Portal 2 (2011 game) review…

This is what happens when you DON’T leave them wanting more… After the break…

Portal 2 (2011 game) review…

There is a saying in the game of American football that, as a coach, if you always listen to your team’s fans that, eventually, you will end up sitting with them (aka you will be fired as the coach and replaced with someone who is smarter than you). It’s just another way of saying that what is popular is not always what is best. Short-term pleasure versus long-term satisfaction.

Portal 2 is the sequel to the wildly (and justifiably so) popular, mind-bending game “Portal.” In that game, you played an unwilling human test subject forced to go through an endless series of test chambers while testing a facilities’ latest device, a portal gun. The portal gun allowed the user to, in essence, create their own “doors” (or “portals”) in any given space, barring gameplay restrictions (for instance, only certain surfaces can be used to create portals).

In the first game, your antagonist was a slightly off-kilter computer system named “GlaDOS” who controlled the test chambers and gave somewhat off-putting remarks about yourself and the situation that you were facing while you were trying to complete the various test chambers. The game took place within the Half-Life universe, another wildly successful game franchise that involved a scientist trying to survive an alien invasion (and later, an alien occupation)of Earth by means of an interdimensional gateway. As a result, “Portal” had a slightly post-apocalyptic feel to it, as the facility that you were in was abandoned but still active, with power running the computers and the lights still on.

At the end of the original “Portal,” the player confronts and defeats GlaDOS, escaping the facility. The victory is bittersweet, though, as the player was also escaping into an uncertain and not-very-promising future, given that, in the Half-Life universe (and, by extension, this franchise as well), the alien occupation of Earth was still very much occurring.

So begins “Portal 2,” which sees both the original player & GlaDOS once again matching wits against one another. In “Portal 2,” though, you gain a companion named “Wheatley,” a bumbling spherical robot who finds and awakens you from hibernation in the hopes that the two of you may be able to escape the facility.
The facility is far from its pristine yesteryear, having been severely damaged during your prior escape. Unwittingly, Wheatley accidentally restarts GlaDOS and the pair of you are forced to endure GlaDOS’ wraith as the computer forces you through another series of test chambers. And yet things take an even more unusual turn when alliances are suddenly shifted, causing you & a depreciated GlaDOS to suddenly run from an empowered Wheatley and forcing you into hiding in an abandoned underground portion of the facility that has been locked away for decades. This abandoned portion, deep inside the Earth, involved the study of physics-defying paint. You must use both your portal prowess as well as your paint perception to complete a series of test chambers in order to make it back to the surface where a genuinely incompetent Wheatley must be deposed or the entire facility faces certain annihilation.

If the original “Portal” was the epitome of the classic Vaudevillian phrase of “Always leave them wanting more,” “Portal 2” is the demonstration behind the warning “Don’t wear out your welcome”; It is so much more of the same that it makes you want it even less than before. It is the computer game equivalent of the classic punishment (which, by the way, no parent should do) where a parent catches a child smoking a cigarette and punishes them by forcing them to smoke two entire packs in an enclosed room as quickly as they can.

In many ways, “Portal 2” feels rushed and uninspired, the product of Valve (the company that produced the original “Portal”) listening to their fans and no one else (including themselves).

Even the very existence of “Portal 2” lends itself to this lack of creative courage, as Valve was already producing a “prequel” to “Portal” codenamed “F-Stop,” which would have employed a brand-new mechanic that had nothing to do with portals. Yet playtesters kept demanding portals and so F-Stop was stopped after over a year in production and work shifted to this more conventional sequel. Environments, such as the dated interiors, and characters, such as the facilities’ original founder (“Cave” Johnson), were salvaged from that previous effort.

Just as with the original “Portal,” Valve once again robs the college cradle for it’s new gameplay mechanics. This time, a group of college students lends it’s prior effort, “Tag: The Power of Paint,” into the Portal franchise. The result is the ability to “paint” surfaces with colors that grant the player enhanced physics. Orange paint allows the player to run really fast while blue paint causes the player to bounce. White paint causes previously unaccessable surfaces to suddenly become portal surfaces and water can wash any of the three paints off of a surface.

The new gameplay mechanics are certainly enticing and they aren’t the only ones: Light bridges, laser beams (with the new refraction cubes) and personal catapults all add to an enhanced and ever-more-complicated gameplay experience over the original “Portal.” But is it better? Not quite.

Again, the story is thin gruel for what is, in essense, a first-person puzzler and any plot may have sufficed in this day and age of “Yeah-OK-whatever” millenial generation that values experiences first and everything else a distant second. Yet the lack of synergy between a compelling story & tight gameplay illustrates a gulf of difference between “Portal” & “Portal 2.”

In “Portal,” a lot of the story was conveyed through experience; There was pleasure finding an area of the game environment that the player “shouldn’t” have been, implying that other test subjects may have escaped their fate from GlaDOS as well. With only yourself as the only protagonist, you were left to your own devices as to how sinister GlaDOS possibly was. The levels felt tight, constrained & thoroughly plausible; Within the realm of reason, no one would doubt that such test chambers could exist in the real world. Even when the player finally broke out of the test chambers, the architecture felt reasonable and functional.

“Portal 2” dismisses a lot of these elements to detrimental effect. For instance, the “hidden areas” are diminished, in terms of both quantity as well as story environments now that “Portal 2” has, in essence, two new “characters” to propel the story (Wheatley & Cave Johnson). The story that they tell, though, is entirely superfluous and, knowing the backstory of how “Portal 2” came to be, more than a bit unfortunate. Subtlety is in short supply in “Portal 2” where Cave Johnson comes across as an alpha-male blowhard, GlaDOS openly antagonizes you & Wheatley is incompetently comedic. Comparisons between this game and “Ow! My Balls!” from the movie “Idiocracy” may be unfair but also not unwarranted. Even the “corrupted spheres” that are briefly introduced are so comedic in their single-mindedness (“SPAAAAAACCCCEEEEE!”) that all hopes for a return to the dialog of the original “Portal” are lost.

What story there is in “Portal 2” is quickly dismissed for comedic effect; That GlaDOS may well be the computerized consciousness of Cave Johnson’s daughter and that she may or may not have been willing to undergo that process had real poignancy and gave the story some much-needed heft. Yet it is quickly dismissed out of hand when GlaDOS, after regaining supremacy over the facility, “deletes” it for a quick and cheap (but not effective) comedic effect. Cave Johnson’s blowhard performance (Here’s hoping that J.K. Simmons enjoyed whatever became of that paycheck) completely overshadows any hint of a man who has lost control of his company and, in his dying days, finally finds a concept that may salvage the wreck that his company has become.

Even the very architecture of some of the later levels is played for guffaws and cheap laughs, with sprawling, unbelievably large world spaces that are meant to evoke the image of an out-of-control multi-national conglomerate. Dates of years are painted broadly on the sides of walls to evoke a story-telling element (because, obviously, every large company does THAT). Test chambers in later levels become huge monstrosities with vast endless pits. Because, of course, the Earth is hollow and only this company has rights to all of that space (or is it “SPPPAAAACCCCCEEEEE!”)…

Not all is rubbish, though, and that is the maddening part about “Portal 2”; Somewhere inside of the game are enough good elements to make the game palatable.

For instance, the increasing fluency of Wheatley to build test chambers was a nice touch, both thematically and in terms of gameplay. Wheatley’s character is convincingly voiced by Stephen Merchant (performing his very best Ricky Gervais impersonation). The gameplay elements are all still there and, as a result, the game has an amount of competency that it would not otherwise have. The new gameplay elements are integrated nicely into the existing Portal gameplay mechanics. Even the subtle cameo of one of the collaborative robot team members was a nice moment and their cameo at the end was genuinely nice foreshadowing. The overgrown vegetation in the early test chambers was certainly effective.

Yet, for all these nice, sweet, little moments, the game just can’t get out of the way of itself. It introduces these paint mechanics but doesn’t give the player any way to control the paint; The paint just “happens” by way of these large pipes. Why not a paint gun, like in “Tag: The Power of Paint”? Also, how were the paint test chambers in the forgotten section supposed to be completed without portal technology? Why not a section where you must completely solve puzzles only with paint & then combine both paint & portal technology to solve the puzzles? And why scrap what was the most promising paint (adhesion) and replace it with reflection which already has some overlap with the refraction cubes? Why not just add the adhesion gel for the puzzle makers if it was already implemented in the game?

The game, to be fair, is a superior value to “Portal 1”; It features an easy-to-use puzzle maker, it features a genuinely intriguing “co-operative mode” & in terms of quantity of puzzles is much more valuable than Portal 1.

But it’s not a better game than “Portal 1” and that is the ultimate tragedy. It’s storyline is an afterthought, partially influenced by all of the scrapped work on a previous effort. The characters are now caricatures (yes, some are effective caricatures but caricatures nonetheless). The puzzles and storyline are no longer synchronized with one another, producing a far less satisfying experience than in the previous game. Big levels do not necessarily mean big enjoyment and if you need a zoom function to find portable walls… Then you’re doing it wrong. Sorry.

“Star Wars” was not the first film that George Lucas made. Before “Star Wars,” George Lucas was considered an upcoming and critically-acclaimed director. He had directed “American Graffiti” and the hard sci-fi student film “THX-1138.”

When “Star Wars” was made, someone said of George Lucas, “We have lost a great director but we have gained a great franchise.”

The same could be said of “Portal.” We have gained a great gameplay mechanic but, in it’s wake, we have lost the daring and scrapiness needed to venture out for other gameplay mechanics. We have, in effect, lost games such as “F-Stop” or even an enhanced & separate “Tag: The Power of Paint.”

Portal 1 was released in 2007. Portal 2 in 2011.

Could a Portal 3 eventually emerge? Maybe. Valve is a secretive company; Who knows how many games have begun and died inside of their walls without ever a peep. It was years before we learned about other cancelled games such as Prospero or that Valve was ready to take the Half-Life franchise beyond Episode 3 (or years before we learned that there would never even be an episode 3).

Yet do we really NEED a Portal 3 after both a Portal 1 and 2? Well… No.

Portal 2 is what happens when you listen to the fans… And that’s not necessarily a good thing.


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