Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Review: Portal 2

Plus ca change, plus cest la meme chose. Or maybe not. That’s the state of mind Portal 2 leaves you in. The vagary is partly a natural byproduct of spending several hours in a world where the laws of geometry have been repealed while the laws of physics are being enforced, but partly also an honest description of a sequel in which there are plenty of changes, but everything feels the same.

If you played Portal, you’ll know that Portal 2 feeling the same is a good thing. Portal’s blend of bathetic humour, gentle learning curves and headbending puzzles was note perfect, and Portal 2 does a solid job of recapturing it. As ever, you use the sci-fi equivalent of ACME Portable Holes to traverse otherwise impassable environments, whilst an insane computer comments on your puzzle solving prowess with a mixture of passive-aggression and unvarnished threats.

The humour occasionally feels a little more forced than last time, and there’s a touch of frustration to some of the later puzzles that never would have happened in the original, where even being stumped was fun, but for the most part Valve have bottled the lightning a second time.

There are some differences in place however, partly to keep things fresh, and partly to justify Portal 2’s slightly longer play time than it’s short, sweet predecessor. You can now apply special paints that change the properties of the surfaces they’re applied to, use prisms to reflect laser beams into motors or turrets, and traverse distances by beaming light bridges through your portals. Given the simplicity of the original’s in-a-blue-hole, out-an-orange-hole concept, you’d think these new mechanics would stand out like carbuncles on the Portal’s otherwise smooth features, but they have been so carefully integrated with the traditional portal placing mechanics that they enhance rather than dilute the core gameplay.

There’s also rather more plot on offer here, partly thanks to the addition of a third character in the form of Stephen Merchant playing essentially a robot Stephen Merchant. The interplay between the existing and new character adds another dimension to the game, as does the unfolding story, which is crafty enough to trick you into thinking you’re being much cleverer than you really are. More would be spoilers.

Perhaps the most important new addition to Portal 2 is the multiplayer, in which you team up with a colleague to solve collaborative puzzles whilst GlaDOS does her best to sow dissent between you. Apart from upping the available Portal count from two to four, the mechanics of multiplayer aren’t noticeably different from the main game, but the potential for hilarity is significantly increased, as those experimental press-this, portal-that bits of fiddling that are innocuous during singleplayer can often prove fatal to your co-op partner as you cause scenery shifts or redirect light bridges. It’s particularly nice that the singleplayer game has scripted laughs, while the multiplayer offers you and your friends the chance to make your own giggles.

There are occasional moments of frustration in Portal 2. A couple of the many puzzles come down to a hunt for the portal-able surface, while the checkpointing can be incredibly helpful one moment, and pointless the next. Unlike the foibles in most games, however, these don’t really stand out in your memory of the game, you have to dredge them up. Your abiding memory of Portal 2 will be of laughs and the satisfaction of solving ingenious puzzles in ingenious ways.

Much like Portal.

*Reviewed on Xbox 360