Portal 2 (PlayStation 3) review: This title proves that games can indeed be art.
Time to admit something quite embarrassing: I've never played Portal. [He's serious — Ed. A combination of owning poor PC hardware, a massive backlog of games and a preference for console gaming has meant that Valve's classic has passed me by.
Read our review of Portal 2 on the PC.
So, without knowing anything about the game many consider the best of all time, I find myself in a relatively unique position of approaching Portal 2 from a completely fresh perspective. And again, without having played the first: This is the best damned game of all time.
My initial concern was naturally that I wouldn't understand what was going on with the story. I'd head that Portal is considered an artistic game, and diving into any piece of interactive art with no backstory is quite difficult. Then a wisecracking little robot summed up the story of the first game in literally a sentence, and I was caught up.
Portal 2 is self-referential, to say the least. As often as the psychopathic GLaDOS is poking fun at your character's weight, the game is poking fun at itself, and indeed the entire games industry. In-game tutorials are given a tongue-in-cheek touch by asking a player to look up and down to complete a aerobic exercise, and then to look at a painting on the wall to gain intelligence. Portal 2 didn't need a tutorial — the game uses five buttons than anyone can figure out without hand holding, but a modern game needs a tutorial, so Valve gave us one.
Same goes for the multiplayer mode. It's co-op (death match would have been a little too silly), but completely unnecessary, and Valve knew this. There's nothing wrong with the mode — it plays quite nicely, in fact — but you can't help but feel it's part of the extended joke they're having at the games industry's expense.
The characters and plot are a delight to experience. Without ever stepping into the realm of being overbearing or forced, the humour and wisecracks continue throughout. They're often quite disturbing under the surface — think 2001: A Space Odyssey's metaphorical mechanisms delivered through the psychopathic HAL — but the delivery as nuanced, interesting entities is real proof that video games have indeed become art.
Technically, too, there's not a thing out of place in the game. The visuals are clean and the settings are interesting. The character controls like a dream, and anyone who was concerned with a lack of precision from the PlayStation 3 controller need not worry — the game is perfectly playable away from PC. Music is sparse, but brilliantly executed.
Even the achievements list has had thought put into it, asking players to engage a different set of thought processes to the in-game puzzles. It's always good to see achievements used to create additional challenges for players away from the main game — we're like to see more of this philosophy from other developers in the future.
You'll notice I haven't mentioned the actual gameplay and puzzles of Portal 2 as yet. Truth is, they're a pretty bland bunch in isolation. Though there is nothing wrong with them, the creativity comes from placing the challenges with the context of the setting and experience. In the hands of a developer with a lesser grasp of presentation and cinematics, Portal 2 would be a pretty bland, boring game.
But as those puzzles (which are often quite challenging) float past, quickly in and out of the imagination and memory, the overall impression that you're playing a truly brilliant game stays firm. This is a game you'll remember years from now — not because of its individual puzzles and challenges, but as an experience, and as a work of art. You already knew this, but Portal 2 is a must-own.
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