Portal 2

(Spoilers for the whole game, single-player and co-op. Do not read if you haven’t finished. That means you, H.)

A damn good game. It’s just so nice to play new single-player content from Valve again. It doesn’t break new ground in the way the original did, but it’s smart and funny and engaging in a way that few games are, or even aspire to be.

In fact, the story is very much a re-tread of the first game, two or three times over. Nonetheless, this provided for a number of great moments. Stepping back into GLaDOS’s chamber for the first time. GLaDOS’s dark, bitter edge as she tests Chell again. Wheatley’s idiotic test-chambers. The move towards developing GLaDOS as more than an antagonist, making her into more of a trapped victim of circumstances, rather than a sadistic god.

A consensus seems to have developed that the Cave Johnson, old-Aperture section is the weakest part of the game, and I agree. There obviously needed to be a change of pace after the GLaDOS confrontation and Wheatley’s hilariously quick betrayal. (This betrayal worked perfectly for me – I didn’t see it coming until right when I installed Wheatley, at which point it felt obvious and inevitable.) But the caverns beneath Aperture were too vast, and too slow to go through in comparison to the conventional test-chambers. And nice as it was to get some history of Aperture, I just didn’t find Cave Johnson’s recordings to be very interesting. While a couple of details are relevant to the rest of the game (Moon rocks, Caroline) and he has what’s become the breakaway quotable monologue (lemons), the simple fact that Cave’s communications were recorded long ago, and thus weren’t interactive or responsive or directly relevant to what Chell was doing contributed to the feeling of the game dragging. And gameplay-wise, while the orange and blue gels fit right in, the white gel didn’t feel nearly as intuitive or user-friendly.

Part of what is so smart about the game is just how at-home and instantly familiar the new testing elements feel, other than the white gel. The excursion funnel, deadly laser, and light-bridge all integrate so naturally into puzzles that it’s like they were always there. The orange and blue gels, even if the solution always seems to involve some down-time covering every accessible surface with the gel, felt easy to pick up too.

The game is easy – easier than the original. The co-op chambers are a bit harder, probably about on-par with some of the later stages of the original. I’m ok with the decision to remove the necessity of firing portals while moving through the air, even though that was incredibly satisfying to do correctly in the original. But I’m disappointed in the way it feels like Portal 2 doesn’t fully explore its mechanics. In completing Portal, I felt like I’d explored almost every combination of puzzle-elements available – that there just wasn’t any new way to fling, or to manage an energy ball. In Portal 2, it feels like there are combinations that just aren’t explored. The fact that the very last co-op chamber introduces a new mechanics – blocks covered in orange gel sliding down ramps – is pretty strong evidence of this. There was only the barest exploration of dropping paint out of excursion funnels. The white paint was hardly used in combination with other elements at all. I guess I just have to hope for new downloadable levels to explore the various other interactions and combinations and boundary cases of the puzzle-elements.

That said, it’s alarming how funny and well-timed and delightful the last hour or so of the game is. From the poor Franken-turret, to the “The Part Where He Kills You” gag, to Wheatley mining the override switch, through the Adventure and Space Spheres, to the Moon it’s just fantastic. The Turret Aria is probably my favourite bit. It’s just so delightful and unexpected. Even though it won’t be remembered as fondly, or sung as often at nerd-gatherings, as “Still Alive”, “Want You Gone” is still a memorable, catchy song.

The co-op is also, obviously, great. In terms of gameplay and problem solving, I found it more satisfying than the single player. The shame is that, even though there are two distinct roles to play in the solution to each puzzle, it still is really only good for one play-through, and there just isn’t all that much of it. Again, something to be remedied with downloadable content.

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