Thursday, 28 April 2011

Still Alive: Portal 2 review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.

Format: PC (version tested), Mac, 360, PS3
Developers/Publisher: Valve Corporation
Players: 1-2

Typical that the first review I write for my new blog should also prove one of my most difficult. Valve is a company held in the highest esteem by gamers, yet I've never managed to feel the same unbridled adoration for their games as many of my peers. Half-Life 2? Often enjoyable and built with the upmost professionalism, but also never quite the sum of its parts - the Ravenholm section might have been from a different game altogether - and always seemed to be keeping the player at a distance with a clinical precision verging on sterile. And the vehicle sections were awful. Left 4 Dead? Terrific multiplayer hook, intense action and impressively dynamic difficulty and pacing, but not much warmth. It's an intangible sensation that makes writing these reviews doubly difficult, especially when already swimming against the current of popular opinion. Subjective? Absolutely. But as a reviewer, there's no point trying to think from someone else's perspective. I can give you all the information to make your own minds up, but the conclusion on the page has to be my own.

Every rule has an exception though and Portal was it. It had the perfectly modulated level design for which Valve rightly earns praise, but an intimate feel and sly sense of self-deprecation that was immediately endearing. Naturally, the things I disliked about it - the expansion of the story for one, which I preferred to be left as background texturing for a game otherwise happy to be an ingenious and unpretentious little puzzler  - were exactly the things the vast majority of its audience loved the most.

And now we have Portal 2, which expands the story, the environments and the scope of that go-getter original into a ten-hour epic (plus equally lengthy co-operative mode). Read on to find out why no gamer will ever visit this blog again.
My feelings and issues with Portal 2 are exactly those I've outlined from my experiences with Valve's other games. The level design is exceptional, the difficulty curve a thing of beauty and the puzzles always demand that the player come up to their standard, rather than the other way around. By any quantifiable standard, it is an exquisite game. Yet experiences are not mathematical, emotion-free feats of engineering. That's what separates the great from the GLaD. The original Portal felt like the designers were having fun, that it was a game built for no other reason than their own enjoyment and to allow the player to share in it should they be inclined. It felt like it started with that human desire, from which all its wonderful pieces were then born.

Portal 2 feels like it began with GLaDOS. It's easy to imagine the designers thinking: 'Players liked GLaDOS, so we must have more of her. They also liked her being humourously threatening, so we must also make a point to have more of that.' It's a logical thought process, but once which misses that what made the character special on her first outing was that the player didn't know what to expect from her. Her famous slips of malevolence felt accidental, in turn making the player feel like their picking up on them was a result of their own observational skill. By placing them front and centre, dialling up the malevolence so undertones become overtones, much of that joy is lost. 

The same goes for new character Wheatley, voiced with enthusiasm but slightly distractingly by Stephen Merchant (it's not his work that's the problem, so much as how obvious it is that it's him - forgive me, people of Somerset, but there aren't many popular actors with that distinctive accent around). We know he's going to be a comedy character from the outset, and it all feels too calculated to do more of the comedy GLaDOS voiceover. This is also true for JK Simmons' Aperture founder Cave Johnson, though his voicework is so gung-ho that just hearing him bluster is funny.

I'm not saying the developers' intentions were idealistically wrong - the game obviously wants to please its players, and who could argue with that? - or even that the game isn't often amusing (I loved GLaDOS' 'phone call' to Chell's adopted parents, the quip about an eagle and a blimp, the various potato gags, and the coup de grace on the final boss as without doubt the game's finest and most fulfilling moment), but those moments feel funny in isolation because they are the times when the calculations produced results, the successes of the first game blown up to pantomime level even though what made them work originally was their relative inconspicuousness. There's a big difference between the dry silliness of lines like this:

"The Enrichment Center reminds you that the Weighted Companion Cube cannot speak. In the event that the Weighted Companion Cube does speak, the Enrichment Center urges you to disregard its advice." (Portal)

...and the obviousness of ones like this:

"When life gives you lemons, don't make lemonade. Make life take back the lemons back! Get mad! I don't want your damn lemons! What the hell are these?! Demand to see life's manager! Make life rue the day it thought it could give Cave Johnson lemons! Do you know who I am? I'm the man who's gonna burn your house down! With lemons! I'm gonna get my engineers to invent a combustible lemon that burns your house down!" (Portal 2)

I'm not saying the second quote isn't amusing. But it's trying to be amusing, where the first quote comes off as a happy piece of accidental folly.

At the heart of what stops Portal 2 from achieving the same heights of greatness as its predecessor - and I reiterate that this isn't a bad game at all - is how contradictory its intentions seem. It is in many respects the polar opposite of the original game - sprawling scope, willing to overlook logic (the gels, energy paths and tractor beams are fabulous inclusions, but corrupt the purity of Portal's real-world physics and momentum gameplay), broad comedy foremost and game second. You even see Chell's hands at one point, making a clear differentiation between her and player. Yet attempts to expand are held back by a fear of losing the flavour of the original. There's no reason a Portal game shouldn't take place in wide-open environments, for example (although the drab colour schemes in the game's middle section could  have done with livening up), but there are precious few moments when the game ditches the shackles of its room-based structure. It's hard to feel like you're navigating the grimy underbelly of an enormous scientific base when it feels as segmented as the polished upstairs.

I was hoping that the game would take a leaf out of the Prince of Persia series' copybook, giving you vast arenas to navigate, but using a portal gun rather than acrobat swings. Perhaps that would have been too difficult to design (although Prince always disguises its linearity behind an illusion of freedom), but making the rooms bigger doesn't make them feel any less like individual rooms. If anything, they just add more pixel hunting, where you can wile away hours on a puzzle because there's some tiny portal-able surface you've missed, rather than your progress only being impeded by an inability to put the puzzle pieces in front of you together in their logical fit. 

Offices and personnel areas are thrown in for good measure, but there's no sense that the Aperture labs were ever a real living space, deflating attempts to build up a backstory for the company. The lengthy walking sections between puzzle rooms, serving mostly to let the characters natter for a few minutes and set up the next event (I defy anyone to say there's a plot here, as much as a sequence of things that happen), would have been more engaging had they felt more like a cohesive part of the play experience. Escape sequences consisting solely of running down linear pathways as scripted events happen around you could have been more exciting had they forced you to think on your feet and use the portal gun to get away quickly, breaking from the rest of the game's methodical pace.

To prevent this review from becoming completely, undeservedly critical, know that the co-operative mode, although I didn't play through enough of it to give a full assessment, brings back much of the warmth and human element missing from the single-player. This is because, like Nintendo's New Super Mario Bros Wii, it slightly outweighs each player's ability to help the other progress with their ability to inflict sudden and hilarious punishment. The puzzles are by necessity more taxing and finally testing a long-gestated plan is a shared experience of suspense and excitment, not just to find out whether you'll finally reach that exit, but also if you or your partner will be able to resist foiling the whole attempt for the sake of hilarity.

If the core of Portal is a battle between humanity and science, the co-operative mode is a victory for humanity, where the single player is taken by science. (Ironic, since you play as robots in the former and a human in the latter). Adding a further ten hours at least onto the single player's six-to-eight, all fears that Portal 2 would be unable to justify its full price release can be allayed, especially with the developer commentary adding replay value once the game has been completed for the first time.

I feel as though I've done Portal 2 a disservice for focusing so strongly on its flaws when it really is a highly accomplished package, but it's also a perfect example of the maxim 'less is more'. Relative to how much is done well, the frustrations would in any other game be insignificant, but as a sequel to such a beautifully contained and sincere delight as the original, every obvious calculation, every throwback to old memes (the credits song is a disappointment), every misplaced ambition feels like a betrayal of the Portal spirit that allowed me to briefly share in understanding why Valve is so beloved. A rare peek behind the veneer, now ruthlessly closed. If you have loved all of Valve's previous games, there is no reason this won't meet or exceed your expectations. But for me, it too often felt like them trying to have their cake and eat it, and we all know how that line ends. [ 7 ]



Speedofthepuma said...

All valid points, except it's brilliant, and you're wrong.

Here's my 2p without analysis: it's really fun, it made me laugh and I enjoyed it. No other game has managed to quite succeed on all those points so coherently.

Marisa said...

In my opinion, it was one of the best games I have ever played. The level of difficulty was perfect as was the gradual build up of it. The story made you work for something. It was absolutely hilarious. I didn't feel like the "escaping" part was linear, in fact, you have to use your portal gun several times to succeed. I would have rated it higher. But anyways, this was a pretty awesome in-depth look at the game, and I can appreciate that.