Be warned, this is the only negative review of Portal 2 you will read on the internet. At least the only one where all the words are spelled correctly and the grammar is at or above a 6th grade level. This is potentially dangerous stuff, and I’m already nervously looking out the window and anticipating hordes of nerds wearing “The Cake is a Lie” shirts converging on my yard, wielding pitchforks and torches. I swear I just heard someone outside yell “you monster”. Read more, if you dare.
Portal was an OK game.
I didn’t play it until a year or so after its release and after reading so much effusive, doe-eyed praise of it, I was quite underwhelmed by its simple but definitely clever puzzles. It felt like a proof-of-concept trial more than a fully realized game. I didn’t think it got very interesting until the last act, but when the credits rolled over that terrible song that sounds like a mash-up of Weird Al Yankovic and a bad show tune sung by a robot, I had my fill of it. It was a cute game, that’s all. Nothing really all that special other than a couple of good gameplay ideas and some really lame nerd jokes that I never cracked a single smile at. It was quirky and singular, and that’s about the best I can say for it.
Now, Portal 2 is here and everyone on the Internet is flipping out over what is essentially the exact same game except with enough extra material to justify a full $60 retail price, a couple of visual design and story elements cribbed from Bioshock, and a de rigueur co-op mode. But now, there’s an all-new terrible song to close it out and the stupid, unfunny cake jokes are replaced stupid, unfunny potato jokes. It also explains away some of its more interestingly enigmatic elements to pad out its running time and provide a larger context for its ruthlessly linear levels and lockstep progression. This game is more strictly regimented than a Call of Duty game, and that’s without assessing the single-solution puzzles that occur between hallways.
Gameplay is essentially the same right down to the hidden areas behind panels, but it’s tough to fault Valve for following the “if it ain’t broke” axiom. Portal wasn’t broke, but I also felt like it wasn’t complete. Valve’s response to make this game feel more fleshed out is to add a couple of new mechanics including some fun environmental elements such as a catapult and three different flavors of physics-altering goo that can be sprayed all over the place. But it really is more of the same, right down to the “test chamber” format that gets repeated three times over the course of the game. By the third set, I had a couple of unsavory places in mind where “testing” could be archived for future reference.
There are more non-testing environments as Chell (who is more of a floating portal gun than an actual character) moves through several generations of Aperture Science architecture. Once again the Source engine’s ability to render rusty catwalks, steam pipes, featureless offices, and other boring industrial areas that would be roundly criticized and mocked in a non-Valve title is in full display complete with the same crude platforming that has been around since the first Half-Life. There are a couple of neat and sometimes awe-inspiring moments when levels alter or shift unexpectedly, and there’s some foliage in some parts that at least break up the alternating monotony of brown industrial and gray minimalism.
Puzzles are easy and very disappointingly so considering they’re the main attraction. The design of them is outstanding from an instructional design perspective. Objectives and solutions are almost always clear (if not glaringly obvious), and it doesn’t take a degree from MIT to sort out how to solve any of them with a minute or two of observation. But I’d like to feel at least a little challenged rather than instructed at some point, and the only time that I felt so was when a puzzle would require searching all over the area for a tiny piece of portal-able wall space. But that’s more “Where’s Waldo” than clever, brain-teasing puzzle design. There were a handful of situations where I nearly went to YouTube just to figure out where to look, not necessarily how to solve the problem.
Part of the charm of the game, I think, is that it makes players feel smart. Many games make the player feel empowered in terms of physical ability, but fewer make the player feel brilliant. And I can totally see where this is one of the reasons why these games are as popular and well-liked as they are. But for my part, it’s just not enough to carry the game, particularly when there’s barely any challenge in surmounting its obstacles.
Narrative is another void from the original game that Valve sought to fill, and this time there’s at least a little more story. It’s undeniably well-written and the three voice actors do some absolutely top-flight work with the material. Some of it is genuinely funny such as GLaDOS berating Chell for being too fat, but more often than not the “nerd joke” humor and forced attempts at cultish, meme-generating lines become grating and obnoxious. If you think hearing the voice of the guy at the airport telling you not to leave your bags unattended talk about the apocalypse would be hilarious, then this might be your thing. It’s the exact same joke as hearing a homicidal robot talk about cake. I don’t find ironic juxtaposition all that funny. Some do. It doesn’t help its case in my book that no one in the game ever shuts up, particularly an irritating robot straight out of a Douglas Adams novel. I’m not too crazy about the comic turrets that talk and sound just like the Battle Droids from the bad Star Wars film either.
It’s also disappointing that the back story of Aperture Science turns out to be a variant of the Andrew Ryan/Rapture story from Bioshock. Cave Johnson might not be the idealist utopian and his character trajectory isn’t the same, but there are cloying similarities that observant players will pick up on. It doesn’t help that there’s similar faux-old time graphic design collateral all over the walls, or that Cave Johnson talks at you the whole time via recorded messages, sounding almost like a Simpsons caricature. You’re in caves this time (hence the name, get it?) rather than under water, but the idea of an optimistic, scientific utopia gone to seed is obviously similar.
There is an interesting and quite compelling subtext that I liked a lot that presents Aperture Science in an interesting arc that moves through the futurism and can-do spirit of the 1950s and early 1960s on through cynicism and scientific stagnation in the 1970s and virtual corporate tyranny and disappointment in the 1980s. Black Mesa figures into the story, which is also a subtle reflection of the effects of capitalism, business, and government on scientific progress.
It’s smart stuff and it’s told with a light, inferring touch. The more sophisticated storytelling is totally at odds with other silly narrative events such as an unbelievably silly turn of events involving GLaDOS or the disappointment of learning her origin. It’s not quite as bad as finding out that The Force is just some kind of magical blood cells or whatever, but it does point out that Valve did that whole explain-away-the-mystery thing with this game. I was totally OK with what I knew about the characters, setting, and environment of the first game. I didn’t need any more. Now, it’s bulked up and filled out and it isn’t really anything special, enigmatic, or particularly interesting.
By the time I reached the end (which does have, I admit, an amazingly cool turn of events that would be criminal to reveal), I was so completely done with anything Portal that I couldn’t take the disc out of the PS3 and into an envelope bound for a Half.com buyer fast enough. It may still be warm by the time they get it. It was one thing when Portal was a cute game that lasted a couple of hours. It’s another when it goes on for eight to ten hours, and that doesn’t include the co-op. The co-op option is interesting- probably much more so than the single-player game- but it really requires that you play with a friend. I tried it a couple of times with random people on PSN before the Great PSN Explosion of ’11 and I just felt really stupid. I think one guy I was playing with pinged a place to put a portal like fifty times before I finally got to it. I’m not even remotely interested in user-created levels at this point, although I’m sure something more interesting and compelling can be done with the tool set.
Let me be clear about it. Portal 2 is hardly a “terrible” game, and in fact I’d call it a good game that just isn’t to my particular liking. It’s undoubtedly a highly polished, well-put together package of content that obviously has an audience. Production quality is uniformly high, and there is definitely plenty to appeal to fans of Valve’s products. It’s a spectacularly designed and packaged piece of software.
With that said, I can’t help but feel that there are particular elements of this universally praised game that are getting a free pass simply because it’s Valve and not Electronic Arts or Activision. As I stated previously, the game is strictly linear with almost zero replay value once you’ve beaten both core modes- but I’m sure paid DLC featuring new levels or modes is incoming. The cardinal sins of day one costume downloads and preorder bonuses are also present, they’re just not as advertised as they are in other games. And for all of the outcry against other sequels that did little but reiterate successful formula, I’m not quite sure how this game is excused from the complaint. Dated graphics, boring environments, and a sub-8 hour campaign are other red flags that indicate some serious critical double standards going on. Had Activision or EA gone out with that whole potato sack scheme, no one would have been OK with it whether or not indie developers were involved or not. But Valve are practically folk heroes for what amounts to an elaborate marketing gimmick.
I’d better wrap this up because I’m due to be burned at the stake out on the lawn. I think I hear Gabe Newell bellowing out in the yard. Oh my god. Where did they get a tank?