When the original Portal released, I had a group of friends who constantly complained because the game had a story. ‘It should’ve been a puzzle game about completing test rooms,’ they’d say. ‘No story, just puzzles.’ I’d disagree. GlaDOS was, and still is, an excellent enemy; her obsessive desire to test human subjects fuels the game’s well-crafted fiction. Four years later, Portal 2 expands on everything the original accomplished in every way possible.
Portal 2 opens in the distraught, torn-apart halls of Aperture Science. You awaken as Chell, the protagonist from the first game, whose been under for many years. With GlaDOS, Aperture Science’s main operating machinery, out of the picture, you make your attempt to escape the laboratory’s halls. A personality core named Wheatley, voiced by The Office‘s Stephen Merchant, comes along to help. Together, Chell and Wheatley attempt to break free of Aperture’s grasp, only to awaken the offline GlaDOS in the process. With the Aperture overlord connected once more, your goal again is to take her out. It may sound repetitive at first, but a story filled with unexpected twists and surprises keeps the game fresh and alive. It’s a Portal that you’ll never see coming.
Wheatley’s character deserves particular praise. Merchant nails his role as the personality core on the dot. Every sentence spewed from his robotic tongue is witty and humorous, or [sometimes] idiotic, but funny. GlaDOS, played by Ellen McClain, does a spot-on job, as well. Whether she’s calling Chell fat or claiming she’s adopted, we have never appreciated an insult as much as we do from the mouth of GlaDOS.
After Wheatley’s introduction in the early levels, we’re introduced to Aperture Science CEO and Co-Founder, Cave Johnson, later on. Like all of Portal 2‘s characters, Cave is no less than fascinating. He’s a patriot of science, and one who will go through any means necessary to achieve results. ‘Want to make $120? Let us cut open your body, put some science stuff inside you, and patch you back up. We’ll even scalp out any tumors you may have while we’re in there. For science!’
While its story and characters are the heart of Portal 2, it’s spine and backbone are its test chambers and puzzles. If you thought the original Portal accomplished everything possible with puzzle creativity, you’d be horribly wrong. Portal 2 makes the original’s challenges look like featherweight. Where in Portal you’d find yourself tasked with utilizing portals, cubes, and lasers, Portal 2 tasks you with the latter on top of so much more — catapulting plates, bouncing gels, speed-boosting gels, portal creation gels, one-way movement fields, laser redirection cubes and more. Not only do these new elements add more variety to each puzzle, but it makes for greater difficulty. Even so, the puzzle’s aren’t so difficult that they’re impossible to solve. You will get stuck, but it’s not because of intense obstruction or faulty level design. The solution is always right in front of you, though it might just take some rigorous thought to figure out. In most cases, you’ll end up cursing yourself for not seeing the wall up top the ceiling or not realizing how to utilize the laser reflection box after you’ve finally figured out how. If I can beat it, you can — with a little brain work, of course.
I wouldn’t say Portal 2 has a single major accomplishment. The entire game is a vast improvement over the first, which had already won the hearts of so many. Though, one of its bigger improvements is its environmental shift. No longer is Chell confined to the walls of the test chambers; during the game’s chapters, you’ll find yourself venturing Aperture Sciences’s underground, behind its panels, and in large open environments designed as puzzles incognito. In these environments, you’ll manipulate gels through portals, gain momentum from high falls, launch yourself onto further platforms, and activate lasers and switches allowing you to progress forward.
While Portal 2 isn’t the prettiest-looking game in the world, it certainly looks great. It pays great attention to detail, whether its Aperture’s moss-penetrated walls or broken-down structure, its atmosphere gives off a creepy post-apocalyptic vibe. In some areas, you’ll see drawings of Chell, GlaDOS and other characters on the wall. One of the drawings shows Chell defeating GlaDOS from the first game. Another is simply a chalking of the Portal Gun. It adds a prison-like feel to the game’s end-of-the-world ambiance.
Co-op is another big addition to Portal 2. If you thought solving puzzles with two portals were hard, try solving puzzles with four portals. We’ve yet to complete the co-op campaign (we received our review copy a bit late), but it’s much more complicated than the single-player from what we’ve played so far. It stars two robot characters, Atlas and P-Body, thrown into the testing game to complete challenges deemed far too difficult for humans. Co-op must be played with a friend, either online or on local split-screen. It requires a great deal of cooperation. Many co-op games do not emphasize teamwork, adding the feature only so two players can play through a campaign together. That’s not Portal 2. You’ll need to be in constant communication with your partner during this campaign, shooting portals for him, pressing buttons for him, etc. Valve pulls it off well, but what less would one expect from the creators of the co-op hit Left 4 Dead?
The original Portal was brought on by Valve from a team at the DigiPen Institute of Technology way back in 2005. It was a concept looking for its big break, and Valve was it. The developers turned the game into a series and a great one at that. Portal was excellent, but Portal 2 makes it look like expired cake. It improves upon every little knick and knack of the first, including character development, puzzle variety, mechanics, overall enjoyment and atmosphere. As if the game’s ten-hour campaign wasn’t good enough, a separate co-op campaign was also added to the mix. Portal 2 is one of the best puzzle games we’ve ever played. Who would’ve thought a university project would evolve into such a fantastic success?
Portal 2 was reviewed on a PlayStation 3. The single-player campaign was played to completion. Co-op was also played, but not to completion. Portal 2 launches for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC and Mac on April 19, 2011 for an MSRP of $59.99.