Sunday, May 15, 2011

REVIEW - Portal 2.

Let us first agree that a gun which rips stable holes in space and time is awesome, and build from there.

Why has everyone made such a fuss over Portal and Portal 2?

It's almost perfectly-constructed, for one. It has an interesting universe with entertaining characters and cool gameplay mechanics - but c'mon - lots of games are well-designed and have interesting fictions.

That's not what makes Portal and Portal 2 special. What makes 'em special - what makes them a phenomenon - is that there is nothing else like Portal.

It's a video game comedy - quite some time since we saw one of those. It's sharply-written, which is also disturbingly rare. It's a high-profile puzzle game that's been polished to a mirror shine and released on a disc at full price - a happening I cannot recall previously on the current gen.

Imagine if you spent ten years having only toast, eggs and a cup of coffee for breakfast. And not just you, but everyone. The same breakfast every day for ten years.

And it's cool - after all, you love toast, eggs and coffee - and after ten years, it's all you could imagine eating for breakfast. Eggs are yummy. Perfectly poached with the tiniest sprinkling of salt and a nice dash of pepper. Coffee, patiently made in a French press. That stuff is scrumptious - your morning meal is all you want it to be, and complete.

Then one day, someone drops two slices of bacon on your plate. And not just bacon, but some of the best bacon that's ever been flayed from the side of a swine. You chew with a wide, childish smile of pleasure - because it may have disappeared for a decade, but when it's good, bacon is fucking delicious.

Portal 2 is similarly ambrosial.

What we have here is a perfectly-playing puzzle game. This thing has been playtested to the ends of the earth.

Valve are supernaturally practiced at introducing new mechanics in steady, comfortable beats that never leave the player overwhelmed - and crucially never leave them bored with things they've seen before. They have mastered the art of making puzzles just challenging enough to reach the cusp of frustration before the solution becomes clear, and sweet satisfaction and pride washes over you.

You'll notice that often there are only a handful of portal-able surfaces in any given chamber, and this may seem like unnecessary hand-holding at first, but the game nails the sweet spot between ability and demand - the puzzles are still plenty hard.

If the single-player campaign has any points of weakness, they are the inevitable by-product of turning any small title into a full-length affair. Portal was as close to perfect as a game could be because it never allowed for a moment of wasted time. Its fat ratio was trimmed to zero, and the game contained nothing - from gameplay to gab - that wasn't absolutely necessary.

Portal 2 wants to offer more than perfection, and because it provides so much it's impossible for everything to be so ideal. When the game is this filling, however - this satisfying - who cares if not every chamber is a home run?

It's the funniest game I've played in years, with excellent performances from the entire cast, and the best writing this side of Uncharted - if not better. Erik Wolpaw and Jay Pinkerton have constructed a story rich enough to satisfy and lean enough to never come across as indulgent. These guys clearly have an excellent understanding of the modern structure of storytelling, and the proper use inversions.

Portal was always entertaining, but I never expected the craftsmanship of Portal 2's narrative to impress me so much. As with the gameplay, there's so much of it that a rare joke will fall flat - but the overall package is still hugely impressive.

Wisely, the storytelling has been all but removed from the co-op campaign (it still has a bit of one). When you're playing with a friend, it doesn't so much matter why you're solving this hellish room of mashy spike plates and spinny blade walls - what matters is the narrative the two of you are creating, together - and every time you tell the story, it has the same ending.

Some of the co-op rooms will be solved with an instantaneous survey of your surrounding, but most are devious enough to require both your brains. Just as with the single-player campaign, the game will steer you dangerously close to the brink of frustration - and just in time, one of you will call out,
"I see it!"
And it's all laid bare. Like staring at one of those weird 3-D posters that suddenly snaps into focus. Oh, it's a sailboat - how could I not have seen it before?

Unlike the original, Portal 2's puzzles never require the lightning-fast precision of a teenager gripping a mouse. It's understanding the solutions that's a challenge - executing them is easy.

Portal 2 is a pleasure at every turn. A wonderful script. A fascinating world. Original mechanics. Rich, chewy gameplay that's smooth as silk, and still wholesome fun on multiple repeat playthroughs. The game's final act of is, without question, some of the best gaming I have ever experienced.

Like slipping into the free-running in Assassin's Creed II or returning to Rapture in BioShock's sequel, Portal 2 can never be as special as the original due to the 2 - but that doesn't mean it can't be a better game. Sure, it's got a bit of fat on it - but it's still a delicious treat.


-unlike anything else (except Portal)
-a masterfully-tuned challenge
-perfect pacing
-executing a puzzle's solution is never frustrating
-excellent cast
-wonderful story and script
-cool music integrated into the world itself
-the co-op campaign is a welcome challenge
-cross-platform play! yay!
-interesting new mechanics
-one of the best final hours I've ever played and
-an incredible ending
-fun with science

-the load times suck
-little replay value beyond the pleasure of it - but it's very pleasurable. Remember that? When you replayed games not to unlock trophies or level up, but because they're fun to play? You'll replay Portal 2, I promise you.

This is a Game of the Year contender.