Review: Portal 2 (PS3/360)

Spoiler free. You monster.

This review is as free as possible of Portal 2 spoilers, but contains discussion regarding the end of Portal.  If you want to go into Portal 2 completely blind, please don’t read on.

Every once in a while, a game appears that ignites a tired industry with the kind of vigour and verve normally reserved for other media. Valve’s 2007 title, Portal, was one such game, an effervescent, dynamic game that transcended pigeon holes and threw away the aged rulebook, and captured the heart and minds of anybody that was prepared to invest an afternoon in its delights.  It was, looking back, better than anyone really realised, and still stands tall as one of the best games ever created.

Portal 2, you’ll be delighted to hear, is better.

It might seem churlish to simply label what amounts to a direct follow-up that’s richer, more developed, better produced and stronger in plot as a mere one word comparison to the first game, but you need a frame of reference, and that’s the best one we can offer.  And whilst with most sequels we’d naturally recommend a play through of the prior game in advance, with Portal 2 it’s almost a requirement – diving in to this game blind is akin to starting Lord of the Rings at the Council of Elrond: yes, the good stuff’s just about to start but you’ll have missed all the build up.

Oh, it's you.

It should be no surprise that player character Chell returns, then, dragged back from the surface and housed in what appears at first glance to be a motel room but over the ravages of (accelerated) time soon ages and withers along with the rest of the Aperture Science facility you realise you’re still trapped in.  Enter Wheatley, a Stephen Merchant voiced Personality Core awakened at the end of Portal, who’s intent on escaping and – it appears – taking you with him.  His needs become clear soon enough, his goals forming much of the game’s first third.

A first third that continously teases the player.  You’re thrown straight into test chambers, of course, but things are different this time around – without GLaDOS the tests are less threatening, seemingly easier to an experienced subject; but it’s all deceipt and deception, the game throwing curveball after Companion Cube, constantly changing the rules as the plot starts to take hold.  Sure enough, when you think you’ve become accustomed to the tricks, Portal 2 switches everything around again, and the inevitable reunion gives Valve the chance to flex some muscles.

I think we can put our differences behind us. For science. You monster.
[drop2]With the tables turned, the escape is more deliberate, more forced, more dangerous.  Chambers take on a whole new sense of menace and unpredictability, and the diversions outside the pristine walls of the first Portal seem like minor side steps as you navigate your way through rough, overgrown vegetation and an AI that harbours one hell of a grudge.   Of course, you’ll see much more of the inner workings of the test chambers this time around, although nothing you’ll have heard can prepare you for what happens at around the half way stage.

There’s no way to really describe what happens, and where, and how, without spoilers – suffice to say that anyone looking for some backstory to Aperture Science will be well served, and – yes – there’s a little nod to Half Life 2 in there for good measure.   What we can talk about, though, is some of Portal 2’s new mechanics, the main element of which start to appear as the exposition takes a wild diversion: you’ll have heard much about them, they’re the paint gels that have graced much of Valve’s pre-release marketing.

Fatty.

Quite.  So, as Chell progresses onwards, vast vats and tubes containing – at first – a blue gel that enables repulsion and – secondly – a red one that allows propulsion make way for puzzles that involve jumps and speed respectively.  Naturally, both begin to combine for trickier, head scratching portions of the game, especially when they’re combined with the portals that still make up much of the testing.  The actual portal gun remains unchanged, and you’ll need it to manipulate and convey the gels as you slowly figure out what’s going on.

A third gel, white in colour, allows you to place portals anywhere that it touches, leading to vertigo-inducing leaps of faith and climbs and jumps that would never have been possible in the first game.  These new toys make up a good few hours of gameplay, the locale and direction distinct enough to ensure they get their time in the spotlight before the plot reconvenes for the concluding third, which brings everything together for one hell of climax including a final, singular portal jump that really conveys just how portent these tools really are.

Wait.  Don't do that.

It is, of course, a brilliant ride.  From start to finish, Portal 2’s pacing is exemplary, leading more towards Half Life exploration at times rather than the confined, focused first game – that’s not a negative, Portal 2 had to make a few brave steps outside the comfortable realms of familiarity or it wouldn’t have had half the impact it has.  There’s a few sections that drag a little, signposting could have been clearer, but the overwhelming sense of achievement as you figure out the sticky parts for yourself is more than reward enough for your troubles.

And that, naturally, is the key to Portal’s success.  Individual puzzles play an important role (although they’re never too hard in themselves) but it’s the flowing, arching and twisting plot that provides the most fun: things change, at both a high level and – literally – right beneath your feet, and only a liar would say they saw everything coming – Valve are the masters at first person storytelling, and Portal 2 doesn’t disappoint in that regard.  At the conclusion, when all is done and dusted, it’s hard not to smile and say – yes – I did it.

For science.

Technically and presentation wise, visually the PS3 version is night and day in comparison to the first game, the graphics are gorgeous, alive and animated, the sound is pitch perfect and the various AI are humourous, cognisant and deliciously entertaining.  The test chambers riff on old tricks whilst splicing the known with the unknown, never prosaic and always fresh, and, as the game goes on, consistently unpredictable in execution.  It would be a shame to list all the new elements, bulletpoints don’t do their integration any particular justice.

And whilst there’s no way to dip in and out of completed chambers once back at the main menu, a comprehensive co-operative mode, playable online or split-screen, makes up just enough.  It’s clever, built around a central hub and featuring some of the trickiest puzzles in the game, made even more so by the reliance on a friend to get the job done.  Gestures, tagging and the ability to see what your partner sees eases any communication problems, and – somewhat surprisingly – offers up a considerable slice of game once you’re done with the story.

Pros:

  • An unpredictable, brave plot takes you way beyond the first game’s limits.
  • Plenty of fan service.
  • Beautiful graphics.
  • Stephen Merchant is fantastic.

Cons:

  • The middle third needed a little more direction at times.
  • The end segment is a slight disappointment.

Portal 2’s clearly aimed at fans of the original, and rightly so – Valve have made no concessions to the uninitiated beyond the first hour or so: the puzzles might be a tad easier, but there’s much more of them (the game takes between 10 and 12 hours to get through) and there’s huge sections well outside the white walls of the labs that take real concentration.  Areas hidden away between the vents provide some additional backstory, too, so the patient, curious player will definitely get the most out of the game – this isn’t something to be rushed.

The biggest disappointment is realising that, once you’re done, Valve Time will mean we’ll be without the warm bosom of GLaDOS for – presumably – years.  Regardless, games like this don’t come around very often, and if you miss out on this one you’ll be skipping one of the finest examples of the medium the industry has to offer: Portal 2 is compelling, exciting, wildly capricious and, most importantly, laugh out loud funny.  And who knows, maybe there’ll be a surprise waiting for you – at the end.

We could be friends, you know?

Score: 9/10

83 Comments

  1. I think you’ve just sold this to me, though I’ll have to go and get the orange box for a quick playthrough of the first game before I play this. I saw the orange box for a fiver in game the other day. Well reviewed Tsa, sounds a lot like my cup of tea!

    • That’s one hell of a bargain. £5 for Portal on its own is well worth it.

      • I know I’m going to get moaned at, but the only reason I didn’t buy it is because there’s no trophies.

      • Yes, that’s absolutely ridiculous.

      • Well, I have such a large trophy lead over my brother now that I think I can afford to play through a game with no trophies. First though, I have to shake my addiction to tiger woods 12

      • I must admit I opted for getting the Orange Box on the 360 instead of the PS3 due to the lack of trophy support… then I got rid of the game anyway as the only game I remotely liked in the set was Portal and it was only 4 hours long lol

    • Back in my day, we played games for fun.

      • ha ha, me too. playing games for trophies? Most stupid thing I have heard.

      • No, buying the same game every year just because it has a slightly different name is much worse imo :P Fifa, PES, Tiger Woods, NHL, NFL, Call of Duty, Madden, etc etc.

        Personally, I will only buy a game if it has a fun trophy list that I know will take a while to complete. Given how short most games are now, trophies are the only real source of longevity for me. Just my opinion of course :)

      • Longevity doesn’t equal enjoyment. Portal is one of the best games of all time and it’s very short.

      • Whilst I certainly agree with that comment, speaking as someone with a lot of bills to pay, etc I can’t justify buying games that are only a couple of hours long.

        A decent trophy list dramatically increases the amount of play time I get out of a game, encouraging me to play on higher difficulties etc. Some lists are terrible and just involve lots of grinding, but a decent list gives me a lot more value out my games :)

      • totally agree R4U been gaming since Atari days & have put so much more effort into playing games than I ever did before & that is fun for me.

      • why is it stupid because its not how you feel respect other opinions man.

      • Well said skibadee. This is why I enjoy this site, decent debate. If I have an ongoing trophy competition with someone, why is it stupid that I play games for trophies? sure its not the only reason, but if I’m playing a game I want to be able to compare progress with others without having to load the game up. whilst I can see why trophies aren’t important to some people, I would never say its stupid that they don’t care for them. Each person is totally entitled to theory own opinion in relation to trophies as far as I’m concerned. I must say if I didn’t have my competition running with my brother I probably wouldn’t give 2 hoots either.

      • Exactly. In Portal2’s case (bringing it back on topic for a second lol!) the trophy list is brilliant and encourages you to dabble in all of the game’s features: complete the single player, play through the co-op levels, play levels with differnet players, mess around with the gestures, complete puzzles in a certain amount of time, etc, etc, etc.
        Without that list to work towards I would imagine I would have rented Portal2, played through the co-op mode and then wouldn’t have bothered with the game again. Instead, I can see a lot of longevity here and the trophy list (as well as the TSA review of course!) has convinced me to pick this game up one day.

      • Personal insults are not welcome here, especially around such respectful discussion – AG2297

      • *is curious what ‘wonkywilly’ had to say* lol

      • @tony: I think it’s nice that you have an ongoing competition with your brother but if it gets in they way of enjoying a great game because it doesn’t have trophies it crosses a line. Just tell him to play Portal too after you are finished and nobody has an advantage. :)

  2. Great review! I am about 3 levels in. Is there a way to turn of the aim assist for portals (when your jumping in)

  3. Oh. I was secretly hoping this would be a bit average so I could justify leaving it until it’s cheaper. You made me want it right now!

  4. Excellent. Nice review, guys. Mine should arrive tomorrow – could well be a surprise GOTY to a lot of Portal virgins

    • sorry my portal has well an truly been opened lol

  5. I didn’t think I could want this game more. I do now. Well done :)

  6. Sound’s awesome to me. I’m really looking forward to this. I played through the original at the weekend, and can’t wait to get my mits into this. Great review btw.

  7. Great review, seems like a brilliant game, I’ll be getting this for sure.
    A bit of a shame though that I haven’t played the first Portal, don’t want to miss out on too much of the story, and the jokes… Still mighty hyped for this!

  8. How much will I be missing out on if I don’t play the original first? I have no interest in Half-Life, etc., in The Orange Box, and I can’t get Portal by itself for PS3 :( Note to Valve: PSN re-release of the original would be good…

    • The actual “story” in Portal is quite light. The spoiler free version being: you wake up in Aperture Science and must try to get out, circumventing a number of challenge rooms along the way using a portal gun.

      During this time the AI controlling the complex talks to you, famously telling you that there is cake at the end. As for the end, well … let’s just say the cake is a lie.

      You don’t have to be a genius to work out what the ending of Portal is. After all, most games culminate with the protagonist confronting some sort of “end boss.” Portal is very different, however, so a lot of conventional game mechanics are thrown out the window.

      Short version: most PCs/Macs can play the first Portal. Even 5-10 year old rigs could handle it. Get a Steam account, buy Portal (it’s stupidly cheap), play it. You won’t be disappointed.

      • Thanks for the reply. I might well do that – the good old PS3 can have a well-deserved break. :)

      • Actually the cake is not a lie. It’s the facts surrounding the cake that are lies. Remember the VERY end of Portal 1?

      • About to download the Mac version of original Portal from Steam. Only £6.99.
        Think it makes sense play the original first. Thanks for the heads up.

      • Especially since it is very short. You could bang through Portal in about 3-4 hours which is a worthwhile starter before the Portal 2 main course.

      • You can play this without playing the first game. The first section of Portal 2, before you wake GlaDos teaches you the basic mechanics.

      • I’ll be playing through the first Portal now tonight because of you guys. I guess that’s a thanks.

      • Just to say, I didn’t find Portal THAT short.

      • It’s not the mechanics that are the chief reason for playing the first one. It’s the brilliantly disturbing development of GlaDOS.

    • The Orange Box for pc – £15, which is worth paying for Portal alone. I’m not sure why you’re not interested in Half-life, but you should at least give it a go. http://store.steampowered.com/sub/469/

      • i got the 1st portal for free ages ago on steam :’)

      • The answer is I don’t play “violent” video games – as in, the ones where the whole point is to shoot everything in sight.

  9. Whoa, sounds ace :-)

  10. Great review. Thanks a lot. I wasn’t sure at first, but you guys convinced me to play the second one aswell.

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