4 May 2011
Early on in my overpaid sequence of lucky breaks that only the most bitterly sarcastic observer would call a career, I made a video about The Orange Box, a loose collection of gamelike objects bundled together as a sort of apology for Half-Life: Episode 2 being about as timely as a long-term Middle East peace solution. It included Team Fortress 2, a multiplayer experience matched only by competitive breast massage, and Portal, the earthly manifestation of Christ. Fucking hell, talk about overcompensation. Makes me wonder what Valve are going to do to make up for the considerably longer wait that it's been for Half-Life: Episode 3. They're either going to hand out hundred-dollar bills or all line up on the roof of the studio and commit seppuku.
Anyway, Portal is the only game I've been unable to fault in - it's like Ahab and Moby Dick, if Ahab regarded Moby Dick with asexual lust and Moby Dick's owners once invited Ahab to come visit their ivory tower and flick cashew nuts at poor people. In the time since then and the release of Portal 2, you'll be pleased to hear that I eventually did come up with a criticism for Portal 1: it's got the worst fucking fans in the world. Nothing ruins a good thing quite like knowing you share your opinions with mindless little tits who bray like mules if you so much as mention the word "cake," and the good thing in question can never be the same again. This is technically known as the "Knights Who Say 'Ni' Effect."
It was with some trepidation that I started Portal 2, then, but fortunately there's nary a mention of cake. And the Companion Cube appears in only a very conciliatory fashion, although I did notice it's undergone a slight design change. Hoping to cash in on a new range of plushies, are we, Valve? You crafty buggers. The thing is - and you can take this for either a good thing or a bad thing - Portal 2 doesn't have anything that's comparably memetic, if I might employ the vocabulary of a toss-pot for a moment.
Portal 1 was a big, delicious jam donut with cream on top and Portal 2 is a big Cornish pasty with chocolate in one half and shepherd's pie in the other and look at me dancing around the issue! Dancey dancey la de dah. All right, let's skip to the end. Is Portal 2 good? Yes! Is it better than Portal 1? No!
What you need to understand is that nobody expected Portal 1 to explode the way it did. Valve released it essentially as a stocking stuffer to mollify us into not coming around and breaking their windows. It was all of two hours long and developed by a small team within the company who had to cut corners like it was crunch time at the circle factory. And what I liked most about it was that it was a tight as a walnut corset. Not an inch of it was wasted. Everything was there that needed to be there for the game to work, and the humor was the icing on the, uh, the French Fancy.
But then Portal became twice as popular as a YouTube video of a laughing baby riding a startled cat, and now suddenly the sequel's getting a big roomy box all to itself and the whole studio's behind it. The game's full of spectacular environments and opens with a lengthy physics sequence where the chamber you're in gets picked up and hauled around, bits falling off the walls and revealing epic views of the ruined facility beyond. And yeah, it's impressive, but I can't help but feel that sinking feeling you get as something splashes warmly on your face and you know you're gonna have a reputation as the school's slut by tomorrow afternoon.
All right, perhaps that was too much.
The attitude of Portal 2 's single-player is best summarized by two separate occasions within it when a puzzle is interrupted by a story section. You see, Portal 1 was at heart a puzzle game with a really good framework. Portal 2 is a sight-seeing tour that begrudgingly has a puzzle game in it. The campaign is fit into three major puzzle sections broken up by connecting sequences, and by God do some of those connecting sequences drag on. I hope you like playing "hunt around this huge, detailed environment for the one solitary patch of portalable wall and move on to the next big fuck-off room."
And the actual puzzles are all rather straightforward. Maybe it's because there are so many gaps between them that they feel they have to have a new tutorial every five minutes in case we accidentally looked at a vibrant section of wall since the last few puzzles and part of our brains fell out. If the developer commentary indicates anything, it's that Valve focus test almost to a fault, and if a player so much as looked at a wall for too long they painted a big sign on it saying "STOP LOOKING AT THIS WALL."
Fortunately, I eventually found where all the actual puzzles were hiding: they're in the co-op campaign, which I played through with one of my fat friends. With the addition of two extra portals to play around with, the puzzles are bigger and better and satisfying to solve through teamwork. If you need to swiftly make friends with someone, like a future father-in-law or armed burglar, then you couldn't find a better ice-breaker. I just don't think it has any replay value whatsoever. If you played it again with another fat friend, you'd just get sick of lugging the ball and chain around and they'd resent you for not letting them figure shit out on their own. So make doubly sure your armed burglar isn't an avid PC gamer.
The continued life of the co-op will depend on additional downloadable levels, not - let me make this totally clear - the unlockable hats and costumes that they currently have, presumably with the attitude of "it worked for Team Fortress 2". But did it really work for Team Fortress 2? I don't think so, because one of TF2 's strongest features was in the visual design, and to the fashion-unconscious masses Valve should just have said: "No, you can't wear whatever hat you like. Hands up everyone in this room who hires professional character designers. Oh, just me? Right. So shut up and wear your fucking Akubra!"
Whatever you take from this video, don't let it be that Portal 2 isn't worth your time, because it most certainly is. Were it in any other position it would accumulate enough of my saliva to run all its household plumbing for several days. Unfortunately, Portal 2 is in the uncomfortable position of necessarily having to be compared to Portal 1. And taking both games as wholes, it can't possibly have the same impact. Certainly there's more of it, but that just makes it flabbier. And it's still funny, but more in a broader, custard pie to the face sense than in a finer, snooker cue to the bollocks sense. It's a quantity over quality issue. It's the difference between having a punnet containing three nice, plump cherries or one containing five nice, plump cherries and a handful of sawdust. You're either left wanting more or left with a mouth tasting like a pigeon's been roosting in it.
Sure was a nice career I almost had there: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Still if there's a Portal 3 there's now excellent justification for setting it in space, which is 100% guaranteed to improve a franchise
Now you're sinking with portholes