Why Portal 2 isn't as good as the original but isn't as bad as you think

What follows is my reaction to the Ars Technical article by Peter Bright, Thinking on rails: why Portal 2 isn't as good as the original.

I agree with him that it's not as good as the original, but disagree on many specific points and thus on how big the difference is. I'll also acknowledge that a lot of the enjoyment from the first game originally came from getting used to the mechanics of the portal gun, and so starting out knowing those mechanics puts Portal 2 at a disadvantage right from the start.

The headings are from the original article.

Page 1

That alone made Portal a fascinating game. A game worth playing, at least to try it out. The game invited experimentation. Though each puzzle clearly had a "right way" to solve it, the environment was malleable enough that many times we could devise our own solutions to the problems.

Absolutely. And this is what gave Portal 1 as much replay value as it has. Watching some of the solutions people found for speed runs is fascinating -- there are some blasted clever ways of doing many of the puzzles. (My favorite to illustrate this is the amazing solution to test chamber 7, though there are countless other fascinating discoveries, especially if you count some of the glitches.)

(By the way, if you're wondering what happened in that video: the player put the blue portal on the ceiling, then walked into the orange portal on the floor in such a way that he fell into the orange portal again. As he was falling from the ceiling to the floor, he put the blue portal on the wall, so that when he fell into the orange portal he flung himself across the room with enough height and velocity to land on the elevator platform.)

A journey into the darkest reaches of my psyche

This loneliness is further compounded by the Companion Cube. We're so desperately alone in the world that we form an emotional attachment to a metal box with hearts on it. We're willing to reach out even to an inanimate object in the vain hope that it will reciprocate our desires for interaction.

I have a confession to make: I never formed this attachment. I realized that Valve intended you to, or at least intended to realize they were joking about you doing so -- but I never really had any more attachment to the companion cube than any of the other weighted storage cubes.

And finally, we have the Aperture Science Sentry Turrets. Oh, the turrets. Was a computerized killing machine ever so heartbreakingly melancholy? Their solitude is almost as profound as our own. "Are you still there?" they plaintively cry out into the void. With every turret I killed, I died a little more inside. We had to kill them -- they were thoroughly lethal and had no qualms about killing us back -- but I never wanted to kill them. Every dead turret was a gut-wrenching failure on my part. They were not bad; they were just victims of their own programming.

This is a wonderful paragraph right here, and it captures my feelings almost exactly. I always hated disabling the turrets; I had much more of a connection to them than I ever did to the companion cube.

In fact, the culmination of Portal 2, reading that paragraph, and writing this response has inspired me to work on a "pacifist" run of Portal 1 -- no turret casualties. I've done all the parts, and will link them together sometime in the near future.

Page 2

Play time is over

Except perhaps for the ultimately game-breaking Conversion Gel -- once you can get it somewhere, you can get it everywhere, and once you can get it everywhere, the puzzle is solved -- all of them can be used to build challenging and exciting puzzles.

I can speak for more than myself when I say that (1) having conversion gel present absolutely does not guarantee an easy solution, and that (2) the conversion gel test chamber (ending with the lemons speech) was one of the most fun chambers in the whole game. (Incidentally, it's one of the easiest places to find an alternative solution to a puzzle. Don't you complain about the inability to do that in a bit?)

But with the richer capabilities of the new game, I never had that same sense. The puzzles required careful use of the tools provided, and as a result, I felt that the game was on rails. The puzzles could be solved the right way, the way that the developers had intended, or not at all.

I think the jury's still out on this.

In support of this claim, I got that same sense. The room in Portal 1 that I point to in support is the one where they introduce turrets -- chamber 16. How many ways can you do that level? It's absolutely insane. You can portal behind most of the turrets and pick them up. (Or, depending on the turret, just walk up.) You can portal above most turrets and drop stuff on them. You can portal past all of the turrets and just leave them standing. (That's the advanced chamber.) You can pick up a cube and charge. That's three or four ways you can neutralize each turret. Most of those methods you can find with just a little experimentation; the only one where you'd need some prompting (e.g. in the form of really wanting to push a speed run, or having cages around all the turrets) is discovering that you can leave all of them standing.

There's nothing in Portal 2 that has the same freedom as chamber 16. How many ways can you get rid of the dozen turrets facing a catwalk when you drop goo onto them? But then again: there's very little in Portal 1 that has the same sense of freedom of chamber 16; that's basically it.

There is increasing evidence in opposition of this claim as well. This thread from the Steam forums has a number of challenges. (Not all of those are alternative solutions, some are just "least portals"-type puzzles, though often more nuanced.) There are two puzzles with a redirection cube that you never need to use as a redirection cube. (In one of them you don't need to use it at all, in the other you just need it for a button.) In the level where you first set turrets on fire, you can avoid setting any turrets on fire. There are at least two chambers with faith plates where you can avoid using any faith plates. In the actual conversion gel test chamber (lemon speech), there are at least three very different ways to reach the final platform. Near the end of the old Aperture Science section (a little below the room with the hatch), there's a section where you have a drip of all three gels available; there are at least two ways to get to the upper platform (and thus likely cross the gap) without using the propulsion gel.

I think the likely situation is that there are alternative solutions, but they are harder to find and slightly fewer in number. If so, that'd be a shame, and it does damage the game, but nor is the situation nearly as bleak as the author presents.

As for the puzzles themselves, well, I found them a lot easier, overall. There were puzzles in Portal that had me stumped for a good long while.

This I do agree with, sort of. I think they tended to be easier to solve and easier to execute. The former may simply be because I'm... well, good at Portal, and have a good idea of the sorts of puzzles that are likely to be there. That said, Portal 1 wasn't really all that hard either. The author mentions chamber 18...

Test Chamber 18, in particular, was mind-bending. It took a lot of bouncing around, flying through the air, and getting murdered by turrets before I figured out a chain of actions that would work.

...and this I actually agree on. But if my memory serves, that's the one place in the original Portal where I was actually stumped for a significant amount of time, even during the first playthrough.

Now, in support of the author, how many times did Portal 1 auto-correct your mistakes? About zero. In Portal 2, there are at least two places where the game will "correct" you if you place the wrong portal. (These are the part where he kills you and Aristotle vs mashy spike plate.) GLaDOS would never stand for that.

And the other place I sort of agree was that Portal 2 had too much "hunt for the white panel somewhere on the screen, particularly in the ruins before you get to the old Aperture Science and in the catwalks after. I understand they were breaking up the test chambers, and for good reason, but at the same time, most of the time that wasn't really fun at all. (Especially in the catwalks.)

I kind of think that time has colored the difficulty opinion.

The one place it hasn't is in technical difficulty: Portal 1 has a few places where you need to place a portal midair. This is never needed in Portal 2. I don't know why this is... the cynical part of me wants to blame consoles, and it's possible that's the case. More likely I think Valve just wanted to make the game easier for everyone.

I'm not even sure if Portal 2 ever makes you do a double fling. Portal 1 has several times when you almost have to, and once where you must place the landing portal midair. If my memory is correct, and it doesn't really show up in Portal 2, that's a real shame; discovering the double fling was one of the best moments in the original, and getting that first midair placement it makes you do was definitely up there. That said, the challenges thread I mentioned earlier has quenched a lot of my thirst for more difficult and technically-challenging puzzles, and the "smash TV" achievement has taken care of some of my want for double flings.

There was a point at which I was perplexed, but this was not because of any difficulty in figuring out what to do—it was because I didn't realize that dropping Repulsion Gel onto some sentry turrets would make them fall over.

With all due respect, then you forgot what came before. Valve already showed you what repulsion gel would do, back in old Aperture Science. In the last screen there's the room with the weighted cube stored in a glass box, and you have to (1) put blue gel on it to get it to bounce out, (2) wash it off so you can put it onto a button without it bouncing off, and (3) put blue gel back on it so it bounces off the button while you're on the elevator.

Page 3

Then Portal 2 came along, and with it, Wheatley. Sigh. Did anybody not see him becoming power-crazed and trying to take over when we plugged him in to GLaDOS? Really? We'd barely even started the game, of course that wasn't going to be the end of it.

Yeah... not exactly a KOTOR-level plot twist. I didn't pick up on it right away, but as soon they start talking about a core transfer, things were not looking good.

Of course he wasn't just going to let us out. And his tireless, relentlessly stupid schtick... it got old. Fast. The single-player campaign was not enormously long -- more on that later—but as short as it was, they still re-used and recycled jokes. Wheatley jumping off the rail, and Wheatley turning on his flashlight? That's essentially the same joke. "Something disastrous will happen if I do this thing that ought to be mundane, but I'm going to do it anyway. Oh look, nothing bad happened after all. It really was mundane."

Now here... the repetition is sort of the point of those jokes. I'm not going to say I didn't find Wheatley a bit obnoxious in the first half of the game, but c'mon -- when it comes to the second joke in particular, I'm not even sure if "joke" is a particularly accurate description of what Valve was going for. I didn't find that comment funny really, but I did think it felt in-place completely.

I do think that Wheatley disrupted the mood of the first couple chapters, making them lighter (and more annoying) than Portal 1, and that's a pity, but at the same time he was only occasionally around (contrast with, say, Alex Vance in the HL2 episodes) except for one chapter.

And once you return to evil Wheatley in "The Itch", the game changes. For me, at that point he loses almost all the tinge of obnoxiousness and becomes an honest-to-god good character.

We meet up with poor enfeebled POTaTOS, skewer her onto our ASHPD, and from then on, it's no longer Chell standing all alone against the world. And as a result, although a little unsettled by the early parts of the underground levels, I can play in the dark, on my own, without suffering the angst that the first game inflicted.

Now here is where we start to disagree more. First, while having potato GLaDOS with us (there is no way I'm calling it/her "POTaTOS") changes the mood from Portal 1 a bit, I don't think it's for the worse. First, GLaDOS and evil Wheatley play off each other pretty well in terms of dialog. Second, it sets up GLaDOS's back story -- which is something new to the game, but I think fits very well. Third, almost all of her commentary as a potato was during the start/end-of-puzzle dialog.

Still, I think Portal 2 has a significant problem in atmosphere as compared to the original. As you go through the original test chamber, there's a real sense of building. As you go along, you have GLaDOS lie increasingly to you. And then gradually hint at and eventually spell out that you're not to live through the testing process. Portal 2... didn't really have a sense of building. Yeah, okay, so they built up toward the first escape, and then built up toward the fact that Wheatley was going to try to kill you, but really, were either of those a surprise?

Oh, and speaking of potatoes -- that whole joke would have been a hell of a lot funnier if Valve hadn't been beating us over the head with potatoes during the ARG's build-up to the final launch. GLaDOS's transformation should have been one of the finest comedic moments of the game.

It wasn't.

I knew there was an ARG, and aside from what was on the supposed early launch page, I knew nothing about it. I have rather high standards for what I consider a spoiler (I still strongly regret watching a few minutes of E3 videos), so I ignored the ARG completely.

And yet, it was only mildly amusing... more silly than "actual comedy." That's the problem I have with potato GLaDOS (and, incidentally, good Wheatley): it's just too silly, and it lightens the mood too much.

A story that raises more questions than it answers

This whole section just makes me wonder if the author has ever played a Valve game before. They're not exactly known for tying up their storylines in a nice, neat manner. Almost everything mentioned in it pales in comparison to "Who is the G-Man?"

But no matter, let's continue.

I also found his character a little too bold, a little too brash. It is one thing for a malevolent AI to have such a callous disregard for health and safety and the well-being of its test subjects. It's quite another for Cave Johnson to show the same sociopathic apathy towards the lives of others. We are supposed to believe that Aperture Science routinely conducted dangerous and often lethal tests on members of the public, and I'm sorry, but there's only so much disbelief I'm willing to suspend. You just can't do that, and it weakened the entire plot for me.

A few months ago the U.S. apologized to Guatemalans for intentionally infecting them with syphilis back in the 40s. In the 50s the CIA covertly gave unknowing US and Canadian citizens LSD and other drugs. All in the name of "science". And those were both in the US; that's not even getting into the Mengeles and Unit 731s of the world.

You're walking around in a world where Aperture Science has a facility miles high, jumping on gels that speed you up and make you jump higher, walking on bridges made of natural light, being transported by funnels of liquid asbestos, and carrying a gun that makes quantum space holes, and that's what breaks your suspension of disbelief?

At the end of Portal (the original end, that allowed her to escape, rather than the retconned end released to promote Portal 2 that saw her dragged back inside the Enrichment Center) she is liberated, free to return to her friends and family

In my opinion that is a very optimistic reading of the original ending. I did not feel that the revised ending was a retcon so much as establishing which of three equally-likely fates Chell faced. (Those would be: freedom, recapture, and death.)

Furthermore, even if you do read the original ending as "freedom", we lead into...

But that hope is now gone, due the frankly cruel and heartless decision by Valve to place the events of Portal 2 hundreds of years into the future, a thoroughly pointless move that I completely resent.

...wondering how long she was in the "relaxation vault" at the time Portal 1 began. I most certainly do not have any sense that Chell only recently became a prisoner at Aperture; to the contrary, the sense I got was that it was much more likely to be decades. So even if she did attain freedom at the end of Portal 1, I felt then what you feel now: that she would almost certainly not have any place to turn.

The length of the game is also an issue. This is not a long game. Eight hours, perhaps, of single player, and another four or five of co-op. And much of that is spent staring at load screens, of which there are far too many.

The Source engine has always had a problem with load screens. While that doesn't really excuse the situation (I can't help but think they could do more in the way of preloading, particularly because they talk about dumping parts of the level as you pass certain map points), I don't understand much anyone who was surprised by the quantity that are in Portal 2. Did you play Portal 1? With the exception of the first few chambers in Portal 2, the load screens in Portal 2 came around about as frequently. (For the really tiny chambers, Portal 1 would group two together; in Portal 2, they're all separate.)

The main changes on that front is (1) how long they are (they're closer to HL2 Episode 2 times instead of Portal 1 times) and (2) how they are presented: very obvious "loading..." screens instead of just freezing the frame with a little "loading" in the center. Immersion breaker? Some have said so, and while I don't feel strongly on the issue, I think I'd prefer the old version. (Exception: the new ones have a progress bar. That's quite welcome.)

Even if you intend to go back and replay the game to listen to the commentaries, it's simply not a huge game.

Yeah! Portal 2 sucks because it was so short! Portal 1 was way better because it was even shorter!

And that's not even taking into consideration that you learned a lot of the mechanics in Portal 1; how long would it take someone who had never played the original? I don't know for sure, but I wouldn't be surprised if a Portal-newbie would take around twice as long at Portal 2 as they would Portal 1.

But it needs to be longer, or at least, to have ways for people who want more to extend the game.

If only they were planning on releasing some DLC with more levels. That would be cool. (Yeah, the article acknowledges that later.)

Portal 2, in contrast, has much less replay value. The puzzles never change. Solve them once, and you've solved them for all time.

So try to solve them better. Do whatever you did that gave Portal 1 such replayability desipite the fact that its levels never change either.

Wheatley remains just as stupid as ever (and boy, is he a lot less amusing when you're playing through the game a second time).

As just an aside, it's actually kind of neat to replay the first few chapters and view Wheatley as "the dumbest moron" and "someone designed to come up with unworkable plans" during that time instead of just "oh he he what a bumbling character".

But yeah, he does get a bit obnoxious, though I'm not sure how much of that is the semi-speed-runner in me being annoyed that most of the times you have to wait for a while for some scripted events, it's with him.

For me this caused issues with the pacing of the game, too. Most of the game is, functionally, a tutorial. Until we reach the final parts of "old Aperture Science", we're still being taught about new game mechanics. Only in the final eighth of the game, or thereabouts, do we get to solve puzzles using the full range of equipment. Just as we're getting into the swing of things, blam, the game ends.

Now this I actually agree with. I sort of wonder if they added too many new mechanics. In particular, I wonder what it'd have been like if they removed either the light bridges (moving the excursion funnels earlier) or the excursion funnels and focused on bigger puzzles with what we had instead during most of the Wheatley chambers. Take the light bridges. What is the last point in the game where you get to use one? If my memory holds, there is only one time you have one available after the beginning of chapter 5. What does that say about the game when they introduce a mechanic fairly early-on, then all but discard it before it's half over?

I mean, compare the two games. In the first one, I'd guess we had 1/4 the game in "tutorial" chambers (this is how you fling, etc.), 3/8 in honest-to-goodness solve-this-puzzle chambers (13 or 14 and up), and 3/8 in the escape. For those keeping score, that's a little over half in test chambers.

In Portal 2, I'd say there's rather less going on outside the test chambers. You've got two chapters of explicit "escape" -- but one of those you've got Wheatley with you most of the time, and a sizable percentage of both is spent just running along catwalks. During the old-Aperture-Science segment you've got the occasional get-to-the-next-room puzzle, but those don't have quite the same feel as Portal 1's escape, and they're too broken up.

It's by no means a bad game. It's a good game, for sure. Certainly better than average. But where Portal was a great game -- small, but perfectly formed -- its sequel is merely very good.

Now see, I'm a Portal fan, so I'm a bit biased, but I would bump both up a rung: Portal 1 was a virtually perfect game, and Portal 2 is a great one. Portal 1 is in a class of its own (I honestly cannot think of another game I would put next to it), while Portal 2 is "merely" among games like Braid, HL2, or maybe KOTOR or Mass Effect 1.

All in all, I agree a lot with the Zero Punctuation review, and in particular with the conclusion: Portal 1 is like having three nice, plump cherries, and Portal 2 is like having five nice, plump cherries and a handful of sawdust.