A Communal Evening With: Portal 2

24 Apr 2011  by   Paul Younger
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By now, you’ll have read John’s praise for Portal 2 (have you not? well then, go do so). You might even have taken a look at my musings on whether Valve’s union of PSN and Steam could redefine game ownership. I’m sure you still have room in your hearts for more Portal 2 chat though, right? Of course you do.

As the cherry on this particular game-coverage cake, Tim and I decided to delve into the game’s co-operative side – an aspect new to the sequel. Neither of us had touched the co-op prior to this article, so we were going in blind. What follows is a discussion of two sessions totalling around two and a half hours.

Peter Parrish: I’m eating delicious pasta and have opinions about Portal 2.
Tim McDonald: I’m eating high-fat cheese slathered in chocolate. There’s probably caramel or something in there too. And a really high salt content. I’m not, really, but I’m trying to make the point that I’m more unhealthy than you.
Peter: Haha.
Tim: Anyway! That’s not important. You mentioned Portal 2 opinions.
Peter: Yes I did!
Tim: How well do you think the co-op functioned?
Peter: Really well, actually. I (we?) blundered around horribly at the start though, which I will now try to explain. So, the (SUPPOSEDLY) easy tutorial bit where GLaDOS is showing you how to use the handy ‘put portals here please’ function bamboozled me. Because (1) I thought I was trying to reach you, not the portal gun and (2) I didn’t yet realise that it wasn’t possible for, say, me to put an entrance portal and you to put and exit one and have that be a functioning passage. You can use each others portals, but the entrance/exits are distinct to your own portal gun. This actually makes perfect sense, but for some reason I wasn’t thinking of it like that to start with.
Tim: Mm. I was just highly confused at the start because I hadn’t been paying attention to anything.
Peter: Hahaha.
Tim: I was secretly hoping you knew what was going on.
Peter: Well, I think that could have been the problem for me too. So lesson one everyone – pay attention. And then luckily my wife was watching, so she told me how to solve those early puzzles.
Tim: Yeah. She saved us more than once. Hurray for your wife!
Peter: Hooray indeed! Then she went to play Fallout: New Vegas and we started to suffer again.
Tim: I have to say, the Ping function [the ability to mark areas or objects of interest for your partner to deal with] is possibly the best thing about co-op.
Peter: Yeah, that was very, very useful. I found it worked in two ways – sometimes it prompted me with an ‘aha! yes I see’ and other times I could just trust you and stick a portal where you’d asked. Either way, it’s pretty invaluable.
Tim: Considering how ludicrously confusing it could be to explain things… well, even if you only have the Ping button and text chat, you can pretty much get across the most difficult concepts quite easily.
Peter: Which in fact we did, because our mic chat wasn’t working too brilliantly. I know John had some reservations about online co-op communication in his review, and he’s absolutely right that playing split-screen would be the ideal for ‘debating’ (arguing) about what to do next, but the Ping function and text input worked surprisingly well. Although if you’re playing with a random person who’s just going to dick around then you’d be screwed.
Tim: Yeah. You really need to play with a friend.
Peter: And probably not a friend who thinks they know everything and will rush on ahead trying to solve stuff on their own.
Tim: The other handy little tool was the Picture-in-Picture thing that lets you see what your teammate is seeing. Not quite so invaluable, but it was useful on occasions.
Peter: I wish it had been a toggle rather than having to hold down Tab, but there’s probably an option for that. That’s a very minor quibble though.
Tim: You can also communicate a bit with the Gestures system.
Peter: Yeah, that seemed like a way of bringing the Left 4 Dead-style barks into the game but … with robots. It’s not quite as funny as hearing Bill talk about pills endlessly, but very little is.
Tim: GRABBIN’ PEELS.
Peter: PILLS HERE!
Tim: It was a nice touch in terms of lending a bit of character to the robots. A good thing, I think, as they pretty much came across as Pixar-does-Portal.
Peter: Haha, Wall-E with a portal gun. The Pixar comparison is a good one – the robots don’t really ‘talk’ or do much but make basic gestures, but they both have a load of personality.
Tim: Yep. I think the Gestures system has a lot to do with that, honestly. It gives you a chance to actually see the character you’re controlling doing silly things.
Peter: Yeah, it lifts it above the level of just doing bunny hops.
Tim: Atlas and P-Body are kinda the default comedy duo.
Peter: They remind me of British radio supremos Adam & Joe (shorter one and taller one).
Tim: I was thinking of Laurel & Hardy, but you have a point.
Peter: I did genuinely feel the need to use the ‘high five’ Gesture with you at the end of some of the levels though, it’s the same feeling of success you get from solving a tricky one in single player – maybe even more so, because you’ve had to co-ordinate.
Tim: Yeah. Those wonderful, wonderful moments where a puzzle just clicks and you suddenly have a clear vision of how it works and what you need to do. Oh, and I did like laughing at GLaDOS, too, through her cameras.
Peter: Laughing at GLaDOS is only fair, since she constantly laughs at you too.
Tim: I think Valve had a lot of fun pitting the supposedly co-operating players against each other through the dialogue. GLaDOS often praises one and demeans the other.
Peter: Yes! And she hands out utterly meaningless “points” in an attempt to drive a wedge between you.
Tim: Speaking of GLaDOS and tricky levels – how do you think the co-op held up as a Portal game? Because I’m mightily impressed. Loads of unique dialogue, and what seems to be a huge amount of unique levels (I think we were … maybe around a third through). Most of which took some contemplation, because working out how to do things with two bodies and four portals is a lot more confusing than one body and two portals.
Peter: Yeah, just so people know where we stopped – we got to the end of the second set of courses (Mass and Velocity). Then my internet died.
Tim: Probably a blessing in disguise. I don’t know if I’d have actually WANTED to stop at any point.
Peter: In a way it’s the ‘pure’ core of a Portal game, because it’s just puzzles, with very little narrative (but no weaker for that). And it adds a great new aspect with, yes, having to plan things out with four portals instead of two. When I say little narrative there, I don’t mean it has no life – there’s plenty of GLaDOS chat and funny stuff. It’s like a long-running sketch though, rather than the drama-with-funny-bits of single-player.
Tim: It’s a bit of a shame there doesn’t appear to be split-screen co-op on PC, but Steam works wonderfully. It’s worth noting that we’re in separate continents, after all, and we managed. There was lag, but even the timing-based puzzles worked okay. I do wonder if it might get a bit more unmanageable on later courses when more elements come into play, though.
Peter: Yeah, the lack of PC split-screen is worth mentioning – there was no split-screen in PC Left 4 Dead(s) either, which I’ve never seen the reason for. You can hack it in, so it’s in the code, but it’s not really advertised.
Tim: Yeah. There’s really no excuse for the lack of it considering the PC’s processing power and the fact that both games were designed, at least somewhat, with controllers in mind.
Peter: Anyway, I was pretty gutted when my connection crapped out (because we’d just solved another room!) But then realised I hadn’t eaten yet, so … What I’m saying is Portal 2 co-op might try to starve you to death, by stealth.
Tim: Damn Valve and their games.
Peter: Yeah Valve, stop making amazing games, what’s wrong with you?
Tim: Hm. I wonder where it’ll start up again if we fired it up? I assume it autosaves the progress between friends. IE, if I start playing with someone else, it’ll put me at the start; if I start playing with you, we’ll be at the last course we attempted. Don’t know, though.
Peter: That’s .. a good question. We should test that!
Tim: We should!

{PAGE TITLE=A Communal Evening With: Portal 2}
Peter: Alright, so after EXTENSIVE TESTING, the game does indeed save your position (probably as an individual) and gives you the option to play any of the rooms you’ve previously solved.
Tim: Yes! Which is lovely.
Peter: Yep, it means you can go back to favourites or pesky ones you need an achievement on, like the one you mentioned where there’s an achievement for not losing a cube (I believe we lost about ten).
Tim: Indeed.
Peter: Let’s address this issue of ‘Robot Enrichment’ (ie; a hat shop) because that has made some people very upset. Do you think it’s the most evil thing Valve has done in the history of videogaming?
Tim: Good God no. I really and truly don’t give a shit. It’s a HAT SHOP.
Peter: Haha.
Tim: If you think hats are stupid, don’t BUY THEM.
Peter: I have to say I’m pretty much in agreement.
Tim: Valve are only evil for creating a hat shop if you’re some sort of completionist who can’t resist buying every cosmetic add-on for a game. In which case you should already know what you’re in for after Team Fortress 2.
Peter: Right. I’m not entirely sure how much of the stuff unlocks just through playing the game, but I’m fine with just using those trinkets and ignoring the rest utterly.
Tim: Yeah, same. I admit I’d be kinda disappointed if I got absolutely nothing in there without spending money, but apparently I got a few items for getting achievements.
Peter: Yeah. I got a flag, hooray for me.
Tim: I’m perfectly happy with that. It gives me a little way to differentiate myself, and I spent nothing.
Peter: In a broader sense, I’m not sure how well the store will work for them in this style of game – I mean in TF2, you replay and replay and replay. Here, you have to really want to play through Portal 2’s co-op a lot to bother to spend £4 making your robot pretty.
Tim: True. I suppose it’s a very cynical thing to do in that sense. Then again, considering what’s happened with Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if we maybe got some new co-op courses for free, in the future.
Peter: Yes, that is quite possible – and I hope so!
Tim: Historically, I don’t think Valve have ever charged for anything that’s, y’know, actual content. Unless forced to by Microsoft.
Peter: That’d put it in perspective really; the levels will be free, the crap will cost you.
Tim: Yup. I dunno why anyone would BUY the crap, but I’m sure someone will. And then they’ll probably get very angry about how the game has Day 1 DLC and It Should’ve Been In The Boxed Game. Self-entitled whiny crybabies.
Peter: Well actually Tim, those last couple of hours were ruined for me because my little Atlus robot wasn’t wearing a hat.
Tim: Hahaha. Well, you should’ve bought one for $2 then!
Tim: I apologise for the crybabies remark, actually. I’ve just been getting extremely annoyed by the Portal 2 backlash. Sod all of it seems to have any actual merit. People have whinged about it being a console port, it having Day 1 DLC, it being short, and it having that ARG.
Peter: I’ve not finished single player yet, but by most reasonable accounts it’s 7-8 hours. And the co-op is another, what, 5 or so? So the shortness complaint really puzzles me. Unless you hate co-op I guess.
Tim: Yeah. Currently, Portal 2 is showing 13 hours on Steam. Single-player took me maybe 8, and I then went back to look for hidden easter eggs and listen to dev commentary. Which I need to do more of.
Peter: The ‘console port’ I don’t really buy either. There’s that ‘don’t turn off your console’ message which makes no difference to my life at all, and it seems to load rooms in slightly shorter bursts than perhaps some PCs would need.
Tim: I’ve heard people say the campaign took them 4 hours, which seems utterly impossible on a first attempt… unless they did the co-op campaign and didn’t realise it wasn’t the same as the single-player. Which also seems impossible.
Peter: Again, I haven’t finished single player yet, but you have and other people who I’d consider smart enough players also say it’s about 8 hours so …
Tim: I also wonder if it’s somewhat exaggeration, fuelled by backlash. Actually finished it in 6 hours, decided it’d sound more convincing if I said it was 4, gave it 0/10 in a user review.
Peter: Haha.
Tim: Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of valid, subjective reasons to dislike Portal 2. If you can’t abide Stephen Merchant, for instance.
Peter: Since you mention it, he was a lot less annoying than I expected. So I was pleased.
Tim: I don’t really buy into the DLC store/length/port/ARG reasons though. Well, okay, the ARG maybe. I mean the “it might release early” was maybe a bit misleading. But I only started paying attention when I noticed they’d added free content to 13 excellent indie games. Free content!
Peter: The ARG I didn’t really pay enough attention to, but I guess that’s a bit dodgy in the sense that Valve pointed people at more games in the Valve-owned store to buy to get another Valve game released early. But yes, free content for the games you already owned.
Tim: On the plus side, said games weren’t Valve games. I’m sure Valve made a pretty profit out of it, but I’m glad they at least decided to focus on indie studios … and then got them involved by having them make new levels and stuff.
Tim: Getting back to the co-op.
Peter: Yes, we should do that.
Tim: I’m not going to say much for fear of single-player spoilers, but: I do like that they incorporated a variety of different environments into the co-op that we’ve seen so far. It wasn’t just bland white test chambers. The last one we did was a huge… I dunno, almost external area. In that we were on big platforms with lots of open space around.
Peter: Yes, I was surprised (and delighted) to see some ‘back area’ stuff (I think this is fine to mention, Portal the First had those too).
Tim: True. It made a really nice change. It’s just such a phenomenally well-made game with such a sense of place and … well, of character. Considering GLaDOS is essentially nothing more than a voice, the real character tends to shine through in the areas and the levels. And they’re so well designed, both from a gameplay and from an art style perspective.
Peter: I may be wrong here, but I got the sense that the co-op kind of ties in with single-player, because GLaDOS seemed to be using us to perform various tasks for her (which, guessing here, may resonate in single player in some way).
Tim: I’m saying nothing.
Peter: Haha, fair enough. I think I vagued that up enough for it to be ok too. And yes, I appreciate the solid art design in the Portal series because it’s both aesthetically convincing and doesn’t take a huge amount of PC power. Shows you can put together terrific environments without forcing everybody to go quad-core and all that.
Tim: Yes! This is something Valve’s always been good with. Going back to the complaints that were made, a fair few 0/10 reviews were going on about how the game looks like it’s 5-10 years old. Which I guess is subjective, but that still strikes me as insane. It’s a beautiful game.
Peter: Well … it probably COULD have been released a few years ago, but so what? It does look lovely.
Tim: It makes very, very effective use of space and design to look good, rather than having ludicrously high-res textures on everything. Games with technically impressive graphics can still look very, very bland, after all. Portal 2 is anything but.
Peter: Agreed.
Tim: Alright, closing arguments then.
Peter: Yes, let’s hop through the portal to verdict-town.
Peter: I think co-op adds a totally new dimension (oh ho) to the game, by giving you double the players and double the portals – but it does so with the familiar tools from the single-player game, so it doesn’t overwhelm with feature overload. You have to learn to work together, the mechanics of which can take a little while to get used to, but if you can handle that you’re good to go.
Tim: For my part, I want to reiterate that the co-op does a really good job of having unique content that can be bastard hard, but feels special. Time was clearly spent on it, and not just the level design – the script, too, is as amusing as it is in single-player. It’s not a cheap throwaway pack of maps, and there’s something really nice about working together with someone else to solve tricky problem.
Peter: Plus, there are some hilarious opportunities for griefing, by crushing/dropping/drowning your partner.
Tim: Yep. There are, unsurprisingly, achievements for killing your partner in various ways.
Peter: It stays funny too, because there’s no real penalty for death. You don’t have to weigh up potentially losing progress vs dumping your buddy in the water.
Tim: Valve knows what we like.
Peter: Valve does, indeed, know what we like.

Version(s) tested: PC

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