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Portal 2: First Impressions

Posted by Eric on 21.04.11

I can’t say I was a rabid fan of the original Portal, but I enjoyed it and found it a refreshing challenge.  No big guns, no insanely tough baddies, just a portal gun, a few turrets, and mind-warping puzzles.  So I can’t say that I was really anticipating the sequel, but I did have high hopes for it, particularly with the co-op mode.  I’m still working through the single player campaign and haven’t touched co-op yet, but so far I’ve got some mixed feelings.

First, I have to say I’m disappointed that Portal 2 breaks the First and Second Commandment since the opening title screens can’t be skipped and you can’t fully remap the controls.  This is especially disappointing since the original’s controls were fully customizable, and the PC/Steam version has neither offense ( my PS3 copy gave me a free Steam copy. )  On the original I used the right triggers to fire the portals ( R1 for Orange, R2 for Blue, ) but now the two portals have to be kept on opposite sides of the gamepad.  Even after a few hours of playtime, I still revert to old habits and hit R2 for an orange portal.  Sometimes it’s a minor pause, but on more than a few occasions it’s led to my death.

Speaking of the Steam/PS3 crossover, I’ve had a bit of grief there too.  I’ve never used Steam in the past and I’m worried newcomers from the PS3 may well be confused and angered.  Case in point, I created a new Steam account to link to my PSN account, but I messed up when creating the account password ( I accidentally had the caps lock on. )  I poked around the Steam browser interface looking for the “change password” option, but after banging my head for ten minutes, I resorted to a Google search for how to do it.  The answer: you can’t change any account specific settings through a browser ( other than small profile things like nicknames. )  Instead I had to download and install the Steam client, wait for it to update itself, send a password change request, get the authorization code from an email Steam sent back, and then change the password through the Steam client.  Granted, this is a Steam complaint and doesn’t affect the game itself, but I’ve accessed sensitive financial info faster and easier than changing settings on Steam.  I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing, but I hope other PS3 users will have an easier time learning Steam than I did.

On the game itself, the first thing you’ll notice is the improvement in the graphics, particularly the lighting effects.  One point in particular has you navigating pitch black catwalks while Wheatley acts as a flashlight.  The cast shadows through the metal beams and pipes look amazing.  As for Wheatley, he’s absolutely hilarious.  His dialog is very witty and the voice acting is great, so too is J. K. Simmons as Cave Johnson.  I suppose they’re intended to make up for GLaDOS.  She’s even more annoying the second time around.  Let’s just say being blown up bit by bit hasn’t improved her personality.  She constantly insults you or harasses you in the test chambers ( like dissolving crates right after picking them up. )  As an atmospheric device, I’ll say it’s effective.  You genuinely despise her after an hour and if I get to blow her up again, I’ll relish it this time.  On the flip side it means you have to endure the snide remarks through the whole game and I can’t say that won’t have some adverse effects on some players’ enjoyment of the game.

The worst thing I can say is the game doesn’t feel as tight as the original.  The maps are far bigger than the original’s and that often means more running, less portaling.  The addition of a sprint feature would let you get around much faster and I’m sad it’s not present ( particularly since a sprint would give the puzzles even more facets. )  The great map size also means you have a lot more area to search for elements to solve whatever puzzle or challenge you’re facing.  In the bigger, darker maps,  acceptable portal surfaces are usually highlighted in some way ( lighter texture color or a flood light makes it bright, ) but sometimes it takes a lot of searching to actually see them.  I think the bigger maps contribute to longer load times unfortunately.  Load times in the first Portal usually amounted to momentary pauses in the elevator after each test chamber.  Portal 2 now has load screens between each section.  It’s not huge, but it does break you out of the game more than the original ever did.

But more than anything, I just can’t say I’ve had that wow moment.  Once you hit the middle of Portal 1, you were doing some seriously cool things with the portal gun, like looping jump momentum through two or even three portal sequences.  So far I haven’t had any “Did I really just do that?” thoughts.  You do encounter some new puzzle elements, like hard-light bridges and propulsion gel, which give you some more toys to play with, but I can’t say they’ve really been utilized fully ( at least not yet for me. )  The game is supposed to be about three times as long as the original, so maybe I just haven’t hit the really cool stuff yet.  But like I say, it just feels a little drawn out, not the tight pacing of the original.

So far, it doesn’t feel like it’s been worth $60.  I loved the first Portal because it was unique.   It was a cerebral challenge with very little twitch factor.  It’s like Valve tried to make the sequel some epic adventure with something that was only meant for a short story.  I would have loved Portal 2 to be just more testing chambers, more puzzles with new mechanics.  Add in the separate co-op campaign and I would have gladly paid $40 for it.  I hope the single player campaign picks up.  If my guess is right and I’m only a third through the game, it has plenty of chances to do so.  And then there’s the whole co-op mode, so here’s to hoping it only gets better from here.

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