Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Portal 2 Review

I finally played Portal 2. I've only played the single player campaign so far; I know there's much more to the game than that but for now I'm going to just review the campaign. But before I start I'd like to talk a little about the first Portal.

Portal was a work of genius. Not because it was a puzzle game about portals; at the risk of sounding unappreciative or offending people, I think that it was almost natural that a puzzle game featuring portals would be made before too long. Portal wasn't the first game to feature portals you see; my first experience with them was in Prey, which was released over a year before Portal, and already had a few environmental puzzles that involved the use of portals. Certainly Portal made excellent use of the technology, but the genius that I refer to was in the plot.

You play as a test subject being forced to complete tests. BOOM! Skip the backstory, no need for shoehorning puzzles into natural environments, just pure puzzle action. Think about this for a moment. They didn't need to come up with a contrived plot about using an alien portal generator to save the world. You start the game and start solving puzzles. They didn't need an army of artists to model hundreds of varied environments, they just used to same few tiles and props over and over, allowing them to make the most out of the time and resources available. And most importantly, they could put together any damned puzzle they wanted without worrying about how it fit in the environment.

But the genius doesn't end there. Now, you might want to skip this paragraph if you haven't played the first Portal as there's some spoilers coming (hell, just stop reading and go play it already). Despite the clinical nature of the settings, the game was full of small yet brilliant touches of personality in the little animations and stickman figures, and in the messages from GLaDOS. You quickly grow accustomed to GLaDOS, but as the game progresses she evolves from just a bit of comic relief to a full-blown antagonist. She's a surprisingly personal nemesis, and it works really well. Likewise, after you got used to the idea that all you were doing was solving puzzles, suddenly you saw behind the curtain and the game changed. It's an amazing moment, when you break free of the maze and start running around the hidden spaces behind it all. What's more, it makes the fact that all the testing chambers looked the same actually work in the game's favour, as it supports the story.

If I was to rate Portal, I would definitely give it a 10/10. Obviously this creates a certain pressure on the sequel. Portal 2 is at a disadvantage you see; Portal came out of nowhere and sucker-punched us in the gut, taking our breath away. But now we're ready for it, Portal 2 isn't going to catch us by surprise, it's going to have a much harder time stunning us. Valve has stepped up to the challenge by making everything bigger, more complex and more impressive. But it turns out making a better game isn't just about cramming in more of everything.

Portal 2 takes all (well, most of) the puzzle elements from the original and adds several new ones. There's gels with various effects, hard light bridges, traction beams, boxes that redirect lasers, and launchpads that send you flying. Curiously the old floating energy spheres are missing, but I suppose they didn't lend themselves to any puzzles that can't be replicated with the lasers and the gels. Regardless, the new additions are all worthwhile and synergise well with the basic portals mechanic. I was especially impressed with the white gel, that I think has a lot of potential for more "sandbox" type gameplay.

What's more it has more characters and character than the first. We now enjoy constant voice clips from several characters who are all very funny. To be honest I think this is the greatest improvement in the game; I rushed through puzzles in my haste to hear the next audio clip. From GLaDOS' vindictive taunting to Wheatley's enthusiastic bumbling, I loved it all. Strangely there's still only one type of enemy, but that's not an issue since it's a puzzle game. The environments are a lot more varied and involved, with some really impressive design and architecture - the Aperture Science labs are the size of a small city, and we are treated to many impressive views of vast caverns filled with enormous machinery. The artists and designers really outdid themselves, it gives the game an entirely different scale, if that makes sense.

The plot is a lot more involved this time around; while the original was rather direct there's a lot more happening this time. It's not just the events that you're personally involved in either; there's a lot of history that you pick up from the environments and audio clips, overall the Portal world is far more fleshed out.

I hesitate to say it, but it feels as if... Portal has grown up. The first game was, well, to put it into context, I bought the Orange Box; on one single disc there was Half Life 2, plus Episodes 1 and 2, Team Fortress 2, and Portal. Half Life 2 is a full game, episodes 1 and 2 are short games by old standards (making them full single player campaigns by modern standards), Team Fortress 2 would not have been considered a full game back then as it was multiplayer only, and Portal was bundled in as well because it was, well, not a full game. It could be finished in six hours, every level looked exactly the same, there were only two characters and only one enemy. It wasn't, by the standards of the time, a full game. In contrast, Portal 2 came out on it's own, for the price tag of a full game.

So does Portal 2 work as a full game? Well, in addition to the new features and larger scale, the run time is a little longer, and it has a cooperative mode. It's also worth mentioning that there's a free level editor, meaning there's now a huge number of user-created puzzles to peruse - though it seems this was not released until over a year after the game came out and so it's not exactly part of the package that most people initially experienced. Plus it's not available on consoles; as far as I know, not even the user-generated levels are available on consoles, which I find disappointing.

Despite all this, I thought there were elements that just didn't scale up to "full game status" very well. First, and perhaps foremost, the lack of backstory is suddenly a problem. I'll leave this particular issue for the spoilers section, instead I'll just say that I found it wasn't as easy to overlook the complete lack of information about Chell this time. It didn't help that, rather than delicately side-stepping the issue, the game seemed to keep poking at it, like picking at a scar.

Much like other big-name games of recent times, Portal 2 is much like a roller-coaster at times; that is, you're locked down tight and unable to move more than your eyeballs as you're carried along a set track. Uh, guys? Games are supposed to be interactive media; if you wanted to make a movie, why didn't you just go make a movie? Admittedly Valve practically invented the technique at the start of Half Life so it's not like they're borrowing it from newer games (I know it served a purpose, but I hated that train ride in Half Life, and had to sit through it several times for various reasons), but to my recollection there were very few such moments in the original Portal, and even in those few times they never actually took control away from you. I have no objection to the occasional in-game cutscene, but I find having partial control to be extremely frustrating, and Portal 2 overdoes it in my book.

Having said that, Portal 2 is an extremely linear experience. This was of course true of the first Portal as well, but since you spent most of your time in the test chambers it felt natural. Now you spend so much time outside of the test chambers, in a number of varied environments, that the whole "there is never, ever, ever more than one single narrow path along which you can travel" thing is a whole lot more obtrusive. I felt this was made even worse by the way that you had to keep moving between test chambers and normal structures; I felt as if once I was out of the forced-structure of the testing chambers it really shouldn't have been that hard to travel along what are meant to be human-traversable environments (office buildings, factories, laboratories, etc) before being forced to walk into another test chamber just to make progress. It just didn't feel natural anymore, and I felt that it broke my immersion. At one point we pass through a visitor's center; surely there should be some kind of usable exit?

Additionally, the fact that Chell is incapable of interacting with the world in any way except to pick up very specific objects and to shoot portals (she can't even sprint) isn't quite as easy to accept now that we are walking through more varied environments full of more natural objects, rather than the sterile test chambers we were mostly confined to before. I guess it all feels more forced, is what I'm saying.

I hate to say it, but I thought it was worse off in gameplay terms as well. Basically, there is a severe dearth of portal-able surfaces - which is rather surprising given the game's name. This echo's an issue I'm seeing more and more in games these days: if there's something there that it's possible to interact with, you have no choice but to interact with it. Basically puzzles become less about figuring out how to achieve things and more about figuring out which order to use the specific portal-accepting spots in. If you can't figure out how to solve a puzzle, chances are you haven't spotted a portal-able surface that's slightly out of sight. It just felt like a game of hide-and-seek to me; hell, I felt more like I was jumping through hoops than solving puzzles. Plus, with portals self-centering on the appropriate surfaces now - which are often marked to let you know you need to place a portal there - you don't even have to worry about accuracy anymore, and there's very few puzzles where timing or speed are real issues, making it all feel rather dumbed down. I was very disappointed, I rarely felt a sense of achievement for solving a puzzle - I can't remember many occasions when I was actually stumped for any length of time, and on most of those occasions it was simply because I hadn't spotted a specific portal-able surface.

One technical issue I ran into was loading screens. First of all load times were rather long, second when not in test chambers the loading screens felt very obtrusive. After some uneventful travelling through normal levels, you'd open a door and be dropped into a loading screen. When the game started again the following environments would not feel any different from the preceding ones, and as the narrative was not doing anything particularly interesting and you weren't coming right off a particularly difficult puzzle the result was that the load screens often just felt random and out of place.

OK, some of my issues are really just nit picking and should probably be ignored - after all, games should focus on their core mechanic and not worry too much about features that don't actually enhance the experience. The fact is though that there were elements of both story and gameplay that I did not enjoy and would consider a step backwards for the title.

So what's the final verdict? Scoring sequels is tricky; if a game is exactly the same as it's predecessor, does it get the same score, or does it get a worse one for not innovating? How much better does it need to be to get the same score? I really don't know what to give Portal 2; the gameplay is technically more advanced than the original, but that doesn't mean it should get a better score, and while much of what the original did well it does even better, I had so many issues with the narrative that I just didn't enjoy it all that much. Balancing my issues with the things that impressed me, I'm going to settle for a 7/10: you might think that's quite harsh, but while there's some fantastic stuff here, there's some issues that really got to me, and overall stopped me from enjoying the game as much as I expected to. Remember, I'm only talking about the single player campaign and not considering the multiplayer and user-creation features, which I expect add tremendously to the fun and value of the package.


I mention in the review that I had issues with the plot. I'm going to try to list them here. Admittedly some of these are subjective, in fact I believe some are quite minor and individually I would not have had a problem with most of them, but somehow they all added up to undermine the experience for me. Yes, I get that the game is very tongue in cheek, but the problem comes from the game trying to operate on a bigger scale and fit in the Half Life universe: "it's supposed to be funny" isn't really enough anymore.

First of all, who is Chell? Where did she come from and how did she end up as a test subject? It didn't seem to matter before, but now that more questions are raised during the game and the plot is inherently more important as it is now considered canon with the Half Life games, it's not so easy to just say "oh, she's a test subject, that's all we need to know". It seems now that there have been vast numbers of people subjected to these tests for decades (when before, for all we knew she could very well have been the very first, or at least one of only a small number of subjects), so how come Chell seems to be the first person to escape the test chambers and in fact the facility itself - what makes her so special? How did she get out when no-one else could? And most importantly, how did she end up in the "relaxation center" after escaping at the end of the first game?

I mentioned that the game wouldn't leave the issue of Chell's origin alone. The way that Wheatley spoke about Chell, and the pictures we find depicting Chell's confrontation with GLaDOS, don't explain why she's here, rather they just keep reminding us to ask the question - instead of wondering about it just once at the very start of the game, we essentially are led to think about it another couple of time. But mainly I was referring to how GLaDOS taunts Chell by hinting that her parents are also test subjects, and talking about her file and such like. This naturally makes us ask questions about Chell. Hell, we even learn who GLaDOS used to be and how she ended up here (although not how she ended up a psychopath, not that we need a reason, just saying), but never anything about Chell.

Now it's suggested that Chell has suffered brain damage due to a lengthy hibernation and is actually incapable of verbal speech. But that doesn't explain why she didn't say a single word in the first game, and as such it highlights her muteness rather than explaining it; in other words it interferes with our suspension of disbelief rather than supporting it.

What about the person who's been leaving incoherent messages and deranged scribbles here and there? It seems now that he was still around after Chell left, that he saw her somehow and knows about her showdown with GLaDOS? Did he also escape the testing chambers? How did he manage to survive so long? How did he know about Chell - he drew a pretty good picture of her so clearly he knows what she looks like? How did he manage to get around - did he have a portal gun? Why did GLaDOS never mention him? Whatever happened to him in the end? Was that his portal gun that we pick up at the start (assuming Chell took hers with her when she escaped first time) and why does it only fire one type of portal? I'm not saying these question should all be answered, that we can't infer or hypothesise answers to many of them, but somehow the things I saw in this game made me feel less satisfied with what little we know about him. If they had not shown us more of his scribbles, or shown us a little more and given us a little more information about who he might be, I would have preferred it. As it was we saw evidence of his presence in one room, and that was it. Or did I just miss it? Was there more about him that I just didn't notice or find or pick up on? I've just discovered that there was a webcomic that tells us more about him, but that didn't help me much when I was playing the game, did it? In fact, if the comic would help us understand the game better, why didn't Valve bundle it in with the game? What little I've read about the character online only makes the game make less sense to me, not more.

So the portal gun has been around since the 60s? We know this because we had to go through test chambers that were designed to be traversed using the portal gun while listening to Cave Johnson's voice recordings welcoming astronauts and others, then later we hear voice clips talking about the "missing astronaut trials of the 60s". I find it very hard to believe that the portal gun, and the leg supports for that matter, were invented that far back, and that Aperture Science has been sitting on the technology for that long without doing anything with it. What's been happening all this time?

And another thing; what about these tests? Initially I thought they were testing people, since the capabilities of the portal gun itself seem to be quite well understood and the test chambers seem to be set up to challenge human puzzle solving abilities. But the fact that the testing dated back to Aperture Science's early days, when they were in theory a technology firm developing technology such as the portals and gels, suggests that they were - or at least should have been - testing technology, not people. But even though we hear recordings about how they are testing the effects of radiation and things on people, the portal tests were always set up the same way: to test if people could bypass the obstacles set before them using the portals. So I guess the answer is just that Cave Johnson has always been stark raving mad (and I guess after he died GLaDOS followed in his footsteps)? Fair enough I suppose.

Why weren't the gels used in the more modern tests that we saw at the start? GLaDOS mentions that Wheatley is using some old tests of hers, and those use gels, so why didn't the others we'd seen up till that point? Hell, if you consider the first game, why were there any other tests anyway? This is a bit of a leap of logic, but I feel as if GLaDOS wouldn't have tried to kill Chell if there were more challenging tests sitting around that she could run her through.

So how exactly did GLaDOS just wake up? All Wheatley did was flip a few switches. Even assuming he is subconsciously making the worst possible decisions and thus was pretty much trying to wake her up, how did flipping a few switches do it? It just feels like, if it was that easy (it took something like 20 seconds to reactivate her), then why didn't GLaDOS trigger a repair mechanism before? If those AI modules weren't important, why was destroying them such a big deal before? Remember that this is after years, possibly decades, of neglect, with clear signs of destruction and decay everywhere.

By the way, how did GLaDOS grab Chell so easily as soon as she woke up? Why couldn't she have done that before? Why didn't Wheatley use the grabber arms in the final confrontation later? It seriously undermines the game, I feel as if all my victories were lies. Very disappointing.

This was made worse by the way GLaDOS is portrayed as being practically omnipotent early on. At one point she disintegrates a companion cube that's actually in our hands. If GLaDOS can disintegrate anything she wants anytime she wants... then how the hell did any of it make any sense? What was all that crap with the really slow neurotoxin and the turrets, if she can can just make things cease to exist at any time? For that matter, how were we able to get anywhere at all if every single panel in the entire facility was completely under GLaDOS control at all times, as we are often lead to believe? Basically the threat was severely inconsistent; they quickly established that we had no chance whatsoever and so anything we did achieve didn't make any sense.

There's mention of a euphoria reaction when a test is completed. So where did this come from? I can just about believe that the scientists that Cave Johnson forced to endure life-threatening tests were compelled to put GLaDOS in charge of the facility, but why would they create a system that would encourage her to keep running people through tests? Can you say "plot device"?

I spoke positively before about the scale of the environments. It does take some suspension of disbelief to accept that such a huge facility could exist at all, much less be almost completely devoid of any solid structure, being made up mainly of elements that are modular, mobile, and typically articulated - especially hard to believe when you remember that we have giant pipes of gel being diverted into rooms that are supposed to be nothing but collections of configurable panels in movable frameworks. Where did it all come from? How much did it cost? How did no-one notice? How was something so... transformable actually designed? How can it be so self-sustaining with no human intervention? If you can suspend your disbelief, it's well worth it as it's such a cool scenario, but I didn't find it easy.

Why didn't the energy fields destroy the potato module? Potato modules are authorised objects, but nothing else is? Perhaps it was recognised as an AI module, and those were allowed?

But the biggest problem I had was the end. I liked the fight against Wheatley; he had made intelligent preparations and yet, being inherently stupid, had forgotten about one important detail, making the fight believable (if you forget about the disintegration thing, the configurable panels, and the grabbing arms - plus I never understood how the potato managed to take over the control harness thing on it's own). And of course the bit with the moon was very cool. But what happened after that was just... I'm sorry, I didn't come all this way, fight for every single centimeter of ground, have to figure out ridiculous ways of using portals and physics to get past every single deceptively sturdy (and inexplicably locked) door in the entire city-sized complex, three times, just to have my life spared by my sworn enemy. That is not a satisfying ending. How is it even possible to start with something as well-written as Portal, and end up with such a mind-bogglingly bad ending? Yes, I get that GLaDOS is popular and they wanted her around for Half Life 3, but that's no excuse for murdering Portal 2 with such an insanely retarded ending. If, hypothetically speaking, I had been sitting around with some friends back before Portal 2 came out and we decided it would be a fun game to try to write deliberately bad endings to videogames, my first idea for Portal would have been to have GLaDOS kill Chell at the end. Then I would have dismissed it as being too obvious, and my second idea probably would have been for GLaDOS to decide to spare Chell's life and just let her go; it would be the ultimate let down and a soul-crushing insult, that she's not even worth killing. In other words, if I spent time and effort thinking about the worst possible ending I might have come up with what Valve actually went with! Come on Valve, what the hell is going on in there? What are you playing at? Who the hell thought that ending was a good idea, and who the hell authorised it?

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