Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Portal 2: The best fun you can have from a first person perspective.

Platform: Xbox360, PS3 and PC
Certificate: 12
Developer/Publisher: Valve
Genre: First person puzzle platformer

The single most defining moment of Portal 2 comes fairly early on in the game when you are navigating the incinerators deep beneath the Aperture laboratories. Leaping from walkways to conveyor belts you will see unwanted debris and detritus falling into furnaces along with the familiar softly spoken gun turrets and weighted storage crates. As you walk across one of the conveyor belts you come across one of the turrets sitting on its side heading towards the glow of a most fiery demise. In one pathetic moment, as you pass on by, it whimpers pathetically “I’m different”. It practically killed me, the thought of this little robot designed for the singular purpose to shoot bullets at whatever crosses its laser sights, somehow finding itself on a conveyor belt, elected for incineration, pleading to be spared from its fiery fate on some notion that it believes itself to be worthy of salvation on some notion of a higher purpose. I mean, when was the last time a video game made you feel like this? 

To begin pretentiously enough, I would like to make a literary reference, because this is Portal we are talking about, one of the greatest games ever made. Perhaps one of the few games that is viable proof of just what gaming as a medium is capable of doing aside from the commercial dollar dimensions boasted by some of the biggest entertainment releases in the history of culture ever. I would like to draw a comparison to Edgar Allen Poe, a master of the short story. He wrote an essay on ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ a beat by beat explanation of how he wrote ‘The Raven’ a short story in the form of a poem designed to be read in a single sitting without interruption from daily interferences to create a wholesome unity of effect to maximize the reader’s immersion in the story. First released in Valve’s generous Orange Box in 2007 Portal was a similar exercise in composition as The Raven, albeit in video game form, a highly focused gaming experience that was so singularly perfect in its form. The very thought of a sequel seems to urinate on its memory.

Accompanying the vast Half Life 2 experience and the many hours provided by the Team Fortress 2 multiplayer, Portal was a first person puzzle platformer with a terrific sense of dark humour. Once you started playing you couldn’t help but be sucked into the game, from the addictive thrill of puzzle solving through portals to the dry wit of GLaDOS as she promised you cake, to the immediate story drip fed to you at the end of each of the test chambers and the more mysterious story implied through the feverish wall scrawlings of a supposed madman telling you the cake was a lie.The biggest challenge facing Portal 2: this time released as a standalone sequel, was whether Valve could break through the limited constraints that helped define the original so perfectly and make a longer more involving game. The result is utterly tremendous. Let me explain why.     

Once again Portal 2 puts you in the long-fall boots of silent female protagonist Chell. After destroying GLaDOS and escaping the claustrophobia of the Aperture laboratories, you were dragged off to another installation by the party escort bot. Portal 2 begins confined to what first appears to be a cheap motel room, it is not long until you find out that it is actually a cryogenic holding pen deep within the labyrinth that is Aperture laboratories. After several years, you are reawakened and are busted out of frosty incarceration by a neurotic though kind hearted robot by the name of Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Merchant). Once you are sprung, you reacquire the portal gun and start making your way through a dilapidated series of test chambers in an attempt to once again make a break for the surface. Things do not go to plan of course as you soon see yourself accidentally rebooting GLaDOS, who is just thrilled to see you again after you murdered her at the end of the last game. If it is any consolation, she does have more reason to remain buoyant as she faces the prospect of repairing her facility whilst obsessively putting you through a series of diabolical tests that require you to once again think with portals. All in the name of science. 

The bitch is back.
This is the mere setup for Portal 2’s storyline, a narrative that travels far into the depths of the Aperture laboratories. To reveal anymore would simply spoil the experience. This isn’t like other games where the story is predictable and conventional, where its excruciatingly generic plot is a cause for criticism (I’m looking at you Crysis 2!). Though Portal 2’s story will take at least 6-8 hours to complete, there is no downtime in the story, no flabby mid section or rushed third act. It is perhaps to be expected from Valve, who have long been champions of storytelling in games, even Left 4 Dead had narrative nuance but Portal 2 is easily the industry darling’s greatest achievement thus far. The story keeps moving forward, masterfully varying environments and expertly changing the dynamic of the plot.   

As with the first game, Portal 2 continues to be very funny and although Chell remains a mute, there are more characters this time around who will do all the talking for you. There are so many memorable lines of dialogue that will undoubtedly be turned into memes and quoted between fans for years. GLaDOS returns of course, voiced by Ellen McLain and continues to be ‘explosively indignant’ and coldly menacing and sarcastically bitch but the story will take the AI to new places that will affect you on an emotional level. Newcomer, Wheatley one of GLaDOS’s defunct emotional cores is also a great addition to the cast. Fans of The Office and Ricky Gervais will undoubtedly recognize Stephen Merchant’s southern country bumpkin vocals and bumbling convoluted delivery. I have read criticism that Merchant is merely doing what he has always done in comedy, which is true, but the same can be said for J.K. Simmons who provides the voice for Aperture’s founding father Cave Johnson. Just like every character Simmons has always played, Johnson is a tough talking, no nonsense ball breaker. An advocate of the more imperfect duct-tape methods of scientific investigation, the kind of experimentation that is more concerned with firing the rocket into space than it is concerned with the well being of the monkey test pilot. It brilliant foregrounds the ideology of Aperture science and GLaDOS herself.   

Pro tip #1: Lasers give nasty burns.
As far as the actual gameplay is concerned, Portal 2 expands on the formula of the first game by introducing a host of new elements. Blue Repulsion gel allows Chell to bounce off of the floor. The orange propulsion gel is essentially a lubricant which accelerates the player at high velocities. When combined the two gels will usually work to form a kind of runway designed to propel and catapult you across bottomless chasms. Other new additions include the light bridges which effectively serve as solid surfaces to walk upon or absorb turret bullets and of course the excursion tunnel, an antigravity energy tunnel which allows you to leisurely float in a particular direction. My favourite new addition is undoubtedly the aerial faith plate, a kind of acme styled catapult which when stepped on hurtles you across the room at bewildering speed. As with the first game, Portal 2 introduces each new element, each new twist to the gameplay on simplistic grounds, building up your puzzle solving repertoire so that when you tackle some of the harder problems you should be able to identify solutions. The puzzles that require you to build up momentum to soar through the air like a graceful swan (‘or an eagle piloting a blimp’) are usually the most enjoyable in terms of visceral thrills but working out a puzzle to its logical conclusion is again, thoroughly satisfying.  

The puzzles are of a particular nature that will at first seem dizzyingly daunting, but as you pick them apart and process each individual element , they become easier to figure out. I never found myself getting stuck to the point of hopelessness in Portal 2. Sometimes I would find myself overthinking puzzle rooms only to be left slightly disappointed that the solution was actually easier than expected. I had some real facepalm moments when I realized that the solution to clearing a particular chasm required placement of a portal on a neglected wall above me rather than the wall I had been using for the last ten minutes. It is a half assed point of criticism to note I suppose, would you rather have an easy game to progress through or a game that requires you to rely on only the most difficult methods, something that could potentially spoil your relationship with the game itself?

Pro Tip #2: Repulsion gel - don't get it on your skin
Though the campaign is great, there does seem little point in replaying it. There are a couple of juicy secrets to find throughout that will reveal backstory but apart from that you could criticize Portal 2 for being too linear and not accommodating for the level of immersive exploration that say Arkham Asylum or Bioshock had. You would think Aperture laboratories would be a perfect fit for this style of gameplay, though it is perhaps difficult to accommodate for the sheer freedom that portaling would give the player if the environment was a bit more open. It is definitely too big for me to demand something as trivial and shallow as collectables but with that said, the first Portal did have time trials and therefore a reason to come back and perfect the art in some of the more challenging puzzles. This is nothing DLC wouldn’t fix of course, which is fine so long as you have the PC or PS3 versions which will incorporate Steam (and accepting that the PSN isn’t experiencing downtime).    

Of course, Portal 2 also comes with a seperate co-op campaign, which is of a generous length somewhere inbetween the length of the first game and the single player story. Designed for two players, you take control of a robotic Laurel & Hardy styled duo by the name of P-Body and Atlas. Together, you and your friend take on a whole series of tests designed for completion by two players. You each have two portals that are connected to each other but not to the other player’s, placing the emphasis on integrating each other’s portals in such a way that they flow into one another. Communication is vital, and it will make it easier if you play with a friend rather than a random stranger. Valve have implemented several helpful additions to the controller interface such as markers, allowing players to indicate places of interest or perhaps where to pop a portal. There are also count downs which allow players to synchronize their maneuvers, which become increasingly important towards the end of the campaign. As in the single player, the feeling of working through a puzzle to its logical conclusion is thoroughly satisfying, perhaps even more so in collaboration with a friend. 

P-body and Atlas - will test the limits of friendship.
As far as cosmetics, Portal 2 makes use of Valve’s source engine once again. After six years it is still going strong even if there is perhaps little in the game that requires that intense level of graphical fidelity that the CryEngine displays. Lets just say that the Source Engine does deserted science laboratories very well, and there were definitely more than a couple of instances where I was wowed over by the particle effects as my surroundings collapsed and were ripped apart around me. The game does look brilliant and Valve have really opened up the location of Aperture science, varying the environments with great aplomb where other games would just administer the feeling of boredom as you walked down another subterranean corridor. Building on the promise of the first game, the game alternates between the normal test chambers and the environments existing outside and inbetween giving a fuller appreciation to the size and history of the installation that is Aperture Science. It also experiments with the formula, in the early stages of the game, you traverse old test chambers which have now have signs of nature poking through. Like Black Mesa, City 17 and Ravenholm or even the levels from Left 4 Dead, Valve enriches the environments of Portal 2 with an unparalleled level of detail and atmosphere. There are certainly more than just a couple of ghosts wandering around the Aperture labyrinth, and you do feel this throughout some of the lonelier sections of the game.

In conclusion, Portal 2 is the most fun you can have from a first person perspective and yes, that does include your real life as well. Whilst we have had our fair few of decent games as of late, we rarely get ones as original, as intelligent as genre bendingly bar smashing. Valve have taken the concept of the original Portal and expanded on it in a way that feels like a natural evolution of the first game. Portal 2 manages to occupy a bigger world whilst still supporting it with plenty of substance unlike the ‘bigger more badass’ mentality that usually defines the practice of sequel building (I’m looking at you Gears of War 2 and Dead Space 2). The only problem in my mind is that once you have waltzed through both the single player and co-op campaigns there is little to come back to, aside from secrets and the sheer quality of the game’s writing and humour (if that wasn’t enough already). Portal 2 can be completed in a weekend, and whilst it may feel as if it is all over too soon, it will be an experience you won’t forget. The only question you are left is where Valve will go next.       

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