I had this mental checklist going into Portal 2. I wanted it to be all the things I liked about the first game. Those being that it was:
3.) fun and challenging
4. a tight, self-contained story
5.) and had female characters notable for their will, strength of character, and disregard for conventional roles.
So...did it succeed? First of all let me say that it did. I had a smile on my face when I finished it. (By the way, spoilers will be left out of this review until the end.) After the last scene I sortof felt like running around and jumping. It wasn't better than the first one, but...let me move on to the above points.
1.) Is it funny? Yes. And also yes. Mind you, the first section with GlaDOS disappointed me a little. I felt like somebody in the writers' room might have made a list of why GlaDOS was funny, put "she insults you" at the top, and just worked from there. I felt a little bit like I could see what strings they were pulling and what the writers' thought process had been. But then I played co-op and it was okay again, and there are some lines that are so quotable.
2.) Is it creepy? Yes. One word. Frankencube. All the austerity of the first game is still there, except now there's also things falling apart as you walk through them. The game pulls the floor out from under you (sometimes literally) many times, and each time felt inventive.
3.) Is it entertaining and challenging? Yes. I felt that the plot line was a vehicle for stuffing the game full of more puzzles, but that was fine. I wanted more puzzles. The different types of levels kept them from getting repetitive, and integrated various plot elements really well. And the zoom function was brilliant. I thought it was useless at first, but...no. I should have seen it as a promise of larger environments. In them, it was invaluable.
4.) Is it tightly written? Yeeees. And that's a slightly hesitant inflection, as opposed to "yessss" which would indicate an enthusiastic inflection. I thought the first game was great partially because it was so short. It was like a finely crafted short story, referring only to itself. (And enough of Half-Life that people who got the references enjoyed them.) This second game by nature had to be stretched. Unlike its predecessor, it was designed to take more than an hour to get through. Also unlike its predecessor, it was designed to be a hit.
I still liked the story. It's not as tight as the first one. But it did what it was designed to do.
Around the last few levels I thought the story got a bit wobbly, with the way a certain character who will remain unnamed for spoiler purposes becomes addicted to testing. Anybody else get this strange druggy vibe? I don't particularly want to be thinking of Aperture creating robots with addiction problems. It was just a "was this necessary and was it supposed to be funny" moment.
5.) Was it feminist? Yes. Keep in mind that when I talk about "feminism" and "strong female characters" I don't mean raeg and girls with guns. I mean I want to see equality between the genders. I want to see female characters who are defined by more than their gender. They have strong opinions and aren't going to change them. They aren't necessarily good-- I love that GlaDOS is evil, or amoral. Because she's so consistently full of personality in her amoral....ness.
GlaDOS is a great role model. No, I don't think we should all strive to distribute neurotoxin evenly throughout our places of work. But she's confident and brilliant and really makes an impression. I thought the conversations between her and Chell resulted from the most complex relationship in the game. And it's between two women.
In Chell's case, she's silent. You can only see that she's female at all when you make an effort to arrange portals properly. She's got about as much characterization as Master Chief, except that where he's good at killing things she's good at solving puzzles. (All the killing she does, involves solving puzzles.) The developers assume that it'll be just as easy for players to identify with her. Chell is almost less than her gender. And that's great. That's equality.
We could talk about her costume change. Personally, I like it. The tank top is practical. It makes sense that she might have wanted the sweaty, moldy jumpsuit she'd been wearing for who knows how long in stasis off her skin. Yes, the elephant in the room is that the artists played around with a "sexier" look before settling on bared arms. (Link if you want it. It's on the wiki.) But the costume they settled on doesn't bother me. And this stuff bothers me.
I have to say I was a little disappointed with GlaDOS at the end. Her dialogue just teetered on the edge of sentimental. Every time it teetered Valve tipped it straight again with a tiny bit of dialogue or something completely insane like the ascension cutscene. I really wanted GlaDOS to keep her evil edge, because it was funny and memorable. And partially she did.
We actually get our first introduction of a male character in this game, unless you count the Companion Cube as male which I don't.
And now I bring you into spoiler territory. Again, welcome....
"How are you doing? Because I'm a potato."
Okay now that that's out of the way. The end was AWESOME. I just portal'ed the moon, guys.The moon. And it took me like a day to remember that the white paint is made out of moon dust, so it even makes sense. Awesome.
But we were talking about Wheatley.
So. Our first male character (disregarding disembodied voices, and ignoring the fact that turrets might in any way be gendered) is Wheatley. He is, I would argue, the third character to appear in the entire series. Other people such as Cave Johnson and Caroline are characters who might appear in stories of the past, but in the games they're set dressing.
So we have Wheatley, who starts out as friendly. In pursuit of his (and Chell's) goal, he violently beheads and inhabits GlaDOS. Possession of what is referred to throughout as her "body" drives him mad with power and addiction.
Intentional comment on gender roles? Almost positively no, or at least not in the ways I'm talking about here. Something a bored feminist commentator could write a paper on? Yes.
But this is not that paper. I promise. But Wheatley taking over GlaDOS was, I thought, the most frightening part of the game.
~My Opinion, The Short Version~
I give it a nine out of ten. Tons of fun. The puzzles have high replay value. The co-op is hilarious. Some of the dialogue seems just as fated to go down in meme history as those from Portal 1.
Making a note here...
Do I even have to say it?