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A few thoughts on Portal 2

Sparky Clarkson's picture

Portal 2 Screenshot

While I still have it fresh in my mind I want to put down my thoughts about the single-player campaign in Portal 2. I haven't played any of the co-op, primarily because of the mysterious, ongoing problem with the PSN. However, I completed the solo campaign, and while I agree with many of the criticisms Michael Barnes made in his review at No High Scores, I greatly enjoyed Portal 2. I don't think it's a 10/10 masterpiece, but it is a very good game.

One reason I felt it didn't quite measure up to its predecessor is that the sense of discovery just isn't there anymore. Portal was about progressively seeing more of what lay behind its literal and figurative walls. It's almost impossible for a sequel to be as much of a revelation as an original story, but that's not all that's going on here. Portal 2's changes in setting aren't as tightly coupled to the story as in the original, much to the game's detriment. In particular, the journey through Aperture Science's past feels very much like a detour. As is often the case, the explication of the backstory felt a bit like navel-gazing, and as a result the overall arc just doesn't feel as immediate or vibrant as in Portal.

As for the new characters, Wheatley and Cave are funny, but they're far less original and interesting than GLaDOS. Cave in particular felt like J.K. Simmons slapped a southern accent onto his portrayal of Jonah Jameson and kept rolling. It's tremendously effective, and all the voice actors do phenomenal work (a scene where GLaDOS cheers on one of Cave's recorded rants is perfect). However, the new guys both feel relatively one-note in comparison to GLaDOS.

The natural expectation is that the new puzzle-solving tools (light bridges, light tunnels, paint, lasers) would open up the solutions, but with few exceptions they seem to do the opposite. For me, having to juggle the different kinds of tools made the puzzles feel more specific and constrained than they did in the original. I can't quite put my finger on it, but something about having just the one tool made the puzzle solving in Portal feel creative, even transgressive. In Portal 2 I felt much more like I was trying to guess the designer's solution than coming up with my own. The puzzles are still a ton of fun, but the actual process of solving them feels more like a test and less like play.

This may also reflect other problems with the puzzle design, which I felt was generally less robust in this game. In particular I found that the middle section of the game was difficult to read in ways that weren't particularly interesting. This part had very large spaces with exits that were sometimes difficult to locate, and figuring out where you were even trying to go became too large a part of solving these zones. The feeling of frustration was exacerbated by the fact that the solution was sometimes to just shoot a portal onto a surface that was far away and hard to see, giving some areas the feel of a pixel hunt.

If this sounds like quibbling, in a sense it is. It's a measure of the quality of Valve's work that being faced with a pixel hunt or two feels like an onerous burden rather than just part of the normal course of play. Portal 2 is great, and you should play it. It's not as great as Portal, but I can think of plenty of developers who would be overjoyed if "not as great as Portal" was the worst thing you could say about their game.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3   PC  
Developer(s): Valve  
Series: Portal  
Genre(s): Puzzle   Online/Multiplayer  

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Great points

Excellent read - I just posted my thoughts on the official GC review of Portal 2 so I won't cover most of that here (I found this article after that).

I will totally agree with your notion of saying "like I was trying to guess the designer's solution than coming up with my own." That is a HUUUUUUUUGE problem in Portal 2 because no matter the environment (gigantic cavern or a small corridor) in almost every case I felt like there was truly only one way to move on to the next stage. This is a flawed gameplay problem that exists in tons of indie puzzle games because so many poor developers think the only way to make something "hard" is to give players LESS freedom. I mean, how many of the stages could even be solved in more than 1 way? I can maybe think of one or two. Out of 30-40+.

Plus, you bring up another excellent point regarding "the journey through Aperture Science's past feels very much like a detour." I didn't get that part of the game AT ALL. I mean, what was the point? The environment was completely lifeless outside of the voice and it actually made the "story" Valve was trying to piece together seem even more retarded. I mean, isn't there a part where Johnson says the company didn't even have $7 to buy Moon Rocks or something...and yet this is a company that invented PORTALS and all sorts of SUPER GELS???? They must have had the worst marketing folks EVER. Or, they invested all their money in an endless supply of terrible architects (worst facility design ever).

Finally, you mentioned "For me, having to juggle the different kinds of tools made the puzzles feel more specific and constrained than they did in the original. I can't quite put my finger on it, but something about having just the one tool made the puzzle solving in Portal feel creative." TOTALLY AGREE WITH YOU. The gels in Portal 2 made NO SENSE (like the retro section) and if anything detracted from the Portal gameplay. Because, as another major failing point of most indie/amateur puzzle game designs, another super easy way of adding "challenge" is to simply add more and more crap to deal with. I dunno about you, but every time I saw an open tube of gel, I got depressed because it meant at least 15-20 minutes figuring where what color of gel goes where and how do I get the damn gel in those spots. :/

What Scott C. obviously

What Scott C. obviously missed, both in this game and in the previous Portal game, is Aperture's rivalry with Black Mesa. It's a running theme in the offices near the finale, where various presentations are set up describing how Aperture is flailing at the Black Mesa threat. In his recordings, Cave alludes to theft of technologies and other reasons Black Mesa can kiss his bankrupt *ahem*.

But if you still don't get it...

** POSSIBLE SIDE-SPOILERS ALL AVAILABLE IN-GAME **

The facility is a salt mine Cave Johnson kept sinking new shafts into in order to facilitate new experiments (and vitrify old ones that went tragically awry). They had fantastic success initially, coming in second year after year (presumably to Black Mesa) as government contractors. Pretty good for a former shower-fixture company! They sprung for top-notch testing staff-- including war heroes, scientists, and astronauts. They sent limos. Unfortunately, they also laced their coffee, dosed them with mantis DNA, and did various other deadly but amusing things to them. This led to hearings on missing astronauts, and a sharp decline in Aperture's financial state.

Undaunted, Cave Johnson struggled on, overextending their finances to try to achieve bigger and better things that would put them back in the government contractor race-- cutting back on areas like safety, test subjects (It's called an elevator, not a bathroom), and ultimately, on the testing program itself, resorting to mandatory employee participation. At that point, they were doomed, but still working on those combustible lemons Cave demanded. They ultimately fulfilled his last wishes-- more or less-- but by that time, there was barely anyone left to figure out how to discourage jonesing, itchy computers from stockpiling deadly neurotoxin.

Well... anyone awake, anyhow.

I don't think it's a detour really. I enjoyed it immensely. But then, I was paying attention :P I do agree, though, that there were too few possible solutions. In an effort to reduce confusion I think they oversimplified the game, and that was a mistake. Portal 2's main failing is that there is barely any room for, well, /portals/. Too many un-portalable surfaces and way too many solutions that involved the ONLY portal-friendly surfaces, leaving the exercise feeling rather empty and pointless. I wanted to play more with tunnels, light bridges, and yes, even the gels. The gels would not have been nearly as annoying if they hadn't been so awkward to deploy.

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