Thursday, October 23, 2014

Portal 2 (Valve, 2011)

I've written reviews on game sequels before, but this review is a little different simply because it's my first time writing about a game that's a sequel to a game I've already reviewed. Why did it take so long for this to happen? Well, mostly it's because when I first started this site I wanted a larger variety to the types of games being reviewed. This directly influenced which games I chose to play next. For example, after finishing Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, my first instinct was to pop in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, but I figured having three reviews in a row of the same series might not be as interesting, so I changed directions and went for 3D Dot Game Heroes instead.

Now, since it looks like most of my traffic comes from google searches for specific games rather than loyal readers who come back for each new post (which you totally should be doing, add me to your RSS feed already!) the lack of variety has turned out to be a much smaller issue than I'd first imagined it might be. Plus, I've had time to post quite a variety already, so I'm much less worried about getting repetitive at this point. Expect a string of Batman and Zelda reviews coming up in the near future. Anyway, if you haven't seen it yet, you might want to take a minute to read my review of the first Portal. And now, let's take a look at Portal 2.

The best way to start this review is probably to talk about what's different this time around, and the most noticeable difference has to be the approach to storytelling. In the first Portal, you simply went through each puzzle until escaping the final stage and going rogue. For the most part, the only dialog was from the GLaDOS artificial intelligence instructing/heckling you, and the occasional mumblings of the turrets or corrupted cores.

In the sequel, you know from the start that you must escape, just not how. While you still play as Chell, the silent protagonist from the original, there are a variety of robotic characters along the way to speak to you, and to each other, providing actual dialog scenes. In addition, much of the game involves listening to pre-recorded messages, as well as watching how the others react alongside you. In typical Valve fashion, this is all achieved without ever breaking the action for a typical cut-scene, instead allowing the story to happen around you as you continue to play in more of a theme park ride style than a passive movie experience.

Portal 2 once again takes place within the compounds of the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, however it's not looking so good these days. Thanks to a stasis chamber malfunction, you awaken an indeterminate but obviously really long time in the future. The game starts with a crane ride through the now rusted and decaying facility in a not so subtle tribute to the opening of the original Half-Life, the game that launched Valve's success in the first place. This unique setting allows you to visit the remains of areas from the first Portal, as well as explore more of the massive structure's area.

Throughout the game, Aperture's complete backstory is uncovered as test chambers from decades past are explored and conquered, providing a satisfying glimpse into how this unique company came to be. Cave Johnson, the founder of Aperture, becomes a major character in the game, despite never actually appearing, instead being portrayed only through a series of images and audio recordings as you roam through the offices and testing facilities of the company's forgotten areas. The vintage areas of the 1950s with wooden crate companion cubes made me smile, and the 1980s area filled me with a personal sense of nostalgia.

In my review of the first Portal, I mentioned that the overall theme was in not always doing what you are told as those telling you what to do might be more interested in their own well being than yours. It was a unique idea, but not one that could work a second time. Instead, Portal 2 focuses on themes of trust, loyalty, and forgiveness. It's not always clear who is your ally or enemy. Those who are your enemies might be victims themselves, and may need to be rescued rather than defeated. It's a change of pace from the standard black and white tales of good versus evil we are often given. It's also a rare story in that the NPCs are dynamic characters with story arcs of their own as they travel a path of self discovery. Not bad considering it's all machines.

It's not just the same game with a new story though, Portal 2 has plenty of new tricks up its sleeve. In addition to the standard weighted cube, there are reflective cubes that can redirect lasers. There are hard light bridges that can be routed through your portals to get you across various areas. Then, there are the tractor beams that can move you or other objects through the air. Those alone would be enough of an update to merit a sequel, but then there are the gels.

Three separate gels can be found throughout the game, and must be applied to your environment to make the puzzles solvable. There's the always fun blue bouncy gel that transforms any surface into a trampoline, the orange speed gel that lets you run in credibly fast, and jump much farther than otherwise possible, and then a white gel that lets any surface host portals. You can imagine how useful those can be, even if it takes some careful planning to get portals in place to apply each gel where you need them. Water spouts can also be used to remove any gel if you change your mind.

Lately, Valve has been pushing hard into making multiplayer gaming the definitive future of gaming. They even declared that Portal 2 would be their last release to feature single player content. This pretty much sucks for anybody hoping to ever play a new Portal or Half Life game. As part of this push, Portal 2 features a multiplayer mode as well. As interesting as a Portal themed MMO might be, this is simply a two player cooperative mode campaign with trickier puzzles requiring both players working together to solve. Honestly, I didn't play this mode. Part of the fun of this game is immersing myself in a new world, and having to talk everything out with somebody else would spoil that illusion. Still, it's there if that's your thing.

Portal 2 is a game that was highly recommended to me, and in my opinion the hype is well deserved. While the first Portal was a short single serving of a puzzle, the sequel is a sprawling adventure that makes me glad to be a gamer. Hopefully, Valve will at some point ease up on their multiplayer only stance and grace us with a third, but until then, at least we have this one. So, if you own a computer, and you've never played either game, log onto Steam, wait for the next ridiculous holiday blowout sale, and do yourself a favor!

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