Portal 2 is fantastic, if not in the way that the first one was. It suffers from its own legacy, which is completely understandable. However, it also seems to have realized this, and therefore defines itself in a different way from the original Portal. It’s one of the smartest games I’ve played in a long time. Smart in this context meaning it is both intelligent and finely dressed. Seriously, this game be purdy. Valve, the developers, spent a lot of time making sure the ruined science facility aesthetic got through to the player, as well as the…other environments. I can’t tell you what they are, only that they’re both incredibly convincing and flabbergasting in scale and intricacy.
Mechanically, Portal 2 is exactly that: a bit dumb. Well, I suppose “dumb” is the wrong term as it’s an incredibly smart game made and written by people of equally impressive intelligence and wit. The voice acting is brilliant, the lines all delivered to an immense effect. That’s not what I’m talking about.
The slow, creeping ominous discovery of the sinister AI running an abandoned testing facility that made the first game so interesting is still present, but in a massively lessened form. This is mostly because the first game used up all that exposition. There’s no little hints to the real nature of what’s going on. You already know. GLaDOS is a murderous AI running a gigantic testing facility that’s more or less void of other human life. You want to escape. That’s it. A lot of Portal 2’s discovery-based exposition is lessened, but they redirect their subtlety towards other little clues towards a larger world, the characters’ pasts, and the origins and background of Aperture Science.
Now, the puzzles aren’t puzzles in the same sense as the original. Those made you stop and think, questioning your concepts of how gravity and physics work, attempting to work out a solution on your own to the problems or obstacles presented to you. This was done by allowing portals to be placed almost everywhere.
Unfortunately, Portal 2 seems to contain more non-portalable surfaces than there are portal-friendly ones. Some of this has to do with the grand scale of some of the environments, and you can’t just go portaling yourself off into random corners of the map. This is something of a trouble that appears when the level designers have difficulty reconciling their artistic decisions and their practical ones, and my goodness, did the designers have a solid artistic vision of Aperture.
However, even in the completely enclosed rooms, there are often too few surfaces to place portals on, which means that instead of discovering a solution to a problem, you’re just figuring out what the developers planned as a solution. This is far less satisfying, but even though I just spent a paragraph or two describing it, it didn’t really bother me when I was doing the puzzles the first time. Don’t get me wrong, there are still a few beautifully open sections of puzzling. But for the most part, there’s one solution.
The cooperative play, while not as important or impressive as the single-player, is equally well-written and hilarious, and presents more mind-screwing puzzles, as both players have a portal gun. That means four portals, which means even more interesting scenarios for the players to overcome. That also means that physics has gone home crying. The newer elements of the game, combined with the cooperative play and four-portal shenanigans mean that there are a whole lot of ways that the game redefines how you think about solving specific problems.
I guess the original Portal’s puzzles were just on an entirely different level, and not because they were necessarily more complex or wonkier, but because the player didn’t know anything about portals. For newcomers, the ideas and mechanics of the portals and the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device’s workings are, I’m sure, just as mind-bending as the first game’s puzzles. Puzzles that make you puzzle and puzz until your puzzler is sore. (Fantastic. I’m reduced to stealing content from Dr. Seuss.)
So, the good part: the characters. GLaDOS is really really well-realized in this game. The entire Aperture Science facility is massive and sprawling, and she is the heart of it. She’s trying to use it to test… whatever. Testing whether the presence of smooth jazz will offset the terror of a deadly test chamber. Whether participants in the tests can solve problems when launched into space. They can’t, she says, but she’s going to test it anyways. For science. She’s also going to call you stupid and horrible and fat. Especially fat. It’s hilarious. Seriously this is some of the best insulting to come out of video games. “Look at you. Soaring through the air majestically. Like an eagle. Piloting a blimp.”
GLaDOS is a great antagonist—one of the best in gaming history. She’s equally scathing and guiding, wanting to test as much as possible, while still hating you for being stubborn and persistent and being human. Humans are totally inferior. A couple of her lines are a tiny bit forced, but for the most part, she’s a perfect passive-agressive psychopathic artificial intelligence, who you destroyed in the first game. She says she’s willing to put it all behind, for science, but she constantly reminds you of everything you did wrong.
And that’s all I can tell you, really, because I really really don’t want to talk about anything that might spoil the game for you. Seriously you’ll have to take my word on this one. I keep re-weighing the value of revealing important exposition from the game in order to give a better picture of what I’m talking about vs. letting the potentially-less-encouraged reader discover these things for themselves. The sneakrets keep winning out. It’s more important that the player discover and ponder the game for themselves than that they get a complete picture of it from some fool talking about how it has problems but you should play it anyways.
Yes. But let me be clear in conclusion: Portal 2 is worth your time. It’s lost some of its subtlety and gained a far greater respect for itself, and some of the puzzles are lacking in creative solution. But, oh my goodness, play it anyways. And if you haven’t played the original Portal, shame on you. Go apologize to someone. And then go play it.