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.

Sparky Clarkson

Sparky Clarkson

Sparky Clarkson grew up in the hot lands of Alabama, where he was regularly mooned by a cast iron statue. He played his first games on a Texas Instruments 99/4A computer, although he was not an early adopter. He eventually left Alpiner behind, cultivating a love of games that grew along with the processing power of the home computer. Eventually, however, the PC upgrade cycle exhausted him, and by the time he received his doctorate from the University of North Carolina he had retreated almost entirely to console gaming.

Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.
Sparky Clarkson

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2 Comments on "A few thoughts on Portal 2"

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Combustible Lemon
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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… Read more »
Scott C.
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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… Read more »
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