The central question concerning Portal 2 is whether or not it could rise to meet the high bar that comes attached with every Valve game in addition to being the sequel of one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time. In many ways it not only meets but exceeds those expectations by blowing the scale of the first Portal out of the water and by incorporating several ingenious new gameplay mechanics that facilitate some of the most inventive 3D puzzles the industry has ever seen. While Valve’s sequel is not as perfect as the original due to a less captivating story and narrative delivery, it is still incredible in its own right.
Portal 2 begins with the player character, Chell, being woken up at some indeterminable point in the future by Wheatley, an AI core charged with managing the thousands of test subjects in stasis. Wheatley transports Chell’s stasis container through a maze of structures, crashing into other containers along the way and providing a nice opportunity to show off the geometry deformation that will be a graphical highlight throughout the game. The entire sequence is a subtle, twisted nod to the tram opening of Valve’s first title, Half-Life.
After breaking through a final wall, Wheatley deposits Chell at her final destination which not so coincidentally happens to be the starting room of the first Portal. Only now, the Aperture Science facility has fallen into a state of disarray with dilapidated walls that have been overrun with fauna indicating that many years have passed since Chell destroyed GLaDOS. The first handful of rooms that Chell navigates serve a dual function of introducing new players to the mechanics of Portal while simultaneously playing up the nostalgia of veteran players for the original game.
For those that haven’t played the first Portal, the most basic way that the player moves through the world is by using the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device which is commonly referred to as the portal gun. The portal gun fires a blue portal with one button and an orangeportal with another. Entering through the blue portal will cause the player to exit through the orange portal and vice versa. Additionally, the speed at which objects enter one portal will be the speed at which they exit the other meaning that the player can “fling” themselves over long distances by jumping down a great height into a portal on the floor and then exiting through a portal on a wall. Manipulating portalplacement to solve puzzles was the fundamental gameplay of the original game and Portal 2 covers much of the same ground in the beginning.
Wheatley helps the player move through the facility’s test rooms and back halls while an emergency broadcast system offers hilarious commentary that replaces the auto-tuned taunting of GLaDOS (my favorite: “If the laws of physics have been abandoned in the future, God help me).
Speaking of the lovable villain from the first game, it should come as no surprise that she is reintroduced in all of her sarcastic, trash-talking glory early on. In the course of attempting to leave the Aperture Science facility, Chell and Wheatley inadvertently reactivate GLaDOS which leads to a sequence of testing as experienced in the original Portal. However, since GLaDOS has been deactivated for such a long time, no test chambers are prepared so the player is treated to an impressive display of visuals as GLaDOS constructs each one on the fly. These puzzles are very similar to those of the first game with a few additional mechanics thrown in to mix things up such as flight pads that propel Chell through the air, weighted cubes that can redirect lasers, and hard light bridges that can be used to span gaps or to protect the player from turret fire. While the new puzzles are enjoyable, there is an unavoidable feeling that sets in after the first few chapters of retreading familiar ground.
Just when it seems like Portal 2 will be nothing more than a slightly tweaked rehash of the original, Valve flips the script and kicks things into overdrive. Without giving too much away, the situation changes quickly with a twist to the story –albeit one that is a bit too obvious– that sends the player off into previously unexplored areas of the Aperture Science facility. It is at this point that Portal 2 turns a corner and becomes a fantastic game in its own right with wild new mechanics, inventive puzzles, and an awe-inspiring scale to the level design.
Progressing through new parts of the Aperture Science facility introduces additional gameplay mechanics, most prominently in the form of three experimental gels the company developed. Each one has a unique property: blue repulsion gel makes objects bounce great distances in the opposite direction, red propulsion gel causes high-speed movement, and white portal-conduction gel allows placement of portals on any surface it covers. There are pumps that output the gels into test chambers and Chell must use her portal gun in combination with the gels to tackle a nice array of new challenges. Many puzzles require a combination of gels for mind-bending solutions and these are some of the finest tests that Valve has created across both games. Things get even more creative when the excursion funnels, tubes of light that push or pull objects, are factored in allowing players to distribute the gels throughout levels in new ways. Beyond being extremely clever in their implementation and forcing players to think in new directions, the gels are simply a lot of fun to use. Splattering the bright colors across surfaces speaks to the two year old in all of us and bouncing off floors and walls is so enjoyable it will draw a smile from even the most jaded gamers.
In addition to the ingenuity of the gameplay, the latter half of Portal 2 is so impressive because of the scale of the environments that the player must navigate, particularly their verticality. The new areas are massive, cavernous spaces that in many cases are several stories in height. To navigate through these locations requires the player to span great distances with portals or, when that is not an option, by flinging at incredible speed. These are all things that have been done before in the original but the increased scale amplifies the wow factor of these actions. Using a portal to maneuver through a small test chamber is neat; crossing a chasm the length of a football field by stepping through a window in the fabric of space is downright cool. The larger spaces more effectively convey the power of the tool the player has at her disposal.
That being said, there are some issues that arise with the larger areas that are not as prevalent in the smaller test chambers. In several instances, especially in very tall levels, the “correct” solution to arrive at the exit necessitates placing a portal in a specific location very high up that can be hard to spot. One particular chamber comes to mind in which I spent roughly 15 minutes trying various solutions because I hadn’t noticed a place for a portal that was hidden at the top of the room in a dark corner.
This last point brings up another issue with Portal 2 which is that the game feels much more linear with its solutions than its predecessor did. One of the fantastic things about Portal was that there were a myriad number of solutions to each test chamber. The tests in Portal 2don’t feel like they have as much leeway for thinking outside of the box especially when navigating the wide-open areas of the game. That is not to say that there aren’t multiple solutions to the puzzles but the feeling of the game overall is that the player is searching for the path the designers intended as opposed to the organic puzzle solving of the first game.
Visually, Portal 2 is a significant improvement over the simple graphics and sterile textures of the original game. The rendering of the enormous spaces and the animation of multitudes of moving parts as tests chambers are constructed and shifted about is, in a word, impressive. Moving through the back halls of the facility’s construction area is another highlight as the player is treated to various wonders such as the piece-by-piece assembly of a turret in a beautiful, automated ballet of technology. It is admirable how far Valve has been able to push the Source engine but, as good as Portal 2 looks compared to the original, it doesn’t quite measure up to its contemporaries in the first person genre. More specifically, the texturing in the game leaves a lot to be desired when considered alongside the visuals of games like Crysis 2 and Bulletstorm. While the fidelity may not be as high as those games, graphical problems were almost non-existent with the lone issue that comes to mind being some texture popping when splashing the same space with multiple colored gels.
In many ways, Portal 2 is a massive improvement over the first game but the story and narrative delivery fall disappointingly short of the original. Unlike Portal, which presented a premise and then gradually peeled away the layers of “reality” to reveal the true nature of the situation through subtle environmental cues, the sequel is a straightforward tale of escape. The twist that is thrown in near the halfway mark can be seen coming far in advance but the reasons for its occurrence don’t make much sense and it seems to exist only out of necessity to do something interesting with the plot. As the player moves through the new areas of the facility, she is presented with a lot of background information about Aperture Science, its founder Cave Johnson, the origins of GLaDOS, and the nature and evolution of the facility itself. This knowledge provides welcome revelations but filling in the back-story feels more like a corollary to the original game. It gives off the impression that Valve made the safe play of falling back on explanations to pre-existing questions rather than forging ahead with an engaging new story.
The chief complaint lobbied against the original Portal was that the game was too short (it could be finished in less than four hours) and gamers desperately clamored for more. Portal 2 avoids that pitfall by providing plenty of gameplay, roughly double that of the first, in an experience that feels just right in length. There’s almost always a feeling of ending too soon in a game that is this fun but when the conclusion came it felt like the right time, as if all the creative angles had been explored properly. While the game’s final challenge is uninspired and too easy, the ending that follows is superb. It is one of the most memorable in recent years and nicely wraps up a fantastic journey. Many great games have finished with a whimper because of a weak ending or bad cliffhanger –several of Valve’s previous efforts included—but, thankfully, that is not the case here.
Blast Factor: Portal 2 is, simply put, an amazing game. The new gameplay mechanics make for even more incredible puzzle solving; the sense of scale is astounding; and the twisted, dark sense of humor remains hilarious. It may not come quite as close to perfection as the original title because of weaker narrative delivery but it is still a must-play for anyone that enjoys videogames. Buy it without hesitation, play it, and then share it with friends who don’t play games so they can see what they’re missing out on.
Editor’s Note: Due to PSN outages, we were unable to properly review the cooperative play mode of Portal 2 which is a significant component of the game. As soon as the service is active, we will post our review of the co-op mode as well as comparisons between the console and PC versions of the game.
Portal 2 is available now for the PS3, Xbox 360, Mac and PC from Valve, a copy of the PS3 version of the game was purchased for this review.