My Portal 2 review, or “How To Make A Sequel That Doesn’t Suck”

 
 
 

Most people nowadays don’t know how to make a sequel. A sequel should be reserved until the first part gets stale. It is something that takes time and care, and can’t be rushed or it will be mediocre at best.

When Valve released Half-Life in 1998, people were obsessed with it. It redefined what was possible in video games; how a story could be told, how players progressed through that story, and the way a game is played. Over time, Half-Life became a phenomenon, winning many awards, and its life was extended through hundreds, if not thousands, of mods such as Half-Life: Blue Shift, Half-Life: Opposing Force, and Counter-Strike.

Several years passed, and Half-Life was losing its luster. It was beginning to look outdated, and as amazing as the story was, people were getting tired of talking about it over and over again. Something new was needed, something fresh. In 2004, Half-Life 2 came out.

It blew anything and everything related to the first game out of the water. The story was (to exercise a fitting, yet overused term) EPIC, the gameplay took all the elements from the first and made it so much more intense and exciting, and the story went in an unforeseen, yet wondrous new direction. The graphics and physics, built around the new “Source” engine (in conjunction with Havok), were outstanding. Although the Source engine began to look and feel outdated more quickly than the original Half-Life engine, this was due to technology improving more rapidly than when HL1 came out, rather than poor skills on the part of the developers.

Half-Life 2 showed the world that sequels weren’t always just mindlessly created as cash cows that looked and felt cheap, sucking up your money because you liked last year’s smash hit. They could be hand-crafted to perfection, every element carefully and meticulously designed with the sole purpose of taking everything good about the first one – and making it better.

 
 
 

With Portal 2, Valve has done it again.

 
 
 

For those of you who may have forgotten (as I had), Portal was not originally sold as a standalone game. It was released with the Orange Box in 2007 along with Team Fortress 2, Half-Life 2, and HL2’s two episodes, all four of which had already been standalone titles. (EDIT: Alex Santa Maria points out in a comment below that TF2 was also debuting for the first time in the OB, and it was supposed to be the main attraction, with Portal just tossed in as a bonus.) Portal was a safe experiment to see how Valve fans handled a new concept, and it was bundled with four (three) other best-selling Valve titles just in case it wasn’t so well-received. It turned out to be the biggest of them all.

See, the people at Valve are really smart. When they want something to be a hit, they don’t spend millions in advertising and shove it down people’s throats. They let it grow and thrive on its own. I don’t know what their original business model was when they were first getting started, but for an established company, this is a good one from which others should take a page or two (like the folks banging out a Call of Duty or two every year).

That brings me back to my original point, which is that people don’t know how to make a proper sequel anymore. Any art form (though I’ll focus on video games for this explanation) that is going to have a sequel needs to have a certain chronological formula: First, there must be proper time for the first one to gain popularity. Second, you need to make sure EVERYONE has played it (Valve made Portal available for FREE a while back). Then, you need to make sure it’s been beaten into the ground. People still love it, but it’s not fresh anymore. Discussions aren’t focused around it anymore. People have long since moved on. Then, just when they’ve almost forgotten it, bring forward news that the next installment is on the way. That’s the difference between a sloppy, rushed, unexpected and perhaps somewhat unnecessary sequel, and a truly outstanding piece of artwork.

 
 
 

The latter of which is one way to describe Portal 2.

 
 
 

Portal 2 is everything that made the first game great, but bigger and better. That is usually expected of a sequel, so no real surprise there. However, as I was playing, I got the feeling that every little thing in the game was a product of Valve’s careful attention to detail. They didn’t just take Portal and stretch it out like some low-resolution 4:3 video stretched into 16:9 HD (nerdy metaphors ftw). They were conscious of the fact that they needed to make every little thing better. Not just give players more of it, and make some general improvements (I can just imagine a literal list of “things people asked for more of” sitting on the desk of Mr. Lazy Developer at Mediocre Games, Inc.). Valve made sure every little thing from the writing to the voice acting, the music to the gameplay, the graphics and animations and physics to the puzzles – was perfect. They didn’t set out to make “the next one in the series”. They set out to make a game, and they wanted to do it right. Simple as that.

So, that finally brings me to the actual review of the game. There might be some minor spoilers (I’ll try to keep them to a minimum), so if you haven’t played it yet, I suggest either killing yourself, or playing it right now. I mean, that’s what I would do. The latter, that is. Can’t really imagine any other options.

Portal 2 is like a really good book: You just can’t put it down until it’s finished, but you don’t want to finish it. Valve has always excelled at throwing the traditional prerendered cutscene out the window and presenting the story through scripted events. This is by far the greatest thing about Portal 2. Every scripted event in the game, from when Wheatley is slinging you around in a room that’s falling apart in the beginning (with very impressive physics and destruction to the walls and floor), to when GlaDOS reawakens, is so well made you just can’t wait for the next one. The animations are so perfect yet cartoony, it’s like a Pixar movie. Every scene is memorable and full of action. The voice acting is absolutely phenomenal throughout, with very believable characters containing dynamic personalities. This is the first game I’ve played in a while that had some truly amazing moments that made me feel like I was involved in more than a video game.

The puzzles were taken to new levels as well in this sequel. I found it interesting that they did away with the energy balls, but I didn’t really miss them. They were replaced with lasers that were used in conjunction with cubes to direct the beams. The gel is perhaps the best new addition to the Portal universe, though. Blue makes you bounce, orange makes you run fast, white allows you to create portals on any surface. Great fun ensues.

The music was another fantastic element of Portal 2. I don’t much remember the music of the first game, and I think that’s because it was kept to a minimum. In this one, it is prominent. The music is interactive, in that when you interact with certain things in the game, a melody will play along with the current music for the duration of the interaction (not always, just on certain puzzles). The music played during action sequences is very different from what you might typically hear in a musical score (more techno with some chiptune tossed in).

A particular part of the game I thought was really well-done was the middle section/ all the bits with Cave Johnson. Not just because of J.K. Simmons’ excellent voice acting, either. As I was playing, I realized the purpose of that part of the game. Instead of presenting the player with a cutscene showing Cave Johnson and Caroline running Aperture over a period of about 30 years, they let you play it. Sticking with the dilapidation theme, they let the player roam through Aperture’s old, condemned testing facilities like a trip to the museum. A combination of “prerecorded” voice-overs, the year each facility was active painted on large walls, and various photos/ awards/ documents/ etc. subtly gives players the history of Aperture Science in an interactive form. Not to mention the puzzles are playable as well, adding depth to the gameplay.

The few short hours I spent with Portal 2, much like the six it took me to beat the original, were incredible. I was immersed in a strange yet familiar world with wacky, witty characters and puzzles ranging in difficulty from easy to potato-mashingly difficult. Many memorable moments will be cemented in my mind for years to come. It’s hard to think that all this quality was packed into one measly sequel, typically a throwaway game unleashed onto this world for the sole purpose of suckering people to pay for more of the same thing they got in the last one. But you know what? That’s not Portal 2. In fact, if thinking of it as a sequel diminishes it so much in your mind, then you might as well wipe that “2” right off the end there. This is no throwaway game. It has quality that will lead to staying power, and it will fight to the top to show the world that a good sequel really can take game of the year.

Portal 2 is how you make a sequel.

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~ by The Retro Gamer on August 14, 2011.

2 Responses to “My Portal 2 review, or “How To Make A Sequel That Doesn’t Suck””

  1. Quick note, if you don’t remember, TF2 ALSO came out in the Orange Box, not before, which just goes to show how little they knew what they had with Portal. It was a bonus, TF2 was supposed to be the main attraction.

    • Oh, right, thanks! Yeah, back in ’07 I wasn’t following Valve too closely yet. I had played HL1+2 and a bit of Counter-Strike and that was about it. That’s a great point, though that TF2 was supposed to be the main attraction. Ha, a pleasant surprise for the fans and the devs.

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