Portal 2 PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Mac
Four years after exploding into the public eye with a sensational debut EP, synthetic singer-songwriter GLaDOS has finally taken on the challenge of the difficult second album. Her song ‘Still Alive’ became an overnight hit after picking up millions of fans on YouTube and catapulted her into global stardom, despite the fact she’s never left her home. Expectations for the full-length follow-up have been running high, along with concerns that nothing she does could ever live up to the hype. It is my great pleasure to announce today that her latest masterpiece eclipses her previous work in almost every regard.
It is a mark of how wonderful Portal 2 is that, when you ask it to search for a random co-op partner, it pops up a warning message to remind you that co-op is more fun with a friend than a stranger. This is a game that has been made with a great deal of care and attention, and it pervades every area of the play experience: The level design is tight, the dialogue is funny, music is integrated into the test apparatus so that you feel audibly rewarded whenever you do something right, the puzzles are sometimes so twisted that your piss-take solutions often turn out to be correct… even the menus look swish, spinning around like a bank of virtual panels whenever you select an option. I played the singleplayer game from start to finish in one sitting and was utterly captivated the whole time; the next day I played co-op with a helpful player called “Dr. Vomit” and managed to lose a whole evening without realising.
Portal 2 is basically flawless. My only complaint is that it feels a little too well designed sometimes – there’s no compelling weirdness, and very little is left to your imagination. The minimalist design of Portal, funnelling you through a series of white-walled chambers with no explanation why, was a goldmine for interpretation (my personal favourite: the Freudian reading of ‘a gun that shoots vaginas’) but its sequel wrings you through the same kind of dense, explicit narrative as the Half-Life series. You go places. You have a plan. Previously people would talk on forums about symbolic elements of the game – the relationship between GLaDOS and Chell, GLaDOS’ physical design as a woman held in bondage or an inverted Birth of Venus, that sort of thing – but discussions will now probably focus on speculation about the history of Aperture Science, rather than the very real implication made at the start of the game that Chell is suffering from serious brain damage. I think that’s a sad change.
That said, the story being told is excellent. Valve have produced a masterclass in the use of physical space as a form of narrative which, despite feeling a little formulaic by the end of the game, many level designers could stand to learn from. For example, the first section of the game takes you through some of the ruined test chambers of the original game while recounting the story so far: this teaches the same basic ‘rules’ of portal usage, shows returning players the effects of their earlier actions, and establishes that the facility (and, by extension, GLaDOS) has undergone a complete breakdown. The sterile, straight-lined architecture has been torn apart by the fat curves of plant roots and foliage; a visual triumph of organic life over cold steel that harks back to Portal’s final boss battle. Similar observations can be made of the later areas, but for the sake of spoilers I’ll let you ponder them with your friends at your own pace.
Gameplay has been updated in three main ways. Firstly, two new elements have been added to the standard repertoire of portal puzzles – ‘hard light’ bridges and tractor beams, both of which have multiple uses that you must learn to switch between. I don’t have a lot to say about these other than they are a rare example of a sequel providing an experience that manages to be both ‘new’ and ‘the same’.
Secondly, there is the addition of three types of paint-like gels that alter the physical properties of any surfaces they splatter upon – blue gel creates patches of bouncy, Flubber-like material, red gel amplifies your movement speed as you walk across it, and white gel renders any surface suitable for portal placement. Working with gels is a very different puzzle format and could seem really off-putting and out of place within the game world, if it wasn’t for the momentous scene at the end of the second act in which the player activates a humongous gel pipeline from another facility. It’s a symbolic moment in which you bring together two different branches of Aperture-brand science, creating colourful mayhem in the computer-controlled lab environment.
The third – and most abstract – difference is that puzzles are much less time-limited, and no longer require quick reactions with your mouse hand. This is most apparent in the way that energy balls have been replaced with lasers, which function as a continuous beam – you can take a step back from a laser puzzle and think about the big picture, which you couldn’t really do while juggling energy balls around the room. Whether these changes are a concession for console gamers, a way to level the playing field in co-op or simply a way to emphasis that this is a puzzle game rather than an action game is pretty irrelevant; it works well and I approve.
I’d also like to heap some particular praise on Stephen Merchant’s performance. I have never enjoyed his style of comedy, but here – playing an insecure personality core called Wheatley – I thought he was brilliant. His gradual transformation from a nervous, childlike adjutant to a hectoring arsehole is an amalgamation of characters seen in his work with Ricky Gervais, but even though the gags were often predictable (“I can hack this door open, but it’s very complicated – I can’t do it while you’re watching” *sound of breaking glass*) I felt like they were pitched perfectly for the character, and still laughed when the expected punchlines came. I don’t know whether he was involved in writing the script or even the extent to which it was written with him in mind, but I really think someone needs to win some kind of award for making this happen.
The singleplayer game took me around 7 hours to beat; the co-op around 5 hours. Some online commentors have criticised the game for being too short, but I don’t think it could have carried the story for much longer without just dropping unnecessary chores in your path – my enthusiasm for solving test chambers ran out precisely three seconds before the endgame sequence began, which was so astonishingly well-timed that I have to wonder whether the game intentionally became dull just to set me up.
In conclusion, Portal 2 is a textbook example of how to make a great game, but nothing more. Its narrative focus robs the game of its predecessor’s quirky charm, but gives players a much stronger sense of purpose – medium-term objectives roll by at a steady pace, like Half-Life 2 without the boring bits – and there is still plenty of scope in discussing the psycho-sexual imagery of splattering a level with gel. Is this the last we will hear of GLaDOS? I doubt it, but I’m hoping she’ll now take some time out from her solo career to provide backing vocals in Half-Life 2: Episode 3.