Fearing a tepid reception as a full standalone title, Valve first released Portal with the Orange Box alongside a host of well-established titles at a bargain price. Little did they know that just few short years later that little three-hour long bonus game would be one of the most critically acclaimed and beloved titles in recent history.
Now that they’re back to deliver a full blown sequel, one large question is raised. Does Portal 2 live up to the original, or will we need cake and grief counseling at the conclusion of this review?
After having been dragged away at the conclusion of Portal, we reassume the role of Chell in a dingy motel room. After some hilarious cognitive testing, players are introduced to Wheatley – a likable, yet dimwitted, personality core. In an attempt to escape from the decaying facility, the two accidentally re-activate the previous dormant GLaDOS. While, obviously still angry about you “murdering” her years ago, she’s willing to put differences aside – “for science”. Commence testing!
Visually, the game isn’t terribly impressive until you consider the architecture its running on. Portal 2 still uses the Source engine, which was first seen in Half-Life 2. Portal 2 may catch some flak from those obsessed with pristine graphics, but it’s still a far cry from ugly. On a more aesthetic note, the Aperture Laboratories have fallen into a state of disrepair. Centuries without maintenance have caused the labs to fall apart and become overgrown with vegetation. This gives Portal 2’s environments a much darker aesthetic – leaving the sterile feel of the original behind.
Though it isn’t without a few new mechanics, Portal 2’s core gameplay remains essentially unchanged from the original Portal. Once again you will be using the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device or “portal gun” for short. The portal gun allows players to create a pair of portals in order to solve puzzles which would normally be physically impossible.
As was the case in Portal, a great deal of the puzzle solving is focusing around the magnitude of linear momentum at which you travel through a portal, or as GLaDOS puts it “speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out”. As fun as the classic portal gameplay still is, the gimmick is no longer new and doesn’t feel quite so unique. Luckily, Valve has a few new tricks up their sleeves.
There are a few new devices that will be integral in Portal 2’s puzzle chambers. Aerial faith plates essentially catapult players and objects a set distance through the air. Weighted cubes make a return, including a new reflective one that can divert lasers. Tractor beams will assist you in trapping and transport objects. Finally, the hard light bridge allows you to cross chasms and doubles as a shield to protect you from turrets. These new toys are a lot of fun to play with, but unfortunately aren’t used all that frequently. Perhaps, this is because of the additional gimmicks Valve has added into the equation.
Prior to the development of Portal 2, Valve hired the team of students behind 2009’s Tag: the Power of Paint. The concepts behind this game were used for new puzzle elements in Portal 2. These elements manifest themselves in the three gels that are revealed in the latter half of the game. When jumping on blue gel, Chell will be launched into the air, bouncing uncharacteristically high, whereas running over orange gel will speed up her movement considerably. Finally, covering a surface with white gel allows you to create portals on that surface. These gel are considerable game changers as well, but aren’t quite as fun to use as the aforementioned devices.
Unfortunately, the clever physics-based puzzle solving is less present in Portal 2. While that still exists, there is a large portion of the game where puzzling takes a back seat to exploration of Aperture Science’s underbelly. While from a narrative perspective this portion of the game is incredibly interesting, from a gameplay standpoint it is an exercise in frustration.
Much of the gameplay in the exploration portion of the game comes down to finding the one place where you can place a portal in order to progress. While it serves to provide a break between the challenging test chambers, playing Valve’s three dimensional, monochromatic take on Where’s Waldo quickly becomes frustrating. Rather than the usual rewarding sense of achievement, moving on from these areas comes with a sense of relief that a painful step of the journey is over.
The writing in Portal was fantastic. While things no longer feel so new and exciting, Portal 2 does wonders for fleshing out the underbelly of the Half-Life universe and telling the sordid history of Aperture Science. The dialog and characterization of GLaDOS and Wheatley is particularly interesting and hilarious. Fantastic voice acting and a wonderful script make Portal 2 one of the most genuinely funny titles on the market.
Unfortunately, the narrative in Portal 2 is handicapped by an interesting design choice. Frequent loading screens make the experience feel incredibly disjointed, which is disappointing because the original Portal tackled this problem in a way that made the experience virtually seamless. Players flowed from one level to the next in an elevator – similar to those of Mirror’s Edge or the door sequences in Resident Evil. Going back to loading screens with a progress bar feels like a definite step back for the series.
After you’ve completed the campaign, the story continues in the co-operative mode with a pair of charming robotic protagonists: P-Body and Atlas. If you think the co-operative mode is just a rehash of the single player campaign that you can play with a friend you’d be sorely mistaken. In typical Valve style, the co-op mode has been designed from the ground up to offer players a brilliant multiplayer experience. Sharing those “aha moments” with a friend in your mutual discovery of puzzle solutions, and the fun you can have with four portals showcases the brilliance of the series and its seminal concept.
While Valve has boasted interconnectivity with Steam, the PlayStation Network is currently experiencing technical difficulties (read: hackers). Luckily, Valve has included split-screen multiplayer. Additionally, PlayStation 3 copies generously come bundled with a code for the PC version of the game.
Does Portal 2 outshine its predecessor? That’s a difficult question to answer. It is a longer, fuller experience to be certain, but having previously seen and experienced what made Portal so interesting and unique, Portal 2 doesn’t quite feel so new or exciting. Some frustrating decisions and an underwhelming second act aside, the central premise is as brilliant as ever and Valve has enough tricks up their sleeves to keep it challenging, interesting, and hilarious as always.