Portal 2 Review

No screenshots for this one, because… well, without showing promotional shots, I’d probably just be ruining it.

Portal was a surprise hit when The Orange Box was released back in 2007. Actually most of The Orange Box was surprising. Team Fortress 2 was fan-friggin’-tastic back then, and Episode 2 actually gave up a small amount of new information (while also asking a bunch of new questions, like an episode of LOST). Portal was short but every second of it was fantastic, and it managed to captivate pretty much everyone despite having only 3 characters (the player, GLaDOS, and the turrets, unless you count the cube as well) and a limited set of textures. It also linked into the Half Life universe and had exactly the right pacing to keep the game interesting. The entire testing centre, with its sterile white walls and unmanned observation rooms high out of reach, was actually pretty unsettling and vaguely sinister, with suspicions confirmed after you escaped.

Then came the massive Alternate Reality Game (ARG) which started last year with the addition of Morse code, slow scan TV signals, and an actual working BBS set up by Valve. Then came even more cryptic clues. It all ended in a big push to play indie games from The Potato Sack, which contained a few gems like Defense Grid and Amnesia, but mostly contained games that aren’t particularly interesting for more than a few seconds. The idea was that the more we played, the sooner Portal 2 would be released. All we really got for our efforts were a few hours shaved off the launch time. Successful marketing? For sure, I mean attaching a bunch of (honestly) boring indie games to a major release was a clever move, and lots of people win, but I’m willing to bet that a lot of people were a bit pissed off that it made barely any difference in the end.

Anyway, let’s talk about Portal 2. The first thing I want to note is the menu system. Portal 2 was built for PCs and the PS3 (with the 360 being included too), and honestly it shows. I’m particularly disappointed in Valve this time around. Prior to L4D, the menus on Source games weren’t particularly fancy, but they were very good at actually letting us change settings. They used drop-down boxes which let me quickly select what option I want. Then Left4Dead came in and did away with the windows, which was a bit more frustrating but still very much functional. Portal 2’s menus are quite clearly built for consoles, with big, bulky menu items and no drop-down boxes at all. The advanced video config menu (which is only ever going to be used by PC players) is particularly painful to use. To change settings like AA, AF or anything like that, you need to click through scroll buttons. This is a pain in the arse because they’re slow and the game insists on popping up a big box explaining what the option does whenever you first click on it. Thanks Valve, I know what anti-aliasing does, I’ve been playing PC games since before 3D acceleration, just go away and let me configure the god damn game. Also it enables vertical sync by default, which introduces some major input lag on mouse movement. A large number of cross-platform releases do this, and it’s really friggin’ annoying. I’m willing to put up with screen tearing if it means that I don’t have my mouse lagging and sliding all over the god damn place. Seriously these menus are a bitter disappointment and possibly signals that one of the greatest PC developers have finally jumped ship, and somewhat suggest that the PC isn’t the primary platform anymore. Not happy, Valve.

The Source engine itself appears to have had yet another upgrade, with much better lighting and shadows this time around. The environments look fantastic and the lighting is great. Shadows haven’t been the Source engine’s strong point for ages now, it wasn’t until 2007 that any kind of real dynamic shadows were used, and this time they’ve definitely stepped it up a notch. Some of the textures though look a bit blurry and not up to scratch, which I sincerely hope isn’t a sign of cross-platform reduction. Performance was fantastic as per normal. There are also new shader effects in here for the liquid gel aspects of the game, which look pretty damn good but at the same time they seem a bit out of place. When the gel is on a surface it looks okay, but when it’s in the air it’s fairly solid. It looks kind of like something Pixar would make, but the problem is that the rest of the world is done in a fairly realistic style, while this gel stuff is obviously in a cartoon style. It does make it stand out but in my opinion it’s a bit too distracting and doesn’t fit in.

The storyline for Portal 2 is excellent, as you’d expect. Chell has been in stasis for “centuries” (it’s not exactly clear how long) by Wheatley, a personality core who is concerned because Aperture Science’s labs are crumbling around you. GLaDOS makes a return, as does pretty much everything from the previous game. You’ll also find out a lot more about Aperture’s history, dating back to the 1950s, as well as about Cave Johnson and GLaDOS. I can’t say much else without spoiling the game, but the storyline is typically top-notch and unlike the HL2 story arc it actually provides a few answers without asking a bunch of other questions at the same time. There are still a lot of unanswered questions and plenty of scope of new theories, but not as much as HL2.

Obviously there are new challenges to undertake this time around. The game uses an even mix of traditional test chambers and out of lab areas, with a reasonably even amount of time spent in both environments. There are new gameplay elements to contend with beyond the old portals and cubes of the last game. The new elements are lasers, light bridges, the gels, and these propulsion tunnel things. All of them can be directed through portals, providing plenty of scope for new puzzles. Lasers can be used to activate objects or to destroy turrets, and can be bounced around by special boxes with lenses. The energy bridge can be directed through portals and does exactly what it says; it provides a bridge or wall when needed. The tunnel thing moves you along a specific direction and holds you in place, allowing you to float over obstacles. The gels come in three varieties; orange, blue, and white. The blue gel makes you jump higher, the orange gel provides a speed boost, and the white gel lets you place portals on any surface. They spew out of pipes and occasionally are used in various combinations to complete different parts of the game.

Some of the new environments are actually quite challenging, and I was stuck on a few of them for a fair while, trying to figure out what to do. Some of the levels in Portal 2 are quite tricky, and a few times I actually exploited quirks in the Source engine’s physics to finish a level. The game’s length is probably about 4 to 5 hours or so on single player mode; it’s longer than Portal, and a bit longer than Episode 2. Either way it’s of a decent enough length that it avoids fatigue, because there’s only so many combinations of elements before you start to bore people. Then there’s the coop mode, which I haven’t tried yet, which is entirely separate to single player mode.

One of the more disturbing aspects creeping in is the “Robot Enrichment” option, which looks like a TF2 backpack and Mann Co store all over again. I don’t know why Valve need to do this for Portal 2, I mean they’re robots, why the hell do we need to dress them up in hats and stuff? I wish they’d stop doing that and instead focus on actual new content. I’d actually rather buy DLC map packs (provided they were of a high quality, not the bullshit that COD games churn out) than have all this stuff thrust at me while Valve more or less take community stuff and package them into the main game.

Another thing that somewhat annoys me (just as an aside) is that the game makes use of pre-rendered videos a bit too much for my liking. One of my favourite aspects of Valve games is that they don’t rely on this method and instead render everything inside the game’s engine, keeping the look and feel consistent. For example at the end of Portal (which I’m assuming EVERYONE has played and therefore isn’t a spoiler) when GLaDOS is in pieces on the ground, it’s rendered in real time. The end of Portal 2 however is a pre-rendered video, and although Valve did attempt to create a smooth transition from in-game to pre-rendered, it’s still painfully obvious and honestly doesn’t look any better. Consoles use this trick quite a lot, probably to save on rendering performance, but it doesn’t look particularly good.

GAMEPLAY: 4/4

Absolutely fantastic. Some of the levels are quite challenging and the length is decent enough that the game is well worth playing. The characteristic humour is there in force, and it’s extremely entertaining. Also, it’s the Portal storyline, which is something different for a change.

GRAPHICS: 2/3

Fantastic art style as per always, but with a few problems. The gels look out of place and some textures look a bit low-res. The shadows have been vastly improved. Is the Source engine getting a bit old? Maybe. But it’s still looking pretty damn good.

SOUND: 2/2

The voice acting is second to none. Valve know how to make characters and they hire fantastic voice actors. It’s fantastic.

LIFESPAN: 1/1

The SP portion is of decent length, and the COOP mode is entirely different to SP, so there’s plenty of game time here. Also there are quite a few achievements to keep you replaying. Also the game is compelling enough and has enough hidden areas to make playing through a few times worth your while, kind of like how playing through a Half Life game again is useful to keep the storyline fresh in your mind.

OVERALL: 9/10 EXCELLENT

Portal 2 is a fantastic game and easily lives up to the expectations set by Portal before it. It really is a great ride and is typical Valve quality. However I want to voice a few concerns, namely with the menu. I understand that in today’s world PC gaming is on the backfoot and consoles are taking over, and that really cross-platform titles can exist without issue. But this ridiculous new menu, with its huge interface, isn’t very impressive and makes me wonder if Valve are going to jump ship entirely and put the PC as a 2nd platform (since Gabe has apparently decided that the 360 is a piece of shit now). I really don’t understand why Valve couldn’t have made the menu (or at least the advanced video options portion) PC friendly. They did it for Left4Dead, and that was cross platform, so why the hell can’t they do it here? The console window looks the same, can’t they just bolt the old Source GUI onto the video options panel? Why do I have to put up with all this stuff? And why the hell does the save menu tell me not to turn off my console? I’m on a PC!

Of course absolutely none of this affects how great the game is, but Valve have a long history working on PC games and consistently managed to get it right for making menus that work well for the PC version. It doesn’t make sense for them to backslide now. I have nothing against consoles, because at the end of the day we’re all gamers and the game is the same, but making basic mistakes like this just isn’t acceptable. Especially from Valve, who quite frankly should know better. But don’t let this rant detract from the game itself, which is fantastic and suffers from none of the ridiculous control issues that plenty of other console ports suffer from. It’s a fantastic game and definitely belongs in your collection. Just beware the console menu.

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