Thursday, 5 May 2011

Game Review - Portal 2

Formats: PC, PS3, Xbox360

Valve is one of those development companies that seems to know how to hit all the right notes in gaming. They gave us the acclaimed Half-Life games, Counter Strike and the Left 4 Dead games. In 2007 they released The Orange Box for PC, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. This was a collection of games bundled together for the retail price of a single game. It contained Half Life 2 and it's expansion episodes 1 & 2. Also featured was the long-in-development Team Fortress 2 multiplayer game. But the biggest surprise of that package was Portal.

Portal was a unique first-person, story-driven puzzle game that stood out from the gun-crazy mayhem presented in the rest of the box. It gave you the Portal Gun, a device that projects portals on walls and floors to help you get from point A-B. It was a simple concept made complex through deliberate and dangerous testing rooms. The tests were set up in the Aperture Science Facility and monitored by an unusual AI named Glad0s. Glad0s had no trouble giving you misleading words of encouragement and promises of cake after testing. The game became a popular part of The Orange Box. Many of my geeky friends still quote the blurbs found in the game's writing such as “The Cake is a Lie!” I saw it as the toy you get in a McDonald’s happy meal box. Portal presented unique and sustainable gameplay with a consistent sense a humour from the game's antagonist Glad0s. For a six-hour game the puzzle and platforming elements always felt fresh.

Four years on and Valve has projected a full-length sequel. And it is just as much a puzzling game as it is comedic. The game comes with a full price tag as well as an excuse to return to the Aperture Facility. You get a much longer single player game packed with more portal tests and a bigger plot woven in for good measure. This is coupled with an all new two-player co-op mode.

If you've played through the original Portal, you'll recognise that much of the gameplay elements remain the same. The Portal Gun is brought out to solve puzzles and get through meticulous tests often set up by Glad0s. New inclusions in the game are gels. These certain gels paint surfaces that allow you bounce ridiculously high or run ridiculously fast. These are combined with the same progression elements from the first instalment. For example, if you jump through one portal at the bottom of a deep pit and another portal on a high surface chances are you will be thrown at a silly distance. Glad0s interprets this as Newton’s laws of motion by describing it as “speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.”

Glad0s is still very much the sarcastic, funny and very much evil rouge AI you left her to be. You are joined this time by another rouge AI named Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Merchant of the Ricky Gervias show.) The two characters alone make up a great portion of the game's plot and funny dialogue.

The tests are challenging enough without being too frustrating. This is backed up by a well placed auto-save system that becomes necessary though those more deadly tests. Valve are no strangers to puzzling elements. Half-Life 2 had it's fair share by using the in-game physics engine to create a fair share of progress blockers. These were solved based on the weight, force or buoyancy that the game demonstrated. With Portal 2, you will be spending your time using your brain to progress. This may be off-putting to fast-paced first-person shooter fans (so those under-age Call of Duty fans can jog on.) However, there is enough content and depth to the game that will keep players interested right to the end of the single player mode.

And then there's the two player co-operative mode. Normally I don't pay much attention to these types of modes. I like to get immersed in the single player design of any game. It becomes a challenge to move that sort of experience into a multiplayer niche market. Some games have forced in a co-op mode without much content to sustain the attention of more than one player. High profile games like Fable 2 (Lionhead Studios) and Too Human (Silicon Knights) are examples of this. They both attempted to introduce a two-player mode in a game designed for a single player use.

The co-operative mode in Portal 2 does not at any point seem forced. The mode has its own challenges and mini-storyline. It is played either through Xbox Live or through split-screen. The level design is certainly more complex. All of the puzzle elements you experienced in the single player mode return in full force. This is one of those modes where communication with the other player is definitely required. You will be timing jumps and directing where your partner should be placing portals. Valve included a commutation system that includes useful portal marks as well as various taunts to amuse yourself (and possibly anger your partner.)

On the whole, Portal 2 is a game that manages to capture the appeal of the first game without stretching it too thin. The game manages to throw obstacles and tests at you without ever becoming irrelevant or boring. The same goes for the two player mode as it offers a rare challenge for two players to pick each-other’s brains. Valve has once again exercised its need for bringing out games for the thinking man just as much as for the thrill seeker.

Jump once more through the portals to find that the cake is still a lie.

Jack Maguire, CEX UK Contributor

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