Wednesday, April 20, 2011

GLaDOS Lives: Portal 2

People like to make things complicated that don't have to be. It happens in life and it happens in the world of videogames. Look at some of the progress trees games like those in the Final Fantasy series sport. They may great, but they are also hugely detailed and if you try to picture them in their entirety your brain may explode.

Sometimes that old acronym, KISS, is exactly right and you should just keep it simple, stupid. In 2007 Valve released the first Portal game and the gameplay concept really couldn't have been more simple – each room is a puzzle where you have to get from the beginning to the end. You have no weapons, just an Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, or, if you will, a "portal gun." You can fire your portal gun and make holes in walls that will transfer you from one part of the room to another (as you progress you can make two holes to decide where you're going from and too whereas initially one of those locations is predetermined with an already existing hole and you just get to make a second). Other things like lasers and blocks can also go through the portal hole, and your job is to figure out how to best utilize your portal gun to traverse each room.

Portal really is a very simple concept – get from one place to another using mainly your wits. Each level may take you anywhere from 30 seconds to a full hour to complete depending on when exactly you have that moment of clarity which allows you to see the puzzle from a new perspective and thereby find the answer.

On top of that concept, Valve placed something of a minimalist, but nonetheless fascinating (I refer to it this way because you have very little agency in it), tale about a computer, Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System (GLaDOS), going somewhat haywire. You uncover what is taking place with GLaDOS as you go through the game and, at the end of the title, you beat her (she speaks with a woman's voice, so we're going to call it a "her").

How then do they go about making a sequel to this brilliant title? Well, frankly, by doing more of the same and it still works wonderfully.

As fun a villain as GLaDOS is, and due to the way in which she coaxes you through her tests she is fun, the truly great part of the game is the fact that Valve has worked out this simple mechanic—create portal holes to traverse a room—and built level after level after level which constantly test your ingenuity and build on the basic concept. Rather than the levels in the second game feeling like rejects from the first, they are equally clever and will test you just as much if not more.

Please, don't get me wrong, things change dramatically as you go in the title and you're not going to feel like this is a simple rehash of what you did in the first Portal. That being said, I'm not really going to tell you how they change and what may be different, that would ruin so much of the fun. I will tell you that GLaDOS is back; that you learn more about what is going on at Aperture Laboratories and why; and that despite doing more of the same, the game never really feels repetitive.

Portal 2 also comes with the ability to play co-op online in a separate campaign and can be played across different platforms in said campaign. In fact, a huge advantage to buying a PS3 version of Portal 2 is that if you sync your PSN account with your Steam one, you get a free Steam download of Portal 2 for your computer. Sadly, what you can't do is sync a cloud-based save file – save your PS3 game and you can't pick up where you were on your computer. Even so, getting two copies is a pretty great deal and when you consider the fact that the game isn't terribly more expensive on PS3 than on Steam (currently Amazon gets $5.00 more for a PS3 copy than what Steam does for a download) it becomes an even better one.

In case you think my enthusiasm for the series is slightly overdone, I will point out that the sequel is not perfect. Load times are, quite frankly, hugely frustrating. Every time you beat a room, the game takes some time and loads up the next one. That's all well and good when it's taken you a whole long time to figure out how to proceed in the last room, but when you blaze through the room and are itching for the next only to get slowed by yet another load it's becomes discouraging.

Are load times too high a price to pay? No, unquestionably not. Portal 2 is a great expansion of the franchise and manages to successfully bring in new players without overly dumbing down the start of the game for experienced Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device users.

One more word of caution, Portal 2 is a huge time suck. The sense of accomplishment you get when beating a puzzle will cause you on more than one occasion to utter those famous last words, "just one more and then I'll be done." You'll end up beating the game in a minimal amount of time that way (it is a longer campaign than the last one), but the rest of the world may fall by the wayside for a little while. You won't regret your choice to continue, but those around you may get frustrated.

Portal 2 is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Fantasy Violence and Mild Language. This game can also be found on: PC, Xbox 360, and Mac.




Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Portal 2 on Blogcritics.

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