Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Quick Impressions: Portal 2 (PS3)

Note: If you are reading this and haven't played Portal 1. Stop. Go to a PC/Mac/PS3/360, get Portal, and play it. Do not return until you are done. Don't read on until you are familiar with Portal 1.

I am not responsible for spoiling Portal 1 for you from this point onwards.

When Portal first came out in 2007, it was one of those groundbreaking landmarks that caught everyone by surprise: A FPS where you avoid combat? Puzzle Solving? No Multiplayer? Portal was one of those games that, despite being unconventional and boxed in between two excellent titles, stood out as a jaw-droppingly memorable every step of the way.

Fast-forward to 2011. Portal 2, as a "full game", feels just as jaw dropping as the first game. While it loses some originality, it gains a healthy dose of even wittier writing, fantastic pacing, and a much more even learning curve. After finishing the game for the first time, I'm itching to get right back into it for both the Dev Commentary (Just started it and it's already fascinating), and the Co-op multiplayer (interesting that they added multiplayer, but from all accounts, seems like a natural fit, I'll try it later). In my mind, Portal 2 comes dangerously close to matching Dead Space 2 as the current front-runner for game of the year (and the similarities don't end there either).

One of the brilliant things that Dead Space 2 did was recalling player's past experience in the first game (I should write about Dead Space 2 too, that game has a lot of interesting talking points), Portal 2, interestingly, pulls a similar trick at the start of this game, taking the player for a ride through areas they have experienced in the first game. New players to the series should find the first few stages sufficient in teaching them the basics of Portal's gameplay; Veterans of the series will find the first few stages interesting too, as the new visuals tell a great story of the time between the first and the second game, and some minor tweaks to the early puzzles makes the experience even more memorable. I like to think that this technique of recalling previous games help players strengthen their experience and their connection to the game world: it's like seeing an old friend, trying to catch up to what happen, and see what's changed. In both Portal 2 and Dead Space 2, this "mechanic" was used to build anticipation and create surprises that a new player may not notice. While these sections may seem trivial and well designed to new players, they felt extra special to players who've seen the first. I've caught myself walking through different areas wondering what "twists" they will apply here.

The first Portal suffers from the same issues that typically plagues puzzle games: designers can try to iron out as many spikes in difficulty for a general audience, but all it takes is one stumbling block to throw a player off. While Portal 1 was fantastic, there were parts in the end game scenario that would have been potentially game breaking. To me, it seems like Portal 2 did a much better job of guiding the player to the key points they needed to see. Even though I was new to all the stages, I was able to pinpoint the exit, and the possible steps that I needed to take to reach the goal; the clever level design, layout, and organization made me feel smart about solving the problem (whether any intelligence was involved was debatable). One can say that some this new focus have made the game too streamlined (instead of a full wall, there's only a small section where you can put portals), but it really feels like there's been actual play session tests to make sure the game will feel challenging for players yet not to alienate people and discourage further play.

(As an offshoot, there's two specific points in the end game scenario where I was able to do things with lightening quick-reflex. I highly doubt it's voodoo magic, but there were enough psychological hints and telltale signs that motivated me to react properly on pure gut instinct. When you get there, you'll do it too, and we can talk afterwards.)

One of the key design elements mentioned in the first game's developer commentary was the "second act", where players walk through the "hidden underbelly" of the test chambers. While this was an enticing story arc, I've wondered how many players gave up on Portal before getting that far (some of the puzzles were brutal, requiring both reflex and mental capacity). I do think that Portal 2's story allowed much greater freedom for Valve to weave players through both "Real" tests and the "behind the scenes" sections. Fairly early on, players would be tossed between both the real and fake sections of the labs, giving a greater sense of decay in the environment, and the connection between what is real and what isn't. In the first game, you were essentially a lab rat until the world was revealed; here, you are shown right away that the labs, the tests, and the setting was part of something bigger. Every time a transition between the lab and the real world takes place, I would start looking around for other cracks within the facade, possible for things that give me a greater glimpse of the world. It's a beautiful done mechanic, and would-be designers should take note.

Perhaps the best part of Portal 2 for me was the writing. Portal's GLaDOS was fantastic, but here, both GLaDOS, Wheatly and the other characters are so well written that I often stop and wait to listen for more dialog. GLaDOS' snaky remarks, Wheatly's crazy incoherent banter and Cave Johnson's seemingly insane statements are delivered so pitch perfect, it brings life to the entire game (even though you are the only living person in the entire game). Without the dialog and chatter, Portal 2 would not be half the game it is right now.

Oh, and there's the ending, but let's not talk about that. It's absolutely Lunacy!

I've probably written way too much for a "first impression", but I think the parts I mentioned seems important enough to write about. There's a lot of good design substance here that any designers or would-be designers should take a hard look at how things work and why people enjoy them when they work.


  1. I think I might have to go pick this game up this weekend. I really liked the first one and have been looking forward to this for awhile. I've also been convinced the PS3 version is the one to get so you can have the luxury of split screen co-op (which far too few games include these days) and you get the PC version as a bonus.

  2. You did finish the first one right? If it's been a while, play it again, right before jumping into 2.

  3. I did indeed finish the first one.

  4. Originally, I thought the kind of guided level design in Portal was only really doable because the levels were set in a test lab setting. It's easy when your walls are stark white, and the only interactions you have to worry about are colored, shaded, or textured. But...

    That all changes once you find yourself outside of the test facility setting. In the other parts of the game (trying so hard not to spoil), the trials are no longer trials specifically for you and your portal gun. I actually found these levels more challenging than those in the lab, even if only marginally so. The first time I found myself in the Old School section of the game, I noticed I felt completely lost. Which surfaces were portal-able? The levels, though contained, felt so open, I initially had a hard time training myself to look around. I was spoiled by the trials, which in some way, put everything on a silver platter, and then placed the platter across the room, beyond the bottomless chasm and laser guided sentries.

    I'll end it here, I should probably write up my own thoughts about the game separately. But I'll sum it up with this: Portal 1 and 2 could have easily been a simple set of challenges for a player. It could have the FPS equivalent of a Trials HD or Angry Birds. But it wasn't. VALVe has combined a unique, paradigm-changing physics mechanic with gorgeous, functional user design (incredibly important in the first person, IMHO), and has wrapped it up with top notch writing and dialogue. Portal 2 in particular proves that putting creative energy into all facets of game production will yield something greater than the sum of its parts, that has something for everyone, despite where their gaming interest might lie.

  5. I think part of the magic and genius is going outside. Everytime I pass a small section of the 'outside', I look back and ask how I managed to figure all that out without a guide? The setpieces seems daunting at first, but most people who give it some time do get past them with relative ease.

    The types of puzzles too, went through significant changes. Timing puzzles were almost all removed, along with most uncontrolled "timed" moving platforms. One environment hazard was completely dropped, for the better. All these changes felt like deliberate moves to reduce the timing based stress induced in the first game, and it's a fantastic job that Valve did to test and iron them out.