Portal 2

This is a triumphI’m making a note here, huge success

It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction

These are the opening words that the (quite frankly hilarious) song over the end credits of the game Portal.  Portal was a bit of a strange success, it was included more as a system test in the Orange Box package (containing Half-Life 2, HL2 Episodes 1 and 2, Team Fortress deathmatch) but through it’s clever mix of lateral thinking puzzles, realistic physics engine, and a fantastically funny script it found it’s way into the hearts of gamers winning a pile of awards and general praise of the game.  The game has even been used as set reading on University courses looking into the structuring of drama.

It works off a very simple concept.  You are in a room, you can move about this room as you normally would expect too.  You have a gun that fires two portals – a blue one and an orange one.  These portals are connected so walking through the blue one brings you out the orange one etc.  At the start of the game these allow you to cross trenches in the landscape that are too large to jump, though this idea is built upon to give more and more complex environments with different hazards and obstacles to encounter and avoid throughout the course.  Seems simple enough doesn’t it?  But it challenges you to think in new and different ways as you manipulate yourself around the map to reach the required objectives to open/access the exit door and move onto the next level, this has all lead rise to a number of different internet memes and ideas for example “the cake is a lie” (you are offered cake for completing the series of test chambers successfully…), the weighted companion cube, and the phrase “thinking with portals”.

So given how well Portal went down it wasn’t a case of if? With the sequel it was a case of when? and after numerous augmented reality games and other challenges online the sequel has been released and the world has been encouraged to think with Portals once again.  Portal 2 was actually already picking up a buzz and interest a year before it was released – getting awards for the most anticipated game of 2011, and best in show at E3 2010.  At the end of the day the big questions is, is the game any good?

In a way the start of Portal 2 is a bit disappointing as you’re going through chambers that are either exactly the same as ones you’ve previously solved, or are very similar (except for the graphics boost as you can see in the comparison screenshot) and all featuring very simple puzzles.  Of course this doesn’t last for too long with the earlier puzzles designed to ease a new player into the ideas behind the game mechanics of using Portals and the way the different objects within the world work.  It also introduces the new character – Wheatley – a spherical robot voiced with great aplomb by Stephen Merchant.  This section is very brief moving you swiftly through the back story of the first game, and re-introducing ideas, whilst at the same bringing in something new from the dilapidated appearance of the facility giving you something different to look at, and small but significant changes to the puzzles.  Once the game gets going into the real meat and bones (which are of course the puzzle chambers) you’re into familiar territory being placed in a chamber and tasked with opening the door the other side to get out and move on.  These opening chambers are designed well introducing a new piece of equipment (the game adds several new elements such as James Bond style lasers, pneumatic catapults, liquid funnels, etc) in one chamber before incorporating this in more advanced ways over the next couple of chambers to allow you to understand what the thing does, and how you can use it too your advantage.  One of the more interesting sides of the game is that when moving between these chambers you are regularly pushed outside of the test chambers into the testing complex itself giving you a look at what’s going on behind the scenes in the creation of the chambers – this is where the game has had one of it’s upgrades as this area is now colossal giving a much better idea of the size of the facility that you are within.

I’m wary of saying too much of the story of the game needless to say that this is good and cleverly told.  There are a couple of moments where you can feel a bit stuck whilst the game won’t let you proceed until a piece of exposition has been completed, but for the majority of the time this isn’t a problem with the game provided a story including a good couple of twists and turns, hinting at some of the history of the mysterious Aperture science.  Of course the dialogue remains as witty and as sharp as before leading to points where you have to pause the game to stop laughing before you can continue.

It’s later in the game the biggest change gets brought in with three different paint-like gels that can be applied to different surfaces to impart additional properties to the terrain your crossing (for example the blue repulsion gel allows you to jump to a greater height).  These are all well implemented into the game – giving levels an extra challenge not just in how you use the gels, but how you get them to the position that they need to be in for you to make use of them leading to some very interesting test chambers later in the game where you’re having to combine the ideas and methods that you have built up through the previous levels.

The only problem I had with the game is that you get to points where it’s very hard to figure out just exactly you’re supposed to move to the chambers.  There’s certain areas where the landscape is so large, whilst at the same time so dark it can be quite hard to figure out exactly where you’re supposed to be placing your portal – leaving you searched for a white blob on the horizon which is where your supposed to be targeting – still this doesn’t tend to be a major issue, only cropping up a couple of times, but an annoying when it does.

The other big change with Portal 2 is the addition of multiplayer – apparently Deathmatch variations of Portal didn’t work so instead a co-operative campaign has been added which is only completable by working with another player.  This can be played Split-screen on the PS3, or online with another player on the PS3 or Steam.  This is the also the main reason for the delays in getting this review up – I’ve been playing the PS3 version so have been unable to get online due to the widely reported Playstation Network Hack/down-time.  Still I have finally got back online and been able to play through the campaign.

To be honest I started off the campaign using the local split screen mode which was a bit of a strange way to be playing when you’re used to seeing it full screen.  Once used to sharing the screen with another player we soon found that we slipped back into the puzzle solving groove managing to breeze through the earlier levels – and as usual the ideas within the levels grew more complicated the more you went through them.

When PSN came back up I had a few games alongside a friend where we were able to complete the co-op campaign over a couple of afternoons – while this was good and challenging I found some of the later levels more frustrating as it would appear one person would run off, solve most the puzzle whilst the other was trying to catch-up with just what was going on.  There could also be problems explaining what needed to be doing at points – you get provided with a “Ping tool” which you can use to point at areas of the map to draw your friends attention to them, but there were points where it was easy for this to be misunderstood/you couldn’t really point out the right location as you were unable to see it from where you were standing.  This became more a problem when playing with random people online (when playing with friends we’d just phone each other and talk through what we needed to do).

The game is obviously veering towards you playing alongside people that you know – the option to play against a random player is hidden within a second menu, but on trying this out I found that the game responded well and I noticed no differences between playing someone on a PS3 and playing on a PC (in fact I couldn’t tell you which was which!).

All in all the multiplayer was good but was too short and just needed more encouragement for the characters to stay together in solving the puzzles where required so that frustration of one person solving the course could be lost.

So Portal 2 – it’s taken the original and managed to deepen the gameplay and the ideas.  The new effects it brings into the game give some fantastic options for solving the puzzles – the gels especially, which are disappointingly underused.  There is already additional content planned for the game later this year and a tool has just gone live to allow users to create and share their own levels so hopefully this is just the start for Portal 2 and there’ll be lots of content to keep us going till the release of Portal 3.

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