Portal 2: a little better all the time

Portal 2 still has more foibles than virtues, but past the halfway mark it starts to show promise

The fleeting hour I was able to devote to Portal 2 last night, dashing through the remainder of its suddenly capacious middle chapters, proved a little better than the dull, shallow preliminary five.

For starters, I wasn’t simply gliding into (and then back out of) ugly, broken-down spaces playing “find the exit” with a simplistic non-Euclidean angle. The rolling commentary track by Wheatley got wittier — we’re so starved for even decent writing in games that a sudden whiff of air’s like oxygen to a hypoxic brain — though given what happens later, it's devoid of character insight, settling for indulgent geekery, however expertly delivered. I’ll cop to enjoying the design of these bigger, broader areas more as well (the pipe ride in particular), much as they remind me of the creepier warehouse and dock stages in Resistance: Fall of Man.

That said, the design team still doesn’t trust us, visually demarcating sections of portal-usable wall, floor, or ceiling space like rectangular grayish patches in a sea of pea-soup-bland paneling to ensure we know precisely what to do. All that’s required is to get the sequencing of actions right, a handful of quickly executed actions, some of which involve working Valve’s clumsy first-person interface for “grabbing” objects while midflight. My sense of having “solved” an area never feels earned and certainly not original, in part because my solution and your solution and anyone else’s solution add up to X, where X equals “exactly the same.”

Some of these levels are so large that the chief difficulty involves hitting the “zoom” trigger and scanning for tiny distant off-white slabs of concrete, a kind of “Where’s Waldo” done with building sectionals. I’ll admit the “slab hunt” gameplay slowed me in these spaces, most of which deliberately obscure your view, but it also increased my sense of frustration with the artifice and reinforced a growing belief that — absent better, more flexible ideas — Valve settled for safe, obtuse challenges deposited amidst epically ramshackle architecture to elongate the experience.

I’ll give Valve the repulsion gel, Portal 2’s first novel mechanic, in particular those areas where you can both splash it around or wash it away by redirecting streams of gummy blue ooze or viscous water. That’s the sort of freeform puzzle-making I’ve waited half the game to see. And something ("something" being a batch of "haven't-seen-that-stuff-yet" screenshots) tells me the best is yet to come.

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Matt Peckham

PC World (US online)
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