Portal 2

by Fish-Face at 3 p.m. on 29. April, 2011

Exams are finished and the 4th year project is near complete so I thought I'd say something about That Game. Some small spoilers follow.

It was good, but not as good as I was hoping, which is probably what I should have expected. Part of the problem with reviewing (or "talking about", since this is hardly a review) Portal 2 is that there are two very different halves to it - the puzzles and the humour. I think I'd tentatively say that, in both games, the humour is more important and the thing that makes them stand out.

However, humour is largely a matter of taste. Not that that will stop me explaining how and why I did not find Portal 2 as funny as I remember Portal being. Wheatley was quite hilarious, although this seemed to tail off after the swap. The moment that stood out as the funniest though was right at the start with the "can you talk?" after you wake up - which is a shame, because that is a distant memory by the end of the game.

The end of the calm, dystonic evil GLaDOS was unfortunate, I felt. She's not as funny when being emotional - either evilly so or otherwise. In a way the coop reminded me of the old GLaDOS and I think I found her much funnier there. At least she's not Cave Johnson though, who, while definitely amusing in his first few appearances, took a sharp dive after that you realise he's as one dimensional as the real line (or maybe less). A redeeming feature is that he is the spitting image of Alexandr Buinov of youtube fame.

With the humour out of the way though, I must say I was distinctly unimpressed with the puzzles. The original was not exactly a game on which you'd get stuck for hours, but it hardly seems too cynical to wonder if they intentionally made this one easier for the console crowd. This Nerf NOW! comic pretty much sums up one massive problem. In the original, as far as I remember, you were generally faced with a white (read: portlable) environment with a few surfaces on which you couldn't place portals where that was important for the puzzle. This varied as you went through, but in general working out where to put portals was a big part of the challenge.

In Portal 2 you almost always know where one portal goes: it's underneath a gel dispenser or opposite a funnel or something like this. The other end might be up to you, but it's often the case that you just have to pick between one of a few white squares (which even snap your portal so it lines up nicely) This vastly simplifies the puzzles, and turns it in many cases of a brute-force "imagine each portlable surface in combination with every other one" game. I like puzzles, especially logic puzzles, and there are some brilliant ones you can do with portals and all the new stuff they added, but I don't feel like there are any.

This also led to many situations where I didn't know where I was going next, but could tell what to do simply because of the available surfaces. "Oh, there's a slanted surface, I'll fling myself out of there and see where I end up" went one example. In another, there were two squares on a wall in front of a stretch of solid walkway. Since there was a timed element on this puzzle, it was an immediate conclusion (we didn't have to even try out the level to determine it) that speed gel needed to be placed on the floor.

Of course, just making things harder doesn't always make them more fun. But in terms of difficulty, Portal 2 feels like half a game. You learn to use each of the elements - portals, flinging, cubes, turrets, lasers, bridges, gels and funnels, but then the game is finished. You hardly have to do anything except work out what each one does, leaving me unsatiated. Not to mention that, with all these new puzzle elements, we are hardly challenged to fit them together. There are a couple of levels involving putting gel in the funnels and shielding or stopping yourself with the walls while in funnels, and putting gel on bridges, but these are maybe one example of each combination, and there could be so much more. Even at the expense of dropping a puzzle element entirely I think it would be better to combine them more, because it feels like some were just thrown in for the heck of it.

With puzzle games, I would not expect to be able to finish one in a single sitting without the aid of a walkthrough. Towards the end of the game, at least, there should be some puzzles that take a bit of thinking to crack, otherwise they hardly deserve to be called puzzles. The co-op did get us stuck a couple of times, but only for a minute or so. That said, when you have two minds attacking a project you are less often stuck looking at a problem the wrong way, so this is not a great comparison to single player puzzle games. The fact remains though that only when I was dead tired did I ever stop playing due to not seeing a solution. Upon returning, the answer was pretty much obvious.

And to return to the end of the game and matters purely of taste, I felt the credits song was a flop. Of course it would never have the same element of surprise as the first one, but nonetheless — Still Alive made me grin the whole way through, this one made me smirk a couple of times.

Now, I remember saying at the start of the post that I thought Portal 2 was good, so I feel I ought to apologise for what amounted to a rant, having essentially only focused on the bad aspects. The puzzles were fun and it was funny, but — especially after so long — I hoped for more.

And on one final and terrible note, Valve had the temerity to get Russell's Paradox wrong, which I consider nigh-on unforgivable. There's no inherent contradiction with "The set of all sets," (although normal set theory does derive a contradiction in combination with other axioms) unlike with "The set of all sets which don't contain themselves." Sad mathematician was sad.

Related tags: games portal-2 rant review


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