Friday, May 20, 2011

Xbox 360 review: Portal 2

Portal 2 picks up some years after the conclusion of the first game. No concrete time frame is given, but it's obvious that a few years have passed, as the entire facility is in disrepair. Following her initial defeat of GLaDOS and subsequent escape, Chell has been dragged back into Aperture and placed within a long-term relaxation chamber. A brief tutorial on the games controls plays out before Chell meets Wheatley, a personality core tasked with keeping track of all the human test subjects. Wheatley promises to help Chell escape Aperture, and, after acquiring the portal gun, Chell finds herself in GLaDOS' chamber once more. Wheatley - while trying to find an escape for Chell - accidentally reactivates GLaDOS, and he and Chell are separated, with the latter being sent to retrace her steps through Aperture's test chambers.

The game's introductory sequence is hauntingly surreal. While the chambers Chell traverses are familiar territory to anyone who has experienced the first Portal, the plantlife and new gameplay elements add enough flavor early on to set Portal 2 apart from its predecessor without dishing too much to players right away. New gameplay elements including lasers, repulsion and propulsion gels, aerial faith plates, and light bridges are introduced gradually as the single player mode progresses, eventually seeing a myriad of combinations late in the game. The puzzles are both more plentiful and more challenging than in the first game, but a large portion of what makes them so enjoyable is the process of solving them. Players may find it takes a few tries to successfully complete the early test chambers, while later portions of the game take more time and patience in order to complete far more complex tasks in gigantic areas. But the process of trial-and-error is far more rewarding than relying on game guides.

A few tweaks have been made with regards to how the portals apply to test chamber walls. No longer do players have to try three or four times simply to line a portal up a just the right angle of rotation. It's a small change in the grand scheme of things, but it goes a long way.

The cooperative multiplayer mode allows players to take on four different sets of chambers, each of which contains seven tests that become both progressively longer and more challenging. While there a variety of puzzles are presented, each area puts major emphasis on one of the new elements introduced in the single player game. For example, one of the areas focuses largely on the aerial faith plates, another on light bridges, and so on. The last few test chambers in each area then go on to combine all of the previous elements. While the multiplayer mode can be replayed time and time again (either online or splitscreen), veteran players will find a lack of challenge, simply because they've already completed each chamber. In the single player game, there are a number of hidden rooms riddled with artwork and messages from the Rat Man (aka as Doug Rattman for those familiar with the comic that bridges the gap between the two games). The game has quite a few easter eggs and clever achievements to unlock, but due to its linear gameplay, there isn't a ton of replay value presented in Portal 2.

The single player game is certainly more story-driven than that of its predecessor, and utilizes more adventure elements. In contrast, the cooperative mode is a more pure puzzle and platforming experience, with a story that is plenty funny but nowhere near as memorable or fleshed out as the single player story. In this regard, Portal 2 offers two games in one, both deeply rooted in the core mechanics of the first Portal. Regardless of personal preference of either mode, players will find that Portal 2 is a more complete and rounded out gaming experience - something that Valve stressed from the moment they announced the sequel. The single player experience lasts roughly seven to eight hours, while the cooperative mode adds an extra five to six hours, depending on how long it takes teammates to solve puzzles.

I absolutely loved the dark comedy that fueled the first game, with GLaDOS constantly balancing her love of testing and desire to murder Chell, quirky phrases from the turrets, messages left scribbled all over the Rat Man's hidden rooms, and of course the promise of cake. With Portal 2, there is a larger cast of characters, and though they come and go as the story progresses, the game is considerably funnier than its predecessor. This is due in no small part to the game's voice actors. Ellen McLain reprises her role as the devilish and calculating GLaDOS, while Stephen Merchant plays her polar opposite - Chell's robotic ally Wheatley, who causes a number of screw-ups, but is ultimately a breath of fresh air as the most human character in the game, as well as its most lovable character. J.K. Simmons provides insight into the early years of Aperture Science as Cave Johnson, the company's founder, a man who is expresses himself in both a blunt and colorful manner with some off-the-wall metaphors and vehement distaste towards limitations on science (physical, legal, or otherwise).

For a 2007 release, Portal looked and sounded quite nice. But this is 2011, and Valve has gone out of their way to revamp Aperture Science with overgrown plantlife and incomplete chambers among the enrichment center's familiar white and gray sterile design. Graphically, the game isn't quite as impressive as other recent releases, but the great attention to detail and more drastic lighting and shadow effects raise the bar significantly from the original Portal. Aperture feels more alive than ever, with panels adjusting as tests are completed and chambers gradually becoming more and more complete as GLaDOS restores the facility around Chell. The feel of Portal's soundtrack is retained, but expanded upon. Instead of having a few ominous tracks throughout, Portal 2 chooses the more techno-heavy route, borrowing some inspiration from the musical stylings present in Half-Life 2.

I must admit, when I first heard that Eurogamer gave Portal 2 a perfect ten score, I was a little skeptical. Sure, the first game was a huge game-changer, not only for Valve but for the puzzle and adventure genres as well. But it would certainly be a difficult act to top. After playing through both modes, I can happily say that Portal 2 is one-of-a-kind game. It still retains everything that made the first Portal great, but goes the extra mile to deliver a much more rounded out experience. Although it's still early in 2011, there's no doubt in my mind that Portal 2 stands a very good chance of earning game of the year.

My rating: 10 (out of 10)

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