And the truth (or at least, an attempt at redressing the balance)

Portal 2: Missed opportunities?

I’m a fairly big Valve nerd, having played even the slightly less good outings in their Black Mesa universe with vigour and enjoyment. It was essentially a foregone conclusion, then, that I’d be checking out the recently-released Portal 2 within a few weeks of its release.

You’ve seen the trailer and know the premise so I won’t bore you with a writeup of the game itself – suffice it to say that it’s addictive, creative, challenging and even better than the first one. Stephen Merchant as Wheatley the robot is a great casting choice and the game is even quirkier and, well, “funner” than before. A few standout issues for me, though.

It’s not very hard. Let me clarify. I’m far from a seasoned gamer and don’t tend to enjoy things that require more than three or four attempts to get through. I’m not trying to claim internet gamer points by acting like Portal 2 was too easy and I finished it in 20 minutes (more like 6 hours). The problem is that once you work out how to complete a level, you’ve basically extracted all of the fun you can from it. It’s over.

There was a level in Half-Life 2 that required you to reach a raised ladder to climb out of a room, where the ladder was beyond your reach. The ‘correct’ solution was to pull a lever which flooded the room, allowing you to swim up to it. I remember struggling for almost half an hour to stack barrels and crates on top of one another to form a rudimentary bridge to the ladder so I could climb out, only discovering the flooding option afterwards. Instead of feeling frustrated, I felt quite pleased – the game had a non-linear approach to problem solving and would allow multiple ways of achieving your goals.

Now, Portal 2 is based around the notion of solving puzzles and finding solutions – I get that. The sad part is that there’s almost no replay value once you’ve figured out the solution. Shoot a portal over there, run up the tunnel and jump here, fire the other portal there. You can do it by numbers after that. Perhaps to compensate for this, the game provides dozens of levels, aiming to keep the mix interesting. Here are two ways they could have improved this:

  1. Allowed a kind of “replay” mode where upon finishing the game, you get access to a “gel gun” or something, allowing you to place the coloured gels (or the light bridges) and find new ways of solving the earlier levels (or just having fun).
  2. Offering more puzzles requiring user dexterity. Most of the test chambers were solved by smart thinking and methodical portal placement. I’d like to have seen more examples of precise timing and quick reflexes – quick, you’re on a moving platform, shoot a portal and jump through it, now fire some bouncing gel to reach the moving bridge above you, then bounce on the spring and shoot another portal before the door closes. Something like that.

Now, I know there’s the co-operative mode which is meant to make all of this single player nonsense obsolete. Fine, cool. But for the amount of development it could have cost them to integrate point 1 above into the game, it seems a shame to have ignored it. Likewise, something like a level editor (like Half-Life’s unofficial Garry’s Mod) would at least mean generous internet denizens could provide their own more challenging chambers to play with.

I hugely enjoyed the game and would buy Portal 3 in an instant if it existed (although not before Half-Life 3, please, Valve). I just wish I felt much desire to try the singleplayer mode again sometime in the next 3 months, before my brain forgets the sequences I now know by rote.