At this point, I think it’s pretty clear that nobody makes games quite like Valve Software. Where many studios seem to be slaves to their publishers, constrained by business decisions and coaxed into rushing sequels to make their overlords a quick buck, Valve coasts along on what must be a deluge of revenue from Steam game sales, free to allocate its time as its sees fit. That’s why the long-anticipated Half-Life 2: Episode III is still nowhere on the radar, and it’s why we had to wait three-and-a-half years for Portal 2. Just think… during roughly that same span of time, Infinity Ward and Treyarch have managed to churn out not one, not two, but three Call of Duty sequels.
Rather than prolonging franchises every year, Valve seems more interested in polishing individual games to a mirror shine. Now, I’m not saying games like the Call of Duty series are necessarily rushed and cheaply made. They are, however, comparable to a dinner at Denny’s. All the right ingredients for a tasty meal are there, but everything sort of tastes the same, and boy, it sure could stand to be cheaper. Valve games are more like dining at your favorite little restaurant with old friends. The place might not be open at 1:00 AM on a Sunday morning, but there’s less filler and much more fulfillment.
Portal 2 is the latest and perhaps best example of Valve’s modus operandi. The original Portal was a short, highly stylized, and risky experimental title that went on to earn accolades from critics and gamers alike. The sequel revives the same familiar setting and gameplay mechanics, but it energizes them with a much grander, broader scope and direction. Valve head honcho Gabe Newell perhaps puts it best in the game’s developer commentary: with Portal 2, his studio was aiming to offer “not more of the same but more of the new.”
Now, because much of what made Portal 2 great for me was following the story as it progressed, I don’t want to deprive you, our dear reader, of that enjoyment. So, I’m going to keep the rest of this blog post spoiler-free. I can’t very well explain why I like the game without going into more detail, of course, so there will be some high-level talk about the structure, gameplay, and so forth—just no specifics about the plot or anything like that. Trying not to gush over the story was much harder than you might think, but ruining the game’s surprises would have been a far greater evil.
For the duration of Portal 2‘s development, we were treated to pictures and videos of a game much like the original, except with new bits and pieces thrown in. We were shown a new character, Wheatley, the dim-witted artificial intelligence whose brilliantly written dialogue is voiced by the equally brilliant Stephen Merchant. We were shown the derelict and overgrown but still-functional test chambers, and of course, new gameplay props like the repulsion gel and excursion funnels, both of which can be manipulated with portals.
Here I was on Monday evening, then, looking forward to new puzzles and another helping of amusing writing but not a whole lot else. I was perfectly fine with that premise—I loved the first game and trusted Valve to make a solid sequel. Predictably, the first few chapters of the game turned out more or less like what I had expected. Going back to “thinking with portals” after three years took a little bit of work, but not too much, and I was having plenty of fun.
Then, suddenly and without warning, Portal 2 pulled the appetizer out from under my nose and served up the main course. The “more of the same” had given way to the “more of the new,” breaking the mold of the first game and throwing me for a loop. I was now progressing through a markedly different game that placed more emphasis on atmosphere, story, and exploration, forcing me to solve puzzles in new ways and enthralling me completely. After having smiled and chuckled my way through the first few chapters, I was starting to grin and laugh out loud.
Now that I’ve beaten the single-player campaign, I’m almost positive that Valve has created a new genre here: the story-driven action puzzle game. Other games have wedded story and puzzles before, as anyone who’s played Myst, Riven, and their somewhat lackluster sequels ought to know. Valve’s newcomer has a lot in common with Cyan’s masterpieces, I think: the atmosphere, the exploration, the fascinating and creative backstory, and the fact that it challenges players without making them kill their way through levels. Of course, Portal 2 is also very fast-paced and dynamic, and it trades new-age mumbo-jumbo for a slick sci-fi storyline, wry humor, and a universe that takes strong cues from the Cube movies. Oh, and let’s not forget the excellent acting—not just from Stephen Merchant, but from the entire cast.
One particularly commendable aspect of Portal 2 is the way it integrates puzzles into a broader game world with a stronger narrative. The challenges punctuate the exposition, and the exposition provides a break from the puzzle-solving. It all fits together very nicely. Also, instead of presenting players with a slow progression of increasingly difficult puzzles with new concepts dropping in periodically, Portal 2 mixes things up, serving up plenty of puzzles with very simple solutions that can’t be solved without some outside-the-box thinking. In other words, it’s less about slowly learning how to deal with the latest gameplay gizmo and more about being creative.
Despite the shifting difficulty and the new gameplay mechanics, Portal 2 never got difficult enough to frustrate me, nor did it get repetitive enough to bore me. I did smack myself upside the head a few times for not figuring out something sooner, though. I think the game’s overall balance speaks volumes about Valve’s ability to avoid pitfalls while treading on very much unproven ground. That, folks, is why games like this take three-and-a-half years to make.
I’ve seen people complain that Portal 2 is too short, too drab, and spoiled by the Potato Sack ARG gimmick. It’s true that, at about eight hours, the single-player campaign doesn’t break any records for length. It’s also true that the whole Potato Sack thing was awkwardly orchestrated and very much anticlimactic. I’m struggling to understand the rest of the negative feedback, though. Portal 2‘s clever puzzles and hilarious writing alone would justify the $50 asking price, and the expanded world and storyline add a whole other dimension to it—one that should be especially pleasing to fans of the original. Then there’s the co-op mode, which I haven’t even had a chance to play yet.
Really, next to the unending downpour of Call of Duty sequels, Gears of War clones, clunky RPGs, and unpolished indie games, Portal 2 is like a breath of fresh air.