Portal 2 Review (and stuff)
Steam roped me into buying Portal 2 by putting it on sale. Ten dollars for a game I was pretty certain would be excellent? Yeah, I couldn’t help myself.
Now, I’m not done with the game. I’m not even sure how far I am into it. But I’ve played enough to know what I like and what I don’t. So, uh, here is a rough outline of those things. I start with the things I liked, which, though brief, is actually most of the game. Then I talk about things I didn’t like, and at the end, I talk about some great things I loved.
Spoilers, of course, if you haven’t played.
I like everything about Portal 2 that I like about Portal 1. The puzzle solving is never impossible, the graphic design is nice and plays to the tone of different areas, and the characters are always amusing. Very rarely am I frustrated with the game, and I’m almost always having fun.
Crazy toes – also, are those leg things the equivalent of scientific testing high heels? (Source)
Oh, and the opening sequence is just amazing. I was wondering how they were going to introduce players back into the Portal ‘world’ as it were, and as soon as Wheatley shows up and things go south, I had a big shit-eating grin on my face. I loved it, it played to both the absurd sci-fi tone of the game as well as to the character of Chell, such as it is. She just can’t catch a break, you know? The opening sequence is also a great introduction to Wheatley.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s take waaaaay more time to examine what I didn’t like.
Wheatley and the secret panel – I had hoped that would be a new addition to puzzle solving, but I think it only happens once, when he drops down off of the rail he travels on. You socket him into other panels (maybe twice, I think?) but he’s never an integral part of the puzzles. I also kind of wish we had more time with him. He is a great companion, excellently voiced by Stephen Merchant (whoever brought him in to do voice acting should be given a sizable raise), and he is also something of a mystery – to me, at least.
I love you, Stephen Merchant. (Source)
He is a robotic ball, similar to the ones that you knock off of GLaDOS at the end of Portal 1. Is he a part of GLaDOS? Is GLaDOS insane because not all of her machine components are incorporated into her, uh, mainframe or whatever? Are there more AIs like her? Is Wheatley a part of them, or is he just a spare, something that was just kicking around in the Aperture facility?
Like I said, I haven’t finished the game yet. Maybe this is answered. There seem to be hints that GLaDOS – and therefore, perhaps, Wheatley – are AI version of real people. People who started the Aperture company. It’s surprisingly deep for a game that is mostly a comedy puzzle game.
Elevator to surface – I just passed this in the game, after doing a bunch of the underground Aperture stuff, where you’re running puzzles in the original Aperture buildings and listening to Cave Johnson talk. Look, I understand the game is essentially an excuse to play through interesting puzzles with a portal gun and listen to robots being funny, but still – if I were Chell, I think I might just pull that plywood off the door and climb the elevator shaft to the surface. Oh, I might fall? Good thing I have those crazy boots that let me fall huge distances without getting hurt. Strap the portal gun on my back and just start climbing.
Really, this is a small complaint. What I would prefer, though, is that the elevator is shown as destroyed or blocked somehow. Rubble clogging the elevator shaft – oh, or even better, the shaft is clogged with those defunct or improperly made turrets. They’ve been tossed down random shafts, and some have landed in this particular shaft. It would add a little connection to the old Aperture facility and the new one.
Silent protagonist – I know Valve has a thing for the silent protagonist. The Half-life games have Gordon Freeman silent through both games and both episodes attached to Half-life 2. But somehow it works for Freeman. With Chell, I’m less sure. I think I’d like her to have a few lines here and there. The Portal games are very short on characters, and Chell is a great way to further the absurdity of the situations. Extra spoilers ahead!
So, I’ve reached a part in Portal 2 where GLaDOS has been forced into a small device and is being powered by a potato. Wheatley, now in control of the facility, did this to her, and now both she and Chell are in the old Aperture facility at the bottom of a salt mine. Potato GLaDOS has been taken by a bird, and when you finally find her again, she calls for you to kill the bird and rescue her. “Everything between us will be forgiven,” she says, or something very close to that. Now, you go over to the potato and the bird flies away, and GLaDOS is very thankful. I think right here is the perfect time to interject a little piece of Chell.
To me, Chell should come off as a long-suffering but still determined character. She’s killed GLaDOS once and disposed her after resurrecting her. On top of this, GLaDOS has never been anything but antagonistic. I see a lot of the short story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison in these games. Life ruled exclusively by a vicious robot AI, check. Fate brought on by human arrogance (even if it isn’t your own), check. And the player, if not the character Chell, wonders if such a life is worth living? Check!
– Potato GLaDOS, looking like an item from Psychonauts (Source)
So, since Chell has lived thus far, she must have a wellspring of determination to live. At the same time, to keep with the sort of comedic air of the game, her reactions should have some humor in them. Even if Valve wants to keep Chell as a silent protagonist, they could have her interact with the robots entirely though facial expressions. GLaDOS promises to let Chell leave if Chell restores control of the facility to her? Show us a shot of Chell’s face; her mouth tightens slightly and she raises an eyebrow. GLaDOS, seeing this, is immediately put on the defensive, maybe making all sorts of outlandish promises while backhandedly insulting Chell.
Maybe not the best example. My point is this – Chell as a silent protagonist doesn’t work as well for me as Gordon Freeman does. Freeman is an excuse to shoot aliens. In fact, in all of the Half-life games, I think that the most interesting character is Dr. Breen. He thinks he is doing the right thing; he believes he is saving the human race by giving in to alien demands. His motivations are right, but his actions are wrong. And he doesn’t back down.
That’s what I think the Portal games lack – a little bit of ambiguity. Maybe GLaDOS can protest that Chell has destroyed valuable research in her frantic attempts at escape, or that Chell is actually better off in the facility, running tests, because outside is terrible. In either case, I’d like Chell to have a little bit of a personality, and I think the long-suffering yet determined escapee would fit her nicely.
And now for things I loved: GLaDOS’ reaction when she learns that you have replaced her working turrets with faulty ones and ruined her neurotoxin gas; the scene where Chell and Wheatley ride the air tubes; when Wheatley shows up early to help you escape; when Wheatley makes his first appearance after it looks as though he has died (you bounce up towards the ceiling, and he’s talking about how you’re both alive, so you get these little snippets of like two seconds of him talking, and he’s just going on and on as if he’s so excited he doesn’t notice you aren’t there the whole time, it’s funny and just really stuck with me).
Best thing so far, since I’m not done with the game? Potato GLaDOS. Not only is it just funny in general, but it is a great excuse for the player to have GLaDOS as a little talking companion. Also, Chell basically just jams her on to the portal gun, like she can’t be bothered to carry the potato around herself.
Overall – I really hope there’s a Portal 3. Valve is a decent developer, which is rare these days. Play the Portal games. Exquisite.
– A “crap turret.” (Source)