The original Portal game almost escaped notice. As a demo included in the Orange Box bundle package in late 2007, it could easily have gone the way of many demo products in similar bundles – nowhere. But, enough people played it and told all of their friends how awesome it was and they had to play it, so Valve released a standalone retail version within six months. And ever since, we have been flooded with “cake is a lie” references, but those eventually gave way to another outcry from the masses: “Give us Portal 2!”
This outcry only got louder as Valve moved the release date back a couple of times.
But here it is! I for one could hardly wait for this glorious moment.
Portal 2 takes place in the same setting as the original – the immensely huge complex that is the Aperture Science Enrichment Center. However, an indeterminate-but-very-very-long amount of time has passed, during which the whole thing has fallen into decay due to the power vacuum you created by killing GLaDOS in Portal. You play the same human female, Chell, who has been in hibernation this whole time.
The basic idea behind Portal 2’s gameplay is essentially the same as in the original. For those poor souls who have not yet had a chance to play Portal, I will explain the basics. Each level of Portal is a first-person environment where you have to solve various environmental problems to get to the next level. Sometimes a switch needs to be activated, and sometimes you just need to get to the other side of the room.
One of the main tools you have at your disposal is a portal gun, which can create a pair of portals (one blue and one orange) on certain surfaces (essentially any surface painted white that is big enough. You go in one portal and you come out the other instantly. This is useful for getting across chasms or up to another floor, but it can also be used in other ways. If you put one at the bottom of a pit, you can fall into it and come shooting out the other wherever it happens to be without losing any momentum. The trick is to figure out the best way to use the portals to solve the level.
Portal 2 takes this even farther, and adds new elements, such as some gels that coat surfaces and do various things. Okay, some of these were introduced in the DLC packs for the original Portal, but Portal 2 uses these in innovative ways, and even adds a new one.
The only issue I had with this style of gameplay was that occasionally a feat of dexterity was needed, like the need to put up a portal while falling. These happened only rarely, and while I found them merely an additional challenge, they did detract slightly from what was otherwise a puzzle game. Also, I can see this game going from a fun challenge to frustratingly impossible for someone with accessibility issues.
The real beauty of Portal 2 is that you aren’t usually told how to use or negotiate the various tools and obstacles you encounter. You have to rely on empirical experimentation, deductive reasoning, and a little common sense. This is the best environment in which to solve puzzles, in my opinion. It provides for the maximum of “Ah-hah!” moments, which is essentially the reason we play puzzle games.
The only major complaint I had with the original Portal game was that it was way too short. Of course, since it was originally provided as a souped-up demo, you can’t really blame it for that. Regardless, Portal 2 more than makes up for this, with level after level. In them you end up learning all about the origins of Aperture Science Corp. and how things ended up the way they are. You even learn where GLaDOS came from.
The graphics are no less than stunning. The hugeness of the miles and miles of the Aperture complex is shown in fantastic vistas. People with serious vertigo problems may not want to play Portal 2, as it pulls no punches when showing you the bottomless crevasse that you are at times expected to navigate. The artists made good use of light and shadow, and when the game is supposed to startle you, it does a great job at it.
The sound is also top-notch. If the graphics weren’t enough to convince you that you are in a huge, dilapidated complex that stretches for miles, the sound effects seal the deal. The incidental music does a perfect job of setting the mood of each level and cut scene. At the end you are even treated to a song written by Jonathan Coulton and sung by the voice of GLaDOS, as we were in the prequel.
The voice-acting is superb. They cast the absolute right people for each of these roles. In particular, Wheatley, a bumbling yet helpful computer core that you encounter at the beginning of the game, is quite humorously performed by Stephen Merchant (who co-wrote the original Office series as well as most everything else Ricky Gervais has done). They got the awesome J. K. Simmons as Cave Johnson, the original CEO of Aperture Science. He cracked me up every time I heard his voice.
As if the huge single-player campaign weren’t enough, Portal 2 also comes with a multiplayer campaign. This technically takes place after the single-player storyline, but you could play them in any order. The cooperative mode involves two players who control two robots, Atlas and P-body, each armed with a portal gun. GLaDOS puts them through her “cooperative training initiative” battery of tests. There are four sets of eight levels each that can only be solved by two players working together. Once you finish all four sets, a fifth set unlocks and when you solve all of those levels, you are treated to another credit sequence with an entirely new song.
The Steam online service will pair you up with another player randomly if none of your friends are around. There is a chat window for communication, as well as voice-over, but most of the time you can get by with the pointers you can put on things, that effectively say things like “put a portal here” or “hit this switch on the count of 3.” There were times I never used the chat with my partner; as the pointers were more than adequate.
Of course, when you get a random partner, it is essentially a crap shoot whether you get someone who knows what they are doing. I got the gamut from portal experts to one who must have been four or five years old and only liked to use the emotes and fall off of the ledges. Seriously – I know that’s how old he was because his mic was on, and he sounded like Kyle’s little brother Ike from South Park. But this is the nature of the beast when getting an online partner, and I can’t really hold anything against Valve for it.
This was one sequel that was both worth the wait, and everything it was cracked up to be. Even with the minor gameplay tick for accessibility mentioned above, it still averaged out to a 5-gem game, which it fully deserves.
By the way, I believe a statement was issued that this was to be the last Valve title to offer an exclusive single-player experience. I hope this isn’t the case, because I was about to start the “We want our Portal 3” chant.