Portal 2 is not a perfect game but it damn well stands at an arm's length of it.
Not so, thought Valve, fresh off releasing another superfluous follow-up with Left 4 Dead 2. Any idea that could stall development of Half-Life 2: Episode 3 is a good idea, and so Portal 2 got the big ol' thumbs up.
Don't get me wrong, I always felt that there was more backstory to dig up in those chilling Aperture labs than Portal ever allowed, especially in how it tied into Half-Life's universe as a rival of Black Mesa, but the unanswered how's and why's helped the entire facility feel illusive enough that you'd believe these guys were into unethical experiments. If a sequel would pull back the curtain a little too far, maybe that feeling would be destroyed.
Then again, this is Valve, so even my biggest worries were soon shushed by the back of my own mind. "Portal 2 will be worth it." And it is.
Portal 2 is set a considerable amount of years after the first one, though you still play as Chell. You're woken out of stasis by the nervous personality core Wheatley, who proposes a method for the both of you to escape. Things soon spiral out of control when one small mistake brings the entire facility back online and with electricity flowing through the overgrown hallways, GLaDOS re-emerges, embittered and ready to exact vengeance.
But this is just scratching the surface. What follows is an absurd chain of events with genuine surprises and makeshift alliances that take you deeper into the bowels of Aperture than you ever thought you'd be. And when it wraps up with the most spectacular, gob-smacking ending in a good long while, you'll look back at whole experience smiling from ear to ear.
At first glance, Portal 2 shows what you'd expect: more of the same. In fact, anyone who played the first game might even find the opening chapter boring, as it retreads the same principles introduced back then. It doesn't take long for you to find your trusty portal gun, still the only piece of equipment you find, but more than enough to make your way across the many, many, many test chambers. If you're new to Portal, the portal gun (or Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, as the company trademarked it) allows you to tag specific wall-types with two interconnected portals; stepping into one portal means stepping out of the other --or flying out, if you have enough momentum in your step-- and reaching the exit of each test chamber will require clever use of these portals.
This concept was broadly explored in the first game, but new puzzle elements such as launch pads, contact beams, light bridges and gels manage to make the experience feel new. The gels especially are plentiful, ranging from propulsion (makes you go fast when you run over it) to repulsion (makes you bounce off of it on collision) and conversion (coating the walls with this allows you to put a portal on it.) All of these bring some clever twists to the portal-formula, and if you fancied flinging yourself through portals fast and high, you're in for a treat.
These gels are only found in one section of the game: the long-forgotten basement levels of the facility. It's a trip down Aperture's memory lane where you can witness firsthand how forward-thinking Cave Johnson's company was throughout the last half century. Walking by a trophy closet filled with consolation prices and silver medals is a fun stab at the feud between Aperture and Black Mesa, and keen-eyed players will even spot a poster depicting the first portal gun ever engineered. Great stuff.
That said, the basement levels are perhaps a little too long. Part of the Portal-charm was knowing that a passive-aggressive observer was watching your every move and commenting on it, and Cave Johnson's pre-recorded motivational speeches and recruitment pitches fail to deliver the same sense of moderation. You're still a rat in a maze, there just isn't anyone tapping the glass.
But that is still just one portion of the game and you'll get to traverse plenty of other exciting Aperture terrain in the remainder of the seven-hour single player campaign.
There's also a two-player co-op campaign - playable online and offline - that's separate from the single player game, but is still about five hours long. In it, you control the robots Atlas and P-Body, commissioned by GLaDOS to run test chambers due to a lack of human subjects. Both robots get a portal gun each, and the subsequent four-portal possibilities will exercise your brain. Because of this, communication is key, and though you have keyboard-accessible prompts like a 3-second countdown for organising simultaneous actions, or a marker to show your companion where he needs to shoot a portal, not being able to talk directly to your co-op partner will hinder the gameplay.
The co-op also replaces a significant part of the first game's longevity: the challenge rooms. These were the test chambers out of the story, with each one having three challenges; clearing the chamber within a time limit, clearing it with as few portals as possible and clearing it with taking as few steps as possible. They were very demanding, and required a lot of YouTube mentoring to complete. There was a golden chance here for Valve to implement a similar system, with online leaderboards to compare scores, and direct access to YouTube to upload videos of record-breaking plays, but instead the whole concept got the boot. Free downloadable content is on the way though, so perhaps we'll still see this feature.
You do get some solid extras including audio commentary, trailers and commercials, a comic that fills the gap between Portal 1 and 2 and even an interactive teaser for Super 8. Yes, it seems out of place, but it's still pretty interesting.
Obviously no one knows the Source-engine better than Valve, and they made it sing with Portal 2. It's starting to show its age with the frequent loading times and dated textures and lighting, but the scale and deformation, instantly exemplified by the game's thrilling opener, are the best the engine has ever produced. Smart use of motion blur and a good art direction still make the game look fantastic: the defunct facility has vegetation growing inward and some of its machinery struggles to keep churning after years of neglected maintenance. That Valve has a highly talented team of animators shows throughout; from the facial expressions of Wheatley, Atlas and P-Body to detailed window-dressing like the assemblage of a gun turret. Yes, those cutesy-but-deadly bullet dispensers are back, taking on quite a few unexpected and hilarious forms.
The writing and voice acting go hand in hand, once again providing an audible delight. Ellen McLain reprises her role as GLaDOS with as much sinister intent and harmless pestering as you'd expect, cracking jokes about weight-gain, orphans and even Chell's silence in an attempt to derail her determination. But even she has to compete with the likes of Stephen Merchant, voicing the loveable oaf Wheatley, whose naive demeanour and unbridled optimism make him a memorable companion. As if that package wasn't convincing enough yet, Valve sought out J.K. Simmons to bring his dulcet tones to Cave Johnson. When he speaks, you'll listen. Industry-giant Nolan North was recruited to do some smaller roles but mentioning them here would spoil the fun. Suffice to say, he nails them.
I'm not too keen on what they do with some of the characters but they eventually are redeemed. The gels seem like a completely random addition but Valve makes them work well within the universe. It's longer, bolder and funnier and, despite not being the sucker punch its little brother was, it packs a mighty wallop that levels the towering expectations I had for this game in one clean hit, proving just how crafty Valve is when it commits to a single player.
I went back and forth between 9 and 9.5 for a while, but I honestly can't even remember the last time a game made me feel as giddy or entertained as Portal 2 did. The novelty may have worn off like a lick of paint, there's still a damn fine game underneath. A damn fine game.