Portal 2 review (PS3)

I think the best reviews open up with a line to catch your attention, don’t you agree? I think with any review it’s best to keep the audience’s attention otherwise they’ll just get bored. If they agree strongly with your opinion, then they’ll stick by you if you tell them why. If they disagree strongly with your opinion, then they’ll take mental notes and work on a giant wall of text response or email. So, here we are, after four years we have the sequel to the surprisingly best component of 2007’s The Orange Box, the collection of 5 games developed by Valve. I think there’s only one line to begin with that may change everything:

I am not entirely sure whether or not Portal 2 is the finest game that Valve has ever produced.

The game’s premise is in its very title. You have a gun that shoots two portals with them linking to one another. You can only fire on certain white surfaces but you need to use them to manipulate your environment into overcoming certain puzzles. For example, momentum is kept as you go through a portal so if you place one over a steep cliff and another facing the sky, jump off into the first portal and then you’ll catapult yourself. Puzzles in Portal 2 are about manipulating the environment, using momentum and playing with new toys.

In the original Portal, players were dropped into the mute (something Valve is quick to make fun of) shoes of Chell. You became trapped in this giant testing facility ran by a mad and hilarious AI named GlaDOS. She returns in Portal 2, still voiced by Ellen McLain, along with some other faces. The sequel is set hundreds of years into the future since, after the destruction of GlaDOS, the player was taken back inside the bowels of Aperture Science (the testing facility) and put into suspension, so as to be woken up at a later date.

The new faces that join the party are Cave Johnson, an AI of the original CEO, who is voiced by J.K Simmons. Stephen Merchant, that bloke who sometimes writes and does stuff with Ricky Gervais, also voices a personality sphere named Wheatley. The way that these three characters play off of each other is astounding and, I’m going to shock a lot of people here, I thought Bioshock contained the best video game voice acting of all time. I was proven wrong. J.K Simmons gives absolute breadth and heart into his character and Merchant gives the comedic performance of a lifetime.

Portal 2’s story stretches beyond simple scientific testing and into one of the most important themes in the history of art. Humanity, or lack thereof. The performances of Simmons and Merchant, along with the genius and hilarious writing of Valve all add to this great, genuinely emotional melting pot of a story. We have robots wanting to be “alone”, an AI realising who she actually is and a dead robot wishing to be human. There’s a certain speech involving “lemons” that I won’t spoil, but it involves Simmons and McLain’s characters and it’s particularly note worthy given how... human it is.

The plot goes from the bowels of Aperture, the factory floors and the underbelly containing Cave Johnson and other bits. The single-player is around 7 hours long, a good length, but this is probably the best pacing I have ever seen in a video game. It’s even more mind-blowing when you remember the wealth of puzzles at your disposable. The game lets you breathe once in a while, punctuates every instance with some story, character development or clever joke. Did I mention this game is the funniest work of interactivity I have ever played in my life? “In my life” is a running theme throughout this review, it’s why I’m going to be pouring over the question over whether or not this is the finest game that Valve has ever produced.

To go hand-in-hand with the story content is a wealth of new gameplay elements to play with. There are aerial faith plates, which catapult you around rooms, and there arae discouragement beams, which fire lasers than can be used in conjunction with portals to fry your foes. What steals the show isn’t the return of the companion cube, but the gels that are introduced in the Cave Johnson section. These gels – repulsion, acceleration and not-gonna-spoil-this-one – all let the player jump, speed up movement or do-something-I’m-not-going-to-spoil. The way the level plays with these elements, along with portals, is mind-blowing.

The gameplay revolves around the “aaa.... ha!” moment of puzzling. It’s that sweet moment when you’ve cracked the puzzle and you’re thrown into a sea of motion sickness. The game moves fast, but not too fast, it’s this strange combination of alien gameplay fused with this hilarious and human story. It’s something completely different, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever played including the original Portal. I don’t want to go beyond saying “It’s good”, but I’ll outright say that if (at some point in your life) you don’t play this, then you are seriously missing out.

I’ve blabbered on about all the above and not even included the co-operative mode. I happened to play it with my Mum and within a few minutes she was already flying through portals and executing complicated events. The co-operative mode has both players take the role of two robots who absolutely ooze personality and hilarity. The gestures you can perform with or without each other are so full of characterised flavour that you just can’t but laugh at this Laurel and Hardy duo.

The co-operative mode features its own massive string of puzzles, none of which could be solved with two portals. You’ll have to work together in order to crack the puzzles and I’m not joking when I say that there is some seriously interesting stuff at play. Future level designers watch out, Valve’s already beaten you to the good stuff. The game is said to support modded levels on all four platforms, so the game may be limitless in the way that we can explore the new mechanics and toys. Valve has mentioned they intend to supply us with some DLC in the future so that’ll be worth holding on to your copy for, too.

I think what steals the show is the humanistic story here: there’s a true sense of worth and weight about the questions these characters ask themselves. Every single one of them is a robotic drone, whereas the player is the only human... right? We blindly follow orders to complete puzzles, we operate within these in a mechanically one-way-is-right manner and we can’t talk. There’s a deep ironic sense within some of the non-interactive elements and I’m pretty sure it’s deliberate on Valve’s part. What could also steal the show, and rewrite modern gaming’s code, is a foreshadowing of gaming convergence.

The PS3 version has Steam support right out of the box along with a free PC/Mac code for the game. When you’ve linked the game to your Steam account, it automatically backs-up your save game and links to your Steam achievements. What’s more interesting, however, is that PC/Mac gamers can play Portal 2’s co-op mode with PS3 players, seamlessly in fact. The game represents something that modern gaming is about to face: singularity. Soon enough, we’ll be able to stream games on our television, use one singular port or platform, and be able to play with everyone possibly imaginable. It’ll be profitable for all three parties: gamer, publisher and developer. I can’t wait to see what Valve do with this console Steam support and what notes future developers and publishers are taking on the game.

A lot of people only ever read the last paragraph of reviews, as it usually summarises everything neatly. This paragraph is different, however, in that I would really appreciate it if you read through the whole review. Not because my writing deserves it, but because Portal 2 deserves it. The game is funny, charming, challenging, touching, brilliantly written, brilliantly voice acted, holds the best co-operative gaming mode in the history of forever and just so happens to perhaps out-class Valve’s finest games.

You owe it to yourself to play this masterpiece of an experience.

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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