Let’s start with the first things you see and notice in the game: the graphical engine and the art style. Portal 2 uses a brand new version of the Source engine – this one is known as Source 2010, or 2011. The most important new features are blob particles, used for the Aperture Science Gels, and improved shadow mapping through the use of projected textures. Of course, these aren’t the only improvements here – the game looks absolutely beautiful, and it represents a massive improvement over previous Source engine versions.
The art style is gorgeous as well – when you’re not navigating devastated test chambers that have been torn apart by millenia of disrepair and decay, you’re navigating pristine, soulless test chambers that look impossibly clean. And when you’re not looking at those, you find yourself within the cavernous interiors of the old Enrichment Center, observing Aperture’s evolution from the 1940’s all the way to the 1980’s. The art style remains consistently well done throughout the game. This is definitely one of the areas where the game goes above and beyond what Portal brought to the table.
However, I’d like to go back to the question of engine horsepower. And the question isn’t “does Portal 2 have it?”, it’s “is Portal 2 using it well?”. And I’m not so sure it does. There is one scene, within the final confrontation with Wheatley at the end of the game, when a giant pipe carrying Repulsion Gel ruptures right before your eyes. It explodes, releasing the blue liquid everywhere. It’s one hell of a spectacle, and shows how much Valve’s cinematic physics systems can handle. What’s left of the pipe collapses in a heap right next to you. But then the debris inexplicably fades away, again, before my very eyes. It isn’t swept away by a robotic wall arm, it isn’t picked up by some robotic pincer, and it isn’t broken into pieces by another explosion. It just disappears right in front of you, this giant lump of wreckage, and for a brief moment, my immersion was completely shattered. I have no idea why Valve chose to do that – it wasn’t really in the way of the gameplay, and I have no doubt that even the weakest PC, as well as the consoles, could handle rendering that thing.
There’s more of these moments throughout the game – where Valve damages both immersion and graphical strength at the same time – like the game’s ending, which instead of taking place within the game engine, like all of Valve’s story sequences in each and every one of their games, is portrayed through a low-resolution BINK video. Did Valve even realize how immersion-breaking this could be? And it’s not like immersion isn’t relevant here – all of Valve’s singleplayer games have had a major focus on maintaining immersion. Especially the original Portal. But more on that later.
Source physics have also suffered a great loss – most of the objects in Portal 2 cannot be moved. At all. You can’t pick them up, you can’t do anything with them. Chairs, monitors, phones, you name it – you can’t move it. You could turn this into a drinking game, where you take a drink every time you stumble upon something that you could move in the first game, but can’t in Portal 2. Sure, physical interaction isn’t a cornerstone of the series, but it’s a critical component of the Source engine, and a fun pastime for when you’re waiting on another scripted sequence that you’ve already played through.
Now, let’s move on to the gameplay of Portal 2. Since the surprise and amazement that we all first felt in 2007, when we were playing Portal for the first time, is now gone, Valve can’t just retread familiar ground. So this time, they’ve added a host of new puzzle elements to spice up the gameplay – and these do their job very well! The Discouragement Beams, the Excursion Funnels, the Faith Plates, and of course, the Gels, are all very well implemented, and they alter the gameplay extensively. And the pacing is excellent! But there is one problem with Portal 2’s gameplay that really stood out on each of my many playthroughs. It’s that so much of it feels like a tutorial.
Of course, it makes sense that players need to be eased into all of these new gameplay elements. And this requires a lot more training than Portal featured. But at least Portal had an equal amount of tutorials and puzzles. There was this great equilibrium within the gameplay. But in Portal 2, the scales have been tipped heavily, in favor of far more training. And there’s not enough real gameplay to compensate for that. Only towards the end of the second act and throughout the third act does the difficulty ramp up, with actual, more difficult puzzles involved.
Yet even these allow for very little experimentation. That’s another problem with the gameplay. The non-linear, more complex puzzles are one of the reasons why Portal was such a big hit: every test chamber had room for you to experiment and play about. People found all of these new solutions for the levels. Solutions Valve might not have thought of. And that’s why speedrunners loved Portal. But here, so many of these puzzles feel so… linear. Much simpler, much more straightforward. No longer are you thinking “outside of the box”. In Portal, there were some puzzles that stumped me even if I was on my 10th playthrough. It was tough, it was intelligent. Never has this occured to me in Portal 2, and yes, I’ve already reached my 10th playthrough. And this is one of the areas where Portal 2 fails to live up to the previous game. Again, don’t get me wrong, the puzzles are great. But they’re nowhere near as great as the ones in Portal.
At some points within the game, it felt like the game was on rails, so to speak. Like Valve had thought of everything. Not just within the puzzles. There’s more: when you take Wheatley to GLaDOS’ chamber at the start, you cannot drop him. At all. At the ending, when GLaDOS is talking to you, you cannot look away or move your mouse. At all. It feels like someone’s walling everything in, and that you have no freedom whatsoever. Not only does it break the immersion, it’s just really nasty.
And the player’s movement is just so… clunky and awful. I felt like I was walking in a box, or in a bubble, or in a tank. Jumping felt horrendous, and crouch-jumping didn’t even work. How did we go from movement as fluid as that in Half-Life 2… to this “I am a giant rock” sort of movement in Portal 2?
Beyond that, most of the game’s environments feel very… soulless, so to speak. There’s no interactivity to be found, and as I previously stated, there are very little physics involved outside of the actual puzzles. Everything feels very utilitarian in terms of level design – there’s no doors leading to unseen areas, there’s no walkways leading to unseen chambers. It doesn’t really feel like an actual, real place. The only time the maps really impressed me in terms of detail was the “Bring Your Daughter To Work Day” area, but even that is an exercise in just how silly the maps are – a daycare center nestled between the Turret control center, the end of the Turret redemption line, a place where lasers cut panels, and the neurotoxin generator. Great logistics right there.
While we’re talking about the levels – have you ever looked really closely at the levels? And I mean REALLY closely? Do another playthrough, and this time, take a good hard look at the levels. Here’s a preview of what you might find – courtesy of one of my friends, who is a mapper, and who noticed all this on his first playthrough. Without his information and this picture, I might have never known just how ugly the game can be at times. Let’s not even talk about how immersion-breaking this stuff is. Remember, just a preview – he tells me it isn’t even half of the lazy level design that can be seen in the game. You’ll find stuff like floating vines, plants that appear out of nowhere, observation rooms with no doors in them, and so on. Hell, there’s more! Ever noticed how every single pipe, be it a gel pipe or a cube pipe, has the object simply spawn in place right at the mouth of the pipe? No fog or shadow to conceal it, nothing – it just magically appears right at the mouth of the pipe. Quite careless, and a bit ugly as well.
But one of the worst and strangest problems with Portal 2’s gameplay is the fact that the original crosshair has been dumbed down and stripped bare. Originally, it featured a dot showing you the last portal type you fired, and it would change opacity based on whether or not you were aiming at a portal-able surface. It was so useful! Here, in Portal 2? Nothing. No dot, no coloration. There isn’t even an option to toggle it on. Speaking of the portal gun – whenever it’s fizzled, there’s no graphical effect. In coop mode, there is, but for whatever reason, Valve skipped out in the singleplayer mode. I can’t tell you how many times I instantly stared at the portal gun as it randomly shook without actually looking like it got fizzled. And they completely changed the Material Emancipation Grid’s particle effect just to make it seem more obvious!
But there’s something else to consider – replay value. Portal 2 has no challenges and no advanced maps. Portal had all of those. P2 doesn’t have any sort of functionality to encourage replaying. A DLC pack will arrive later this month featuring some of that content, but it may be a case of “too little, too late”.
Next up is the story and the atmosphere of the game. This is a bit tricky. On one hand, the writing is absolutely brilliant. On the other? The story is lacking in certain areas. I really wanted to see how the Personality Spheres activated at the end of Portal had colonized the devastated Enrichment Center over the millenia? Instead, apart from some very vague references from Wheatley (“management”, “foreman”), there is no sign of those Spheres. In fact, there still is no official explanation for why they were activated in the first place (Portal’s ending is completely ignored, in fact). Nor is there any explanation for why, suddenly, there are Management Rails for these Spheres everywhere.
Speaking of spheres, where did the three corrupt cores at the end come from? GLaDOS doesn’t remember having them stuck on her long before her demise, nor does she speculate on why the other Spheres would have locked them in here, long after her demise. They’re just… there. Like a bunch of convenient plot devices. Another issue with the plot is Chell’s awakening. In “Lab Rat”, Rattmann says that GLaDOS’ death had blown the main power grid, and that all of the cryo-chambers were offline. So he connects her chamber to the reserve power grid, but he knows this might never wake her back up. Instead, in Portal 2, Wheatley tells us the reserve power ran out (he doesn’t mention when) and that the Center stopped waking up the test subjects. This directly contradicts what Rattman said within Lab Rat. You could argue Wheatley was too stupid to comprehend the basics of the Relaxation Vault system, but then, you could also argue that’s a very convoluted attempt to explain what seems to be a plot hole. And what of Wheatley’s test chambers that feature gels despite the fact that there had been no Gels in the entire facility until Chell had connected it to the old Enrichment Center at the very end of the second act?
There’s more inconsistencies. All of the elevators have been replaced with some sort of system that uses the Vacuum Tubes throughout the facility. It is a great idea, obviously, but there’s no explanation for it. There is no sequence in which you hear the pre-recorded Announcer talking about how the elevator system has suffered major damage, and that it has been replaced with the backup system. Instead, suddenly, it’s just there. Poof! No explanation. Then there’s also the way GLaDOS’ carcass has inexplicably made its way back down into her chamber, when in Portal, we could see her being pulled out of the chamber completely, onto a parking lot on the surface. Instead, here, she’s still connected to the chamber. Again, there’s no explanation at all. Then there’s the Cubes – even at the start of the game, when GLaDOS hasn’t woken up, the new Portal 2 cubes are being used. And that’s not all – in the game’s ending, when you’re given the Companion Cube, it looks the same as the one from Portal 1. And the Vital Apparatus Vents? Even in the destroyed test chambers, they look nothing like the one from Portal 1, and Valve doesn’t even attempt to explain that.
And what about GLaDOS? How can she still function without her Spheres, if their destruction lead to her death? How can she still work without them? And what do the Spheres do? Do they augment certain emotions and traits? Do they regulate them? What are they, Valve?
I know, most of these are all relatively unimportant subtleties. But the devil is in the details, and Valve’s games have always had incredible attention to detail, and incredible consistency between their games. But here, it just doesn’t make any sense.
Still, let’s move on to something that’s a bit more important: atmosphere. One of the reasons why Portal was so great was its excellent atmosphere. The mood, the ambience, whatever you want to call it – it was there. You constantly felt alone, almost afraid. The only things you could hear were GLaDOS’ passive-aggressive remarks and the ominous noises produced by the Enrichment Center itself. Observation rooms are placed throughout these chambers, but there’s no one up there. Then, she tries to kill you, and you escape by fleeing into the bowels of the facility. Here, you’re still alone, and you’re still in danger. This time, GLaDOS can’t see you, and you can’t see her, but she’s still trying to kill you. But grim solitude was not the only element at work here. There was also GLaDOS’ brilliant dark humor, penned by Erik Wolpaw of Old Man Murray. Simply put, it was Valve, at their finest.
But in Portal 2? Within the first 5 minutes of the game, you meet Wheatley. Make no mistake, he is hilarious. Well written, well voiced – he is one of Valve’s greatest characters. But does he really fit in Portal? The opening of the game had a lot of potential – wandering the devastated corridors of the Enrichment Center, the real world and the sun somewhere above you, beyond the fractured ceilings of the test chambers. Instead, most of the opening is spent on Wheatley. His colorful jokes are hilarious, but they damage the game’s emotional integrity by placing a firm emphasis on silly comedy that bears no resemblance to the original game’s dark humor.
The second act also had a lot of potential. You’re kilometers underground, in the dark, enormous abandoned sections of the Enrichment Center. Who knows what could be lurking down here? Who knows why the place was locked down? How will you get back up? It really starts to resemble Portal 1 a lot, but then you meet GLaDOS. Who is now inside a potato. The atmosphere is, yet again, torn to shreds, because GLaDOS talks constantly. She yells at birds, she starts talking about how sticking her onto your gun just gave her an extra 0.5 volts, and so on, and so forth. It just ruins all of the potential this sequence had. Maybe if GLaDOS had been a bit more passive-aggressive, then that would have worked! It would have resembled Portal 1 even more. But instead, GLaDOS seems to be oddly… nice. Granted, she is now vulnerable, and weak, and this is, for the record, a great evolution point for her character, but they could have done so much more by handling the whole thing in another way. Having her not trust the player at first, delivering a few light passive-aggressive quips to illustrate that, mirroring her personality in Portal 1. But we don’t have that.
That’s not all I didn’t enjoy in the second act – there is no ending to the Old Aperture story arc. It just… goes away. There’s no scene showing GLaDOS’ creation, there’s no scene showing Cave’s passing, we don’t even get to see his grave. Imagine how amazing a scene that would have been. On top of that, most of the environments in Old Aperture are very strange – they say these test chambers were built by humans, but apart from their art style, they are completely identical to what GLaDOS builds. They are just as infaillible, and just as malicious. There is no difference between them. And the environments themselves don’t seem to make much sense. They aren’t even explained at all – what was the Tartaros area? What was Test Shaft 09? Where were all the other Shafts? Where were all the other Enrichment Spheres? What was sealed off in the 1960’s?
And the Half-Life references? You just get Cave suddenly implying Black Mesa stole from him in the 1970’s. Then you see trophies showing that someone, presumably Black Mesa, beat Aperture for DoD funding as early as the 1940’s. Before the ICBM facility where they were based was even built. And then you see an empty chamber that should be villified. The solid bulkhead door has been blown right out of its hinges. What’s inside? An empty room, with life-preservers saying “BOREALIS”. It’s not the infamous drydock from Episode Two, because the room itself seems to be completely intact. So then what is it? It’s a very poignant sequence, but it seems… unfinished. Like all of the other Half-Life references in Portal 2. Unfinished. Doesn’t Half-Life deserve better than this?
That’s not the only sub-plot that’s left unfinished, but still thrown in the game. During the “Bring Your Daughter To Work Day”, the one potato that has grown into the ceiling bears Chell’s name. The words that came out of my mouth upon seeing that were: “what the fuck is this supposed to mean?”. What is Valve trying to imply? That Chell was a child when GLaDOS began her takeover? How on Earth did she grow up when she was in stasis? Did someone raise her? Why would anyone let such an important plot point so widely open, in a game series that might not see a third installment by 2015?
Moving back to the second act – I believe it could have been so much better if it was bigger, longer, and more in-depth. I also think that the reunion with GLaDOS should have been postponed to some point later in the act. I would have loved to explore the labs, take a look at their disturbing experiments, find out more about Black Mesa and Aperture’s rivalry. I wanted to find out more about Aperture, especially since Valve has gone through the trouble of retconning so much of the original Portal 1 backstory (another immersion-breaker for anyone who still remembered Portal 1’s great backstory). But we don’t get any of that. The whole second act just seemed so rushed – like Valve wanted the player to get back to the bizarre comedy as soon as possible. And the player eventually does – just look at the ending. It’s the most outlandish moment I’ve ever seen in a Valve game. They did say we’d get a look at turret culture, but I didn’t think they meant this.
On the whole, I think I would have wanted to see far more Behind The Scenes levels. In Portal 1, these atmospheric levels made up half the game. In Portal 2, they barely make up a quarter of it. I think Valve is starting to underestimate the value of pure exploration sequences within a video game.
But also important to atmosphere is immersion. In Portal, the immersion was as strong as it had ever been within a Valve game. But in Portal 2? The immersion is broken several times – when you notice that Chell looks completely different; when you realize that somehow, when she was in cryo-sleep, she took her top off and tied it around her waist; when you see Chell’s hands squirming about of their own free will during the ending for no apparent reason; when you notice that you can’t actually move the camera when GLaDOS is giving her final monologue; and, finally, when Valve decides to put the entire ending inside BINK video. And let’s not forget those little L4D-style indicators that pop up in the opening, no matter how many times you’ve played the game. They even make a sound. You can’t turn them off. At least in HL2 and the Episodes, they were to the right of the screen. They didn’t get in your way. Even the chapter titles seemed a bit overdone – the font was enormous, and the things were even numbered! Then there’s the portal ghosting, inspired by L4D’s player sillhouettes. Again, you cannot turn these off, and they get irritating as well.
But the single greatest affront to immersion in Portal 2 are the obnoxious loading screens. These things take up the whole screen, just to show you the Aperture logo. They make loading seem much longer and more frequent. What happened to Portal and the Half-Life games’ subtle loading screens? I’m sure using those would have probably saved some loading time. Those at least leave you with a view of the game world as it’s loading.
And finally, there’s the sound design. While it is great, again, it just doesn’t stand up to what we saw in Portal. I don’t know if it’s because of Kelly Bailey’s absence or the fact that they’re using some new dynamic sound system. The ambient sounds are great, but they never made me feel afraid, isolated, like the sound in Portal 1 did.
As for the soundtrack? Well, I enjoyed it, of course, but it’s nothing compared to the soundtrack of Portal 1. Each song in Portal 1 was distinctive and memorable, with its own sound. Each song fit the mood, emotion and atmosphere of what was happening on-screen perfectly. In Portal 2? Most of the soundtrack isn’t very distinctive at all. After a few chapters, it just started to sound a bit repetitive, almost mundane. Maybe the dynamic music system did its job and everything blended into subtle background noise. But is that the point of a musical soundtrack? I don’t think so. The few songs that stand out either aren’t subtle enough to fit with what’s going on when they’re being played (a no-no in my book) or aren’t even in the game at all. Say hello, “Science Is Fun” and “Reconstructing Science”.
Then there’s also “Exile Vilify”, a brilliant piece created by The National exclusively for Portal 2. It is inexplicably banished to a Ratman den in the early chapters of the game. You never hear it anywhere else. Not even the credits. Instead, the credits speed along at an incredible speed, while “Want You Gone” plays in the background. I’m sure they could have squeezed Exile Vilify in there. To avoid boring the player, they could have had some concept art be displayed alongside the employee names. While we’re on the subject, I will admit that I absolutely loved Want You Gone, and I personally believe it is better than Still Alive.
So to conclude – what do I think of Portal 2? I think it’s a brilliant title, and it is definitely among my all-time favorites. But I think it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that it’s superior to the original. In some departments, yes, it is. But in others, it falls significantly short. And for Valve’s first singleplayer game in three and a half years, for a game they themselves were calling their best game ever, for a sequel to one of the greatest games ever, and for a spin-off to one of the greatest shooter franchises ever that hasn’t seen the light of day in over 4 years, it’s disappointing.
It almost seems as if, in an attempt to make the game simple to play and enjoyable by all, Valve might have simply… sucked the life out of it. Everything in the game is a cue, or an attempt to steer the player away from all other gameplay possibilities and push him/her towards a scripted conclusion. They’ve turned it into an on-rails adventure – an interactive film. Valve has put so much effort into that scripted path, that they’ve neglected all the other ideas they had, and all the other ideas they could have had. They’ve even neglected the game itself, which is why you’ll see nonsensical level layouts and bizarre mapping problems – as if Valve expected you to NOT look at them, and instead look at… well, whatever the director wants you to look at.
Ultimately, the question of “is Portal 2 better than Portal 1” is up to opinion. But I think the question of “is Portal 2 a faithful and worthy sequel to Portal 1” might not be up to taste – it relies on facts. And while Portal 2 is an incredible game, it doesn’t seem to live up to Portal as a sequel. Would I have taken F-STOP over the Portal 2 we eventually got? I’m not so sure, but I must admit that F-STOP seemed to have that same dark tone and atmosphere that Portal did. And imagine how much of a surprise it would be – a new Portal, without portals. While it would have been risky, Valve has always been a company that’s willing to take risks to reap the rewards.
In any case, I would have gladly welcomed Portal 2 as a worthy successor to Portal 1, provided Valve had given it another half a year, maybe around 7 months (meaning February to September, perhaps even more than that) to really develop it into a bigger, and better game. Has Valve lost their touch? I’m really not all that sure. I don’t think so, personally. But none of us can say for sure, especially since it’s too early for that. But let’s hope they haven’t, and that their next single-player title will be a worthy follow-up to a great franchise. You know the one I’m talking about.
Peter Bright of Ars Technica ended his critique of Portal 2 by saying that 2011 would be a very bleak year for gaming if Portal 2 won Game of the Year, the same accolade that its predecessor won 4 years ago. I end my critique of Portal 2 by saying that 2011 will be a fine year for gaming if Portal 2 wins Game of the Year, but that it will be a very bleak year for the Valve fanbase if it is the year that establishes Portal 1 as some sort of metaphorical red-headed stepchild that is inferior to its sequel in every way possible, and the year that establishes Portal 2 as the finest game Valve has ever produced.