the idea for Portal) they liked and putting them to work, that it isn't a Valve thoroughbred. That's irrelevant; Portal 2 has all the charm, panache, humour and raw enjoyment that Valve games are famous for.

The game takes place many, many years after the original Portal (the exact number is indeterminate, although we know it's more than 9999 days, and insiders have been quoted as saying it's "hundreds of years" later). You are still Chell, the voiceless protagonist from the original, who wakes to find the Aperture Science labs in a state of dilapidation. With a little help from Wheatley, a personality sphere (delightfully voiced by Stephen Merchant, who should win awards for this) you manage to battle your way through the facility to the remains of GLaDOS, in the hope of escaping the mangled enrichment centre.

After that, it all goes a bit pear shaped.

Without spoiling the story, it unfolds itself elegantly and efficiently as you pass through the game, with some surprising and emotional twists to keep you interested and engaged, as well as the expected Portal humour, with some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. In a game franchise that is renowned for its innovative gameplay and the brevity (which isn't bad) of its story, the amount of detail and intertwined narrative in the game is shockingly pleasant and emotive. The story manages to surprise with some moments of seriousness, too, that aren't expected, but neither are they disliked, and the ending? The ending is simply [Redacted].

The main characters you encounter throughout the game can be counted on one hand, but the impact they have on the story and on the player themselves is incalculable. You start off, as I mentioned, with Wheatley, the well meaning but clumsy Personality Sphere, wonderfully and hilariously voiced by Stephen Merchant, who teaches us how to speak and, more importantly, jump.

GLaDOS, as we all know, makes a triumphant return, and her barbed sarcasm and sociopathic tendencies are as sharp and cuttingly hilarious as ever. There is more to be discovered, however, about the matriarchal overseer of Aperture Laboratories, than just how much of a frigid psychopath she is, and it's surprising what you find out about her as the game progresses. Ellen McLain delivers another sterling performance of a classic character, which is all the more impressive considering her resumé consists of GLaDOS, the Combine Overwatch from Half Life 2 and the Announcer from Team Fortress 2. Bravo, good woman.

The third character (and my personal favourite) is heard only via pre-recorded messages. It is the voice of Aperture Science Founder and CEO, Cave Johnson, performed with the eccentricity and convincing, emphatic gusto that only J.K. Simmons can provide. Mr. Johnson is the driving force behind Aperture Laboratories early forays into Science and then, as times goes by, into madness. In a moment that reminded me of Network, Cave delivers one of the most memorable, hilarious and staggeringly brilliant (if not brief) rants of our generation, which is nearly worth the price of buying the game in itself.

Visually, the game perhaps doesn't carry the graphical punch of some contemporary modern games, but it's not a noticeable problem. Valve's Source engine makes up for a slight lack of pure texture power by creating some of the most impressive and convincing shadow, lighting and animation work I've seen in a game; all of this demonstrated in the opening sequence of Portal 2 when moving through the facility in a portable (no plays on words, please) container that is rapidly falling apart. The crumbling roofing panels and girders all cascade into place through the engine's painstakingly crafted physics engine, and the grey half light floods in through the gaping holes in the structure.

You only have to compare a shot of Portal 2 with its predecessor, however, to see how far along Valve has really brought the visuals of their games. In short, despite not being 'cutting edge', Portal 2 looks brilliant.

As for the puzzles themselves; it's hard to describe them without telling you how they're done, obviously, and that would be not only counterproductive but also incredibly convoluted. Seriously, some of those puzzles are dense. Despite the complexity of some problems, however, they never feel unnecessarily difficult, and provide the same level of elation upon completion, if not greater, than those of the original Portal. The challenges with the new inventions, particularly, make you feel like a genius upon completing the more layered challenges. The basic laws of Portal physics from the first game still very much apply, just with a new set of toys to play with, so it never felt as if any puzzle was ever out of my depth.

Whilst Portal 2's Single Player puzzles are terrific (and despite what I'm saying next, nothing can take that away from them), the puzzles encountered in the Co-Operative campaign are where the level design really shines. It's not so much that they dwarf out the Single Player, but being able to work together with a partner on some truly devious, ingenious and downright staggeringly good puzzles is just a joy. You'll learn new highs of love for a friend, and new depths of absolute hate as well. Personally, I can quantifiably compare the two campaigns and say the greatest "aha!" moment of solution came in the Co-Op campaign, and not the single player.

The Co-Operative campaign is, although rather short, not something that should be thought of as a quick buck for Valve; it is robust, it is ingenious and if you have a friend who you trust (and don't mind repeatedly killing) then you must play it. It's really that good.

A word to the wise, however. The Co-Operative campaign takes place after the events of the main single player campaign. Although the story in the Co-Op campaign is light on detail, it nevertheless has an eventual narrative point that may be hard to understand in context without having finished the Single Player. Just a warning.

Closing Comments

Portal 2 takes the cautious ingenuity of the original Portal and makes it into something bigger, deeper and more refined. It really is the perfection of a formula that was very much in a half developed, but still great, state. With the addition of a cast of hugely engaging and likeable characters that are superbly acted, Valve has made a fully fledged narrative from something that was originally just a brief story to tie the original game together.

Combining this narrative power with a raft of startlingly clever, mind-bending and just-taxing-enough puzzles that teaches you how to think with Portals whilst simultaneously furthering the story and history of Aperture Science, Valve has created something truly special.

Doug Lombardi, Director of Marketing at Valve, was quoted as saying "Portal was a test bed. Portal 2 is a game", and he's right. Perhaps more than that, though, Portal 2 demonstrates more than its predecessor what an FPS, or even what games in general, are capable of when you're not concerned with killing, ammunition or bullets (OK, so maybe there's still some killing going on).

Even moreso, Portal 2 is an argument for the power of videogames to stand as tall as any other storytelling medium with a narrative that, although primarily known for its humour, delivers emotional and often serious tones that are unexpected but never unwelcome.

Portal 2 is pure entertainment. Pure fun. Pure genius.

A huge success.