Sometimes when you sit down to review a game you genuinely liked, you realize that you actually have a lot of complaints about it. It is much easier to nitpick, grumble, bitch and moan than it is to praise the designers. After all, what are you going to say? That the game was adequately satisfying? Unless a game is absolutely flawless, complaints make for more entertaining reviews. With that in mind I sat down and tried to write a list of things I did not like in the game, or took an exception too. Here it is, in it’s entirety:
- The song at the end of the game is great, but the lyrics are not as quotable as the lyrics from the previous game
- I sort of liked the seamless “load the level while in the elevator” feel of the original. I wasn’t terribly happy with the frequency with which the loading screen would pop up. Stupid Mass Effect had to go and ruin elevator loaders for everyone forever.
- The multilayer content requires social interaction. I’m not a huge fan of that. I can only do social interaction in small doses…
- I really want to build a [SPOILER – highlight to see]AI powered by a potato now…
Yeah… That would be about it. That’s all I’ve got. I tried, but I just don’t have anything negative to say about this game. It is an absolutely stellar example of top-notch game design. So instead of complaining, let’s talk about what is good about this game.
Very Few Bugs
I finished the single player campaign, and played some co-op games without ever experiencing a crash or any sort of graphical or logic glitch. I’m sure there are some in there (after all, it is impossible to ever discover all bugs) but I have never encountered one. In fact, Valve seemed to have fixed a long standing stuttering issue I always had with Source games. Portal 2 never stuttered or locked on me. The only glitch I noticed was a mouse acceleration problem, which was quickly fixed by flipping a single setting in the options menu.
Granted, Valve has been always very good about this sort of thing. They are one of the few companies that tests their games extensively before release these days. It is quite ironic actually. Quality control and testing has always been a huge issue in the software industry, but we have made some great strides to improve this in the recent years. The industry as a whole is slowly getting better at basic quality assurance and releasing stable and secure software. Game industry seems to be going in the opposite direction, with a lot of big development studios buying into the “release today, patch next week” mentality.
Valve not only tests their games well, but they also have one of the best patch deployment systems around. So if they do patch bugs after release, they can ensure that 100% of their users will have the patch installed either instantaneously or next time they launch Steam.
Great Level Design
Part of Valve’s quality assurance process mentioned above seems to be extensive play testing. Portal 2 is a difficult game to pull off. To solve the puzzles player must learn, understand and eventually master several complex mechanics. These have to be communicated to the player in some way. The brilliance of both Portal games stems from the fact that this process is absolutely seamless and virtually invisible. There is no tutorial level, or wall of text that explains the portal mechanics. The NPC’s in the game don’t actually tell you how to use the new stuff that was not in the first portal. Valve does this via level design.
Each new mechanic is introduced gradually – starting with very simple puzzles, and expanding from there. Everything in the game is color-coded to allow the player to recognize material properties at a glance. All buttons and switches have visible trails, that point at the objects they affect. The player can walk into a chamber, look around and instantly know where it is legal to place portals, which button opens the door, etc… There is never really a time when you are lost, or unsure of what to do. The pieces of the puzzle always stand out from the surroundings, but without breaking immersion. Some games add artificial glow to “actionable” items, or mark them with a distinctive HUD icon. Portal does not need to do that. It is immediately obvious what is a piece of the puzzle, and what is just scenery. And it is done without sacrificing variety. Compared to the first game, Portal 2 has an astonishing variety of levels. The look and feel of buttons, weighted cubes and other elements changes several times throughout the game, keeping things fresh. But it is never confusing.
I admit, there were several puzzles in the game that completely stumped me. But without an exception, the problem was not with the level design but with me not fully grasping the utility of the new game mechanic. Without an exception, solving them was a “duh, how could I have not seen this before” moment.
Then there is the “Condemned” part of the Aperture science lab. That whole part of the game is basically one huge exercise of storytelling through level design. The signs on the walls, the decor of the offices, the pictures of Cave Johnson chronicling his rapidly deteriorating health. There is an amazing level of detail that went into designing these levels, and I had a blast just walking around and looking at stuff. Johnson’s award case for example, was priceless. It was both funny, and it also told you a lot about the owner of Aperture Science, his humble origins, his personality and his motivations,
Great Character Design
Portal 2 does not have many characters, but where it lacks in quantity it more than makes up in quality. The few NPC’s that you interact with, or listen to during the game are just plain awesome. Take Wheatley for example. He is just a talking sphere, but at the same time he manages to be one of the most expressive video game characters I have seen in years. Despite the fact he does not have an actual “face” he has a wide range of expressions, and he is able to convey emotion much better than most photo realistic models. Part of this is probably his non-humanoid design. Our brains are wired to see human-like features in non-human objects. We see smiley faces in furniture, and love to ascribe purely human emotions to our pets. So giving a spherical robot some flappers he can use as eye-lids really goes a long way to make him seem like a person. On the other hand, photo-realistic faces that are only a little bit “off” make us recoil in disgust and seem obviously fake. Paradoxically, this fakeness seems to increase proportionally to the resolution. We call this phenomenon “The Uncanny Valley”. Part of Wheatley’s appeal is that he lies on the far end of the Uncanny Valley. Hence it is easy to ascribe human-like emotions to him – our brains work double time, interpreting various flaps, and mechanical parts as his eyelids, brows, mouth pieces and etc… But it is still brilliantly designed character, and his emotional range is still quite impressive.
GlaDOS was always a great video game villain, but Portal 2 takes her to a whole new level. It makes her character seem deeper, more nuanced and much more funny. You wouldn’t think that a rude, homicidal, insane AI would be such a compelling character but she is. I don’t want to say too much about this, but I love the direction they took with her. I thought it was brilliant – it allowed them to both explore a brad new side of her, as well as refresh the game’s formula a bit.
And of course there is Cave Johnson. Funny as hell, ridiculous, over the top, and very, very memorable. And he is not even around anymore when you find out about him. You meet the esteemed owner of Aperture Science via series of audio-logs he taped for his test subjects. This is a long standing trope in video games: as you progress through the levels, you find audio recordings that fill you out on some important back-story. But Valve nailed it. Each entry is funny, each tells you something about Cave or the history of Aperture Science. Johnson is much like Andrew Rayan from Bioshock, only much funnier.
The best part is that he is exactly the kind of person who would probably run a crazy-super science company. Cave Johnson does not know much about science – he has no clue about the scientific process, or what science can or cannot do. He has people for that. But that’s exactly what makes him the crazy visionary. He has crazy ideas that cannot possibly work, and enough money to actually hire serious scientists to work on them. And despite all adds some of that stuff actually ends up being usable.
Also, Space Core is pretty much the new Companion Cube.
If you look at a lot of the games that are released these days, Portal 2 setting really stands out. It is a breath of fresh air among all the samey brown shooters. I’m a geek, and I just can’t help but love this pseudo-scientific craziness that rules Portal universe. Visiting the ruins of the old Aperture Science offices was like a trip to Rusty Venture’s compound.
The first game did not really tell us much about Aperture Science. It was mysterious and nefarious, unknown entity much like Black Mesa. Portal 2 shed much of that mystery, creating a very compelling back story for this company, and introducing it’s eccentric founder. It removed some of Aperture’s mystique, but arguably it made it into a much more interesting entity. Unlike Black Mesa, which we really don’t know much about, Aperture now has a compelling story.
After playing Portal 1, I sort of assumed that the labs were empty and abandoned most likely due to Combine activity. It is nice to see this is not the case, and that Portal’s story stands on it’s own, independent from the Half Life storyline. Then again, Cave Johnson does name-drop Black Mesa which suggests that both games still co-exist in the same universe, and that one day we might see a cross-over of some sort.
Great Story and Storytelling
I mentioned this above, but it bears repeating: Portal 2 not only has a great story, but it tells it well too. You never feel like you are being spoon-fed plot exposition or back story. The storytelling is seamless and integrated into the game play. Parts of the story are told by the scenery – the level design, the items, the signs on the walls. The rest is delivered in the monologues by Wheatly, Cave Johnson and GlaDOS. But they don’t just sit you down and dump the information on you. No one goes “ok, here is how Aperture Science came to be, pay attention now”. No, it all just comes out naturally – the way a good story should be told.
Portal 2 is easily the best game of the year so far. And I just don’t see anyone being able to de-throne it anytime soon. If you want to see a game with flawless design, great story, great storytelling and very memorable characters look no further. Granted, this game is not for everyone. It contains very little of the brown filter that fans of modern FPS games love so much. It also won’t let you pwn n00bs in the multilayer mode. So, you know – caveat emptor.
Oh, oh, oh. I almost forgot! The hats. There is this whole controversy about the in-game DLC that lets you buy hats, and pajamas for your co-op robots. A lot of people seem to think this is some sort of crime against humanity, and they have been bombing meta-critic scores. Personally I don’t mind the DLC. I would never actually spend money on these add-ons, but since they are purely cosmetic and do not affect the game play I barely noticed they were there. In other words I couldn’t care less. In fact I applaud Valve for being so conservative with this DLC. After all, they might have ripped out bunch of levels from the game proper to sell them as release day DLC. After all, that’s what every single other company is doing these days. Valve did it right.
I hope those of you who haven’t played Portal 2 yet appreciate me censoring some of these screenshots to cover a blatant spoiler. Now go and buy this game. People always seem surprised when I like something, because I tend to criticize and complain about games and movies in my blog posts. This game gets my full endorsement. Go play it. It is great!