Portal 2: He Flies Through Puzzles with the Greatest of Ease

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Portal 2 makes me nervous, but not in a good way. I’m halfway through its shambolic, corroded test levels, but it’s only taken three hours to get here. During those three, I’ve jogged into spacious rooms, sussed a few puzzles, then jogged out again. The toughest one yet occurred at the beginning during training, where I only had control of a single portal and couldn't figure out where to drop the other one. Everything since? Pretty much a cakewalk.

I want to like Portal 2, but Portal 2’s playing hard to get. Or too easy to get. It’s surprisingly unchallenging, and you’re talking to the one guy in the universe who didn’t play the original. I’m not supposed to get it. And yet I’m getting it right every time, no heavy (or even really gratifying) mental lifting. Everyone loved the first Portal, didn’t they? Why--because it was easy?

The design team seems so concerned you might get stuck, in fact, that they’ve made it all but impossible to. You'll get things right after two or three tries. The rooms themselves come architected like geometric walkthroughs, their surfaces divided into “usable” and “unusable” (but mostly “unusable”) area, thus forcing your brain to resolution by limiting it.

Instead of encouraging trial and error, the game eliminates much of the "error" bits and only challenges you to put things in sequence (step onto the elevator before quashing a portal that’s making a light bridge that’s holding up a box that’s blocking a laser that makes the elevator go up). In fact it’s often hard not to see what you’re supposed to do at a glance. If a physics puzzler like Angry Birds invites essay-style solutions to unlock higher scores and three-star ratings, Portal 2’s our-way-or-the-highway gameplay feels almost "fill-in-the-blank" by comparison.

That’s a problem, or at least it feels like one by the game's halfway point. I went in expecting freeform puzzling, not this connect-the-dots stuff. That, and while my review copy cost me nothing, you'll pay $60 for this game on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. So far, it feels more like something that should've been a $20 or $30 Xbox Live Arcade game.

Valve’s done a thoroughly competent job providing bits of mordant humor to break up the monotony, though the music sounds distant and clinical (where’s Mirror’s Edge's Magnus Birgersson when you need him?). I’m enjoying encounters with the cyclopean orb (Wheatley), whose wit amounts to claiming authority about things, then fumbling it. GLaDOS herself--no SHODAN by any measure--alternates between mildly ironic one-liners and clever zingers and keeps the game from feeling like a series of clinical exercises. The whole "let's test until you're dead" angle feels forced, of course, but that's what happens when your core conceit is this narrow--"figure out how to get to the exit again and again"--and you're building a story around it after the fact.

In any event, I'll probably wrap the game up this evening. Who knows, maybe the first half's all training (think Final Fantasy XIII) and the best stuff's yet to come.

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