Portal 2 Review

By Morgan Webb - Posted Apr 18, 2011

Portal 2 is a triumph, and has earned a place among the greatest games of all time.

The Pros
  • Robust single-player and co-op modes.
  • Hilarious writing and top-notch voice acting will put a smile on your face.
  • Creative puzzles challenge the player without being impossible.
  • One of the most polished games ever made.
The Cons
  • If you hate cerebral or puzzle-based challenges, this is not the game for you.
  • Will be difficult for a new or inexperienced gamer, but they will eventually get up to speed thanks to great design.

Portal 2 Review: 

Portal 2 is a triumph, and has earned a place among the greatest games of all time. You are a human lab-rat trapped by a psychotic computer named GLaDOS, and you need to solve a series of spatial puzzles. Your only tool is a gun that can individually fire two sides of a connected portal. For example, you can shoot your blue portal onto a wall, and your orange portal at the ceiling. When you walk into the blue portal in the wall, you’ll fall out of the orange portal in the ceiling, laws of physics be damned. If you shoot a laser into the orange portal, the beam will shoot out of the blue portal, and you can align the beam to trigger a sensor that opens the exit door. You can also use your portal gun to criss-cross platforms across a chasm, or weave a complicated series of levitation beams from room to room.

You have some fantastic viscous liquids, or gels, at your disposal. The blue gel makes you bounce, the red one makes you speedy, and the white one allows portals to be shot onto previously portal-resistant surfaces. I had a lot of fun coaxing gels all over the map, trying to get them to fall on just the right spot to help me bounce onto that out-of-reach platform.

Think Of All The Things We Learned

If none of that made any sense, don’t worry. Portal 2 presents an admittedly difficult set of concepts very gradually, so you never feel unprepared for what comes next. But this does not mean that the game is easy. Just because you have the tools, doesn’t mean you have the answer.

There are some real mind-benders. The saving grace is that the game’s visual language is impressively consistent - since you can never jump over railings you don’t waste time throwing yourself at them. If you have trouble with a specific puzzle you can rely on this visual language to search for subtle clues, like looking out for a strategically broken railing. Every pixel is there for a reason, and you never need to make an awkward jump or contort over a ledge.

You can’t cheat this game. You fortunately don’t need to waste time looking for work-arounds because there is a beautiful and elegant solution to every puzzle, one that fits into their system of rules and seems simple once you figure it out. You get a euphoric AHA! moment and you feel really, really smart. And isn’t that something we all deserve from our video games?

I Feel FANTASTIC And I’m Still Alive

All this impressive design is accompanied by some of the best writing and acting in any medium. GLaDOS is just as creepy and funny as she was in the first game, and in what must be a hundred pages of dialogue and one-liners she remains consistently hilarious and fresh. Your new robotic pal Wheatley’s emotional banter is the perfect foil to GLaDOS’s deadpan, and is incredibly well voiced by Stephen Merchant. I want to avoid spoilers as the story takes some twists and turns, but suffice it to say you will actually LoL, and you will be surprised and left guessing up until the last seconds of the game.

This is an advertisement - This story continues below

It’s Hard To Overstate My Satisfaction

The single player clocks in at around 8-10 hours, and is a satisfying amount of game for the money. Additionally, you get around 7 hours of Portal 2 co-op game play with no AI option -  you can only play with a real person either in split-screen or online. If you have the PS3 version, you can play over PSN, or you can log into your Steam account and play with your Steam friends. You also receive a code for a free PC and Mac copy of Portal 2. If you buy the Xbox version you will not receive a code for a free PC or Mac copy, and you will not be able to play with Steam, but you will be able to access co-op through Xbox Live.

When they say co-op, they really do mean cooperate. You will absolutely need to talk to solve these puzzles, so now’s the time to dig out that PS3 headset. Liberal use of your ping tool to point out suggested portal locations to your buddy is a must. You should not play the co-op campaign with anyone you are prone to fight with, as both of you will make boneheaded mistakes that will send your robot avatars (Atlas and P-body) plummeting to their deaths. Wrong portal at a clutch moment? Check (I panicked!!!!). Accidentally step on the reverse button that sends your partner hurtling towards a spikey death masher? Yeah, I may have done that too (sorry Matt). When cooperation works however, it’s a beautiful thing, and you and your partner will revel in jointly figuring out the missing link in the logic chain. It’s great to feel smart by yourself, it’s awesome to feel smart in front of a friend.

While puzzles in the single player rely more often on strategy, puzzles in co-op focus a bit more on timing, and some quick portaling will sometimes be necessary. This gives the single player and the co-op campaigns a subtly different feel. The co-op campaign also offers an entertaining side story that will surely tie-in to Portal 3.

I’m Making A Note Here: HUGE SUCCESS

Portal 2 is an impressive feat of game design that should be studied by anyone who wants to be in the industry. To that end, the developer commentary is a valuable addition. You play through a a full version of the game that has quote bubbles floating in the environment. Click on them and hear audio commentary from the designers themselves. Learn why certain decisions were made, and hear the logic behind story and design elements. Some of the commentary from the programmers will be over the head of the average player, but I appreciate that nothing was dumbed down, and there is a range of information for every level.

This Was A Triumph

Portal 2 is the most thoroughly polished game I have ever played (with the possible exception of Metal Gear Solid: Guns of the Patriots. Flame on, dear Internet, flame on). The brilliant artifice of Portal is that your character, Chell, is actually playing a deadly game designed by a malevolent computer, so there is a reason for every brick and pane of glass. You could argue that you can’t translate that type of design perfection to a representation of the real world - we’ve all played games where your character can’t jump over a railing when a minute ago he was climbing the side of a building. Or perhaps you could say that it’s easy to bring a perfect level of polish to every map when you don’t have to fill it with a hundred enemies and branching paths. Maybe so. But this was not an easy game to create. The puzzles seem impossible, but are solvable by almost anyone. The learning curve is perfect, the graphics and animation are incredible, and it is one of the funniest games you will ever play. Valve doesn’t disappoint fans on any level in this pixel-perfect example of how to design a game.

We live in an era when game journalists can cynically nitpick faults, or forgive a favorite franchise for multiple sins. I see the temptation for both approaches. A game can be riddled with flaws but still somehow be fun, and a game can be perfectly polished yet a total bore. When you review, you need to think about your predilections and your preconceptions. I admit I am a gamer who loves strategy - I am happiest when I am being mentally challenged by my games, and I strive to be smarter and faster than everyone else. I put more value in beating someone in Starcraft than I ever did in my kill/death ratio. However, I can say that while Portal 2 may not be for absolutely everyone, it undeniably deserves a place among the greatest games of all time. Mass Effect, Half-Life, Oblivion, KOTOR, Starcraft, Okami, Diablo, Ico, Bioshock, Doom, Grand Theft Auto, The Legend of Zelda: the list is long, and it has a new member. I am honored to have reviewed Portal 2, and look forward to playing it again tomorrow.