A Paladin’s Review: Portal 2. Reviewing for Science is Fun.

FPS Puzzle Title Review for All Platforms.

FPS Puzzle Title Review for All Platforms.

A long overdue review of Portal 2 for your Sunday, post July 4th celebrations. Enjoy!

I’m trying out ideas with the story thoughts section. I’m hoping to finally talk about story and plot without worrying about “spoiling” them. I’m curious to hear feedback on what I did in this section. In any case, I hope you enjoy my review.

Read and rate the Portal 2 review on Steam.

Read my review on Portal 1.

Read my review on Portal Stories: Mel.

A Paladin’s Review: Portal 2. Reviewing for Science is Fun.

  • Genre: First Person Solo & Co-Op Puzzle Game
  • Developed & Published by: Valve
  • Platform Support: Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, Xbox 360 and PS3
  • Business Model: Base Game
  • Copy purchased by myself

Preamble

Portal 1 had made history. Valve had created a hit on a relatively small budget. The question now was: what’s next? Would there be a sequel? Could Portal handle the AAA deluxe treatment? Well, Valve remained the same Valve as ever. Quiet and secretive about any potential plans for the series. But in the background, work had already begun on a sequel. The team and scope was expanded dramatically. New mechanics and ideas were experimented with. It wouldn’t be until three years later in March 2010 and a patch to Portal 1’s ending that the world would learn of the coming sequel. However, Valve worked on Valve time and despite the original release date being August 2010, it wouldn’t be until April 2011 that Portal 2 would finally hit the shelves. It released to resounding applause and critical acclaim. The question was answered: Portal could be a fully featured AAA experience and still have all the best parts of the original.

See? The cake isn't a lie.

See? The cake isn’t a lie.

For myself, Portal 2 came out during the early years of my website. I had done a couple of experimental reviews before its launch but I wasn’t certain that I would do reviews “full-time”. It wouldn’t be until January 2012 that I made the decision to hit the ground running and do reviews. I remember at the time thinking that I wanted to do a review of Portal 2. However, I had my doubts that my opinion was wanted or asked for. I decided that everything that I could say was already said. So, I decided to steer clear of the Portal franchise and focus on games I felt were in need of attention. That was a mistake. Why else do reviews if not to add your own opinion? That’s why today I’m correcting that mistake. Though, on the one hand I’m kind of glad I didn’t write a review back then. My style and writing skills have matured a lot since those initial days. That makes doing this review a lot more rewarding now. As Portal 2 holds a special place in my heart and here’s why it does.

The sense of scale to this place is...impressive.

The sense of scale to this place is…impressive.

Overall Gameplay Thoughts

Portal 2 features has three main components that you can play in. The solo campaign of around 10 hours that features the main characters of the Portal universe in a rather epic storyline. There’s the co-op campaign of around 5-6 hours that features a more lighthearted and fun storyline, with two new robot characters and GLaDOS directing their actions. Finally, there’s the Steam Workshop section, where you can test community developed chambers or design your own puzzles for both solo and co-op players. How many hours you’ll get out of this depends upon you but you can experience quite a lot if you want to. These are generally logic puzzles that require a lot of methodical thinking through the solution, with some exhilarating sections to shake things up. You’ll need to take your time and have patience to figure them out. As far as the Valve-crafted puzzles go, they should be solvable on your own. I only used a guide for two particularly difficult puzzles towards the end of the solo campaign and that was mostly because I couldn’t figure out one step in the solution. In the co-op campaign, you probably won’t need any help so long as you and your partner work together.

One of the many exit elevators you'll come across.

One of the many exit elevators you’ll come across.

The game plays out in a series of rooms, chambers and environmental set pieces strung together that create the experience. The general goal of each room is to get to the exit door which leads to the next chamber or an elevator. You are equipped with only the ability to jump, crouch, looking around, in a first person perspective, and using your portal gun to create two portals that connect to each other. The main campaigns have a gradual learning curve. Each puzzle builds upon the previously introduced mechanics to keep you from being overwhelmed. A nice feature of this puzzle series.

Mechanics that were added or changed

There are a variety of different tools and mechanics in this sequel. I’m not going to go into too great a detail on each mechanic as I feel the game does a good enough job of introducing and teaching them to the player. For the most part, Portal 2 plays and acts like Portal 1 but also introduces new ideas in the form of tunnels you can float in, laser beams puzzles, gels and many more. I’d say the biggest change is that the rooms are often a lot bigger than the predecessor’s. Which can often make puzzles more daunting or complicated than they actually are.

The trusty portal gun.

The trusty portal gun.

Gel Mechanics

One of the main new mechanics introduced into Portal 2 are gels. Gels are used to be sprayed over surfaces to change their properties. There are three gels: orange gels which gives you the user the ability to sprint quickly over the surface, blue gels that grant extra jumping ability and white gels that will convert walls to portable surfaces. These become the main new mechanic in the middle of the main campaign when you visit Old Aperture. For the most part, I have mixed feelings about them. They certainly add a different dimension and more difficulty to the tests. It’s an interesting change of pace as well but that pace can be slowed down very significantly as they can sometimes be a pain to figure out or control. White gel puzzles in particular are aggravating as you have to aim the direction they come out of the portal and getting them to splash on the right areas is more annoying than fun. However, I will admit that they seem to fit in well with the rest of the mechanics Portal 2 has.

Story, Characters and Pacing

An unknown number of years have passed since the events of Portal 1. Chell is awakened from a long hibernation sleep to a very different Aperture Laboratories. The place is falling apart without the direction of GLaDOS or the team of scientists killed by the now deceased AI. Chell is awakened by a quirky personality core named Wheatley, who helps her progress through the ruins of Aperture. Wheatley is…an idiot as described by GLaDOS. But a funny idiot. Anyway, Chell hopes that his assistance will lead to her finally escaping from Aperture Laboratories, a place that seems bound and determined to keep her here. Along the way though, mistakes were made (by Wheatley) and GLaDOS is awakened again. She’s furious at having been blown up by Chell in Portal 1 and is determined to make sure Chell pays for killing her. By making her advance the limits of science via some test chambers, of course. Duh. That’s what we all do to our arch enemies. It’s just so obvious. Anyway, let’s talk about GLaDOS.

Oh yeah, GLaDOS looks happy to see me.

Oh yeah, GLaDOS looks happy to see me.

GLaDOS has a presence and character that is formidable. She remains one of my favorite videogame characters and really, it’s Portal 2’s story that cements it for me. She’s this generation’s SHODAN, a cold, distinctive, narcissistic AI whose main concern is her mission (science) with just a touch of humanity underneath. (A very, very small touch). I’d make the argument that this story is more about the journey of GLaDOS than Chell. GLaDOS starts off in a, understandably, cranky mood when we meet her. Restored to power, she is quick to act and won’t grant Chell’s escape from Aperture, even though it’s all Chell wants. She’s power hungry and refuses to bow to her opponent. Granted, she was just woken up after having been killed and been put face-to-face with the one who did her in. I can’t imagine too many people being very happy in similar circumstances. But despite what has happened, GLaDOS is determined to continue her goals: testing for science. All the while, she’ll make witty, biting remarks about Chell and her progress through the test chambers. Her loathing for Chell’s terrible deeds can be felt throughout her conversations and the creation of the puzzles she must solve.

Umm, Wheatley? Good old buddy? Why are you looking at me like that?

Umm, Wheatley? Good old buddy? Why are you looking at me like that?

But, GLaDOS falls from grace, overthrown by Chell and Wheatley. She’s then forcibly installed into a PotatOS, by the now power mad Wheatley who refuses to allow Chell to leave Aperture. Despite making an agreement. Thus, through his incompetence, GLaDOS and Chell escape and fall into the deep depths of Old Aperture. GLaDOS is forced to accept assistance from her enemy, Chell if she is return to new Aperture. Both of them now must explore Old Aperture Laboratories and find a way back up. The old laboratories were built when the company was new, back in the 1950s. It’s a place of old technology and ghosts from the past. They’ll learn about Cave Johnson, the eccentric CEO who started the company, whose actions eventually led to your current situation. GLaDOS will even learn something about herself. Eventually, the two of them make it out of the far underground laboratories. However, things haven’t been going smoothly on the surface and GLaDOS now asks to be restored to power by Chell. If Wheatley wasn’t a power mad and idiotic dictator, I’m pretty sure Chell would have said no. However, Chell doesn’t have a lot of options either as Wheatley will destroy the entire Aperture Laboratories with his idiocy. Through a harrowing adventure and close calls, GLaDOS is restored to power. Possibly, maybe just a little….humbled by the experience. (Or maybe not)…

(PotatOS and Orange gel)

(PotatOS and Orange gel)

There are some twists and turns to this story though they aren’t the hardest to figure out. That said, I consider that secondary to the character development and interactions that go on throughout the campaigns. This game has a lot of character, a lot of charm and a lot of dark humor. The interactions between Chell, Wheatley and GLaDOS are a treat. The dark humor works well and the dialogue is usually succinct and sweet. You get to learn about the beginning of Aperture as well as possibly what happens to Aperture. Seeing the expansive old Aperture was an enjoyable experience. Exploring Aperture in general is never a boring time, though, it’s a directed exploration. You don’t get a lot of room to look around, to see random rooms and whatnot. But what you do see, is impressive at times. It all makes for a memorable and enjoyable solo experience where you’re not only thinking with portals but exploring the foundations of Aperture Laboratories.

Gee GLaDOS, tell me how you really feel.

Gee GLaDOS, tell me how you really feel.

Co-Operative Campaign

One of the new major features of Portal 2 is co-operative campaign. The events of this story are set shortly after the single player campaign. You and a friend play as two robots: Atlas and P-body. (It’s required to be played with a human partner, there aren’t any AI companions). These two robots exhibit quite a bit of personality but don’t have dialogue. But who needs dialogue when you can plunge your friends into a pit of acidic water. By friends who you THINK you can trust but really, they’re just there waiting. Patiently. Hoping you’ll trust them long enough to pull the rug out from under them and send you to your death. Laughing maniacally all the while over Mumble at your misfortune.

Why are you looking at me like that? What, you think I did that?! Pff, no, I didn’t do any such thing. Nope, no siree. Not innocent little me. I’d never do that. You have no proof and you most definitely can’t look at my YouTube channel to find any supposed “proof”. It’s all lies, just like the confectionary. Besides, it’s not like you wouldn’t do that? I mean, what isn’t satisfying seeing your friend crushed again and again as you press the switch or create the portal that leads to their doom. Assuring them every time that you won’t do it again. Not that I’d…ever…do that. I’m an angel as far as Portal 2 is concerned. *cough*.

I digress. At any rate, the co-op campaign comes off as a lighter, more comedic toned story than the more serious and darkly humored solo campaign. If you can get the right friend to do it with, play it. There are two main differences with the co-operative campaign. One, there are now two portal guns each with their own connecting portals. Two, now two of you must reach the exit of the puzzle. In some ways, I consider this the better campaign because you’re working with someone else who can see what you can miss and the experience feels a lot more focused. Plus, the campaign feels like the really good puzzle ideas were put in here and you don’t have to deal with white gel puzzles either. It stands on its own and is definitely worth experiencing.

Workshop Puzzles

One of the many community puzzles.

One of the many community puzzles.

Where I feel Portal 2 really shines is the community-designed puzzles of the Steam Workshop. With over 450,000 puzzles to choose from, it’s impossible for any one person to go through all of them. Not that you’d want to because not all of them are great. The reason there are so many puzzles is due to the easy to use editor. I even tried to make a few puzzles and got close, though I was never happy enough with them to put them out there. If you want to keep it simple, just look for the highest rated puzzles of all time and give them a go. The Workshop integration in Portal 2 is fantastic. I had a blast just opening it in-game, grabbing a bunch of puzzles and chewing through them. Even if some are lazily done, mind-breakingly hard or what have you, there are those gems that make it worthwhile. Some with unique mechanics, different locations or entirely new campaigns. It’s where I sunk most of my game time with Portal 2.

Portal 2’s modding community continues to go strong today. With the recent releases of Portal Stories: Mel and the continually growing number of puzzles, it continues to impress. Side note: Portal 2 has the most number of “mods” out of any of the other titles in the Steam Workshop. There’s a ton of creativity in this community and they’re all to be commended for it.

One of the co-op puzzles.

One of the co-op puzzles.

PC Settings

Well, this place has let itself go...

Well, this place has let itself go…

Portal 2 has a lot of settings at your disposal to create the optimal experience for any rig, even low-end ones. Bit of a side note, but I’m glad that Portal 2 explains every setting in detail when you configure it. Far too many companies forget to add these explanations on what each setting does and it can be confusing to go through this menu without those helpful tooltips. Anyway, in the video settings you have the expected aspect ratios with multiple resolution configurations of up to at least 1080p. There’s fullscreen, borderless window and windowed mode along with a laptop power savings mode. Anti-aliasing supports MSAA and CSAA up to 8x and 16X respectively. Anisotropic filtering goes up to 16X and there’s v-sync up to Triple buffered along with multicore rendering. Shader Detail, Effect Detail and Model/Texture detail have low/medium/high settings. Portal 2 is optimized well enough that even low-end hardware can run the game without too many issues. That being said, there are loading screens between every level which can be tiresome. But, at least we get flashy animations to watch while we wait. Portal 2 really refines the look that Portal 1 started and I really like it. Between the overgrown areas, the bright and distinctive colors with the dystopian feel to it, Portal 2 really stands out.

Audio settings allow for multiple speaker configurations and audio quality. Master volume and music are the only sliders you can mess with. Closed captioning and voice can be enabled or disabled as well. You can also fully rebind your keys, change mouse sensitivity and acceleration as well as reverse the mouse for left handed people. The game also supports controllers with plenty of options from vibration, stick sensitivity, button layouts (custom support) and more. Portal 2 has pretty much everything you’ll need to run it on your machine and I haven’t noticed anything significant missing. The soundtrack is a varied electronic atmospheric tracklist that I have a hard time describing. It’s got some very recognizable tunes this time around though it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. The soundtrack is free both on Thinkingwithportals.com and Steam via free DLC.

Got stuck in this portal once, no idea why.

Got stuck in this portal once, no idea why.

Bit of a side note, but there’s also an in-game store that allows you to customize the look of your robot when you’re in co-op puzzles. It’s mostly been abandoned as they haven’t added any new items to it since release and the prices have stayed the same. I suspect this was put in as an experiment but Valve decided it wasn’t worth messing around with. It’s not worth buying any of the items as you probably won’t be looking at what your partner is wearing.

Final Thoughts

Portal 2 is one of my favorite games I’ve had the pleasure of playing. It’s a rare sequel where it stands on its own, building upon what came before but feeling fresh and unique the entire time. It cleverly avoids being a rehash of ideas, jokes or character arcs. The heavily expanded sequel comes with plenty of a solo campaign to chew on, new puzzles and refined mechanics, a new co-operative campaign and the backstory of Aperture Laboratories. The campaign is well done in general, though I felt like the ending started to drag a bit. The Co-Op campaign is also very enjoyable and is worth tackling if you get the right friend to do it with. While both campaigns don’t offer any real reason to replay them, that’s where the Steam Workshop and modding community come in. With over 450,000+ puzzles to choose from, you’re spoiled for choice. There’s puzzles that introduce user-created mechanics, new campaigns with their own unique storylines and a plethora of simple test chambers to try and solve. Science is fun, Portal 2 is fun and it gets one of my highest recommendations to give it a go.

Thanks for reading!

-KingIsaacLinksr

Leave a Reply