Gaming on a Timer

Portal 2 – Impressions, Single Player

A two-part piece regarding VALVe’s latest release, Portal 2 – the first part concerns itself with the single player portion of the game and thus might contain minor to moderate spoilers. Since the game relies heavily on key plot developments, it is strongly advised to not read this article until you have completed it. You have been warned.

Portal 2 Box Art.

In Portal 2, players once again step into the (spring-heeled) boots of Chell – the protagonist of the series’ previous game – who, due to various circumstances, finds herself waking up from cryogenic sleep several years after Portal 1’s conclusion by Wheatley, an artificial intelligence construct trying to enlist her help in escaping the decaying Aperture Science facilities after a catastrophic power failure. The player navigates the environment by using a portal-generating device which can open two interconnecting portals on certain surfaces, transporting matter between them (including objects, light, fluids and of course, the player).

Portal 2’s predecessor was known as a sleeper hit, originally “bonus” content featured in VALVe’s compilation, the Orange Box. Portal went on to earn critical acclaim from the press, mainly due to its quirky brand of dark humour, clever level design , puzzle dynamics and excellent characterization. VALVe’s staple ability of maintaining verisimilitude was also credited as a major factor behind the game’s success, with the Aperture Science facility offering a multitude of side-stories, both humorous and serious in tone – thus building a believable, persistent world for the game to take place.

Effort has gone into portraying the
decay due to the passage of time.

Story-wise, Portal 2 picks up at an unspecified amount of time after the first game’s conclusion, with Chell being awakened from cryogenic sleep by Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Merchant, who delivers his lines with admirable gusto and skill), the cryogenic facility’s supervisor trying to escape the now-defunct building with the player’s help. The story is, true to VALVe standards, integrated flawlessly into the core gameplay mechanic of portals, offering a variety of main- and side-stories that flesh out the game world considerably. There is a marked improvement in the story development over the last game, provoking thought in a much better way than its predecessor; the plot twist(s) during the game’s latter half are quite well executed, if not entirely unexpected and as such merit special mention.

Redirecting lasers, one of the new
gameplay elements introduced.

The game is divided into 9 chapters, the first acting as a tutorial introducing the portal mechanics, with subsequent chapters introducing new gameplay elements ranging from the mundane pressure-activated buttons to the more exotic ones such as the Repulsion Gel, which allows the player to ‘bounce’ off any surface it covers. These gameplay elements are continually combined to form the game’s many puzzles, ranging from simple box moving exercises to complex, gravity-defying acrobatics and high-speed infinite portal loop exploitation. This simple, ramping difficulty structure ensures that the player seldom gets stuck in any single puzzle for long, while providing a both rewarding and challenging scenarios – a few of the late-game sequences in particular proved to provoke thought in interesting ways and a satisfying feeling once they were solved.

One of the many combinations of
devices the player must tackle.

Sadly, this structure is also the part of the game that I found lacking the most; a few of the challenges felt like retreads of previous rooms, giving a slight feeling of padding out the latter parts of the single-player campaign – the various gel sequences are especially guilty of this. The thought occurs that, if the seventh and eighth chapters were merged into a single one, the game could avoid this easily. In addition, a small number of rooms (those generally involving long-range jumps, better known as ‘portal flinging’) are guilty of deceptive non-solutions; namely jumps that fall about an inch short of safety, sometimes tricking the player into repeating the same actions (and failing) again, in fear of not having the required velocity to perform said jumps.

Fluid physics are particularly fun to
watch; find a Propulsion Gel pipe…

In regards to the audio/visual component, the game is built upon a heavily modified version of the Source engine and as such looks beautiful (if slightly dated in comparison to other 2011 releases). Fluids are especially well done, with the aforementioned gel variants reacting with the environment and the various in-game entities in a satisfying way (such as coating enemy turrets in Repulsion Gel, then watching them bounce off every surface until they are destroyed). The character animations are also very well done, with Wheatley’s character model taking the fore; the work gone into his character model in particular shines as an example of body language execution (no mean feat, considering he’s basically a disembodied orb).

…and coat a nearby walkway; this will
hugely accelerates Chell’s walk speed.

The game’s audio is also of high quality, with ambient sounds that blend in perfectly with the scenery and accentuate the environments the player moves through. The music consists mainly of a series of techno tracks that are mixed on the fly depending on the player’s actions; the ‘frantic’ segments in particular (the final chapter’s intro is a very good example of this) evoke particularly strong feelings of urgency and pulse-pounding danger in a way reminiscent of Deus Ex, which also featured adaptive techno tracks (though of much lower sophistication than Portal’s ones).

Voice acting warrants special merit, with the trio of Ellen McLain, Stephen Merchant and J.K. Simmons providing the voices for GLaDOS, Wheatley and Cave Johnson, respectively. GLaDOS is once again portrayed in a most compelling manner, while bumbling artificial intelligence Wheatley’s British accent and mannerisms and Aperture Science CEO Cave Johnson’s off-beat manner, often with dark humour overtones, are the real show-stoppers this time around; both voice actors offer a wide range of lines delivered with genuine feeling and often to hilarious results.

In conclusion, the single player portion of the game delivers a compelling, quirky story in tandem with intelligent gameplay mechanics, some of the most clever humour in recent games, spot-on voice acting and excellent characterization.

On the flip side, a small part of the content feels repetitive, particularly in the latter half of the game, as well as some minor complaints on the otherwise great level design concerning high-velocity jumps. While the single-player portion’s duration (averaging at about  7 to 8 hours) isn’t any worse than any other recent release, the somewhat rigid level structure and singular solutions limit the game’s replayability.

*Portal 2 Box Art pic courtesy of


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