Portal 2 Review and Analysis

If I have to sum up Portal 2 in one word: brilliant!  I really enjoyed the first Portal a lot.  The sense of not knowing what’s going on and GLaDOS’ obvious demented nature made for a dark video game the likes of which I’d never experienced.  It was an artform as much as any other movie or book.  And the puzzles were great fun and really got my brain going.  But I wasn’t hooked.  In fact, there was a two year gap between when I started and finished the game

If Portal 1 is about your character being completely in the dark, Portal 2 is the exact opposite.  Portal 2 is all about exposition.  There are still a LOT of unanswered questions at the end of Portal 2.  But you come away with a much better understanding of Aperture Science than you had with the first game.  A few small details here and there have been retconned, but they were never explicitly stated in the first game.  All those details came from the fake Aperture Science website Valve had setup.  So most gamers hadn’t come across it if they weren’t deep into the fiction and I didn’t realize there were contradictions until it was pointed out to me.  Yet, despite focusing on the story-telling – the way Valve does it is not distracting.  Unlike Final Fantasy X, which I’m finishing up around the same time as Portal 2, which stops everything to do an info dump on the player, Portal 2 is much more subtle.  They live by the motto, “show, don’t tell” within this game.

The game has AMAZING voice acting.  Of course GlaDOS has the same voice actress doing a great job there.  There’s an appearance by Stephen Merchant doing such a perfectly amazing job; if this were a movie he’d deserve an Oscar or at least a nomination.  Nolan North is providing some voices, of course.  There isn’t a video game that has released in the past 3 or 4 years that doesn’t have him at least doing an auxiliary character’s voice.  The crazy thing is that I was only SLIGHTLY exaggerating.  There’s a reason why Giant Bomb has a category for best Nolan North performance in their yearly video game awards.  They all do a great job and it really, really pulls you into the narrative.

The first game was just a small game in the Orange box for which the real draws were Half Life 2: Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2.   But the game was so great, it became a darkhorse hit.  I’m not 100% sure how accurate this is (because logging was not always done on), but Steam says I played Portal 1 for 3.7 hours.  What is much more accurate is the 9.1 hours I’ve logged for Portal 2.  (Raptr says 11 hours – I’m not sure what causes the discrepancy other than that I played a few sessions for 45 min and maybe Raptr rounded up?)  So that’s slightly less than three times as long.  I’m mentioning this only for the curious, not because I think it matters.  First of all, I think that except in cases of extremely short length, the length of a game should not be important.  Dan and I are both in agreement that any review that focuses too much on playtime is missing the point and may even lose some respect in our eyes.  Second, it’s really not fair when it comes to the Portal franchise.  Unlike other types of games, Portal’s puzzles are hardest when you first encounter them because there is nothing intuitive about “thinking with Portals” whereas any game with a gun is pretty self-explanatory.  So while I struggled mightily to get through the later puzzles in Portal 1, I flew through the first third of Portal 2.  Even when they introduced some new elements early on, it was still a cakewalk for me.  It was great because I felt so smart given how quickly I was progressing.  That all stopped when I got to the area with the significantly new tech.  I still did it more quickly than any puzzle in Portal 1, but once you’re in that frame of mind you’re going to go much more quickly.  Another great example – Dan took the same amount of time (6 hours) to do the first one as the second one.  What I can say with confidence is that there are a LOT more puzzles than the first game.  How long they take to solve depends on how your brain works.  Also, there’s the multi-player campaign which might end up taking around the same amount of time as the single player mode.  One last thing to consider – I found the game overall to be easier.  For Portal 1 I needed a strategy guide to get me from room 17 through to the end.  With Portal 2 I only needed help for one room that had a very unintuitive solution.  AND I had solved 90% of that room already.  It was only the last step that I couldn’t get.  Is that because I was more in tune with their way of thinking this time around or were they actually easier?  I’m not sure – thoughts welcome in the comments.

The COOP mode is a lot of fun.

 

My Partner In Science!
My Partner In Science!

 

I had no idea how Portal could possibly work as a multiplayer game.  But they did it perfectly by making it COOP instead of competitive.  Also, you now have 4 portals to contend with.  They’ve put in a lot of tools so that you don’t even need voice chat (although it helps).  They also even tied it into the story.  (Hint – DON’T FINISH COOP BEFORE FINISHING SINGLE PLAYER MODE)

 

Celebrating!
Celebrating!

 

You play as two robots which makes a lot more sense after playing the single player mode as well as keeping you from having too much suspension of disbelief  over humans dying.  I started playing after I’d only played an hour of the single player campaign. It was a LOT of fun and my brother and I went for an hour.   I only stopped when I started seeing concepts I had not yet come across in the story mode.  They don’t have any explanation of how to use the new elements which also helps encourage you to realize that you should be playing the story mode first.  And, you’ll see in the single player mode how it all ties together and makes more sense.  As I write this, I haven’t finished the COOP mode, but I know from internet sites that it actually changes the meaning of the ending of the single player mode, so perhaps save it for last if you can.

 

Steps....score of a sort?
Steps....score of a sort?

 

Valve has done something amazing here, they’ve created the sequel I didn’t know I wanted.  They could have just added extra levels to the first game with a different protagonist and satisfied the itch for Portal puzzles.  But no, they made a story that made sense without too much of a horror movie ending to get Chell back into the facilities.  And the whole story made sense (can’t get into that too much without spoilers – that’s how tight the story is) Where do they go from here?  I’m not sure.  I think, given the ending, it’d be really hard to do a direct sequel without cheapening the storytelling.  There are still some unanswered questions from the comic that ties the two games together.  While it would greatly change the narrative to explore Aperture Science without Chell, it could provide a direction for the series to go.  That said, there’s always the COOP mode where it makes a lot more sense to add more puzzles.  As far as I know, the Robots have no qualms with being tested (unlike a human) so they could be tested for all infinity without negatively impacting the story.

In conclusion of the spoiler-free section, if you like puzzles, dark humor, or played Portal 1 and didn’t hate it – buy this game!  Let me also recommend that you read the tie-in comic (available in your menu when you launch the game under extras) because it really sucks you into the narrative while providing some background info.  Thus ends the review part of this game.

I want to speak about other parts of the game that will be spoilers and may heavily destroy your ability to enjoy this game.  Now, you may think it’s too early to be discussing spoilers.  By the time this post appears on the blog, the game will have only been out for a month.  However, take a look at this raptr graph of Portal 2 playtime:

raptr Portal 2 logged play time
raptr Portal 2 logged play time

Pretty much everyone who wanted to play this game has played it.  And it’s pretty short, hence the dropoff.  So I’m going to assume that if you care about spoilers you will stop reading right now and if you cared that much about Portal 2, you’d have probably already played it.  (Plus I’ve just warned you about half a dozen times that the rest of this review CONTAINS SPOILERS!)

 

The Rat Man Commemorates Chell's Triumph Over GlaDOS
The Rat Man Commemorates Chell's Triumph Over GlaDOS

 

 

This room makes a lot more sense if you've read the comic
This room makes a lot more sense if you've read the comic

 

OK, so there are basically 3 arcs to Portal 2.  There’s the awakening of GlaDOS, the Exposition of the Past, and The Wheatley era.  Starting with the awakening area, I loved everything about it.  I loved the part that shows how the process for being awakened for testing should have been.  Question for the comments, do you think you’re Chell in this part?  I think it makes to most narrative sense that you’re not.  I think she’d try to escape or otherwise not follow the instructions.  At least that’s what I thought during the game.  But, as I write this, perhaps she just resolved to wait until she had another chance to escape?  But going back to my first thought, in the comic, The Rat Man says that she’ll never wake up because the systems have been shut off and she’ll sleep forever.  So I saw it as Chell being asleep until Wheatley comes in an attempt to find SOMEONE who’s still alive.  And the beginning was another person and takes place before Chell’s escape.  It’s just meant to show how it should have proceeded.  I’m not sure.   loved the counter repeating nines as if it’d filled its register way past what it was designed to – no one was supposed to sleep that long.  The decay and everything were great, especially the bed being stuck in your shape.  Stephen Merchant was, as I mentioned before, brilliant!  There’s a certain thread common to British comedy of the bumbling fool and a certain way of speaking while in that role that Merchant captures spectacularly.  Of course, he’s been in similar roles in the past with Extras and other shows he’s worked on with Ricky Gervais.  And, as I have always loved ever since Crono Trigger, I loved the joke on the fact that your protagonist is a mute hero.  (I haven’t played Half Life, but I know from wikipedia/tvtropes there are similar jokes about Gordon Freeman)

Dan and I read the comic (which is what convinced me to pre-order the game) and the screen where The Rat Man moves Chell to the top of the testing list, kicking off Portal 1, had Dan and I debating whether the rest of those people were dead because Chell’s victory had knocked life support offline.  Wheatley confirms this in what probably seems like a throwaway line to anyone who hadn’t read the comic.  He mentions you’re the only one alive of like 10,000 people.  So did you save them from being killed by GlaDOS or are you more responsible?  I found myself wondering that.  Although, according to TV Tropes there’s a line at some point where Wheatley tells you that you’re actually the sixth person (or something like that) that he woke up.  True?  Let me know in the comments.  I was also fascinated by the room in which The Rat Man had drawn Chell as in the comic.  Sadly, as far as the single player game goes, you don’t know whether or not he dies at the end of the comic.

Well, as you probably knew from the trailers, we end up waking up GlaDOS and she’s so happy to see us.  Oh, no wait, she’s not.  I did LOVE how Wheatley had been telling you about the GUY who defeated GlaDOS only to be surprised when it’s you!

 

Wheatley Inadvertently Turning on GlaDOS
Wheatley Inadvertently Turning on GlaDOS

 

As far as the rest of the first arc, I love the male voice that’s talking to you.  It’s a great different dynamic than the first game where you only had GlaDOS to talk to you.  The voice and tone sounds like something you’d hear at Disney World or some other such place.  His warnings and precautions are just as dark and funny as GlaDOS in the first game.  You’d think it wouldn’t be possible since GlaDOS had such hate and spite in her voice while this guy sounds so generic.  But combining the things he says with his voice and it’s creepy for almost the opposite reason as GlaDOS in the first game.  I love the new little animations in the elevator shafts.  I like when they animate what the voice over is talking about, especially the animal king takeover.  But it’s also neat when it illustrates the upcoming challenge.  His reference to Asimov’s Laws of Robotics also made me laugh.

I loved the GlaDOS quote “”I’ve been really busy being dead….”  The other thing I loved about this first arc was the escape where I got to see the production area.

 

Turret Target Practice
Turret Target Practice

 

In the first game you don’t really think about where the turrets come from.  You just know they’re for the chambers for testing military robots.  Here you get to see that Aperture Science manufactured it.  (Also some information you get watching the pre-order promo trailers disguised as investment videos)

 

Deciding if Turrets are Defective
Deciding if Turrets are Defective

 

The area where the science projects were housed during  Take your Daughter to Work day was funny, especially Wheatley’s comments about the volcano one.

 

The Cliche Volcano Project
The Cliche Volcano Project

 

At first I saw it as tying together the potato theme from the ARG (although it would become more important later on as well).  Later, while reviewing my screenshots (my Chell was like Frank West documenting everything – I have over 300 screenshots) I realized it revealed that Chell was brought to Aperture Science that day.  She’d probably grown up there.  Very sad.  (My wife agreed.  She said it made the game sad to an almost depressing level) I haven’t quite finished digesting the relevance of that reveal yet.

 

Chell's Experiment
Chell's Experiment

 

I think the only thing that sucked here was that, since trailers spoil. I knew that the game wasn’t over.  I couldn’t really be about to escape once I got to GlaDOS because I still hadn’t seen the blue or orange gels.  Of course, I could have done like my brother and had a complete blackout on promotional media before the game, but ironically, it was those same trailers that made me preorder rather than waiting for it to be $20.  However, I couldn’t predict the Wheatley plot twist.  Thankfully I’d stayed away from any spoilers that revealed that.  I’m not so dense that I couldn’t predict it once he kept talking about how big he was and how small I was.  At that point I knew I was screwed.  But at least it was still a bit of a surprise.  And trailers also lie because a later testing room I was sure was coming with the crunching panels and blue gel never did.  (And that looked awesome!  Same with using the tubes as a vacuum)

 

Wheatley gets a taste of power
Wheatley gets a taste of power

 

The next part was a total surprise and also one of the aspects of the game that most convinced me of the brilliance of the story-telling team at Valve.  Valve could have made a Portal prequel that explored this part of Aperture Science’s history.  Or they could have done it via videos, flashback, and/or exposition like other games do.  Nope, not Valve!  They have you travel back in time by going into the closed off and abandoned sections of Aperture Science.

 

Not just closed, but vitrified!
Not just closed, but vitrified!

 

And you live through the history by going through the old test chambers and listening to Cave Johnson’s voice.  Again, show not tell.  Wonderful. It’s the brilliance of having Portal 2 be both a prequel and a sequel.

 

Something crazy happened here
Something crazy happened here

 

I loved the 1950s section where you can see that the artists at Valve had a blast!  Everything from the fact that there’s an atomic symbol in the Aperture Science logo to the ashtrays to the furniture makes it really feel like it’s from that time period.

 

Aperture Science from the 50s
Aperture Science from the 50s

 

The Future of Tomorrow!
The Future of Tomorrow!

 

 

The 1950s Lobby
The 1950s Lobby

 

 

One of the Retcons.  I think Aperture was originally said to be in Ohio
One of the Retcons. I think Aperture was originally said to be in Ohio

 

Know Your Allergens!
Know Your Allergens!

 

Know Your....
Know Your....

 

 

Early Portal Gun
Early Portal Gun

 

Early Emancipation Grill
Early Emancipation Grill

 

Original Use for Blue Gel
Original Use for Blue Gel

 

 

Early Weighted Companion Cube
Early Weighted Companion Cube

 

 

Sadly, they never develop on this....at least prior to the release of any DLC
Sadly, they never develop on this....at least prior to the release of any DLC

 

 

Safety First!
Safety First!

 

And as you go through and see the ruin the company goes through, it’s amazing in a way that could never be as easily told in an exposition. He goes from Olympians, Astronauts, and War Heros in the 50s to Hobos in the 70s and Employees in the 80s.  (And their kids in the 90s?)  And you can see the deterioration of his will and optimism in his portraits as the time passes. “Black Mesa can eat my bankrupt….”  The story makes me feel sorrowful for Aperture Science – they’re like BeOS vs Microsoft.  BeOS was revolutionary for its time (as had been Amiga and other computer operating systems no longer with us) and yet it was surpassed by the company that was better at marketing.

 

1950s Cave Johnson
1950s Cave Johnson

 

1970s Cave Johnson
1970s Cave Johnson

 

 

 

1980s Cave Johnson
1980s Cave Johnson

 

 

Aperture Science in the 70s
Aperture Science in the 70s

 

 

70s Tiles
70s Tiles

 

 

Watch out for OSHA!
Watch out for OSHA!

 

$60 for participating in the testing!
$60 for participating in the testing!

 

 

Rules for Hobos Participating in the Tests
Rules for Hobos Participating in the Tests

 

I read this as Aperture trying to squirrel out of paying the hobos
I read this as Aperture trying to squirrel out of paying the hobos

 

 

Sign from Aperture Science in the 80s
Sign from Aperture Science in the 80s

 

 

How to Trick an AI
How to Trick an AI

 

 

Robots are better than humans!
Robots are better than humans!

 

 

This poster creeped me the heck out
This poster creeped me the heck out

 

 

 

1980s Waiting Area
1980s Waiting Area

 

 

 

Finally, there are hints that GlaDOS is that Caroline from the earlier (60-70s) rooms.  Then it’s confirmed in the white gel room.

 

PotatOS
PotatOS

 

Also, that’s where Cave Johnson mentions that he’s dying from self testing with the white gel.  And this article shows that the moon dust cause for death is not just a Valve joke.  Also GREAT checkov’s gun for the end of the game.

 

 

How to get out of employee training
How to get out of employee training

 

Then we get to the final arc, getting GlaDOS back to Wheatley and hopefully not getting screwed over once she’s in control again.  What I loved about this section were Wheatley’s attempts at being evil, his laughably easy tests, and the strange feeling of having GlaDOS as an ally.

 

Wheatley's Observance is Less Subtle than GlaDOS'
Wheatley's Observance is Less Subtle than GlaDOS'

 

 

Also Wheatley's Grotesque Cube/Turret Crabs
Also Wheatley's Grotesque Cube/Turret Crabs

 

They Really are Abominations!
They Really are Abominations!

 

I’m curious to see if anyone agrees in the comments, but  this is the one arc that I feel is a bit rushed.  In fact, looking back, while each arc of Portal 2 is awesome on its own, the game is SLIGHTLY jerky in pacing.  In other words, while trying to get to GlaDOS you’re in a hurry, trying to escape and trying to sabotage her.  You don’t want to get caught.  She’s actively trying to kill you (rather than waiting for the end like last time).  Then you get thrown into the prequel stuff and it’s much more leisurely.  Cave Johnson is just a pre-recorded voice.  Even when you find GlaDOS, she’s not that talkative.  You’re at your own pace to discover the history and learn the new game mechanics.  Then the part with Wheatley seems so fast and perhaps with the smallest amount of chambers.  And some elements like the hot grills or the broken pipes only make a passing appearance.  I am not REALLY complaining because I think each part worked more or less perfectly.  Maybe it was just after taking it so easy in the second arc that the third feels so much more fast-paced than it really is.

 

I love how Valve created these vanity tiles
I love how Valve created these vanity tiles

 

They're supposed to make fun of the vanity tiles people put into custom levels.  I know I did when I was around 10 and making custom levels
They're supposed to make fun of the vanity tiles people put into custom levels. I know I did when I was around 10 and making custom levels

 

I did like learning that the itch to test hard-wired into system.  It was also neat seeing P-body in Wheatley chamber 15 when he made a new exit.

 

You can just barely see him on the left near the exit
You can just barely see him on the left near the exit

 

Love that a core meltdown results in a BSOD
Love that a core meltdown results in a BSOD

 

 

Not Very Subtle
Not Very Subtle

 

There isn’t much more to say about the third arc other than that I loved the parallels and differences between Wheatley’s and GlaDOS’ defeat.

 

Space! Space! We're in Space!
Space! Space! We're in Space!

 

I love that GlaDOS has finally given up on trying to test Chell.

 

"You dangerous mute lunatic" (Another great mute hero joke!)
"You dangerous mute lunatic" (Another great mute hero joke!)

 

Although I thought she was going back on her word when the elevator doors opened to the turrets.

 

She Lied!
She Lied!

 

 

Nope, it's Opera Time
Nope, it's Opera Time

 

Finally, I LOVE the epiloque – “I’m in space!”

Final words: It shows that Valve really understands their audience that the weighted companion cube makes an appearance at the very end.  I’m also glad you finally won.  Sure, they could just patch it differently like they did with Portal 1, but even that one had a more grim ending as you were unconscious or seriously injured.  Of course, given that Portal takes place in the Half Life universe, maybe she’s not really OK, but in a lot of ways, that doesn’t affect my enjoyment and satisfaction at this ending.  Of course, some reading on the internet seems to say that the coop is apparently the real epilogue…

 

You DIDN'T euthanize it!
You DIDN'T euthanize it!

Author: Eric Mesa

To find out a little more about me, see About Me

3 thoughts on “Portal 2 Review and Analysis”

  1. I still think you’re Chell in the intro. There’s no reason to suspect you’re anyone different and the disorientation of being woken up from cryo could explain why you complied. Then again, you could also be like me and not comply for like 10 minutes as you jumped around the room looking for an escape. Who’s to say? I think I acted more like Chell is characterized in the comic than you did.

    I suppose Chell was responsible for killing the other test subjects by trying to escape, but it’s really an academic exercise. Would anyone else have escaped GLaDOS without killing the other subjects? Who knows?

    The Wheatley other survivor bit is an abandoned storyline arc (you’ll see more in the commentary) where you weren’t the first person who Wheatley woke up to try and escape.

    I thought the comic was pretty conclusive about the death of Rattman. He’s dead, Jim. I mean, he’s in a life support thing and the power for those was knocked out, right? Unless there’s something else about it in co-op, I’d say he’s dead.

    I don’t think that the Wheatley arc is rushed, but I do think it carries more momentum than the middle of the game. Aperture’s history seems leisurely and forgotten, but the moment you get back up to Wheatley you’re bombarded with messages of impending meltdowns and disaster with a strong sense of haste. The other section rather like this is when you make a break from GLaDOS with Wheatley. Just feels like it moves a million miles an hour. Personally I think it’s just pacing because the puzzles in Wheatley’s sector are the hardest in the game, but that could just be me.

  2. Great review Eric Mesa! I was looking forward to read about it. Portal 2 is really a exciting game at all. The games theme touches my mind. Thanks!!!

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