Warning! Here be Portal 1 and 2 Spoilers.
Portal 2 is a good game, I would even say it's a damn good game. Still I'm a bit uncomfortable with it's status as a sequel to the original Portal and playing it makes me unsatisfied in a very specific way. When I played Portal 1 to the end the first thing I wanted out of a sequel was to explore and get a better sense of the Aperture Science facility. At the end of the day I have supposedly done that but I couldn't tell you what the hell they expected me to think of this joke of an environment.
This is not your slightly older brother's Aperture Science, but a completely different and revised version of Portal 1's facility. I can overlook updated character looks to fit a new game engine as none of those were too jarring. I can overlook a few concept tweaks here and there to fit new ideas for a new game. This is a complete and total removal of the original Portal's environment and the insertion of another one where the only anchor point is the original test chambers which barely factor in and are proven to be completely pointless by the test chamber creation process apparently being very off the cuff.
I knew I was in trouble when they changed the elevators. This is nonsense. It looks nothing like the old game and the monitors don't serve any informational, mechanical, or even test based function.
Aperture Science was originally a facility front, living spaces, observation rooms looking in on set test chambers, and neglected connecting areas suggesting industrial and office spaces. This was replaced entirely by an impossibly huge void filled with endlessly rebuildable super science funboxes operated by vague and probably impossible mechanisms. So the stuff you remember from the first game isn't even an actual place. It's an erector set configuration. This doesn't really make sense in the context of the actual structure of the outer areas in portal 1 but we are just supposed to believe the new gospel. What was once the inner workings of a strange building is now a series of almost floating catwalks and tube elevators that seem to have no purpose outside of being a video game level to move you between strange pseudo science panel boxes. Get used to the view, it rarely changes.
The end of the first game has a parking lot with a security station. Everything about the second game contradicts the normalcy and above-ground-building-having-ness that this image clearly implied.
Occasionally a concrete wall or structure of unknown purpose will be there to block your path. Every so often an office space will be shoe horned in like an ill fitting Lego brick or you will walk to a place that supposedly is a turret creation factory but really looks like a void with a few boxes strewn about. Those boxes then show you canned animations of turrets being created that are completely separate from any functionality indicating how those turret parts got from the conveyer belt to there, how the turrets make it to the rest of the assembly line, or what is powering the mechanisms that create them.
Any time you get a view outside of a test chamber most of what you get is a nonsensical view of acres of completely empty functionless space. Maybe you see a catwalk or a wall. Scripted events and forced visual setpieces are the only way they keep variety up.
You go to areas where you are deep underground, and areas that imply you are seeing sunlight out of a broken wall but never know what is real or fake. Daylight and artificial sunlight are interchangeable concepts as the story implies and at many points it contradicts the idea of any part of the facility being above ground. Once a ceiling collapses and you see the moon, meaning that building MUST be above the surface. Still, when you finally get out of the facility all that awaits you is a tiny shack in an endless wheat field, implying the entire facility, including the area you see the moon from, is underground. That room apparently just being really shallowly under ground.
This particular ending is so visually jarring and unreal and throws so much of the rest of the setting into disorder in fan's minds that some fans believe that you died before you reached that point and Chell's escape from the environment is a metaphorical escape to heaven. (This interpretation isn't helped by numerous jokes that are made in the story implying that half of the things she comes into contact with are almost always fatal, as well as numerous death fake outs right before the ending. The comedy undermining the believability of the story's intentions yet again.)
Never before have I seen a game so visually confusing that you have to wonder if your character died at some point and weren't aware of it. Everything in this game, from mile wide vault doors hiding a comedic tiny door to cartoonish bottomless pits, is so freaking unbelievable and stupid it might as well be the fever dream of a dying lunatic.
The field is nice and everything but I kind of miss the parking lot. Where did it go? Who put this shack here? What the hell is all this wheat? Are you still there? What was that? Who are you?!!!
The level designers took the job of providing a believable environment and tossed it in the bin, replacing it with the job of making things look spiffy and important as long as you don't think about them, and being inconsequential enough to excuse the gameplay centered conceit of test chambers being endlessly reconfigured whenever the game demands it. Presumably they needed something where they could reconfigure it on the fly as level designers, where things had a clear visual theme without them having to hand craft every space, and where believability was less important then functionality and comedy so that they could avoid an in depth critique of the structure of something they seem to have put little serious thought into defining.
Essentially things had to be so absurd that no one would care about how absurd they were. A technique well pioneered by one of Valve's other games, Team Fortress 2, but not necessarily appropriate to this game's attempts to draw me into a story based heavily around the fate of a specific place and with emotional ties to a set of characters tied to that place. Every step you take to undermine the environment is a step you take to undermine your story and characters as well. Valve doesn't seem to have taken that balancing act very seriously.
I can understand that the gameplay came first in their priorities but it doesn't stop me from being completely detached from the environment and feeling left out in the cold about the idea of playing the game again once I've memorized all the snappy one liners and gotten tired of all the silly visual jokes. The environment of an atmospheric game like this has to have a life of it's own or you don't want to go back there.
If Rapture were just a series of tubes with a few office chairs strewn around and occasionally you saw a phone or a painting why would I want to revisit there? It's sense of purpose as a real place. It's function and the clear definitions of it's scale and size draw you in. Portal 2 offers next to none of this.
Really look at this picture a second, then tell me it isn't the level design equivalent of insane gibberish.
It is a comedy game I know, but when the jokes end people still think about the setting and the story. When I try to think of it I am left just confused by my thoughts. This is supposed to be tangentially connected to the half life canon? Does it exist in another dimension where MC escher did the world's interior decorating? It's obvious that I'm not supposed to actually equate any part of this with half life except for the specific deliberate references they make.
Valve, am I supposed to walk on eggshells around this inconsistency so that you don't have to lighten up your serious game or tense up your funny one to get the two to coexist? Why did you bother making them connected at all if you weren't going to take that connection seriously? Do I have to wait for half life 3 or portal 3 for you to retcon portal 2 like you retconned portal 1 and make it fit the damn universe it's in?
Probably the worst part of this failing is when I couldn't care any less about the environment I'm in but the game suddenly tells me the facility was in danger of exploding and I should be concerned. Watch how worried I get……This is my worried text font.
I don't remember if I was never told exactly what was exploding or where it would be exploding. I was also given no grounding in how big such an explosion would be or even how big the facility I was in was. For all I know it could have been a mile wide explosion in a 20 mile wide facility and could have missed me entirely. The game gave me no sense of scale or place so the entire feeling of danger had to be based entirely on how many times they could shake the environment I was in, have stuff fall over, and flicker the lights. For good measure they had some huge crap fall over or explode right next to me for no visible reason as I passed a trigger point but never provided any real mechanical explanation for it's destruction.
Contrast this with the Big Shell in Metal Gear Solid 2. You saw the facility from the outside, you explore most of that facility, and you are very familiar with it's mechanical purpose (and the mechanical purpose of each room). You know where it begins and where it ends. Knowing it's limits makes it a real place and when it is in danger you are afraid. When it is destroyed you feel the finality and the sense of what the destruction of something that large means.
This game's area exists to me so much I was excited they made a level in a crappy skateboarding game out of it just so I could traverse it a different way…yeah I'm a nerd.
Even environments which are impossibly large and impossible to know that intimately can pull off this trick. Just look at the original Halo. You knew what Halo was because you had seen it from the outside (you know…from SPAAAAACE) and when you were on it you could see it stretching in the distance in the skybox overhead as you walked on it's surface and in a simple sense you knew why it was there. When it blows up you know what just got blown up.
You look at this skybox and you know what a damn halo is, cowpoke.
If Aperture Science were to explode no one could tell me how it happened, what it looked like, or even the mechanical details of it's destruction. Apparently some big boxes would fall over, because that sure happens a lot in Portal 2.
If none of the characters were in it when it exploded and some other aperture facility had test chambers for the next game to use would you even give a shit that it went away? This is an environment that is impossible to care about from a developer that excels at making environments that people care about (City 17 and the Citadel? HELLO!). I feel like they shouldn't have let their gameplay goals compromise that believability just because they had punchy writing and goofy comedy to lampshade their failings.
In the midst of the good story, the good gameplay, the fun characters, and hilarious jokes I still feel like Valve threw the baby out with the bath water on Portal 2 and the game will just never feel complete for me.