Wednesday, 8 June 2011

No cake, but plenty of combustible lemons.

As much as I wanted Portal 2, I had a few fears that it would just be a longer version of the original. It kind of is, but it’s also so much more. Is it a fantastic game? No question, it’s sublime. Is it better than the original? Well, no. But it’s every bit as good as it.

And luckily, the first Portal was fucking fantastic.


The chambers themselves, the meat and potatoes of the game, are works of evil genius, just as before. After getting you used to the mechanics again (which are the same as the first game, obviously) the difficulty ratchets up considerably. But never unfairly. Never did I feel as if the solution was out of reach, it was just my own stupidity preventing me from proceeding. And there is no greater joy than working out exactly what you’re supposed to do, and working through it in clockwork fashion. The new additions to the game, such as the propulsion gels, light bridges, launch pads and excursion funnels change the way you solve the puzzles dramatically. Where the first game’s hardest puzzles were solved by jumping through portal at high speeds, causing you to fling out the other portal to reach previously unreachable areas (or as GLaDOS puts it “speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.”), in the second game, these types of puzzles are the easiest. The first time you reach a puzzle that uses all four of the new elements, sometimes with a bunch of turrets thrown in for good measure, you’re likely to curl up into the foetal position on the floor and sob for a bit.

Of course, you’ll get stuck. A lot. But you’ll also kick yourself for not working out how to solve it sooner.

A lot.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

When was the last time a game made you laugh? I mean really laugh. Chances are one never has. Chuckle maybe, but full on guffaw. None. I must have laughed out loud dozens of times playing Portal 2, and it’s mainly due to the characters of Wheatley and Cave Johnson. GlaDOS is still in the humour mix, but these new characters really steal the show. There was a point about halfway through the game where I actually had to stop I was laughing so much. One word: lemons. And Wheatley, first of all as your friend and then as the main antagonist is never anything less than hilarious. In addition to my earlier question, when was the last time you were able to quote a game? Again, chances are never. Off the top of my head I can reel of half a dozen great quotes.

One of my favourites being this one from Stephen Merchant’s Wheatley: Ooh. It's dark down here isn't it? They say that the old caretaker of this place went absolutely crazy. Chopped up his entire staff... of robots - all of them robots - they say at night you can still here the screams... of their replicas. All of them functionally indistinguishable from the originals... no memory of the incident... nobody knows what they're screaming about. Ab-solutely terrifying. Though obviously not paranormal in any meaningful way.

And all of Cave Johnson’s quotes were gold: All these science spheres are made of asbestos by the way, keeps out the rats. Let us know if you feel a shortness of breath, a persistent dry cough or your heart stopping, because that's not part of the test - that's asbestos.

And once you know that the voice is that of J K Simmons, you can’t get him out of your head. If you don’t know who I mean firstly, shame on you, and secondly, imagine the editor from the Spiderman movies. Cause that’s who he is.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Also, the world of Portal is expanded so much in the sequel. We get into the bowels of the facility and a whole load of backstory is provided through the announcements over the tannoy. It’s not integral to complete the game, but it fleshes out the world in a way the original never did. If the original was a puzzle game with an implied story (if you cared to follow the cryptic ramblings of GLaDOS), the second is a puzzle game with an actual plot. And is all the better for it. Not to spoil anything, but the game has a good few twists and turns, as well as some emotional investment in characters that you never see, as well as one that you do. I defy you not to laugh and also go “awwww” at the very last post credits line.

The locations including the test chambers, the old Aperture facility, and the test chambers again but under Wheatley’s control are all stunningly realised and beautiful to look at. Especially impressive when you consider that this game is working off an engine that a few years old already.

The best thing about Portal 2 is unquestionably its desire to not pander to any sort of convention or conformity. Valve could have capitalised on their success by selling out, and throwing in a whole bunch of new features to entice new gamers. They didn’t, and more credit to them. It sticks to the same formula as the first, and never feels as if it’s been dumbed down to appeal to the masses now that it is a full game in it’s own right and not just part of a games package (like the Orange Box).

So to finish, if you want a game that tests your grey matter, has a great story, will make you laugh, make you want to tear you hair out, provide a satisfying difficulty curve, challenge you to think in abstract ways, with a great voice cast, sound design, level design, which looks great and provides a completely satisfying ending, with a fantastic credits song that rivals the original’s “Still Alive,” and with a very high replay value then get Portal 2.


And I haven’t even started talking about the co-op.

The only downside is that it’s so good, you’ll not want to put it down, and will finish it quickly. But when that’s the only criticism you can come up with, you may just have the game of the year in your hands.

5 stars.

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