Limited only by its brevity and technical shortcomings, Portal 2 is probably the best game you will play this year.
The meat and strength of this sequel lies in the single-player story which will run for around 10-12 hours. During that time you'll experience a singleplayer that differs in almost every way from the original. For one you're made aware of the story from the outset by the presence of a personality sphere known as Wheatley. Like the last game you'll be made to run a cognitive gauntlet which will either train or reacquaint you with the principles of portals but you'll do so with the intention of escaping the facility rather than for the megalomaniacal GLaDOS (you'll run into her later). Of course once GLaDOS reenters the picture and you once again are forced to test for her personal and very malevolent glee things become more complicated and you and the bumbling personality core that is Wheatley must attempt an escape from Aperture Science and the vengeful GLaDOS.
Everything is paced well over the 12 hours a Portal novice will take to complete the singleplayer. You are constantly pushed forward in true Half Life 2 style but the form of the puzzles change considerably over the course of the game. A third of the way through you will stop playing through segmented test chambers and the game opens out into a more adventure game format where you will need your portals to navigate the environment as much as to solve the puzzles themselves, this is a remarkable change of pace throughout the middle section of the game and allows for story elements to be fleshed out while your brain is being less taxed by the engrossing puzzles. The middle section wherein the origins of Aperture are explained do slow down compared to the rest of the campaign but it's worth it to marvel at the decrepit remains of what was the original Aperture facility.
The gameplay in Portal 2 remains largely the same at first until you are introduced to a plethora of new puzzle elements which were frankly necessary as Portal took the basic premise of the portals to its utmost extent 4 years ago. In addition to the turrets, blocks and buttons of the original Valve has introduced thermal discouragement beams (lasers), excursion funnels (tractor beams) and gels which alter the nature of the surface on which they are splattered. Many of these elements work together and you'll have to utilize several at once to complete most of the test chambers. Like in other Valve titles you're drip fed each new element, slowly encouraged into using it effectively before chucking you into a room where you'll have to utilize it its full potential in conjunction with the other tools that you've already been introduced to. My only complaint about this wealth of new possibilities is that they aren't all used enough, some fantastic toys like the hard light bridges get only a passing mention in the broad scheme of things and other tricks like the gravity wells and the potential for explosives and portals combined are introduced far too late considering how fun they are.
Testing is still gloriously infuriating fun as ever thanks to the all level design wizardry going on. Though there are usually only a few solutions if not only one solution to a test chamber the way you go about solving each puzzle can be vastly different depending on how quickly you master the concepts. Sadly the really diabolically difficult test chambers come towards the latter half of the single-player so Portal veterans like myself will definitely find it a bit pedestrian although I did get stuck for an hour in a couple of laser-based chambers early on, that said when you get stuck then the game becomes painfully galling as you wrack your brain until the moment when you decide to give up and suddenly it all makes sense. The new elements combine with Source's superb physics engine to create a cerebral and rewarding puzzle game that still remains fun after you have sussed out the solution. Unlike the last Portal game the devil is in the problem solving rather than a combination of solving the puzzle then relying on your reflexes to carry out the necessary operations. This means that your brain will be doing most of the grunt work and a rudimentary understanding of physics will be all you need to traverse Aperture once you grasp the basics.
Though the puzzles will delight and infuriate the real draw of Portal 2 is the narrative which is both unpredictable and powerful in a way that we haven't seen previously in video games. Almost the entirety of the story is told through the first-person perspective bar a few powerful moments where the camera and controls are taken from you ala Half Life 2 Episode 2 which ensures Portal 2 has an immersive quality that is trademark Valve. This is enhanced by stellar sound design and production values which are again hallmarks of Gabe Newell and his band of merry game designers. There are plot twists and turns, huge set piece moments and dramatic epiphanies that will shock you like a game never has up until now and it's all made so much more engrossing by the tremendous writing lent to the game by Erik Wolpaw. Portal 2's story takes you the full length and breadth of Aperture Science, introducing you to the origins of the company and the events that led up to the creation of GLaDOS and Wheatley. Though it lays bare much of the mystery that surrounded Aperture it gives you a chance to take in the superb mythology that Valve has woven into the fabric of the game.
Wolpaw's writing is also some of the most amusing you will ever hear in a game, possibly even a film. GLaDOS's passive-aggressive remarks (voiced with auto-tuned acidity by Ellen Maclain) are tinged with venom and are now willfully free of any pretense that she is an emotionless AI. She's amusing, vehement and still as clever as she was in the last Portal with the added bonus that her character gets expanded upon over the course of the game. What maybe disappointing for diehard Portal fans is that the humour here is much broader and sillier than the oblique, razor sharp lines that defined the first game. This is partly because of Wheatley who is voiced by the british writer/comedian Stephen Merchant of The Office and Extras fame with all the charm and moronic tendencies that he displayed during his screen time in the latter. The second half of this comedic shift is provided by the unseen character of Cave Johnson, the CEO of Aperture whom you will become acquainted with when you descend into the bowels of the facility.
Johnson is voiced by the always brilliant J.K Simmons who brings all his southern cavalier charisma and brazen confidence to the role of Cave Johnson whose voice you will have you chuckling and guffawing at over the third act of the game. You get the feeling that Johnson forms the bridge between the inane Wheatley and GLaDOS as the game seems designed to appeal to a broader demographic. With almost 3 characters instead of the paltry GLaDOS in the last game you would expect the sense of isolation to be dulled but thankfully Valve keep the number of character's chattering in your ear to a minimum. You won't have a clamour of voices vying for your attention which means you can enjoy the jokes from each individual without missing lines because of another character talking.
To match the expanded narrative and characters therein Valve has converted Aperture from a pristine world of white walls occasioned by a few behind the scenes areas into one of the most visually striking worlds in gaming today due to its colossal scale and constant movement. The art design really is outstanding for the most part as run down test chambers are hastily assembled before your very eyes, whole sections of the environment collapse and are torn apart and the world is constantly shifting and changing. It's also incredibly stimulating as there's barely a moment where something isn't moving onscreen in the second half of the game but Valve knows that when you're testing it should lay off the visual stimuli so the cinematic stuff is kept separate from the heavy puzzling meaning you'll be able to enjoy both separately without feeling overwhelmed.
What's more impressive is that this is all running on the 8 year old Source engine which Valve has been tweaking ever since Half Life 2 and it looks fantastic when considered on its own terms. I don't mean fantastic compared to modern titles because on that criteria the game looks clean, functional and a bit dated. Evaluated on its own merits however Aperture looks superb, the lighting is very realistic, reflections are top-notch, broken glass looks amazing (enjoy the little things) and particle effects like the hard-light bridges, gravity wells and even the energy beams from your Portal gun look crisp and attractive. The game also puts a huge amount of stress on the engine during set-piece scenes but Source manages a smooth 60 frames nevertheless. The game can't begin to compare with the quality of recent AAA titles but finally Valve's work with Source has ensures Portal 2 transcends "looks good for a Source game" to reach "looks damn good". Of course this being Source you'll still notice eyesores aplenty, textures are pretty 2008, there are huge levels of low res details and all the work Valve has done with the engine means that pretty much every transition from an area or test chamber is punctuated by a load time which is usually quite short but for a game built on its immersion it really drags you out of the experience.
Valve has also saw fit to include a separate co-op campaign featuring two robots known as Atlas and P-Body. Two-players can access bespoke brutally challenging test chambers via split-screen or online from an attractive hub and play through each whenever they choose once they have completed the co-op story (yes there is one). As you'll both have portal guns voice communication is pretty essential for play, at least when you're both new to a test chamber, unlike the single-player reflexes and quick thinking play a vital role in your puzzle solving so the execution is almost as fun as the discovery as no one player can complete a test chamber on their own, this creates a wonderful dependence on your partner and as such it's the most intimate multiplayer experience you can have.
Valve has also integrated a few tools to make co-op easier for those without mics but it must be stressed that these aids (which allow you to highlight places you want portals and so on) are an accessory to voice coms and not a substitute for it. There are some latency issues, especially across platforms if you play the PS3 version with a PC player. That's right there is cross platform multiplayer ala Shadowrun and by buying the PS3 version you get a free copy for the PC which is great considering that if the DLC becomes paid (the first package is free) the PC will be your go-to Portal 2 platform. You can also download new user generated test chambers from thinkingwithportals.com as Valve have released the modding tools which have allowed for some pretty evil user generated puzzles which you can access from the game proper.
There are some issues with the cross platform malarkey as always, you can't play user generated stuff cross platform with the PS3 and lag gets a bit frequent when play across as well, Steam achievements only carry across from the PS3 to the PC and not visa-versa so if you're an achievement junkie then the PS3 the way to go. Nevertheless it's a thoughtful inclusion and it's nice to see a company giving the PS3 some glory after all the early release stuff the 360 has enjoyed and the lack of the L4D series on Sony's console.
Portal 2 was a game that nobody expected was going to be made. Valve stubbornly insisted on going from a tangent to another tangent rather than working on the final installment of their trademark Half Life series but yet again they prove that they are the masters of the first-person experience. Portal 2 takes what little the first game had and creates an entirely new set of rules, tools and hilarious fools that make Portal 2 the best game you will play this year, possibly ever. That is, until the next Valve game is released.
+ The Portal gun coupled with a variety of new puzzle elements create a whole new gaming experience which will tax your problem solving skills to their limits
+ The Source engine manages to pull off some visual impressiveness with huge environments, fantastic and believable destruction and strong lighting effects. One of the more visually stimulating games out there with huge numbers of moving objects onscreen at once
+ The best story you will probably ever encounter in a puzzle game, if not in any game
+ Stellar production values when it comes to sound design and the cinematic moments
+ The inclusion of J.K Simmons and Stephen Merchant's characters coupled with the amazing writing make this the funniest game in years.
+ GLaDOS is back, and she still loves to test
+ Cross Platform integration means you and your Steam/PS3 friends can test together
+ User-generated content via modding tools means the free PC version is definitely worth redeeming.
+ The Co-op is a fantastic addition and contains some of the best puzzles in the game. A probably the best co-op game available since the last Valve game with Co-op (noticing a theme here?) Valve also adds a set of co-op tools which fix almost all of the expected issues of a co-op puzzler.
+ Co-Op story is pleasantly surprising and ties into the main story somewhat
+ Expands and explains the origins behind the mysterious Aperture Science Laboratories
+ Incredible set-piece moments that will rival the best that modern action games have to offer
- This is still Source so expect ugly textures, blurry details and a general low-res-ness to pretty much everything apart from Wheatley for some reason.
- Lots of load times at pretty much every transition or elevator ride which painfully break up the immersion. Probably due to the strides Valve have taken with Source
- The humour and writing are much sillier and broader which will feel disappointing for those who liked the feeling of being in on the monotone quips of the last game.
- Lag across platforms along with odd incongruities with the cross platform Steam access. (acquiring Steam achievements =/= Trophies but nabbing Trophies = Steam achievements)
- A lag halfway through as you are acquainted with the early days of Aperture Science
- No mic = rubbish co-op play and someone shouting things at you
- People killing you in Co-Op
- Still too short a game even with the co-op inclusion
- It's not Half Life 3
Portal 2 is the best game you can buy on any platform since the Orange Box, it has better gameplay than Portal, a better story than the last Valve epic that was Half Life 2, better co-op play than L4D and it expands on the Portal formula to the extent where it makes the original game truly seem like the student's experiment that it originally was. It doesn't even approach the amount of content that the Orange Box that contained the original did but you won't play a better game this year.