Developer: Valve Software / Publisher: Valve Software / Reviewed on: PlayStation 3 / ESRB: Everyone (Fantasy Violence, Mild Language)
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The manners in which they were released should be a pretty good indication of the differences between Portal and Portal 2. In many ways, the first Portal felt like a low-risk experimentation. Originally packaged in The Orange Box with big names like Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2 and taking only a few hours to complete, Portal was a great introduction to the world and puzzle mechanics of the game’s quirky universe but felt in some ways like it had a lot of unrealized potential. Portal 2 is a full, retail release. It’s the Portal game you wanted ever since you discovered the truth about “the cake.” Everything from the game’s length, to the quality of the puzzles, to the hilarious characters help to create a new, cohesive identity for Portal.
Back in March 2010 Valve released an update for Portal. Along with kicking off an ARG that eventually led to the announcement of the game’s inevitable sequel, this update also slightly altered the ending of the game. In it we see our protagonist, Chell, being dragged back in to the Aperture Science facility moments after narrowly escaping. While the amount of time that has passed since these events remains undisclosed throughout Portal 2, the ramshackle state of Aperture Science suggests it’s been a very long time. Shortly after being awakened by Wheatley, your dim-witted, robotic AI guide, you make your way into the testing facilities that you came to know oh-so-well in Portal. But the scene is drastically different. Lush vegetation has overgrown the once sterile environments of Aperture. Decayed architecture blots the landscape and mysterious cave paintings are daubed ominously on the walls. Wheatley makes sure to mention that, if anyone asks, everyone in Aperture is still alive. Not dead. It’s this kind of contextual story-telling that is Valve’s bread and butter and no one does it better. It’s a true testament to the medium of videogames when so much information is revealed without the need for hit-over-the-head cut scenes, and maintains your engagement through the first-person perspective.
As you quickly discover, everybody’s favorite diabolically charming, villainous AI, GLaDOS, is still residing deep within the halls of Aperture Science. And, of course, she’s out for one thing: murder. Well, that, and science. Lots and lots of science. She’s taken complete control of everything in the facility and will once again be there at the start and end of the test chambers to deliver her signature passive aggressive quips about Chell’s “generous” stature and stupid humanness that more often than not made me laugh out loud. In fact, humor is Portal 2’s biggest strength. Someone should give the writers at Valve a raise because I can confidently say that Portal 2 is the funniest game I have ever played. Hands down.
But it’s not just GLaDOS delivering all the laughs. Wheatley’s overly enthusiastic, wonderfully moronic commentary, and Cave Johnson’s (CEO of Aperture Science) eccentric, Southern-tinged banter are both incredibly welcome additions to the world of Portal. These three personalities make up all of your significant character interactions. What surprised me was that by the time the end credits rolled on Portal 2 I was disappointed, not because I couldn’t play the game anymore but because I wouldn’t be learning more about GLaDOS, Wheatley, and Johnson. I might sound crazy but it’s really incredible that, through expert pacing, Valve manages to make you care more about three mostly disembodied, robot voices than most games can make you care about any of their main, human characters.
I’ve always said that the great thing about the original Portal was its ability to take a simple mechanic and continuously surprise you by pushing incredible variety and depth. Fortunately, Portal 2 maintains this philosophy and, in a lot of ways, takes it way further. The core of the game is obviously built around the portal gun. Shoot one blue portal, one orange portal and then step through one to cause yourself to pop out of the other. There’s nothing new here. The changes in Portal 2 lie in many of the auxiliary mechanics you encounter throughout the game. Thermal Discouragement Beams are fancily-named lasers that need to be accurately directed with specialized cubes into designated spots through out the test chambers. But they can also be used to torch those pesky turrets.Additionally, covering a surface with the repulsion and propulsion gels, usually found squirting from the many pipes conveniently placed through Aperture Science, will cause you to rocket in to the air or move at insanely fast speeds. There’s a handful of other elements that are new to Portal 2 and, as you may imagine, they are used in tandem with each other as the puzzles grow progressively more difficult throughout the game. Concerns that Portal wouldn’t be able to maintain its wonder and charm through a full, retail game-length campaign are completely unfounded. There are more than enough new, interesting mechanics here to keep the game feeling fresh all the way through the eight or so hours it’ll take you to master the puzzles that Aperture will throw at you this time.
As you may know, the PS3 version of Portal 2 is the first ever game to implement Steam on a console. It doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table but feels like a first step in to a larger world. Pressing the Select button at any time will bring up the Steam interface. If you’re a Steam user, it should look pretty familiar. You can chat with people on your friends list and invite them to join a co-op game. You’ll also unlock Steam achievements in sync with your PS3 trophies.
The only worthwhile complaint I can muster about Portal 2 is that the load times on the console version can be frequent and lengthy, especially when connecting to an online co-op session. This is a tiny issue in an otherwise smooth experience.
Portal 2’s co-op shouldn’t be shrugged off as an unnecessarily tacked on mode. Not that any of you would have expected it to be, but it’s worth mentioning how much the co-op mode is a unique and valuable addition. Instead of playing as Chell, you’re thrown into the shoes of two incredibly cute robots, Peabody and Atalus (Or, as GLaDOS will refer to them, Orange and Blue). You have the option to party up either online or split screen; each player has their own portal gun. Needless to say, adding this extra set of portals creates the potential for some pretty crazy puzzles and Valve delivers on this potential. There’s also a couple of new mechanics in co-op mode, the most useful being the ability to ‘ping’ any spot in the environment, helping to give some context to your partner when telling them to shoot their portal at the marked spot.
As I touched on earlier, Portal 2’s environments can, in some spots, be drastically different from what you may have experienced in the original Portal. The overgrowth juxtaposed with the very white, austere aesthetic of the Aperture Science facility conjures up some fond memories of the way Enslaved: Odyssey To The West looked with its post-apocalyptic vegetation. However, making your way through the game, you’ll visit other sections of Aperture (that I’ll avoid spoiling) that do plenty to spice up the look.
From a technical perspective, Portal 2 is flawless. The frame rate remains consistent throughout and the lighting bounces off the environments nicely, creating realistic and pretty looking shadows. Valve’s continued iteration on its Source Engine has clearly paid off.
I don’t think Portal 2 will end up being the watershed “ah ha!” moment that Portal was. There was a certain magic to the first game that will never be recaptured. That being said, Portal 2 is better in just about every way possible. The puzzles are more intricate, the writing is better than most movies or TV shows I’ve seen, and the production value is everything you’ve come to expect from the guys that brought you Half-Life. Portal 2 certainly isn’t a perfect (no game is) but it is one that I can’t recommend enough.