Portal & Portal 2: Critical Miss #24

I’m GLaDOS I Played These

Friends of mine are surprised to learn I never played Portal or Portal 2. The classic games developed and published by Valve were released in 2007 and 2011, respectively. While I had a passing interest in games in 2007, playing Super Mario 64 on my DS and Mario Kart on my Wii, I wasn’t at all up to date on any games releasing. And by 2011, I was in college, playing pretty much no games besides a Pokémon run here and there. The Portal series has just passed me by until now. Even after I learned of the series and its reputation, I never had a computer powerful enough to run it. So when I got my used Xbox 360, I downloaded the games and played through them to fill in the interdimensional hole in my gaming knowledge.

The story of Portal focuses on a woman named Chel who is being forced to run through science tests by GLaDOS, a robot controlling the functions of Aperture Science. It’s a simple story—a story of human vs machine, athleticism vs intelligence, silence vs wit. Even though the player controls Chel, GLaDOS steals the entire show. Impeccably acted by Ellen McLain, she provides the dry, straight-faced, and incredibly sharp humor that the game is praised for, but still manages to be threatening as a unfeeling machine. Early in the game, Chel will be giving a Portal Gun, a machine that creates openings on certain walls that can be used to instantly pass through the space between them.

The portals are an incredible mechanic—technically impressive, amazingly fun, and delightfully disorienting. I never really got used to the camera swinging around as gravity took effect on the character leaving a portal, but those moments are so short that you will quickly adjust. Since momentum is kept while entering and leaving portals, a lot of puzzles rely on that to spring yourself across larger gaps or to higher platforms not reachable through normal means. Other puzzles require holding down buttons with weighted cubes, creating a path for an electrical sphere to meet with a conductor to activate a button, and taking out turrets by knocking them over, either by grabbing them from behind or dropping things on them. 

Some puzzles will test your aiming speed and reflexes by giving you just a few seconds after exiting a portal to shoot another one on to be transported to. These were my least favorite in the game. I had gotten so settled into a comfy state of examining the level design and finding ways to access what I needed through portal placement, that the emphasis on speed and reflexes in the later part of the game didn’t feel like I was being tested on what had been taught to me.

The level design in general is rather rigid due to the fact that portals can only be created on certain surfaces. This is not a bad thing, however, since it helps keep puzzles and the rules of the game consistent and focused. In the last part of the game, you escape the steril test chambers and explore the rusted, grimy maintenance halls of the facility. The puzzles are still as straightforward as before, but the change in scenery goes a long way to freshen up the feel of the games. 

Honestly, Portal is pretty much perfect. The only complaint I have is with minor hit detections issues. I played the Xbox 360 Stay Alive version so I’m not sure if this was an issue with the original PC release, but the rounded edges of the portals seem to catch on the character and cubes while going through portals. This would lead to missed jumps as my momentum was halted or dropped items missing their target as a corner clipped the edge of a portal and physics sent it spinning off course. It’s not a major complaint at all and hardly dampened my opinion of the game, but it was something I kept noticing.

The only other thing I sometimes hear criticized about the game is its short length. The game is about 2-3 hours long, I completed my first playthrough in just an evening, but I think the length is to the game’s benefit. There is no wasted space in Portal, every inch of the game world has a purpose and it comes in, shows off the ideas it has, and ends before it becomes stale or boring. It is such a tightly, perfectly designed game that I couldn’t image it being any longer. That was, however, until I played Portal 2, which is a perfect example of the phrase “bigger isn’t always better.”

Portal 2 is pretty much the same game as the original, but with just more stuff added. Bigger environments, more puzzles, more characters and story—it’s a classic follow up philosophy where the sequel has to be bigger and bolder (the Alien/Aliens effect). While the portal gameplay is still as fun as ever, there were so many more elements added to the puzzles. Instead of just portals with the occasional electric ball or cube to worry about, Portal 2’s puzzles will have you redirecting lasers, creating light bridges, and using three different kinds of gels, each with a unique property, to solve puzzles. All these new mechanics are explained and utilized well enough and pretty fun to use, but their inclusion seemed to necessitate larger rooms and environments for the puzzles to take place in, hurting the tightness and ultrafocus of the original game’s design. Gameplay is not the only thing that has been expanded upon either. The story is chattier than ever in Portal 2.

GLaDOS now has to share the spotlight with robot core named Wheatley, played by Stephen Merchant, and the prerecorded messages of Cave Johnson, played by J. K. Simmons. I found Wheatley pretty annoying, but he is not unfunny, and Simmons as Cave Johnson is just a delight because he seems to be tapping into his J. Jonah Jameson character from the Rami Spider-Man films. There are some very funny bits with Johnson ranting about mantis man and exploding lemons, but the humor of the game expands from the specific dry wit of the first game and becomes sillier and more general. I would say that Portal 2 is funnier than the first, but I’m a sucker for the straight-facedness of the first game’s comedy.

The point of max frustration toward Portal 2 for me came at the end. You have a great bit of (literal) raising action as you climb your way out of the ruined, old facility and you are flushed with victory, ready for the faceoff with Wheatley and the climax of the story. But then the pacing grinds to halt as Wheatley makes you perform more tests to keep his high going. It’s a funny bit at first, but it could have worked with just requiring the player to complete a few more tests. Instead you have to go through about a dozen more. I was ready for the game to end, but it insisted on sticking around for another hour or so after its logical end point. And this is ultimately what Portal has over its sequel. Portal knew exactly when to end before it got stale or ran out of ideas, and Portal 2 went on past the point where it had anything new to share.
Portal and Portal 2 are still some of the most beloved and respected puzzle games to this day and that’s because they are both great, but I find the original far superior to its sequel. The best way I can explain my opinions of the games is to imagine them as a boxer. Portal is the boxer at the prime of their career: in fighting trim with absolute zero fat on them. Portal 2 is the same boxer forty years later, after retirement: a little fatter than they were, but still strong and in better shape than most people. Either way, either game can still beat the crap out of the majority of AAA games releasing nowadays.

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