Portal 2 is the sequel to the highly acclaimed 2008 Game of the Year winner, Portal, which won two other awards at the 2008 Game Developer’s Choice Awards (the Innovation Award and Best Game Design). Why? It was a trailblazer. The game was the first ever to be referred to as a “first-person puzzler,” a spin-off of first-person shooter, the type of game usually produced by Valve.
The game shows the passing of time using plants growing in recognisable test chambers. (Click for Full Size)
The game has the player place two inter-linked portals on any concrete surface. The player then uses these portals to move through and complete levels that they, without portals, would otherwise not be able to complete. It is the same concept as used in the game Narbacular Drop, a game produced by seniors at the Digipen Institute of Technology, a specialised game-development university in Redmond, Washington, USA. These students were hired by Valve as part of the team to produce the game Portal. The game was produced on a low budget and was released as part of the Orange Box, a bundle of games releasing for the first time Portal, Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2, along with Valve’s two previous Half-Life 2 games as well as a tech demo. The bundle was a steal, giving five games and a tech demo for the price of one game, and a cheap game at that.
Valve attempted, successfully, to change up the elevator annex’s with interesting and informative screens. (Click for Full Size)
Valve was uncertain whether the game would succeed, hence why they chose the low-risk option of releasing it along with four sure-fires on a tight budget. Valve had no need for concern, however, as the game was a smash hit. At E3 2010, Valve announced its successor: Portal 2. They noted that Portal was only a test; Portal 2 is the fully-fledged game. The game also brought with it announcements of Valve’s support for Apple Macintosh computers and the PlayStation 3, two platforms that they had previously neglected in original releases.
In the original Portal, you are a girl (probably in her late teens or early twenties), called Chell. You wake up in the ‘Relaxation Vault,’ a sort of short-term cryogenic storage room. A computer, GLaDOS (voice by Ellen McLain), then guides you through a series of 19 tests before trying to kill you. You escape her clutches and work your way through the ‘behind-the-scenes’ areas of the facility before finally reaching her and destroying her, gaining your freedom. Or so you think. Just before Portal 2’s announcement, Valve released an update for the original in which you are dragged back inside the facility after losing consciousness.
Valve elaborated on the mysterious character ‘Ratman,’ by assigning him his own artist and developing his dens with murals such as this. (Click for Full Size)
The second game is set an indefinite period of time later. Due to rates of decay, I am inclined to think about three decades. You wake up in an ‘Extended Relaxation Vault’ after three months in suspension. The room looks like a seedy motel room. You then make your way back to your bed and wake up quite a long while later. The wallpaper is now peeling, the carpet mouldy and the once colourful room is looking extremely grey. A ‘personality core,’ Wheatly (voiced by Stephen Merchant), tries to help you escape from the facility but accidentally wakes up GLaDOS. Then your torment begins once again.
The actress that plays GLaDOS, Ellen McLain, is extremely well suited to the role. She delivers her many lines with interesting emotion and a hilariously indignant attitude. The game is not light on the jokes, but in a very, very good way; I laughed heartily a great many times. GLaDOS mercilessly mocks Chell, making many comments about her size and supposed status as an orphan. The rest of the dialogue is also very well written and acted. Stephen Merchant does a wonderful job as Wheatly, conveying Wheatly’s silliness as well as his questionable attitudes later on in the game.
The music in the game, composed by Mike Morasky, is wonderfully fitting to all scenarios presented in the game. There is not just one or two tracks, either, the game has new music all the time and you never get sick of hearing the same thing over and over because, well, you never do! In fact, it is quite the opposite: I found myself sitting at points in the game and simply listening to the music. It also provides audible cues and adds to your immersion. For example, as you complete aspects of the puzzles correctly, the music grows in complexity, subtly telling you that you are doing it right.
The first game was highly popular because of its amazing story. I mean, let’s face it, puzzle games aren’t the most exciting genre in the world. The story in Portal was unexpected and fresh. In Portal 2, Valve has expanded on the story without duplicating what made the original game great. For example, a large meme from the first game, ‘The Cake is a Lie,’ was only referenced once in Portal 2, and it was done tastefully. The plot twists in the story are for the most part unexpected, and fitting. I gasped (loudly) at least twice throughout the game, something I’m almost certain I’ve never done before.
One of the new puzzle mechanics in the game, the ‘Excursion Funnel.’ (Click for Full Size)
The original Portal took place in two separate locations: the sterile, white, test chambers run by a calm, monotonous GLaDOS; and the grungy back part of Aperture Science through which you run away from an increasingly more agitated and psychotic GLaDOS. Portal 2 elaborates on the backend of Aperture Science and it is only now that you realise the enormous scale of the facility: built in a salt mine 4km+ deep and spanning across Michigan and Ohio in the United States. I’m surprised that it doesn’t have its own weather system. Portal 2 keeps the puzzles exciting by changing up the locations thrice. New game mechanics are added and deepened in each of these areas. Valve also managed to keep it fresh by changing the design of the props used to solve the puzzles to suit the era and management of the areas. It is all very well polished, and made me want to walk slowly through the game just so I could take it all in.
Portal 2 also includes a co-operative mode, along with the tried and true single-player campaign. The co-op mode continues the story from single player, although doesn’t cover as much because it would be silly to have people (computers?) talking all the time whilst you try to communicate with your buddy. The idea is that you are one of two robots – Atlas and P-Body – working together, each with your own portal gun, to solve tests once again run by GLaDOS. These tests would be impossible to complete alone. The co-op section also has more difficult puzzles. I enjoyed the challenge of having to think with four portals instead of just two; it twisted my perception of space even more than I thought possible. GLaDOS’ humour is not lacking from co-op, either: she is constantly trying to drive a wedge between you and your partner. Awarding points when, for example, you direct your partner into a lake of toxic waste.
An example of how the dynamic lighting the game helps make beautiful shadow. (Click for Full Size)
The game utilises Valve’s proprietary Source engine, and it looks beautiful. I was playing on a laptop, and I was still able to play with every setting on its highest at my display’s native resolution, and I have an HD 15” display. The game ran smoothly and was very detailed. I could see the seams in the carpet of the motel room. The only gripe about performance I have is the constant immersion-breaking loading screens. They are everywhere. It is warranted due to the amount of music, dialogue and level detail in each load, but it is worth noting that Valve’s games have had the same annoying loading screens since Half-Life was released in 1998. This is 2011 now. I don’t want to have to wait five seconds for loading screens in between each short stint of gameplay. Valve also developed a new fluid simulation model for their engine, used to simulate the nature of ‘gel’ in the game, one of the new mechanics. When hovering in the air (such as when in an Excursion Funnel) the liquid sticks together and forms blobs, but splits apart when flying at high speed out a portal. I have never seen such realistic fluid simulation in a game. Dynamic lighting is also used in all lighting models in the game. Shadows are realistic and crisp. It looks stunning. Valve has optimised their engine to the point of perfection.
The single-player portion of the game took me about eight hours and the co-op took me about six. Replayability is not an issue, however, because Valve have promised free DLC, meaning more levels to play regularly. Valve is also extremely open to the community, allowing free access to the game development tools, so we are also bound to see many community made maps and mods.
All in all, the game was, quite honestly, the best game I have ever played. I will riot in the streets if it does not receive Game of the Year, Best Game Design, Excellence in Audio, Best Technology and Excellence in Writing at GDC 2011. Along with that, Ellen McLain needs to win some sort of award for her best-in-field voice acting and singing. I’m serious, the game was that good. This game should be required playing for all ages and, with its great training arc, all skill levels can enjoy it equally. Portal 2 is available now on Steam for Mac & PC or published by EA for PC, Mac, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3. Read on below for more information on the fantastic release by Valve.
The game was originally scheduled to come out in November 2010, but Valve delayed the release to April 18. Come April 1, however, fans of the series were not so sure. Valve initiated an Alternative Reality Game, or ARG for short. In an interview with spitfire1945 of The Steamcast Podcast, he explained to me what an ARG actually was, and how it tied into Portal 2:
An ARG is an Alternative Reality Game. It relies on community based puzzle solving in order to work towards a common goal. This ARG tied into Portal 2 simply because of the way the clues were left, they were in reference to Portal 2′s GLaDOS. The ultimate crescendo event for this ARG was to power GLaDOS early before the release date.
Valve is known for these Alternative Reality Games, they have done ARGs “since the release of Half Life 2,” but this one was special. It was much longer and more complex in nature than those surrounding Half-Life 2.
This ARG was an important part of the release of Portal 2, considering it was a puzzle game. Spitfire explained the entire thing to me:
It started on April 1st when [the] Steam news feed had a weird #PotatoFools keyword in some of the posts. It didn’t receive much attention then but as soon as April 5th came people started to pick [up] on the fact that this was more than just a silly April Fools prank by Valve.
As I mentioned, April 5th was the highlight. April 7th was interesting because we started hacking our way through the ARG but we were eventually asked to cease. So that was different. April 13th was important because that’s when the major players of the ARG disappeared (author’s note: including Spitfire!) and the ground was removed from underneath everybody else’s feet. We managed to cause massive hysteria that day. It was awesome. April 15th was another important event because GLaDOS@home was released that day and of course April 19th, the day of Portal 2′s release.
Followers of the ARG were surprised when a timer on the mysterious Aperture Science website began to count down to 2am April 16 (AEST). Many fans thought the timer was counting down to the release. Instead, another site with 12 bars appeared promising the release of Portal 2 when all bars were filled. The bars were filled by playing any of the games in the Potato Sack, a bundle of independent games available on Steam. This is the event on April 15 that Spitfire is referring to. Many people were disappointed with this outcome, but Spitfire sums up the point of an ARG such as this perfectly:
It was fun. When everyone was caught up with how massive this ARG was and how much work that was put into it, they really started to appreciate it and some even sat by the edge of their seats. I mean I lost four pounds in two days because of this ARG and probably all through my fingers, haha. I think it was a fantastic segway (and a great media stunt) to Portal 2′s release. People will always remember this as the Potato ARG and Portal 2 will go down in history as having one of the most challenging yet entertaining ARGs of all time. That is, of course, if Valve doesn’t decide to make another ARG three times the size of this one!
PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac
Distribution: Steam; Retail
Category: First-Person Puzzler
Developer: Valve Software
RRP: US$49.99 on Steam
Reviewed on Mac