Late to the Party: Portal 2

In an attempt to break away from movies for this segment, I’m going to take a shot at writing a game review this time. I’m not sure how good it will be, as I’ve never written one before and I don’t know what gamer-types are most critical of, but here goes nothin’.

(I should note that the game I’m reviewing only came out a matter of months ago, so I’m not as behind as I could have been; take this, instead, as my being late to the world of modern gaming.)

As part of my recent bid to catch up on nerdy things that I’ve been missing out on for years, I figured it was time for me to take a step up from my Super Nintendo, the only gaming system I have ever owned, which I bought after I turned eighteen. A month or two ago, I bought an Xbox 360 and a handful of games to go with it, based on recommendations from my lovely friends on Twitter. I was psyched and wanted to dive right in.

Two of my new games were insanely difficult for me to pick up and play for two reasons: one, my hand-eye co-ordination is rather awful, so making the leap from a SNES controller to an Xbox controller was a bit of a curve for me (especially since they seemed to be based on combat, to a certain extent), and two, I have an older TV of the non-HD variety, so many of the on-screen prompts are all but impossible for me to read. I got frustrated after a few hours of poring over the manuals and squinting at the TV, and was about to throw in the towel when I realized I still had another game to try: Portal 2, from Valve.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the game, it’s a first-person puzzle-platform game (thanks, Wikipedia, for giving me the name of the genre) in which you have to play your way through either testing chambers which are set up by psychotic robots, or traverse through a broken-down, overgrown underground laboratory using one tool: a portal gun. This gun allows you to place portals through which you can walk and transport materials, be they blocks or special gels that make you bounce or slip-and-slide across the room. Your aim is to get through all of the tests put to you in order to get to the robots responsible for keeping you there.

This is, in all honesty, the coolest game I think I’ve ever played. That may not be saying much, as my gaming repertoire is scant at best, but this game blew my socks off. I loved that it didn’t involve switching between different kinds of weapons and there wasn’t a ton of reading to do unless I turned subtitles on; more than that, though, I loved that it was a huge puzzle game. After I got the hang of how the portals functioned and how to move things around, I was rollin’ and didn’t want to stop.

I managed to play through Portal 2 from start to finish over a long weekend, mainly because I refused to put down the controller until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. Two weeks later I played through the entire game again, this time without the aid of walk-throughs, which I’d resorted to using in three or four instances when I’d been stumped for well over 45 minutes. It was interesting to note that there were still puzzles that I had trouble solving after having figured them out once before, and to me, that’s part of the beauty of the game.

Portal 2 is a work of art in that its puzzles are incredibly simple, but can seem impossible if your brain doesn’t feel like putting pieces together. The trickier ones, at least for me, were the scenes outside of the testing rooms — amidst the broken-down landscape of Aperture Laboratories. The challenge here is that you’re no longer in a bright room, mostly tiled in white, grey or black, where (almost) everything is as plain as the nose on your face. Outside, you need to search through debris and shadow to find your way around and to see the ways you’re meant to move on to the next puzzle. My one complaint is that it was in such conditions that I resorted to watching walk-throughs because there was something that I just couldn’t see or had completely overlooked, which was almost impossible to do in the testing centre.

Empty Testing Chamber

While I’m (sort of) on the subject, I loved the graphics in this game. Even in the ruins of Aperture, nothing ever felt cluttered or unnecessary. Nothing was wasted. A minimalistic approach is taken in the testing chambers; everything is pristine (the undamaged parts, anyway) and it seems that everything is made up of perfect vector imaging. Once you break free into the dark underbelly of Aperture, you get to see the detail that was put into the wreckage that GLaDOS, the crazy robot that runs the centre, hasn’t begun to repair. Wandering through puddles and and a maze of twisted metal was really quite fascinating, even in standard definition. This may just be because I’m still used to the 16-bit wonder of the SNES, but whatever. I appreciate it, and that’s what counts. I was also blown away by the quality of the multiple trailers, all of which were entertaining and informational. I’ve linked to a few of them at the end of this piece.

There was an incredible attention to detail, especially to the physics aspect. Laser beams carried on the proper angles when reflecting off of blocks or passing through portals, you carry momentum as you fall and catapult yourself across an open expanse, and you need to time things just so if you want to get through certain puzzles in one piece before being fried by a stray laser. Having little gadgets like the boots that keep your legs from breaking when you fall from great heights is pretty handy, and aesthetically (you can only really see them in trailers), they look pretty cool too.

I suppose a game review isn’t a game review if it doesn’t at least mention the controls, so I’ll touch on that briefly. The movement in this game was flawless and fluid and took very little time for me to get used to, once I understood that one stick (what the heck are those things called, anyway?) was used to move and the other to change the camera angle and direction. Firing the portal gun is easy, and the other controls (jumping, picking things up, etc.) were incredibly simple. It was a relief to finally be able to get around and play with relative ease after chucking BioShock 2 and Dragon Age II back into their cases. Everything was intuitive, and I loved it. A step up from the original Portal controls for Xbox 360 — I bought Portal a month after finishing Portal 2 — is that to my knowledge, Portal 2 has a zoom option, while the original doesn’t. The zoom function came in handy in certain puzzles, so going back to the original and not having it makes me a little sad.

Another great thing to mention are the characters in this game. Having no knowledge of the original Portal (I haven’t made it too far in it yet, having been distracted since I started playing), I don’t know anything about how GLaDOS and the player’s character interacted, or if Wheatley was present. In Portal 2, GLaDOS is bitter, which is valid, as the player character kills her in the original game, from what I gathered. She doesn’t mince words and is callous, but that smooth, computerized voice gives her a creepy sort of serenity that had my skin crawling once or twice. It’s obvious that she wants you dead, but won’t kill you herself — she’ll wait for you to mess up in the testing chambers. Wheatley, on the other hand, starts out trying to help you escape from Aperture, acting as a guide and doofy motivator. When you manage to get the upper hand over GLaDOS, however, his sudden position of power instantly corrupts him and he becomes your enemy, forcing you and GLaDOS to join forces in order to keep him from utterly destroying what’s left of Aperture. How does that saying go … “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  It certainly fits in Wheatley’s case.

GLaDOS

In the background in certain parts of the game, you also get to listen to Cave Johnson, the man who used to own Aperture Laboratories, and his assistant Caroline. The voice-over announcements made me chuckle; most of them were ridiculous disclaimers meant for test subjects such as yourself, and a few of them cracked jokes that were really groaners. Other announcements, however, gave you some of the background of how GLaDOS came to be in charge of Aperture, which was an interesting part of the story that I wasn’t expecting when I first started playing.

I can’t think of much else to say, really. I’ve yet to play Portal 2 in multiplayer, but I’ll get to it at some point. I can only see this game getting better when playing it with a good friend. So much awesomeness. So. Much. Awesomeness.

Oh, and one more thing: I want a turret. Sure, they kill you, but their little voices are just so darn cute.

… Also, the music is friggin’ amazing. I want it on my iPod to make walking down the street feel like a science-y adventure.

Trailers

Teaser Trailer

Co-op Trailer

Long-Fall Boot Trailer

Turrets Trailer

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5 Comments

  1. Ben
    Posted September 12, 2011 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    You review has made me regret not buying Portal 2 instead of just renting it like I did. This must be corrected ASAP. Excellent review, well presented and your opinions were well backed up. I typically don’t play games like Portal because I suck at puzzles and quickly get frustrated, so games like the aforementioned Bioshock 2 and Dragon Age II are more my cup of tea, but there is probably something special about Portal 2 that I’m not seeing yet. I shall pick it up and give it another go 🙂

    • Toria
      Posted September 14, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      You must play Portal 2 with me on co-op. That would be an absolute blast. 😀

  2. Kevin
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    I was saddened when I rented this game that I didn’t have time to finish it, and your revie certainly reminded me why.

    Mostly those damned turrets. “Where did you go?”

    So cute, I almost felt bad knocking then over.

    Definitely a good review; that you touched on the controls, I thought, was important and glad you did.

    • Toria
      Posted September 14, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      Oh, those turrets are just so friggin’ adorable. Every time one of them said “Are you still there?”, I had that ‘awww!’ reaction that is typically reserved for pictures of Golden Retriever puppies.

      Anyway. I’m glad you liked the review. 😀

  3. Eric
    Posted June 15, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    Hey, I just stumbled on this review. I’ve owned & played Portal 2 since around the time of this review, but on the PC. While it is ok with a gamepad, I much prefer the mouse & keyboard to play this game. Then again, I’m used to PC gaming. It is a fantastic co-op game as well (had fun putting my friend into many gruesome deaths), and the new PETI map designer (and the new Cave Johnson quotes for new player maps are hilarious) has only increased my enjoyment of the game.

    If you still want to play the multiplayer sometime, hit me up through steam.

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