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Portal 2 – a LimboInteractive Review

May 23, 2011

A girl’s work is never done… at least, not when you’re a test subject for Aperture Science.

—–98% Complete—–

tl;dr Version: This is a near-perfect interactive story game. My only criticism, if you can call it one, is that the world of Portal (and Half Life, I guess), needs to be made into an MMO, stat!

CAVEAT (on toast)
Okay, first off, I should confess something: I haven’t finished playing Portal 2 yet. I’ve played several test chambers of both campaigns (Solo and Co-Op), and I’ve sat right through until the end of the solo campaign while my wife played (back seat driving and royally ticking her off in the process; ‘Honey, did you see that thing over there?’ ‘What? Shut up!’).

Come to think of it, I’ve never completed the original Portal, either*. Watched it from start to finish, and even pinch-hitted a few test chambers that were giving my wife serious grief. I’m not a better player than her; far from it, in fact. However, I sometimes see things and apply more patience than she does. For her part, she’s quicker and more persistent than I am. We make a good team when we’re not getting on each other’s nerves. Ah, married life. Nothing else quite like it.

Right, where was I? Oh yes, Portal 2. How the heck can I write a review of a game I’ve never properly finished? Well, I’ve soloed several test chambers, both in my wife’s install and in my own, so I know how the gameplay works. In fact, I’m pretty sure I could do this review as a video walkthrough**. Oh, it wouldn’t be one of those mile a minute walkthroughs you see done by the guys who play these games in three hours and move on to the next. As well, I’ve learned a great deal about the back story, both from my wife’s playthrough and from lots of online research. This game has been a big deal to me.

So the answer is, because I’ve practically lived it for the last couple of months, which is a lot of time to obsess over something I haven’t had an active role in creating. That’s probably why I’m doing this review, instead.

Portal 2, like its predecessor, is a first person, physics-intensive obstacle course that requires a grasp of Gordian Knot puzzle logic. You probably need to have a good sense of spatial relationships, a willingness to follow a hunch on literal leaps of faith, and maybe a decent sense of direction (or a good friend who can point stuff out to you if you do get disoriented or lost). It also helps greatly if you have a slightly dark, dry sense of humour, because most all of the characters you encounter in the game are essentially damaged and deranged.

That said, there really isn’t anything in this game that should keep most people from playing and enjoying it, if they don’t get too hung up on the lack of bullets, dialogue or minigame puzzles. I think there were exactly two situations where you had to work the controls a little more vigorously than just pushing the forward button and hitting the space (jump) bar sequentially, so twitch gamer reflexes are surplus to requirements.


(I would call this section THE STORY, except I’m sure some would argue with me that there isn’t much real story to Portal 2. Certainly not much interactive storytelling going on, and definitely no dialogue choices. Chell, the heroine of the story, remains intriguingly taciturn, leaving it up to you to decide how she should be feeling about all of this.)

You once more wake to find yourself trapped in the underground depths of the Aperture Science weapons research laboratory complex. If you thought the place was expansive (and expensive) back in Portal, boy are you in for a surprise. First off, the place is in really rough condition. It’s been sitting idle, gathering moss and shrubbery from collapsed walls and ceiling panels. Apparently, GLaDOS successfully killed off the janitorial staff too. She may want to consider hiring–or building–a gardener, at this point.

But the main thing is, while you start by trying to reacquire a portal cannon, by making yoru way through some seriously run-down offices and test chambers, you don’t get too much of a sense of deja vu before you accidentalyl stumble across the remains of the innert GLaDOS herself. I don’t give anything away by telling you she doesn’t stay innert (a video teaser trailer has been on YouTube for well over a year). And then, of course, you have to run for your life to find an escape route out of the facility before she fully regains control and finishes off what she started last time around***.


In the original Portal, you were mostly confined to a series of nineteen progressively more difficult and deadly test chambers, except in a few places where you got to briefly slip behind broken wall panels and see things you weren’t meant to see. Well, Portal 2 has more of this. Much, MUCH more. You spend a healthy fourth of the game wandering around between the main test chambers, mostly off the grid, hiding first from GLaDOS, and then from your pal Wheatley, another AI who also finds the sensation of running the whole Aperture Science facility a little too much to handle sanely.

That, in case you were wondering, was a spoiler. You can stop looking at me like that; I DID warn you. Listen to your elders.

After a certain point, you get dumped down a very, very long shaft, along with the mobile-sized remains of GLaDOS, who now draws life-sustaining power from a potato, which you then lose track of because scavenging black birds apparently love potatoes, om nom nom. You then get to search around what turns out to be the vast basement facilities that used to house the original Aperture Science Labs, and experiment with some absolutely game-changing experimental materials that both GLaDOS and Wheatley seem to have forgotten.

This entire section goes a fair bit slower than the first two Acts, because the primitive ‘test chambers’ (more like run down test environments that need to be circumnavigated using portals and test liquids because the elevators, gantries and stairways don’t always connect properly) are far less interactive, and are generally much bigger. This works very well in amplifying the suspense, and also allows you ample timet o absorb the back story, as delivered in dribs and drabs by display cases and the fairly frequent recorded voice of Cave Johnson, late CEO and founder of Aperture Science. I actually enjoyed this section the most, and it’s at least half because of Cave.

Perhaps inevitably, you do recover the helpless remains of GLaDOS and find your way back up out of the vast basement complex and emerge into the bowels of the modern Aperture Science facility, but it’s slow going even then. You have to make your way up through miles of tunnels, shafts and cavernous chambers with long falls and no proper exits. The challenge becomes ferreting out the next unforeseen escape route, as you slowly climb higher and higher into the lion’s den.

All this time, periodic warnings of impending reactor meltdown are delivered dispassionately over the facility-wide PA system, as it has become clear that Wheatley has no idea whatsoever how to run the facility, and is systematically and irreparably damaging systems with his constant tinkering.

At long last, you do make your way back into the testing facility proper, and have to outwit Wheatley as he borrows and rearranges spare test chamber demos GLaDOS confesses she had been holding in reserve for you. You wind up using combinations of everything you’ve learned throughout the entire game to penetrate the increasingly inaccessible portions of teh facility wher eWheatley is hiding as he tries in vain to both eradicate you and GLaDOS and get the impending catastrophe under control. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that, when it’s all over, you are finally reunited with an old, dear friend.

Right, so there’s Chell–that’s you–the same speechless protagonist who helped destroy GLaDOS and shut down Aperture Laboratories the first time, back in Portal.

There’s GLaDOS herself, a charming and highly officious artificial intelligence who it seems has a pathological need to test and destroy every human being she comes across. Especially you, you monster.

There’s Wheatley, your initial saviour and somewhat ineffectual, incompetent assistant, who uses you to first help him escape the confines of Aperture Science’s AI rigging, and then to take over the complex, so he can help you escape. Then things really start to go wrong. Turns out Wheatley was a last-ditch attempt by the Aperture Scientists to install a conscience into GLaDOS, by effectively gimping her with his industrial-strength ineptitude.

There is scant evidence that there may actually be a surviving scientist, nicknamed The Rat-Man, who leaves occasional primitive cartoon drawings on abandoned office walls, very much like caveman paintings, offerign cryptic clues and depicting the forgotten history of Aperture Science. As you never actually see or hear this person directly, you have no way of knowing if he survives, or if he is aware that you are still alive and in the complex. Primitive portraits of you demonstrate that at least he was aware of your past exploits. That you never encounter him is proof that this facility is even bigger than you realize, even this time around. Not that that seems to matter to you, as you have no proof that there is any connection between you and Rat-Man (though he may have known your parents, whom you learn also worked for Aperture Science before GLaDOS revolted).

And finally, there is the pre-recorded voice of Cave Johnson, the charismatic founder of Aperture Science, who pops up seemingly randomly in the basement levels of the complex as you pass from one challenge to the next. His hilarious and ascerbic explanations of the challenges and physics involved in each test environment also serves as a window into the tragic events that lead up to the creation and subsequent loss of control of GLaDOS. As Cave’s recordings begin to reveal signs of erratic logic and degenerating health, you begin to get a more human image of this man: two parts huckster, two parts visionary, two parts patriot (though he never actually declares himself an American, the jingoism he is fond of employing to motivate his staff and test subjects is thinly-disguised, pure 1950s American Chutzpah). King or fool, Cave turns out to have been quite a remarkable man, which only serves to amplify the irony and sadness of the outcome of his great endeavour.

There are also a pair of AI robots, which you and a friend can inhabit to play much trickier test chambers that require a high degree of lateral thinking and cooperation. As there is far less cohesive narrative to the Co-Op campaign, I won’t comment on it here, except to say that, while GLaDOS is ostensibly training you, she is also working to undermine your confidence in each other, eroding whatever cameraderie that may be developing between you as you conquer successive chambers. The clever and sometimes sublimely ridiculous interactive options you are occasionally able to exercise with your partner, along with GLaDOS’ growing exasperation with you if you do so, make the lack of proper story far less detrimental than one might expect, after having completed the solo campaign.

I don’t consider myself much of a traditional ‘Gamer’, so I don’t feel comfortable speaking with authority about how effective gaming mechanics actually are. If I can learn to play the game within a reasonable amount of time, before I get worked up and anxious that I’ll never ‘get it’ (and subsequently quit the game), then the game is a complete success in my books.

However, I will say that, unlike many games that rely heavily on 3D mechanics and speed-sensitive activities, I found Portal 2, much liek its predecessor, to be a very smooth and enjoyable ride. The falling and flinging mechanics take a little getting used to, but once you’ve been flung across a vast, bottomless chamber to smack into a wall and land relatively safely on the other side a few times, you get used to how Portal challenges your notions of how games work.

I must admit that I have great difficulty sympathizing with some people’s stubborn assertion that Portal and Portal 2 are in fact First Person Shooter games. The perspective is the same as the MYST franchise and their many peers and clones, including Shivers, The Journeyman Project, Obsidian, The Last Express, and on and on and on we go. More than half of the big name adventure games of the 90s were first person adventures. Some of them required that you carry around and utilize tools. These tools were invariably used to solve problems, which we colloquially label ‘puzzles’ in the idiom of video games.

The portal cannon, as used in Portal and Portal 2, is just such a tool. You have extremely limited inventory management, but you do have this great device that can be used in so many ways to circumnavigate so many tricky situations. The one thing you cannot do with it is actually shoot things. It’s shaped the same way as a gun. Lots of tools are gun-shaped. Drills. Caulking guns. Grease guns. Police lock pick guns. Barcode scanners. Tricorders. Some people refer to it as a Portal Gun; its actual name, Portal Cannon, is hardly an effective distinction.

However, it does not shoot lethal projectiles, and as such, it is not a weapon. Ergo, it is NOT a shooter, QED.

One might be able to argue successfully that it is an action-adventure game, given that it is a fully 3D game, which few traditional graphical adventure games are. Very few modern adventure games require any sort of manual dexterity or sharp reflexes. The game certainly does require that you periodically move much faster than the standard Mosey Speed of most AGs. However, Action-Adventure Games generally require a certain amount of stealth or combat mechanics, which Portal and Portal 2 demonstrably lack. You have the ability to duck or jump, and when you walk, you tend to walk fairly quickly. You play a young woman who does not mosey with conviction.

Portal 2 falls happily into that lovely widening gap that most modern hybrid story games seem to be falling into these days, which borrow from and yet defy the conventions of virtually every standard video game genre description we have. The Last Express. Beyond Good and Evil. Dreamfall. Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophesy. Heavy Rain. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. L.A. Noire. Alan Wake. Sims 3: World Adventures. Mass Effect. The list, as well as the defining traits of the games that comprise it, is growing. We haven’t yet dared to establish a truly new genre label to define them, but these modern action adventure hybrids are becoming an established exception to the rule that video games have limited audiences who only want to play one kind of game or another. “Don’t cross the streams, Vinkman”.

They’re also coming closer to establishing the reality that Interactive Storytelling is not a myth that the Roger Eberts of the world can easily brush aside. < /sermon>

But I’ll tell you one thing it is: Portal 2 is a lot of fun. I cannot more highly recommend it to anyone who isn’t blind or in the same physical state as Stephen Hawking (sorry, sir). It may not make everybody’s Game of the Year list, but it’s already got my vote.


* Also couldn’t complete Narbacular Drop, but that was because I was getting horrible motion sickness; it was a cute game, but those textures and that walk cycle were brutal.
** If I had the right software in place. I’d also have to clear a lot of space off of my computer to host the video files, so that’s not going to happen any time soon.
*** You know, testing you well beyond an inch of your life. For Science.


ETA: As a nice aside, here’s the review of Portal 2 that my good friend Mike Belkie did last month. Enjoy!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 24, 2011 12:24 am

    *guffaws at the “hello sweetie” part, which I only just noticed*

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