Since Portal’s first debut with the Orange Box back in 2007, gamers have been warped with Portal madness. Although only a few hours long, it quickly became many people’s favourite game, nominated for many Game of the Year awards and inadvertently spawning some of the internet’s most popular memes. Now, four years later, the sequel is here. But is it possible for this sequel to even come close to the perfection of the first?
The game itself picks up an indiscriminate number of years after the first game as you, Chell, wake up in what appears to be a hotel room (far removed from the bleak, white holding chamber from the first). It doesn’t take long to realise this is merely another Aperture Science holding room, used to “store” their test subjects.
Before long, things start to go awry, just as you’re introduced to one of the new characters of the game – Wheatley, a lower level personality core who’s inept ability to look after the test subjects leads him to wake you up from suspended animation in order to escape.
Wheatley, voiced by Stephen Merchant, was an incredibly welcome and hilarious, addition to the game. After first hearing that they were going with a more “human” voice for your companion, rather than the auto-tuned style GLaDOS was given, I was incredibly sceptical, but Stephen Merchant’s performance throughout the game is fantastic. His hilarious quips and ability to improvise dialogue was the reason Valve chose Merchant for the role, which means you’ll often find yourself standing there listening to him talk rather than moving on to the next area.
Wheatley’s ineptitude eventually causes him to accidentally reboot GLaDOS, who’s black-box has forced her to relive the last 5 minutes of her life for centuries, causing her to have some-what of a grudge against you, to say the least.
From here on, you’re faced with familiar scenes from the first game, as GLaDOS creates various test-chambers for the continued experimentation with the infamous Handheld Portal Device (or “Aperture Science Portable Quantum Tunnelling Device”… or just the “Portal Gun”, if you like). As the facility has been essentially derelict for years, the chambers are falling to bits – over grown plant life seeping through the cracks, panels falling off the walls and broken machinery blocking your paths, all leading to interesting puzzles to solve using your portal gun, as now there are fewer surfaces it’ll work on.
This time around we’re introduced to some of the other devices Aperture Science has been working on. These include Light-Bridges, which can be used as surfaces to walk over or walls for protection, Faith plates, which propel you through the air onto perfectly placed targets, Light-Refraction Cubes that are used to refract lasers and Reverse-Gravity Beams that work like tractor beams; all of which give the player interesting new ways to use the portal gun.
GLaDOS’ dialogue throughout is just as menacing as last time around, except now with a whole load of passive-aggressive sarcasm (although, as a computer, her attempts at subtlety are some-what lacking).
After getting used to the portal gun and mastering the advanced techniques of the previous game, various events start to unfold, causing you to plummet into the deepest depths of Aperture Science, unearthing new challenges and different ways to use the portal gun in the decaying ruins of Aperture’s past.
The 70′s laboratory’s that you encounter were easily my favourite sections of the game. The departure from stark-white, or derelict test chambers, to a slice of Aperture history was a welcome change of pace. Cave Johnson, the founder of Aperture Science, pre-recorded messages to help new test subjects (homeless people from the streets) complete these experiments, offering a $60 reward to successful subjects.
First heard in the excellent promotional videos released for Portal 2 (which were presented more as a pitch for Aperture Science’s creations, rather than the game itself), Cave’s enormous personality and ego help shape the mid-sections of the game. His dialogue easily makes up some of the funniest moments of the game, rivalling Wheatley’s inane babble for comic genius. His pre-recorded messages left over many years begin to reveal an amazingly in-depth story, charting the darker history of Aperture Science, making the entire universe this game is encapsulated in seem so much deeper – rich in innovation, yet shrouded in a dark past.
Exploring the deeper catacombs of Aperture Science also allowed for much larger scale puzzles. Having to find the test chambers were challenges in themselves, searching the vast complex for that one hint of portal-able surface – a task aided by the much welcomed zoom function.
It’s true to say that this time around the levels themselves feel like a living organism(deleted comma) but not necessarily with their own personality. It’d be more inclined to say that each level feels like an extension of the antagonist – arms and legs, reaching out, manipulating you and your path to freedom. The personalities of characters are reflected perfectly inside the walls. GLaDOS toys with your sanity, manipulating the world around you to suit her own purpose. In the later levels, as you’re guided through the ruins of the past, Cave Johnson’s pre-recorded voice gives your journey an incredible sense of history and purpose. Although merely a recording, his vast and bold personality is once again reflected in the test chambers, bringing them to life in an astonishing, yet subtle, way.
These new set pieces also house new mechanics to toy with. In the past, Aperture Science dabbled in physics manipulating gels, adding incredibly interesting new elements to the game. Blue “Repulsion” gels make the floors, walls and objects it coats “bouncy” while Red “Acceleration” gels accelerate you when running over them. White “Moonrock” gel allows you to create portals on any surface – a mechanic which gives the player more control over the more complex puzzles.
Although the levels are incredibly varied, the puzzles themselves are relatively easy. There were only a few instances later in the game I had trouble with, but even those turned out to be obvious things I’d simply failed to notice at first.
This means that the game is incredibly accessible for those new to the series. What limited story there was in the first game is easily summed up within the first 20-30mins of Portal 2. Valve continue the method of telling an interactive narrative through 1-sided dialogue and the players chosen actions, rather than lengthy cut-scenes jam-packed with exposition.
Valve’s ability to craft relationships with people through one-sided conversations is brilliantly effective. Somehow, without you ever directly conversing with these characters, unique relationships are crafted – even with people who have been dead for years, in the case of Cave Johnson.
The difficulty curve remains at a steady incline, suggesting that this game really did have new players in mind, making sure not to overwhelm them with these new mechanics, but also includes just enough new elements to keep the returning audience entertained.
There are throwbacks to the previous title, which serve to be more of a bonus to veterans, rather than alienating the new. That said, I was incredibly happy to see that they hadn’t focused on re-hashing old jokes and now stagnating memes. Companion Cubes are a rarity, to say the least, and you’d be hard pressed to find many mentions of that elusive cake (although there are a couple of easily missed signs that hint towards it). Instead, there focus was to create an entirely new story, keeping in cannon with the Half-Life and Portal universe – and boy, did they succeed.
I was also pleasantly surprised by was how easily I adapted to the control scheme. Normally, I can’t stand FPS’ on console – without a mouse and keyboard, you might as well tape my hands into a fist shape and tell me to fly a Space Helicopter. Portal’s simplistic and minimalist controls work efficiently with the controller and the game’s pacing means there’s no need for lightning fast reactions. Since the game revolves around solving puzzles rather than fending off waves of enemies, you’re left to go about business at your own pace, eliminating the need for mouse-like precision.
One aspect that really took away from the experience for me, though, were the transitions between levels. Valve are normally excellent at making incredibly immersive games, right down to the finer details, such as limiting FMV’s in favour of player control, and creative smooth transitions from scene to scene. Various elevator rides and opening doors turn the screen black, forcing you to wait patiently in the dark a short while as the game loads the next segment. It seems almost childish to nit-pick this small detail but Valve are normally better than this, so it sticks out sorely. The co-op missions tackle the issue slightly better, with animations playing with annotations to read while you wait, but single player is left with a standard “Aperture Science” logo (although it is interesting to see that change slightly depending on which segment of the game you’re at). That said, it is credit to the game that one of the worst aspects is a minor indiscretion that is common place in most other games – it’s just a shame it has to happen so often.
Another small gripe was how they curbed my freedom some-what by only allowing me to pick up certain objects. There’s nothing I like more than throwing pencils around an in-game office, or smashing a cup against a wall – just because I can. Taking this away from me almost felt like Valve decided I couldn’t be trusted carrying around undesignated objects.
This “nanny” mentality plagues you throughout the game, stopping you from leaping to your doom in some cases, or placing invisible walls around crushing set-pieces, in case (like me) you decide it’d be funny to kill yourself on it. There are two things I can’t stand in video games: crappy licensed pop songs (especially when they ruin the trailers), and invisible BLOODY walls. I paid for this experience, so I should be able to end it abruptly with a quick visit to the masher, if I so choose.
The most disappointing aspect of the whole experience was definitely the aforementioned difficulty of the puzzles. The beginning was easy enough, and understandably so as this title has to cater for, not only the returning fans, but a new audience altogether. Learning how the portal device works, while slowly building up to the new mechanics was great; but sadly it felt like I couldn’t shake that “tutorial” sense about it all. The puzzles often took nothing more than a bit of looking around the level, or some minor trial-and-error.
That said, it most certainly does pick up the pace in the final act. Suddenly I found myself face-to-face with extraordinarily complex puzzles, which required a lot of experimenting with a wide range of the new mechanics to succeed. But these difficulties were short-lived; once you find that key item or manoeuvre, the challenge quickly dissipates and you find yourself once again breezing through the next few stages.
Although the majority of the challenges were easy, I often found that the story and the events unfolding around me took my mind off the puzzle solving aspects of the game. Mesmerised by the joy of simply exploring and taking in the glorious, decaying scenes of the once mighty Aperture Science was a splendour, one which I never grew tired of. It was this more than anything that drove me through the game, keeping me interested and thoroughly entertained. At times it almost felt as if the puzzles were merely put in place to allow you to linger and explore more of this vast and expansive laboratory; taking your mind of any complexities you expected from the game, allowing your mind to focus on the world itself. (That said, people new to the game may find it much trickier, as I’ve heard the general “think with portals” concept can be a confusing one to grasp).
These were Portal 2′s only short comings – but things that were easily over looked after the credits rolled, especially as no two puzzles were repeated throughout the entire experience. The outstanding set-pieces, environments, characters and unique mechanics easily make up for the relatively shallow difficulty curve.
These small discrepancies were the only things holding Portal 2 back from a perfect review. I loved this game whole-heartedly, but I just couldn’t give a perfect score when there was an obvious flaw. A minor indiscretion like this would be almost irrelevant when reviewing most other titles, but Portal’s shining excellence means that the tiny kinks it does have show more prominently.
…But then I delved into the multiplayer.
Co-op multiplayer adds a whole new challenge to the game, which two sets of portals and twice the brain power needed. The intensely complex puzzles found in co-op easily make up for the single player, as the unique campaign tests both you and your partners puzzle solving skills to the maximum.
Unlike most other multiplayer games out there, this game really does rely heavily on team work and co-operation, despite GLaDOS’ humours attempts to drive a wedge between you both.
The all new Steam support on PS3 also means that you can play cross-platform, with players from the PC working together with their PS3 comrades. Or, alternatively, if you prefer a keyboard and mouse, you can continue your journey on PC, as the Steam Cloud capability means that your saves are instantly transferred across to your preferred platform.
Overall, it’s safe to say that this game is fantastic. Any fans of the previous game should most definitely own this game, a redundant statement to say the least as I can’t imagine any fans not picking this up within a week of its release. Everything works perfectly in this game – from the unique mechanics, down to the amazing sound track and excellent use of lighting and sound effects, gelling seamlessly with the gameplay and story.
The hugely enjoyable game mechanics, hilarious writing and fascinatingly interesting world you get to explore greatly makes up for what few shortcomings Portal 2 has.