Portal 2

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:

  1. The song at the end of the game is great, but the lyrics are not as quotable as the lyrics from the previous game
  2. 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.
  3. The multilayer content requires social interaction. I’m not a huge fan of that. I can only do social interaction in small doses…
  4. 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.

Portal 2 Cover featuring the co-op bots.

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.

One of the new game mechanics are the gravity rays. Note the use of blue and yellow in this screenshot. Valve sure knows their blue and yellow rule well.

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 don't know about you but this made me chuckle.

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.

Great example of how expressive Wheatley can be.

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.

Great Setting

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.

The posters scattered thouh the condemned zone were great.

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.

This completely blew my mind. The attention to detail in this game is astonishing. It's stuff like this that makes me love this game so much. Also, this is probably a spoiler or something.

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!

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13 Responses to Portal 2

  1. Gothmog UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    I loved this game as well- and I enjoyed playing co-op with you… so sorry to force you into social interaction! ;)

    OMG, CHELL *made* the potato display! I never caught that!

    I’m going to have to play the single player again with commentary on and a walkthru on my 2nd system to make sure I find everything.

    Easily, the best game of the year. Hands down.

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  2. nitro2k01 SWEDEN Mozilla Firefox Mac OS Terminalist says:

    P******s are the new bananas?

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  3. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    It’s a Valve game, which means Steam, which means I will never play it. My loss, I guess.

    Reviews I’ve read complain about the general lack of difficulty in the riddles. And about the DLC thing, of course. Bethesda started selling Horse Armor DLC and look where they are now.

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  4. Phil UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @ Zel:

    Really? You aren’t getting Portal 2 because of Steam? Why? I thought people like you died out long ago. Steam is pretty popular now, ya know?

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  5. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I have trouble enough accepting Steam in other games, because they’re technically only leasing you what you buy until their company goes under or changes management. They’re also openly against the second-hand market and doing great harm to it with their policies.

    I’m never going to openly support Valve by buying one of their game, however good it is. I already skipped Half-Life 2, Portal and the following episodes, I can live with skipping this one too, Game of the Year or not.

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  6. Mack UNITED KINGDOM Google Chrome Windows says:

    Or you could just buy Portal 2 on disc. Youknow, like, not from Steam.

    I found the italian end serenade pretty goddamn heart wrenching after I looked up the translation. The singing turrets easter egg was friggin’ neat too.

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  7. SapientIdiot UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    I was a little disapointed with the price tag. After playing the game, i can sort of see why its worth more then the entirety of Orangebox… but I’m just not the kind of gamer to throw down more then $30 for a single player game. I know there’s a co-op, but the replay value is still somewhat limited. I’d consider Amnesia TDD a great single play game, and it was totally worth $20, even though i’m probably only going to play it once.

    Usually i try to buy games that i like (and work on linux/wine), after pirating them first to make sure. I’d like to pay for Portal 2, but its not worth as much as Fallout New Vegas. I’ll probably end up buying it during next steam sale season (xmas), when i’m sure it will be on sale for much less.

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Gothmog:

    Haha, no problem. It was fun. :)

    And yeah, it blew my mind, so I had to share this.

    @ nitro2k01:

    Oh man… Now I might need to do that. LOL

    @ Zel:

    To me, the puzzles were just right. I breezed through the initial few chapters but that’s by design I believe. There were one or two chambers that had me completely stumped to the point I had to stop playing and sleep on it. So the difficulty curve seemed perfect. But that’s just my opinion.

    I don’t like the concept of release day DLC’s either, but Valve’s approach is much better than that of Bioware in Dragon Age and Mass Effect games for example. Their DLC’s are playable characters, weapons, abilities and even entire quest chains. And yet I don’t remember anyone complaining all that much it when these games came out. I’m not really sure why are people so outraged at Valve for implementing TF2 hat system for Portal. Honestly, it’s not that bad.

    Zel wrote:

    I have trouble enough accepting Steam in other games, because they’re technically only leasing you what you buy until their company goes under or changes management. They’re also openly against the second-hand market and doing great harm to it with their policies.

    This is very true, but show me a AAA game publisher that does not put restrictive DRM on their products. It seems that every damn game released recently has some form of online activation. Valve seems to be the least evil of the bunch though:

    – Steam does not limit the number of installs, so as long as Valve servers are still online you can keep installing it on your new machines
    – It does not tie your game to hardware platform either. You can install most of your steam games on every single machine you own. And thanks to their Cloud save feature, you can even start playing a game on your desktop and finish on your laptop.
    – They keep the installation files for you on the cloud and allow you to keep downloading it at will indefinitely. So while you technically don’t own the game, you also don’t need to worry about installation media. Compare it to other companies which sell you games online, but only offer limited time download, and tell you to get lost if you misplaced the installation files.
    – They provide additional features – cloud saves, storage for installation media, statistics, achievements, built in tool for making and sharing screenshots online, community tools, in-game chat and invitation system, etc…

    You are absolutely right – they lease you games. I don’t really own my Steam game library. But due to all the stuff mentioned above, I still get a decent value for my money. They take something away, but they give me something in return – a degree of convenience, community tools, etc.. I can live with this arrangement. Especially compared to other DRM schemes which are more restrictive than Steam, but provide nothing in return.

    Mack wrote:

    Or you could just buy Portal 2 on disc. Youknow, like, not from Steam.

    Does that work? I thought that the disc still forces you to install Steam. I actually bought HL2 as a physical disk back in the day, and the first thing it did was to install Steam on my computer. I would expect Portal 2 to do the same. Having the disk will probably just speed up installation (you won’t need to download the game).

    Mack wrote:

    I found the italian end serenade pretty goddamn heart wrenching after I looked up the translation. The singing turrets easter egg was friggin’ neat too.

    Yeah, but I still don’t fully buy into this.

    [SPOILERS BELOW]
    I’m not convinced that Caroline is Chell’s mother. I do think she is a daughter of one of the employees but it seems like a stretch that she would be Coraline’s. Especially since the “bring your daughter to school day” seemed to be the day GlaDOS was activated.

    But if it is true than it is indeed quite tragic.
    [END SPOILERS]

    Anyways, you gotta love valve for putting little tidbits like this into the game. It really makes you think, and it keeps people talking. This is what good storytelling is all about.

    @ SapientIdiot:

    True, there is vastly less gameplay in Portal 2 than in Fallout NV (which I am yet to finish) but the game is polished to high sheen. Those are very different games.

    But yeah, the price should go down around the next big Steam sale.

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  9. Tino UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    I’m surprised you did not put ‘short’ on your list. Sure, for a game to be ‘short’ isn’t necessary a bad thing. In fact, it is much preferable to being “dragged out”. I want to make it absolutely clear that when I say that I would have liked to see a longer Portal 2, it in no way means I would have preferred the story to be thinned out, and levels being extended by reusing the same structures and textures in a way that would just make my total play time longer. I absolutely do not want that. What I would have wanted was the same lovely game experience, moving on in the same pace, but, ending less soon.

    I think the game closest to Portal 2 in ‘feel’ is Bioshock. It also had great level design, and communicated a story through the environment. Maybe not as successful as Portal 2, and certainly not as funny, but there are some similarities. According to Steam I played Bioshock for 30 hours, and Portal 2 for 8 hours. Other types of games show an even larger difference, e.g., Dragon Age (123 hours), Fallout 3 (63 hours), and Fallout: New Vegas (75 hours). All these are single player games, with about the same price at launch. Even if every minute of Portal 2 single player experience is of significantly higher quality than any of those other games (and it is), I cannot help but think that the experience did end a bit prematurely.

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  10. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    This is very true, but show me a AAA game publisher that does not put restrictive DRM on their products. It seems that every damn game released recently has some form of online activation. Valve seems to be the least evil of the bunch though:

    My major gripe with the Steam system is that is requires you to tie your games to an account permanently. You cannot transfer games to other people. You cannot untie a game from your account in order to resell it. You cannot give a game you finished to a friend. Every single Steam game is a new purchase, at full price. If you somehow lose your account or get banned, you lose all the games tied to it. That can mean a fortune in game gone in a flash, with no way to retrieve them. You’d better behave and don’t complain too much.

    The Offline feature is a decoy, you need an internet connection active to install games, and the software will require occasional check-ins with the servers after a short while. The disk version of games using Steam are exactly as you describe, after all why wouldn’t they use their widely accepted DRM platform for their own games ? I would actually prefer Securom over Steam, because they often offer deactivation tools.

    Steam does offer sugar coating on top of their very restricting policy, but I care for none. Cloud saving or installation ? I don’t usually install games on more than one or two computers, and it’s faster to drag my DVD or transfer the game files through my LAN myself. Achievements and community tools are the least of my concerns, since I mostly play single player games. Other features can be covered with better suited tools.

    Last but not least : at least in Europe their pricing policy, apart from a couple well chosen sales to lure in new customers, is one of the most expensive available. Especially for older games.

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  11. Mack UNITED KINGDOM Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    Not sure how to do whitetext so SPOILER WARNING ***************

    I’m pretty sure Chell is Carolines *adopted* daughter – GlaDos tells the player “For the record, you are adopted, and it’s terrible.” It goes a long way to explaining the obsession with adoption insults from GlaDos, especially since she takes a fairly maternal role in both games: “Let me just clear that for you” and whatnot. I haven’t been able to confirm it myself because I have a lousy 1Gb of ram, not enough to run high textures, but apparently Chells potato plant is so overgrown because of a formula she got from “Dad” – Cave.

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  12. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Tino:

    Yes, it is a bit short. But I’m not sure that if they made it longer, it wouldn’t drag. But yeah, according to Steam I spent 14 hours in Portal (90% of that in single player). It’s probably because I would always poke around, try to find Ratman dens, and enjoy the scenery. :)

    To contrast that I have close to 40 hours both on New Vegas and Dragon Age 2 and I haven’t finished either of them yet. :P

    @ Zel:

    Fair enough. My friend actually lost his Steam password few years back, but never really bothered trying to get it back. I still yell at him for letting few hundred bucks in games just go to waste but he doesn’t think he can get it back. He no longer has the email he signed up with, he no longer has the the credit card he used for most of the purchases and he can’t remember the password. So yeah, this is a huge issue.

    @ Mack:

    True, the adoption thing makes much more sense this way. The great part is that they did not flat out said it in the game – they left clues for us to obsess and speculate about. :)

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  13. Tino UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    @Zel

    I absolutely understand where you are coming from with Steam. I didn’t buy Half-Life 2 at release for this exact reason. I hated them for trying to leverage a high-profile release to force new restrictive DRM on us. However, 6 years layer I have 251 entries in Steam. What happened?

    Well, I moved between countries twice, and became aware of how expensive in time, space, weight, and effort it is to carry around your DVDs. Sure, you can rip them, but some don’t rip cleanly (grr… copy protection), and almost all require the disk to be present while playing. I guess I could download no-CD-cracks for all of them, or even fully cracked versions; but it isn’t absolutely trivial since I hate antivirus software almost as much as I hate DRM.

    Then, when the game is up and running, there is also the issue of finding the latest update and wait through the download over the limited “free” bandwidth option from some file hosting site. The process could take hours, and in the end just led me to play less. And that goes for the selection of games I had with me, while some where even forgotten in a storage crate in another country…

    So I got “tricked” by steam-sale after steam-sale, where the price did seem fair for the tradeoff between the benefits of Steam versus the DRM. But I still very rarely buy anything that isn’t on heavily reduced price. I agree that the regular prices are laughable, especially in Europe.

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