james debate
james debate

Monday 25 April 2011

Developed by Valve Corporation
Published by Valve Corporation
Genre First Person Puzzle-Platform
Platform Mac OSX, PC, Xbox 360, PS3

The original Portal was such a singular achievement, a perfect and unique distillation of gaming to the point of achieving "art" status, that many including yours truly felt that attempting to craft a worthy sequel was a pointless, and indeed foolhardy way to tamper with a classic. But still, this is Valve we're talking about, so let he who can name a single bad Valve game cast the first stone. Yeah that's what I thought.

portal 2

That moment when a new Valve game finally reaches completion is very special indeed, as it should be considering the extended development times for which the company are infamous. This time, however, it was more a moment of frustration, starting with the bogus "get the game released early" ARG which turned out to be pretty much a scam to get players to buy more games from Steam, their online download service.

After this false start things didn't get any easier either thanks in part to the really quite perplexing system requirements of the game. First I attempted to get things running on my powerful desktop under Mac OS X, only to find that I had to upgrade my OS, twice, and only after this did Steam have the decency to tell me that the game was not compatible with my video card (though it was with some less powerful cards), and yet bizarrely the Windows version was had no problem. So naturally I decided to boot up in Windows and give this a shot there, only to find that the game crashes at the first loading screen, a common bug that one glance at the Steam online forums informed me had yet to be fixed by technical support. Finally I resorted to downloading the game onto my newer Mac laptop, where the game worked perfectly, albeit not on the top graphics settings of which my desktop was capable.

The temperamental system requirements are all the more bewildering considering the game is running on the nearly ten year old Source engine, which had previously been known for its flexibility and scalability on even low-end computers. By the time I finally sat down to play Portal 2 I was pretty much thinking "well this had better be the best god damn game ever, or I'm giving it a crappy review". Well Valve might just have gotten lucky.

Many people know the notorious story that Portal was only really a half developed game, bought and reworked from an indie creation by Valve in a very short space of time, basically as a proof of concept more than an actual fully fledged product. This is why it was initially released as part of the Orange bundle as opposed to as a stand alone product; no one had particularly high hopes for it. The rampant success which then followed caught everyone by surprise, most of all Valve.

For the sequel, the core concepts have been retained; the portal gun returns, along with its unique brand of clever physics-based puzzles; the brilliant and humorous script returns, along with the cryptic and mostly implicit backstory, and of course the central characters, notably GLaDOS, who is widely recognised as one of the best videogame villains of all time. For those of you who played the original and are wondering, I don't think I'd be giving too much away if I revealed that yes, we get another brilliant song at the end.

I suppose if I had to have one criticism of the game, it would be that surprise factor played such a big part in the success of the original game that any sequel was never going to have the same kind of mind blowing impact. This is especially the case with the distinctive humor and ending song, which came as such a delightful surprise before, and now is simply an expected part of the game.

That being said, the game has been improved in many ways. The puzzles are just as addictive and rewarding as before, and now we have the addition of jump-pads and various types of bouncy, slippery and portal-permitting goo which adds a whole new element to the fun. Gameplay-wise Portal 2 simply can not be faulted, the puzzles are even smarter than before and an absolute joy to play.

Music plays a big part in the game, from the aforementioned ending song to a special promotional track recorded by indie darlings the National, which bizarrely can only be heard in-game in a secret room. In addition, the player's actions are accentuated by some really quite fantastic dynamic music, playing different ditties depending on what gameplay mechanic is being used. Even the dialogue in the game has a musical element to it, particularly the auto-tuned talking turrets.

Everything about Portal 2 is bigger and more ambitious than the original in concept, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the considerably further fleshed out narrative. Portal 2 also has real character development, and a much fuller cast including the likes of GLaDOS, Wheatley (superbly voiced by the hilarious Stephen Merchant - The Office, Extras, Ricky Gervais show), and Cave Johnson (voiced by the always excellent J K Simmons). Without giving too much away, series heroin Chell is awoken by a bumbling robot sphere named Wheatley and the two attempt to escape, but shockingly not all goes according to plan when they come face to face with the brilliantly sarcastic, abuse hurling GLaDOS. As the game progresses, more and more of the backstory for the testing facility and its characters comes into view, and finally we begin to learn (mostly through cleverly implicit story telling) who the various characters really are, and what Aperture Science is all about as the game takes us on a tour of local history, and indeed there is even tacit acknowledgement of the series' connection to Valve's other popular IP Half Life.

Valve have always had a unique flair for story telling and world-building, and in this regard Portal 2 is their finest work to date. Everything from the visual art to the dynamic music, the story and the dialogue serves to absorb the player into their world, and it is a truly special and magical world that they have put together here. There is something really quite unforgettable about the way everything comes together, the Valve magic is well and truly alive. The stronger character work is also a big improvement, and the background plot is disseminated in such a clever bite size fashion that, a bit like the TV show LOST and its ilk, it inspires discussion and theories among its many fans. It's difficult not to really become attached to these characters and even slow down your gameplay just so you can hear all the dialogue. Even though Valve have resisted the urge to play up the quotes and memes set by the original, there is plenty of new material here to live long in the memory after the game is over.

That being said, some might argue that there was something special in the simplicity and brevity of the original game. Portal focused on the gameplay, with only a rudimentary plot tied together by fantastic humor and characters, and at only a few hours long it didn't overstay its welcome. At closer to 10 hours long, the sequel takes a risk in losing this aspect, and indeed the typically flawless pacing of the game does drag a bit toward the middle when much of the exposition takes place, something which is not at all like Valve.

Amazingly, this is just the single-player I've discussed so far. Portal 2 also comes with a fully realised co-op mode, featuring two all new, loveable and fully customisable robot characters, complete with their own unique plot line which runs parallel to the single-player game. The core gameplay is the same, but now with greater emphasis on teamwork, bringing a welcome new perspective to the gameplay. In effect, once you've completed the meaty single-player game, you'll find a whole other story to play through, as long as you can find a friend to join you.

So is Portal 2 one of the best games ever? The actual game is every bit as good as the original, in many ways better, and now comes with a full multiplayer co-op mode. Much depends on whether you appreciate the more detailed and ambitious narrative, or prefer the shorter original. In addition, I suspect that the element of surprise played a big part in the original's success, something which is mostly lost this time around.

Nevertheless, Portal 2 stands as one of the most finely honed examples of videogame around, and has set a tough precedent for 2011's other titles to follow. I meanwhile may have come down with a case of PPD.

Clever puzzles
Engrossing and flawlessly presented game world
Brilliant humor

Lacks the shock and wow factor of the original
Deeper narrative ambitions may turn off some people

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