Review Supplement – Portal 2

7 05 2011

Warning: spoilers ahead…read this first, then play the game, then come back here again…Thank you!

I imagine that the Portal 2 team are feeling pretty smug right now. The game that they have created has a few niggles of the sort that reviewers (myself included) pick out when they want to avoid looking biased – but that’s it. I haven’t played a game that is this tightly packaged since Arkham Asylum, with both sharing in common an armour of gameplay, story and polish that made them nigh-on bulletproof, vulnerable only to the sort of subjective criticism that emerges once the critics have had their say and the inevitable forum backlashes begin.

My review of the game has just gone up, sporting a hefty 9/10 at the end, but it wasn’t a particularly easy one to do. There were points I wanted to raise against the game that seemed petty in light of all the things Valve has done right. Loading screens were something I wanted to bring up, given that they pop up every five minutes, but after a little thought I realised that they didn’t actually bother me that much, that I was fishing around in the dark for something to put in the ‘bad points’ box at the top of the review. Eventually I lunged for the criticisms of ‘some pacing issues’ (a fluff phrase if ever I’ve written one) and ‘minimal replayability’: but why should a good game want you to play it again and again? I wouldn’t want to listen to the same symphony or watch the same film too many times in succession, however amazing the experience is.

This post, then, has to redress the balance, because, in the end, I’m not that taken with Portal 2. Objectively, it’s great; but that doesn’t mean that I’m particularly enamoured with it, as I was with Arkham Asylum (to date, just about the only game which I wanted to immediately replay upon completion).

Firstly, though, I concede that I missed out one plus-point in my review. The art design is stellar: the test chambers have that same sterile gleam that they had before, but in the areas beyond the lab walls Valve went for broke and succeeded spectacularly. Some of the vistas are staggering, imbued with a sense of monolithic scale unmatched by anything else you’ll see in gaming for years. I think it’s the artificiality of the Aperture facility that does the trick.  Watching the sunrise on a mountain ridge in Oblivion is impressive; admiring the fields and towers of San Gimignano in Assassin’s Creed 2 is a delight; but the cold, hideous immensity of some of Portal 2‘s landscapes blows both right out of the water. The first game hinted at this close to its ending, when we first saw GlaDOS’s chamber from the outside, and the sequel builds on this to colossal effect. Two areas in particular stand out: the very bottom of the facility in the chapter ‘The Fall’ and the wide-open expanses of the upper test chambers in the final two chapters. I haven’t stopped and gawped at a game in this way since 2007 and Bioshock.

If anything, however, this gargantuan scope feeds into my main concern, something unpredictable for which I don’t fault the developers one tiny bit. Portal was a clever, wonderful little puzzler for two-thirds of it’s length, before transforming into one of gaming’s more eerie titles in the escape sequence. It gave exactly the right amount of scenic exposition, only briefly revealing the vastness of what was going on behind the scenes so as not to compromise the integrity of what was, after all, a three-hour long sideshow intended to be the light dessert to The Orange Box‘s main course of Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2.

Portal 2 had to up the scale and raise the stakes, which it does very well – but the two-toned approach to the game makes for an odd experience. On the one hand, we have the comedy: no other blockbuster will be out to make you laugh as much as Valve wants you to, whether it’s from GlaDOS’s pithy sarcasm, Wheatley’s giddy buffoonery, Johnson’s macho posturing or the empathic whimpers of the turrets as you blow them up with a laser.

On the other, there’s the epic side of things: the story of a young woman seeking to escape from a malevolent, all-powerful nemesis, forced into a journey of discovery and struggle in order merely to escape. Then there’s the additional threat at the end of the game of the entire city-sized facility going the way of Chernobyl. All this in a game with four principal characters, only one of whom is A) a human being and B) alive. The two facets of scale and humour make for a not unsuccessful, but very odd combination, contributing to making Portal 2 an epic in a closed, consequence-free, hermetically-sealed box. The end sequence sums things up perfectly: for all the stupefying adventures beneath the ground, all there is of Aperture on the surface is a small shack in the desert.

I’m a sucker for the tale of myth and destiny, for galaxy-spanning intrigue, for stories of gods and monsters, heroes, wars, love and death, salvation and redemption. Portal 2 appeals to me because of its scale, because the sweeping, silent expanse of the Aperture facility says more than any amount of dialogue ever could about the ambition and horror of the powers behind it. Yet simultaneously it feels limited, as it never once engages (one easter egg aside) with the wider universe beyond it. And that’s the weird point: the scale makes you want wider consequences and ramifications, yet the intimate, personal tone of the game is so unique and unspoilt that further expansion into the wider Half-Life universe that it inhabits would only serve to dilute it.

I’m not criticising Portal 2. It is an amazing work that I would encourage anyone to play, the sort of game that should be preserved, replayed and studied generations down the line – but that mix of tone, of epic-in-a-vacuum, means it’s just not the sort of game that I can grow to love.

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28 09 2011
End of the Line, For Now « The Joy of the Digital

[…] – ‘Review Supplement – Portal 2‘: Easily the most pretentious article I wrote in this stint, but also the most comprehensive Review […]

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