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Review: Portal 2 – Head and stomach aches

Incredibly annoying and too frequently mentioned internet memes aside, Valve developed a game that will be remembered for its ability to amaze in a mere two short hours. Portal’s signature tool was unseen before, and the game’s structure of blending puzzle elements and an A.I with a spiteful sense of humor wasn’t something any ordinary studio could successfully execute. Portal was a great addition to the Orange Box, so it’s relatively short completion time was not a problem for me, only when it was considered by many as a contender, if not, the game of the year in 2007.

I wasn’t as infatuated with the game as others were; it was difficult to get excitedabout Portal 2 and its goal to release as a full retail product. I couldn’t imagine what else could be added to the room by room puzzle solving that had a gutless A.I. speaking to you along the way. Of course in typical tight lipped Valve fashion, there is so much more to Portal 2 than shooting blue and orange portals at walls. Portal 2 doesn’t remain in the confined spaces of the white colored test rooms, it lets you go beyond that and explore the grand world that you have only briefly heard of.

The “less is more” attitude is the best approach when it comes to these types of games. For others it helps to be somewhat knowledgeable beforehand regarding the plot or the new mechanics, but for Portal 2, it would ruin the feeling of being surprised when faced with a brand new test chamber item. Puzzles are always introducing new tools to add to the complexity, so you’re always learning, finding ways to combine these brand new puzzle elements to reach the exit.

But always introducing new mechanics can affect the difficulty of the game’s puzzles. If I were to play the first level, then play one of the later levels, I would obviously be overwhelmed with the amount of new obstacles to take into account. You are gradually eased into learning all of these new items, so the puzzles never really strain your brain, never take what you have learn and applied it to the “advanced” levels where there is no learning, just solving. This however is not a huge problem as the puzzles are rarely easy to breeze through; it just would have been a great addition to have difficult or complex puzzles, rather than completing an introductory stage for each new mechanic.

At its core, Portal is still about getting to the exit of a room by maneuvering around the obstacles and utilizing the tools needed to trigger any switches, or move any blocks into position. Between those long stretches of abstract thinking, the test chambers open up into an oddly familiar experience seen in previous Valve franchises. The exploration of Portal feels similar to Half-Life, a complete contrast to the tight quarters of the test chambers. Each of these open levels is just massive in scale, so large that when you first enter an area, this feeling of “Where the hell do I even begin” instantly overwhelms you. I spent a lot of time experimenting, just wandering around aimlessly trying to figure out how to reach the platform that hung hundreds of feet above me. Eventually, both inside and outside the chambers, you have this moment where the problem in front of you is spontaneously remedied with the solution that just miraculously appeared in your mind.

That moment is what makes Portal 2 so special, you go from on the brink of giving up, not knowing where to even begin, all possibilities exhausted, to blasting portals all over the room, flicking switches and pushing buttons faster than your character moves.

I want to be clear when comparing to Half-Life, it’s not the same formula of exploring the environment and absorbing the story through the surroundings, Portal 2’s story is more direct, actual story telling. This is not often seen in Valve games, as they often look to tip toe around the story and in a way, let the player determine what’s really going on. You are very much aware of where you are and why you do things in Portal, an attribute a lot of other games fail to effectively convey. Your involvement is more than just getting to the end of the level to trigger the cut scene, it’s actually important to the story, not just a guy who shoots and kills everything until there is nothing left to kill. The question of “Why am I doing this?” never conjured up in my mind, a perfect indication that I’m directly involved in what’s happening. Now not every question is answered because that would be boring, there is still a lot mystery left for the player to think about. If someone were to ask me “What’s the story like?”, I can confidently answer their question in a coherent sentence from my own knowledge, not from something I read on Wikipedia.

And this story that I speak of in such broad terms because remember, less is more, is just an absolute great time from beginning to end. The level of charm all of the characters have, and the laugh out loud funny dialog is unmatched in any other game with a comedic tone. You’d think it’d get super boring listening to A.I speak the entire time, but don’t let their circuit boards and LED lights subtract from their personalities.

This charm also carries over into the co-op mode which is the newest and least expected addition to Valve’s first-person puzzler. I decided to play split-screen with my sister who isn’t completely unfamiliar with games, but I expected to do a lot of teaching while playing. I let her play before we began, because some type of experience with the Portal gun is crucial to the experience. If you play with someone who is just looking at the game for the first time, they will take a back seat and listen while you order them around. You will want an experienced player who also has not played the co-op levels before; otherwise they will impatiently wait as they already know how to solve the problem, while you sit there pondering on how to get both players to the exit. All of these conditions for co-op can be limiting while playing, and it’s a tough list of requirements to meet in order to get the ideal partner for playing.

The co-op levels aren’t story based though there is dialog written that is specific for the co-op play, all unique and not recycled from the single player. The co-op mode is what brings the entire package together and a genuine effort should be made to playing through the levels, may it be online or on the couch. The co-op also indirectly addresses my previous complaint of never really straining your knowledge. The co-op presents to you another factor to take into consideration, your partner, another layer of complexity added to the levels were it’s not about introducing new mechanics.

One flaw, which isn’t really specific to Portal but puzzle games in general, is the lack of any replayability. Once you know the solution, there is no longer a problem. This is more of a problem in the co-op since it restricts you from only playing with one friend. It’s not impossible to play through the levels again in another save – there isn’t a restriction or anything along those lines – it just relates back to the specific list of requirements I think players should follow in order to have the best experience.

It’s hard to believe a little game that was only a few hours long and featured virtually no story was developed into this large fleshed out world, with hysterical characters following you along the way as you squeeze your brain for answers. Portal 2 is one of few games that have that spontaneous feeling of momentary clarity, and it offers a level of gratification not found in those games where trial and error prevails. You never feel bored or suffer through repetition, there is plenty environmental and gameplay variety to keep the progression at a steady pace, with moments of high intensity and slower moments of calm exploration. The combination of separate yet dedicated single player and cooperative modes hugely increases Portal’s value, and everyone should invest the effort into getting through the chambers.  You won’t spend 100 or more hours with Portal 2, and there isn’t any competitive multiplayer mode to sink your time into. Valve’s highly anticipated release is a structurally refined experience that may lack the memes from its predecessor, but contains a significantly more memorable journey that will keep you laughing and your head aching.