Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Portal 2, or how a sequel can be pretty darn good

Portal 2
Grade: C+
Platform: GNU/Linux, Mac, PC, 360, PS3
Genre: Physics puzzler
Steam: $19.99
Released: 2011

With the runaway success of Portal, an sequel was inevitable.  And unlike a lot of sequels, Portal 2 was a great game.  So why, you ask, have I given it only a C+?

C, of course, is average, and I consider Portal 2 to be a step above average.  But not, like Portal was, three steps above average.  Average, after all, is an entertaining and engaging game well worth playing.

In some ways Portal 2 is a significant improvement on its predecessor.  For all that Portal was groundbreaking, it was rather sharply limited.  There were only five elements available for the puzzles: the portals, buttons, boxes, turrets, and energy pellets.  The only reason Portal didn't become repetitive was that it was also extremely short.

Portal 2 kept the portals, the buttons, the boxes, and the turrets, and it added a slew of interesting elements that allow for more elaborate and varied puzzles.  Replacing the energy pellets with the thermal discouragement beam was an excellent idea because the thermal discouragement beam is such a more versatile game element, and also since it isn't a single activation element like the energy pellets it allows for more complex puzzles right off the bat.

They also added repulsion gel, propulsion gel, hard light bridges, excursion funnels, discouragement redirection cubes, and aerial faith plates.  The possibilities may not be limitless, but the success of the user designed levels shows that the new elements allow for many more possibilities than the designers had originally thought of.

From the standpoint of being a better physics puzzler, Portal 2 has Portal beaten hands down.

Where it doesn't do so well is in atmosphere.

Don't misunderstand, Portal 2 keeps the dark humor of Portal, it has snappy well written dialog performed by a stellar voice cast.  The Cave Johnson recordings alone justify the purchase price of Portal 2. 

For me though, it falls a bit flat when compared to Portal.  The creepy edge of Portal is gone, and perhaps it couldn't have really been kept. 

Unfortunately they also left out the solitude, and I think the game suffers as a result.  

In one way they'd never have been able to truly recapture the feeling of isolation and solitude from Portal, on your first playthrough it is possible to believe that Chell is the only thinking being in the entire facility.  GLaDOS initially comes across as a malfunctioning but non-sapient computer, and the slow realization that she is self aware, intelligent, and actively trying to kill you is a major factor in the tone and creepy value of the first game.  And of course that couldn't be maintained in the second game.

Perhaps it was because they realized that the sensation of true isolation from the original couldn't be recaptured that the designers decided to stick you with a companion for most of the game.  Stephen Merchant's Wheatley pops up almost immediately after the game begins, and when he isn't tagging along and telling you where to go, GLaDOS is.  As a result, for me at least, Chell feels more like a puppet used in a conflict between the two AI's rather than an independent agent.

Even the ending song reflects the shift from subtle menace to overtly stated intent.  

And perhaps that's for the best.  A game that tried, and failed, to maintain the atmosphere and creep factor of Portal wouldn't have been as good as one that went in its own direction.  Regrettably, that new direction just didn't grab me as much as the original did.

Which doesn't mean Portal 2 isn't a great game and well worth the price.  It is.  It's just that while it plays better, it doesn't feel as amazing, which is why it only gets a C+.

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