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The RPS Verdict: Portal 2

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The RPS collective (and Kieron Gillen) convened to discuss Portal 2. What did we make of Valve’s puzzle palace? And was it really the funniest game of all time? Read on for answers. (Mild spoilers!)

Jim: Portal 2: The sequel to the first person puzzler Portal. It’s Valve’s first full length game since Half-Life 2! That is an exciting thing, if ever I heard one.
Quintin: And their best single-player game ever, according to John’s interview.
Jim: So according to them. Do we agree?
John: I prefer Episode 2.
Quintin: I prefer Half-Life 2.
Jim: I also prefer Half-Life 2.
Quintin: It’s decided, then. They’re WRONG.
Jim: So wrong.
Kieron: I don’t, but I never liked Half-Life 2 as much as everyone else.
Alec: I prefer Half-Life 1
Jim: So you think it’s their best single player game ever, KG?
Kieron: It’s funny how a dev being vaguely positive immediately puts this off on a negative footing.
John: We’re saying how other things are even more brilliant. Nothing negative here.
Kieron: I think it’s on par with HL2. And Portal, for that matter.
Jim: Indeed. I don’t think it’s disparaging to say it’s less good than something that might be best ever.
Kieron: Try that with your missus when she asks “Was your ex better in bed than me?”
Alec: It’s the best of the nu-Valve games, for my money. I.e. the Wolpaw/Falisek/Jeep/comedy-Valve era.
Quintin: I think it’s their funniest game ever. To me, that’s the achievement here.
John: Definitely. It’s one of THE funniest games.
Quintin: I haven’t laughed at a game this much since playing Monkey Island when I was a tiny manbaby. It’s true! I remember laughing at a lot of things as a kid, mind. Mirrors. Bees. Before reality set in.
John: And Monkey Island isn’t that funny.
Kieron: I’m actually sitting here trying to decide whether I think it’s their funniest game ever or not. I think its writing is better, but I actually laughed more at Portal 1. I was thinking it was going to walk it in the first hour, but it sort of evened out.
Alec: It’s not as funny as Limbo of the Lost. I was thinking earlier about how’s it a full-length game without actual characters, just voices and architecture. And that’s far more character than most any other game of the last few years.
Quintin: How do you mean?
John: Apart from Wheatley, GLaDOS, Cave Johnson and Chell?
Quintin: (And the turrets)
Alec: No people, I mean, no-one you really interact with. You just watch and listen.
Quintin: The turrets!
Alec: It’s all in the voices and scenery.
Jim: I laughed quite a bit up front, but it faded. I think the laughs got less and less as the game went on. The first hour or two were packed.
Alec: C’mon, the Cave Johnson stuff was excellent.

John: Apart from the biggest laugh in the final scene, shurely?
Quintin: Funny you say that. I laughed more in the closing few minutes than anywhere else in the game.
Kieron: The problem with the longer game, for me was that the comedy tends to be – I don’t want to say “formulaic”, but *ritualistic*. You enter a level. You get a bit of gibber from whoever is tormenting you. Silence for a few minutes as you complete the level. Get the call back gag. When it settles into that rhythm – and it rarely moves from it – it detracts from the generally top class writing.
Quintin: But that was the first Portal. It’s much less the case with this.
Alec: Yeah, I’m really noticing that with SpudOS. She’s conveniently quiet most of the time despite being right next to you.
Kieron: This game is twice as long. And doing it *again* is the problem. Portal got away with the ritualism of it by being the new.
Quintin: And half of it exists outside that formula!
Kieron: No, it doesn’t.
Jim: Even the rooms that seem to be between puzzles are still puzzles.
Kieron: There’s one bit in teh co-op when glados says something mid-level and I could have hugged my screen.
Alec: I love the bit early in single where you do meet Wheatley mid-level.
Quintin: That’s perfect, yeah.
Alec: but he’s up in the rafters and you can only reach him from one of the jump-pads. so he’s wittering away but you only get every other line. Made it feel much more alive.
Kieron: That’s lovely.
Jim: Yeah there are some really excellent touches like that. The incidental detail is impossibly lavish.
Alec: The robo-arms rearranging the panels are massively charming too. Especially when apparently broken ones sputter to life and tiredly haul a piece of wall across the floor.
Kieron: But that the exceptions work so well is why it nags at me – and why I think the writing isn’t presented at its best. The detail is loving, however.
Jim: Yes, there’s some bits where the architecture is tidying itself up that is amazing. Floors pouring broken panels down into the ground, and so forth.
Alec: It’s a remarkable looking game, it really is. Again, the lack of visible characters thing – that’s to its benefit. You don’t have the issue of seeing an unconvincing human face, just vast, incredible architecture unspoiled.
Kieron: Absolutely. That’s my impression. I’m picking at what I don’t like because I’m not sure it’s a classic. If I was EGing, I’d 9/10 it. And a low 9/10 at that.
Quintin: The anthropomorphisation of the robots is all beautiful. One of my top three moments was the part where you’re running across the conveyor belt that carries defective turrets to their doom. And you have the chance to grab one and carry it off to safety, at which point it starts spouting biblical gibberish.
Kieron: I did find myself thinking “I wonder what Pixar make of Valve”, not in a “RIP OFF OF WALL-E!” way, but in a “I think they’d dig this”
Jim: I found it almost too lonely and claustrophobic, actually. I wanted to see another person, or go outside. Which, of course…
Quintin: Which is why the ending… well, we’ll get to the ending.
John: The way you keep seeing glimpses of sky is really good at provoking that, though.
Alec: did everyone else get that fake escape from GlaDOS near the start? Where you see the door with trees outside then she gasses you?
Kieron: I… did actually. Though I think I fucked it up in a different way.
Jim: Anyway, the mechanical bit – gels and such: any thoughts?

John: As I said in my review, I think they were the weakest point. Not because they weren’t well implemented, but because they changed the puzzle design. In the first Portal, and for much of Portal 2, you feel as though you’re improvising. During the gel sequences I felt as though I was finding the correct solution. That said, I can see that with Portal 2 generally – it does feel like a solution rather than a problem game, if you see what I mean. I liked them, but just in a “Here is a puzzle element” way. To me, you may as well talk about jumpads. It’s all part of how it works. I did think the were extraordinarily beautiful though.
Jim: The sense of the puzzle design in the original was that it careful escalated in complexity using just a few different elements. Whereas Portal 2 felt like the puzzles never actually rose to the complexity suggested by the all the constituent elements. Just that there were a lot of them.
Alec: I had some beautiful moments with the gels, where i wasn’t sure what to do but suddenly a certain arrangement of randomly fired portals caused a spray of orange or whatever and I had the eureka moment. But yes, it was dependent on only very specific pieces of wall being portalable.
Quintin: Jim: agreed. I’d level the same criticism that I had of World of Goo. Consistently introducing new elements without ever giving me a puzzle crunchy enough.
Kieron: To state the obvious, that’s how they turn it into an eight-hour game. As in, they can’t just make it harder and – perhaps inevitably – more twitchy.
Alec: There was less use of the physics-twisting acceleration jumps this time around, I found.
Kieron: Yeah – that’s a good example of what I’m talking about.
Quintin: Why can’t they make it harder?
Kieron: Because they’re a mainstream developer working for a mass audience and they like people to complete their games.
Jim: Right, but that does not mean that the puzzles couldn’t have used all those elements in a more interesting way – as John said, it felt very much like ticking off the correct solution each time. Games like, say, Incredible Machines or Armadillo Run actually do similar stuff, but the solutions are often a bodge. There was no bodge here and that felt dry.
Kieron: They avoided physics drops because it’s a physical test as well as a thinking test. So replaced them with jumpads to mechanise the acceleration process, etc.
Jim: Yes.
John: The loss of acceleration jumps was deliberate. The first game overused them, and this game kept teasing you: yes, you could propel across this one, but how are you going to get there without?
Alec: Of course, they may do more hardcore DLC level packs.
Kieron: To stress, I’m not saying it’s a bad or a good thing – but it’s just where the games’ preferences now lie.
Jim: I think there were only 2 moments that challenged any kind of aim, which was a bit of a shame.
Alec: It’s almost more of an adventure than a collection of puzzles this time around. Which I actually prefer – the sense of wonder and exploration rather than worrying I’m going to hit something I’m too dumb to figure out.
Kieron: Agreed. Jim though – can you elaborate on “right, but that does not mean that the puzzles couldn’t have used all those elements in a more interesting way.”

Jim: Essentially, the original game’s puzzles became increasingly complex systems of using the different elements that you had previously encountered, but Portal 2 seemed to have “this room has lasers in” or “this room has this gel in” and there were few more grand puzzle solving situations with multiple elements. Or, indeed, as I mentioned, any level of bodging or improvisation. Maybe I am attuned to breaking games, but I got most excited when I thought I found a bug in something, but really I hadn’t…
Kieron: I’ll agree with that being more of an adventure – but for me, it’s a weakness. Portal Gun stuff just falls apart in real environments for me a bit, because it turns the game into Locked Door. By which I mean “there is one surface you can attach stuff too, and all these other surfaces won’t work”. So it becomes primarily a game about observation. (Or rather, I only got stuck when I failed an observation test) (Which saps fun from it, for me.)
John: I’m really surprised how negative people are. I found the chambers toward the end to be these elaborate multi-stage puzzles that required using all the skills I’d learned. And I got to feel like a pro as I executed them.
Jim: No, I didn’t feel like that this time. I certainly did in Portal 1.
Quintin: Mm. There were definitely a few chambers that felt incredibly rewarding, but by and large, it’s like Kieron said. This is very much a game which anybody meant to be able to go bounding through.
Alec: It would have been nice to have some rooms where you could spray gel everywhere and just dick around with the physics, admittedly.
John: But isn’t it great to have a game you can go bounding through?
Alec: John – agreed. I do like just having a giddy old time, and I had been very worried it would become overly complex. I am, however, quite convinced this is not the end of Portal 2.
Jim: Co-op then: wow, that feels fresh. I was actually a little tired of the single-player by the end. But the co-op is something else. It’s where this game really makes ground, for me. Little things, like the pointing, are so obvious, so *designed*, that it’s a really big deal. I get that point about Valve not doing an isolated single-player game again in the future because, well, they’d rather be working on something like that. And understandably so.
Kieron: It’s exquisitely designed, I’ll give it that. As in, always Valves’ stronger cards.
Quintin: That sounds like another Gillen caveat coming up.
Kieron: And it brings back the new which the SP kinda lacks. No, the cadvaet is more personal, and a problem with me. In that for this sort of game, the joy of co-op comes with a lot of frustration. I played through with Gril – who is smarter than I am – and I still found myself growling a lot at slight errors and delays. And more annoyed with my own.
John: I too don’t enjoy co-op, because it’s not how I want to play games. I want to be relying on myself, and not have someone else relying on me.
Kieron: In short; I’m simply not that interested in solving a Rubik’s cube with someone else. I’m fine with co-op generally – it’s specifically this sort of game. And the bits where it all flow put a great smile on my face.
Jim: Well I think you are weak-minded sociopaths. I’ve found the co-op to be instinctive and brilliant. I could play that kind of game forever.
Quintin: That was exactly my experience, too. Any moment my partner was lagging behind my solution, I was annoyed. The moment I was lagging behind, I was annoyed.
Kieron: Instinctive is fine. I just want to make progress and when your friend is slowing down by doing a funny mime annoys me.
Jim: I found the SP lonely and flat by comparison.
Kieron: I also found the SP a bit lonely at times, but for completely different reasons, as I previously said.
Quintin: The SP’s loneliness is an intrinsic part of the plot, surely.
Kieron: Gril is totally more patient than me, bless him. There was a bit near the end where I was just fucking up in a terrible style. Hail Gril.
John: I never felt lonely. I was always accompanied by someone. And it was certainly less lonely than your average FPS.
Jim: What I said after Portal, repeatedly, was that I hoped this kind of first-person puzzle solving would find its way into a lot of other mainstream games. It hasn’t. So I will now say: I don’t expect co-op puzzle solving to appear in any game, ever again. That’s it.
Kieron: Yeah. It stayed indie. The Ball! :)
Jim: There’s The Ball and also Twin Sector, and probably something else, but STILL.
Kieron: Yeah. Still. But it’s only a good thing that Portal 2 looks like a massive cross format hit. It’s only going to lead to more light being in the world.
Quintin: Are you sure? It’s not like Bioshock lead to anything except Singularity. Bless you, Singularity.
John: This has been madly negative for a game no one would give less than a 9 to. Let’s say some positive things.
Jim: The co-op is my game design thing of the year. It’s amazing. I also liked the jokes.
Kieron: Yeah.

Quintin: I failed to defeat the final boss on my first attempt because I was laughing too hard. My jaw was legitimately dropped on more than one occasion.
Kieron: The biggest problem the game has is it is – to steal a line from a forum – expectedly good. It’s as good as I thought it would be.
Quintin: I haven’t enjoyed a game this much all year. Except Ace of Spades.
Kieron: And my minor complaints are really along the line of “Oh God. Another orgasm?”
John: It’s the funniest game in forever, warm and smart, with such extraordinary detail and acting. And the ending – that final boss fight – is such an *intelligent* thing. The way it sort of breaks down what was wrong with the GLaDOS fight in Portal 1, and messes with expectations, and of course THAT moment.
Jim: Actually that’s a good point – another good game ending to add to the tiny list of good game endings
John: For someone who hates boss fights as much as I do, it was pure joy.
Kieron: Yeah. I was dreading the ending when I saw someone talking about a cliffhanger, but it was lovely. And just proves some people have no fucking idea what a cliffhanger is.
John: The end of the co-op is a cliffhanger, in fairness.
Jim: I feel “cliffhanger” should only refer to a situation in which you are literally hanging off a cliff at the end.
Quintin: Gril was complaining about it in the pub. I could have eaten him whole.
Jim: Perhaps you should have done. That would have gone down in legend, Q.
Quintin: Next time, Jim. Next time.
Kieron: I have to ask: what was Gril’s problem with it?
Quintin: We didn’t get past him calling everything relating to the “Lunacy” achievement stupid. With any luck he’ll show up in the comments and explain his position. And then I will eat him. Because I haven’t been that surprised by a game in a long time.
Alec: Basically – it’s the first Valve game I’ve loved since the Orange Box. I’ve felt like something was seriously missing in the L4Ds and in TF2’s strange transformation into a collection and hardcore multiplayer game and while Portal 2 may be a bit more handheld than expected it’s just such a joy to have a Valve game that makes me feel the same excitement and joy as I expect Valve games to. As well as the proof that a game largely without death and violence and hulking men can be a serious mainstream hit.
Jim: I would recommend that people buy this game, and play it.
Kieron: Actually, one minor thing if anyone’s read John’s review. Which some of you probably have. His complaint that he didn’t like the puzzles which made you think you’d made it and you haven’t? That added the best part of an hour to my playtime, I suspect, as when I just missed something I presumed it was the bit John was talking about and looked for another solution. And in fact, every time, I’d just missed because I’d miss-stepped.
Jim: I did the same, actually.
John: Heh.
Kieron: And there was no point in the game where I just fell short and hadn’t got the solution right. YOU BASTARD JOHN!
John: My pleasure.
Jim: Yes, John. You made the game harder.
Kieron: You are my pretty little Glados.
John: It’s not my fault you’re all idiots.

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