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Critical Reception: Valve's  Portal 2
Critical Reception: Valve's Portal 2
April 20, 2011 | By Danny Cowan




This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reaction to Valve's first-person puzzler Portal 2, which reviews describe as a sequel that's "significantly bigger and more robust in virtually every meaningful way, but without feeling any less dense." Portal 2 currently earns a score of 95 out of 100 at Metacritic.com.

Giant Bomb's Ryan Davis gives Portal 2 5 out of 5 stars. "The challenges of following up something so inventive and so universally well-received are arguably greater than coming up with the core concept in the first place," he notes.

"The element of surprise was a significant factor in the impact of the original Portal, but going into Portal 2, you know how a portal gun works, you know that Aperture Science is essentially a less diabolical, but equally irresponsible counterpart to Half-Life's Black Mesa, and you know that GlaDOS likes testing, but loves murder."

"With these known quantities in mind, Valve does about the smartest thing it can with a full-blown sequel to such an effectively minimalist package by tossing out many of the self-imposed restrictions of the original and largely ignoring the temptation to lean on lots of easy callbacks.

"What it lacks in the surprise punch the original packed, it makes up for with scope and scale, couching that now-familiar combination of deadpan humor and brain-boggling puzzles in a game that's significantly bigger and more robust in virtually every meaningful way, but without feeling any less dense."

Davis praises Portal 2's inventive puzzles. "Having already introduced the core tenets of how portals work in the first game, Portal 2 runs far more briskly through the fundamentals, and introduces a slew of previously abandoned Aperture compounds and technologies to help constantly re-complicate things for you," he explains. "Like the original, though, Portal 2 smartly introduces each idea one at a time before requiring you to use them in concert. At a point it can be easy to lose sight of the fundamentals as you get caught up in all these new-fangled gels, laser-bending cubes, hard light bridges, tractor beams, and more."

Davis continues: "Being several times the length of its predecessor, with puzzles that are as hard, if not harder, pure mental fatigue can also be an issue in Portal 2. While the game is constantly luring you forward with the promise of new visual treats and consistently sardonic dialogue from the expert voice cast, a short break can mean the difference between sussing out the solution and turning your brain into a potato."

"Once solved, the puzzles themselves offer little reason to revisit the single-player campaign -- which, in some ways, ends much more climactically than the original -- though I still found being able to focus more on the game's plentiful gags on my second time through to still be quite fulfilling. Additionally, there's an enlightening developer commentary track provided by key members of the team at Valve that can be absolutely fascinating in its own right."

"Despite being so much bigger than the original, I actually felt a little melancholy once Portal 2 was over, simply because it's so rare to find a game this smart, this funny, and this rich with detail," Davis praises. "It elevates Portal from an odd, memorable experiment to one of the most significant series in Valve's stable with a unique voice and an incredible level of quality that all developers should aspire to."

Adam Biessener at Game Informer scores Portal 2 at 9.5 out of 10. "How do you follow up on a four-hour pack-in title that blew up into a phenomenon that defined a year-plus of gaming culture?" he asks. "Valve decided to flesh out the concepts pioneered in Portal, coloring in some existing wireframes, adding details to older sketches, and doodling new expansions to previous ideas in the margins. Without turning the page, the team has painted a much richer picture that seizes your attention in a steel grip even if it's telling a similar story."

"Like the original, so much of what makes Portal 2 special is in the execution and the originality of standing in Chell's shoes and experiencing her destiny," Biessener continues. "Weathering the taunts of a sadistic AI as you're trying to survive its deadly challenges is unlike passively watching HAL-9000 try to kill off meddling astronauts. Gruesome depictions of abandoned experiments take on a new horror when you're desperately avoiding a similar fate yourself. The dialogue's pitch-perfect delivery is half of Portal 2's genius."

Biessener assures that the writing quality meets expectations. "I was concerned that I would tire of Portal's one-note shtick, however amusing, over the course of a full-length game," he admits. "Adding two major speaking roles and a few different environments, along with carrying over the masterful pacing of the original, keeps the single-player adventure fresh through its entire eight-hour span. I never once thought I'd place GLaDOS second on any list of Portal characters, but J.K. Simmons' character surpasses the malevolent AI even though she's as amusing as ever. I was never bored of the dialogue, settings, or puzzles. The constant introduction of new elements ensured that I never even came close.

"The co-op campaign, on the other hand, is five hours of relatively simplistic GLaDOS banter with occasional hijinks from the cooperative testing robots. Co-op play is more mechanics-driven, with occasional bits of hilarity injected by GLaDOS' amusing attempts to sow enmity between the two of you.

Biessener believes that players may be surprised at how creative the cooperative puzzles are. "The puzzles are ingenious, and the simple ability to put a marker in the game world makes plotting strategies out smooth and easy," he writes. "I wasn't sure about co-op puzzle-solving beforehand, but Portal 2 made me a rabid believer. Do whatever it takes to find someone to tackle these challenges with. They're that good."

"Valve caught us all a little off guard with the original Portal, but the game's clever gameplay and dark humor sent the franchise in the meme stratosphere. While jumping through portals is no longer as novel as it once was, Valve keeps the series fresh by introducing a mix of new mechanics," Biessener says. "Thankfully these mechanics never feel overdone and neither does the game's humor; I would often hang around completed puzzles just to see how the game's ambient dialogue would progress.

"Playing co-op changes the game quite a bit, as having two sets of portals allows Valve to craft a unique set of challenges that are often more mentally stimulating that anything in single player. It doesn't matter which order you play them in, but make sure you experience both modes. Portal 2 isn't just one of the best games of the year -- it's two of them.

Edge Magazine gives Portal 2 a 9 out of 10. "Portal hasn't been reinvented: it's been re-engineered to bear the weight of a much mightier structure," Edge's staff writer notes. "The original's three-hour running time gives way to separate and lengthy singleplayer and co-op campaigns, complete with a celebrity voice cast and a major increase in explosive set-pieces. Everything suggested by the original, Portal 2 enlarges and accelerates. Its puzzles are yet more adventurous and playful, and its script and world are granted much greater attention and detail."

"The game teases out expectations delightfully with a series of familiar-looking challenges before the first of many jack-in-the-box switches that throw Chell into a whole different game," the review continues. "Portal 2's difference is scale.

"Though you're on a straight path through the (now partially destroyed) Aperture Science laboratories, the locations this time around can be gigantic, showcasing abandoned facilities, scooped-out machine shafts and the innards of some mechanical monster. There are great moments not so much of discovery but of forehead-slapping realisation: Portal 2's puzzles have you in a space for an hour, craning to see every nook and cranny, firing portals everywhere while only ever getting halfway to a solution. Then one overlooked variable makes it all click. The game's logic is impeccable, but its joy is all in the motion: as the answer hits and Chell fires from pillar to post like a rubber ball, it's impossible to deny yourself a grin."

Edge praises Portal 2's new gameplay mechanics. "The major addition -- gel that can be funnelled through portals and splattered on to surfaces -- syncs neatly with the standard abilities," Edge explains. "There are three gels: orange speeds anything up that moves across it, blue sends players and level furniture bouncing, and white can be slathered on previously portal-resistant surfaces to allow new purchase for your space-warping wormholes.

"The gels' properties, with their gorgeously gooey physics, exaggerate and accelerate the chaos of the puzzles, adding super-speed highways between portals, setting up dizzying ricochet relays, or simply propelling you into vertiginous positions in anticipation of a bowel-loosening freefall. The potential for setting up huge rat runs is hinted at, before more expansive challenges really deliver: you trigger traps with a human cannonball, shooting away before they can close, feeling like rocket scientist and rocket simultaneously.

The cooperative campaign is equally successful: "Portal's mechanics make the jump smoothly: both players have a gun, though they can't use them to link up each other's portals, and both have to get to the exit to complete a level. There is a range of onscreen pointers and commands that help co-ordinate play, as well as a set of gestures waving, hugging, dancing that incur the wrath of the onlooking GLaDOS.

"Only a few of the co-op puzzles truly stumped our crack team, but then the point isn't working out what to do: it's doing it in tandem. This is where Portal 2 shows a genius for physical comedy by constantly putting each player's life in the hands of the other, juggling responsibility between the team and letting someone drop the ball. It always happens: misplacing a portal and shooting your partner into a spiked wall, pressing a button at the wrong time and watching them slowly fall into the abyss, or the classic: turning off the hard light bridge when they're halfway across. When you get it right, there's a sense of a shared achievement; when you get it wrong, it can be laugh-out-loud funny."

Edge warns that Portal 2's narrative has a few weak moments. "There are a few sections in singleplayer, however, where the story stalls the game's otherwise headlong rush rather than facilitating it. Usually a master of the wordless narrative, Valve here has decided to divide action and plot setting the player only the most undemanding tasks while exposition occurs. Yes, it's true: the most valorised of videogame storytellers may have made the singleplayer so talky that it very occasionally becomes dull.

Otherwise: "Portal 2 delivers, and it does it in style, creating one of the most meticulously designed, thrilling and delightful playgrounds we've ever seen."

"It's a game with a magical take on momentum, where single bounds over tall buildings are business as usual, where every surface is a potential launchpad, and the entire experience is a belly laugh," Edge concludes. "Valve has a pretty good record with the number two, but attempting to inflate Portal's perfectly formed package could easily have been a disaster. Naturally, the sequel doesn't feel as bracingly fresh as the 2007 game, but it's precisely the sort of dizzying follow-up the original deserves."


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