April 19, 2011
The original Portal came out of nowhere: a three-hour puzzle adventure game that was included in 2007’s The Orange Box as practically a sideline item. It wound up stealing the show with its unique gameplay and laugh-out-loud humor, and here we are in 2011 playing a full-fledged sequel that makes the original look like the tech demo it really was.
Portal 2 starts many years after the original game, with protagonist Chell having been put to sleep after her defeat of maniacal AI GLaDOS. She is woken up by a personality core named Wheatley, ingeniously voiced by Stephen Merchant, and guided through the remains of the test chambers. Before long, they run into the remains of GLaDOS and inadvertently reactivate her, and much testing (and hilarity) ensues. The plot is quite a bit more involved than the first game, and even gives plenty of development to favorite characters. And of course the writing is brilliant, with spot-on dialogue and humor.
Those who played the first game remember the pristine, clinical feel of the test chambers that permeated Portal. The sequel expands the environments, as the test chambers have decayed and are overgrown with all sorts of plant life (that is, until GLaDOS rebuilds them, of course). Eventually the game leads you into the very ruins of the Aperture Science facility itself, which have an industrial atmosphere. The variety in environments stands in contrast to the first Portal, and help to show just how fleshed-out the sequel is in comparison. The graphics in general are gorgeous, and it’s amazing how much Valve is still pulling out of the aging Source engine. Load times become an issue, however, as between each chamber you’ll be subject to a lengthy loading screen that can break up the flow of gameplay at times.
Gameplay is the same mind-bending puzzle-solving we’ve come to expect from the series. You’ll have the portal gun from the first game, of course, but new gameplay elements such as light bridges, laser beams (“thermal discouragement beams”), and reversible tractor beams (“excursion funnels”) add a new twist to the puzzles. But by far, the biggest addition to the series are the mobility gels: paint-like colored gels that have various properties. Speed Gel allows you to accelerate rapidly across its surface, Repulsion Gel allows you to bounce much higher than your normal jump ability, and Conversion Gel turns every surface it coats into a portal surface. You’ll have to use various combinations of these gameplay elements in conjunction with your portal gun to make it through the game.
The puzzles in the game can get fiendishly difficult, far surpassing those from the original game. You’ll rarely ever feel frustrated as you play though, because usually the answer will be painfully obvious and right in front of you all along. Many times you’ll know what you have to do, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to get from point A to point B, how to get that box to redirect that laser beam into that receptacle, and where to place your portals to get that light bridge to block those turrets. The weakest part of the game is the middle section, where the puzzles basically devolve into “Find the only portal tile amid a bunch of non-portal tiles,” and the game starts to drag a bit. But then the game introduces the mobility gels and new puzzle elements, and things start to pick up and lead to an explosive finale.
Words can’t describe how funny this game is. GLaDOS of course has more of the wit and dark humor that characterized her during the first game, but the real star is Wheatley, voiced ingeniously by Stephen Merchant. His spastic personality and downright idiocy provide an in-your-face style of humor that stands in direct contrast to GLaDOS’ sarcasm and wit, and his expressive actions and inflections simply add to his character. As GLaDOS best puts it, Wheatley is “the product of the greatest minds of a generation working together with the express purpose of building the dumbest moron who ever lived.” Add in Cave Johnson, the former Aperture CEO, whose tirades and rantings blast over the PA system as you explore the ruins of the Aperture facility, and you’ll be laughing through the entire game.
The voice acting simply adds to the humor. I’ve already said a few times how great Stephen Merchant is as Wheatley, and of course Ellen McLain does a perfect job of delivering GLaDOS’ witty, antagonistic dialogue. McLain handles the role exceptionally well, even as her character goes through some development, and we even get to see a softer side of GLaDOS through the game. Cave Johnson is impeccably voiced by J.K. Simmons, who nails the character’s ranting and raving about money and science. And of course there are the personality cores, who are even more hilarious than in the first game, and the turrets, who make their return with their innocent, childlike musings…that is, until they try to perforate you.
Valve also added a separate co-op campaign, which puts you and a friend (either online or splitscreen) in the shoes of P-body and Atlas, robots specially designed by GLaDOS for the purposes of testing, both of which carry portal guns. However, GLaDOS really wants human subjects, so she sends these two robots out to break into the Aperture Science vault and free the humans who are in stasis there. The concept behind the co-op campaign is simple – four portals instead of two – but the depth it adds to the puzzles and the cooperation required to make it to the end are staggering. This isn’t just Portal with two more portals – the entire co-op campaign is designed around teamwork and communication, and you’ll never make it through if you don’t have a dedicated partner. Valve has even added special contextual gestures, countdowns, and other forms of communication with your partner if you don’t have a headset.
The single-player campaign lasts about 10-15 hours, depending on how skilled you are in solving the puzzles. It lasts just long enough that the game continues to feel fresh without wearing out its welcome. Even though the middle portion sags a little bit, for the most part the game is a thrill ride the whole way through, and you won’t rest until you solve the most devious puzzles it has to offer. The co-op campaign isn’t quite as long, lasting about 6-8 hours depending on the skill level of you and your partner and how well you work together.
The only really negative thing to say about Portal 2 is the brevity. Sure, the campaign is just long enough that it never wears out its welcome, and the addition of co-op will add some hours to your gameplay time. But once you’re finished with both campaigns, there’s very little to do. You’ll know the solutions to the puzzles, so there’s very little incentive to replay the game except to hear the dialogue and clean up achievements and trophies. There are no leaderboards or any other online functionality that would inspire you to replay test chambers for time trials or high scores.
The PlayStation 3 version features Steam integration and cross-platform play between the PS3 and PC, which makes it the definitive console version. The Steam integration is little more than friends list, achievements, and news feed, but any PS3 trophies you learn will unlock the corresponding Steam achievement. Not only that, but all PS3 copies come with a code that will let you sync your PSN account with your Steam account and unlock the full game on PC, which means that the PS3 version effectively throws in a copy of the PC version of the game for free. All this make this the version you should pick if you have a choice and want to play on a console.
Overall though, Portal 2 is a masterpiece (not a word that I use lightly in describing a game) and a must-play for any gamer. It’s a much more fleshed-out, complete experience than the first game, and even though it’s short and doesn’t have much replayability, the brilliant puzzle-solving gameplay, hilarious dialogue, and ingenious writing make this a compelling choice for any gamer looking for 20 or so hours of pure fun.
Superb voice acting.
Middle sags a little bit.
Not much replayability.
Long load times