Video Game Review: Inventive, Clever, Addictive World of ‘Portal 2’

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CHICAGO – “Portal 2” feels so unlike any of the dozens of games that I play every year for review that it’s nearly hard to put into words. Video game critics train themselves with their approach to shooters, sports games, mini-game collections, etc. But how do you approach something this original, this unique, and this clever without sounding hyperbolic? It’s impossible. “Portal 2” is an amazing achievement. Video Game Rating: 5.0/5.0
Video Game Rating: 5.0/5.0

When the first “Portal” was released, it became one of the most surprising critical hits in gaming history, earning several Game of the Year awards and finding a loyal audience who longed for more of this unique creation. It may have taken a few years, but “Portal 2” is finally here and the high expectations have not only been met, they have been surpassed. There is nothing disappointing about “Portal 2.” It takes the concepts, ingenuity, humor, and clever gameplay from the first title and expands on it.

Portal 2
Portal 2
Photo credit: EA

The basic gameplay of “Portal 2” is simple enough that it allows the developers to build on the foundation with increasingly clever chapters, story turns, and spectacular puzzle design. Yes, “Portal 2” is a puzzle game. As someone who has loved puzzle games from “Tetris” through “Lemmings” to “Limbo,” I was excited at the prospect of a new turn on an underserved genre.

Portal 2
Portal 2
Photo credit: EA

But “Portal 2” is no mere puzzle game. First, you don’t often see first-person puzzle games. Nor do you see ones with scripts so continuously creative that you will be laughing out loud more often than slapping your face in frustration. And the way the game builds with each chapter offering new variations, visuals, and story elements, it never falls into that repetitive trap that often sabotages this genre. It’s partially because the game is such a well-paced, perfectly-timed affair.

Yes, I said perfectly-timed. Some have already loudly complained about the length of “Portal 2” and I understand that times are tough and so quantity for your dollar becomes a major concern, but one should balance quantity along with it, right? “Portal 2” runs at least ten hours with both the single-player and co-op campaigns. Would you rather have a 20-hour experience with more repetition and a story that felt stretched out? I understand losing it over something like “Homefront,” which ran under four hours, but “Portal 2” isn’t THAT short and nearly every minute of it is fantastic. And when you break it down, $6 an hour (you’d really have to be racing to get both campaigns done in ten but I’ll be conservative for the sake of argument) is about what you pay for most movies and most movies this year won’t be this good.

The story of “Portal 2” involves your silent character waking up in a testing facility. Immediately, the game’s incredibly smart sense of humor kicks in, brought to you by great voice actors including Stephen Merchant (“Extras”) and J.K. Simmons (“Juno”). The writing of the dialogue in “Portal 2” is simply some of the best in video game history. I have rarely had a response to comedic video game writing but the dripping sarcasm of a machine that is trying to thwart your progress at every step reminded me of Douglas Adams (“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”). I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed as hard as when I completed a test and was told, “Here come the test results — You are a horrible person. A horrible person. We weren’t even testing for that.” And that’s just one of many spectacular, quotable lines.

Portal 2
Portal 2
Photo credit: EA

And it’s not just the dialogue that’s inventive. When I was falling down a massive chute holding a talking potato (don’t ask…you need to just get there), I shook my head at the creative risk that was paying off. There are many elements of “Portal 2” that simply shouldn’t work but somehow do. The developers at Valve took chance after chance and delivered nearly every time.

Shortly after you wake up in the testing facility and are given a few basic puzzles that approximate a tutorial, you’ll have your only weapon for the game, a portal gun. Shoot with the left trigger at one wall and the right trigger at another and you can walk through the portal. At first, it will be used rather literally - to get you from point A to point B. But it’s not long before you’re using lasers, repulsion gels, and other tricks to help you move forward. All of “Portal 2” is about getting from the entrance of one room to its exit.

But it’s not as simple as you think. The writers brilliantly step out of what could have just been a series of room challenges to something much greater about halfway through when you first escape the facility. You’ll have to use the knowledge and tools you’ve learned in testing rooms in what feels like practical ways. It becomes not about testing but about escaping.

Portal 2
Portal 2
Photo credit: EA

Visually, “Portal 2” is perfect without being flashy. It has a feeling of depth that I imagine is stronger on the PC and I wished a few of the backgrounds later in the game had been a bit more refined, but it’s a minor complaint.

Ultimately, you won’t play anything else that feels like “Portal 2” this year. It’s consistently challenging, entertaining, and mind-blowingly creative. Even the best shooters of 2011 will have genre siblings that feel similar. Whether you want to jump into this unique puzzle world or not, no one can deny its originality. And in today’s increasingly crowded market, standing out as proudly as “Portal 2” really means something.

“Portal 2” was released by EA and developed by Valve. It hit stores on April 19th, 2011. It is rated E 10+ (Everyone Ten and Older). The version reviewed was for the Xbox 360, but the game is also available for the PC and PS3. content director Brian Tallerico

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