Review: Portal 2 (PC)

Portal was a surprise smash addition to the Half-Life universe when Valve unveiled the Orange Box. First-person puzzle gaming? Who knew? But can the platform support a full-length game? More importantly, can the story continue with the same quality as the original?

Yup.

Portal 2 improves on the original in every way. Sure, it can’t match “The cake is a lie.” That’s a given. You only get one chance to provide a cool twist in a franchise without gamers wising up to you. You can try, but eventually your franchise will entire a quality spiral of Shyamalanian proportions. Fortunately, Portal 2 decided to focus on creating a good core story that doesn’t need tricks to keep you entertained.

What makes Portal 2’s story succeed is character and humor. Office/Extras star Stephen Merchant comes along for the ride as a robotic eye named Wheatley, and he is in top form. I’ll likely play through again just to enjoy the dialog. J.K. Simmons also provides the voice of Cave Johnson. I’m not going to go into the details, but the whole Cave-related section manages to fill you in on backstory AND be hilarious.

That’s not easy to do. I have a tendency to glaze over whenever game developers try to force lore on me. I’ve been playing computer games for almost three decades. Whenever I see the phrase “centuries ago” I just start mashing <ENTER> hoping to skip whatever it is.

Hell, half of the reason games have become so dumbed down now is that gamers don’t listen. If they did, you wouldn’t need punctuation symbols floating over NPC heads, in-game objective compasses or giant glowing trails leading you to your objective.

They stopped listening because of repetition and bad writing.

The truth is gamers really don’t NEED much of a story. Children of the ’80s know what I mean. I had a truckload of Atari 2600 games, and I can tell you the “story” of perhaps four of them. Usually you were just a squiggle avoiding other squiggles trying to get a different squiggle. Surprisingly enough, it worked.

Would Portal 2 be as fun without the story? Absolutely. It has the gameplay.

Portal 2 eases you into the gameplay much like the original. You start with a single portal gun, and slowly things become more complex. Portal veterans are probably going to find it incredibly easy at first, but there are enough bells and whistles to keep you entertained until you have to actually start thinking about the puzzles.

Don’t get too comfortable though. There are a few new tools to deal with. For example, there are still a few normal cubes lying around, but you’ll be dealing with a new one with built in reflectors. You’ll have to use it to redirect lasers. You’ll also find gravity tunnels, jump pads, light bridges and three different types of gel that allow you to jump higher, run faster and place portals on surfaces not designed for portals.

The designers were careful to break up the action as well. The longer duration means you would grow quickly bored of running through testing room after testing room. Often you’ll find yourself portaling your way through the underbelly of the gigantic Aperture lair. And just when you’re starting to feel trapped in the inner workings of some sort of twisted steel leviathan, you’re back in testing rooms. Of course, it’s all story driven.

I did have a few issues. When I installed the game, I wasn’t given the option of installing it in a different directory. Maybe I missed something somewhere, but given drive sizes and partitions nowadays, people usually want to install games in custom directories.

I also don’t think the level designers really pushed the envelope like they could have, especially with some of the new toys. This is probably a combination of having to introduce so many new variables and developing a co-op segment as well.

I haven’t toyed with the co-op section at all yet. It seems like an odd choice for a puzzle solving game given the impatience that anonymity seems to breed. And the griefing … it could get ugly.

Still, the single player portion by itself makes Portal 2 a must-buy for 2011. It’s well-written, engaging and, most of all, fun.

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