Now You're Thinking With Portals...
2007 was arguably one of the best years in game release history. That year, a dozen or more AAA titles released, hitting the pockets and calendars of gamers everywhere. The Orange Box is one example, and packaged in as part of a five game deal was Portal. Portal was a puzzle platformer the likes of which had never been seen. The popularity of the Half-Life franchise combined with the deal of 5 games for the price of one drew gamers to The Orange Box and Portal became an overnight hit while spawning many memes and an underground following. Now, three and a half years later, Valve has turned the darling game in to a full fledged title. Does the sequel live up to the original? Is there enough there to warrant the full game price?
Portal 2 is set 300 years after the events of the first game. You return as Chell, the silent female protagonist, and awaken after being in stasis to find the Aperture facility in complete disrepair. One of GlaDOS' old personality cores comes in to wake you up and assists you out of the stasis chamber. His name is Wheatley and he's one of the best things about Portal 2. Not only is he extremely funny, Stephen Merchant's voice acting is superb. Without giving too much away, Wheatley, through a series of clumsy events, helps you escape the chamber and helps facilitate the reconstruction of the Aperture facility. The story this time around is quite a bit more fleshed out and interesting than in the original game. The humor remains strong with several “wink and nod” moments. It's definitely rewarding to pay close attention to the environment as well as the dialogue, as the game rewards you with jokes later on that you might otherwise miss. I finished the story mode around the 6 or 7 hour mark. I didn't have any difficulty with most of the puzzles, so the game may last longer if you get hung up on some of them.
Thankfully, completing the single player isn't the end of the experience. Included with the game is a two player cooperative mode. This mode features an entirely separate story from the single player, along with its own puzzle designs. Valve deliberately made the co-op puzzles harder, saying that the added complexity adds to the fun as you can bounce ideas off your buddy. They also added a clever communication system to the game for those of you who don't have a microphone. It's a great extension of the single player game.
The gameplay for Portal 2 follows the same formula as the original . You use a wormhole creating gun called the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device to navigate a series of puzzles. Portal 2 adds a bunch more game mechanics that weren't present in the first one. Some of these include Repulsion Gel, which causes things to bounce off of whatever surface it's sitting on, propulsion gel, which causes Chell to run at a much higher speed then she normally would, and excursion funnels, which is a sort of zero-G conveyor belt. There are several more mechanics introduced this time around, but for the sake of fun, I'll let you discover the rest on your own. Some of the best puzzles in the game are designed using every element they've introduced. The puzzle design in Portal 2 is exceptional. Valve has seem to struck a perfect balance between challenge and fun. While some of the puzzles may take you a while to figure out, when you do, the experience isn't frustrating and feels extremely rewarding.
Unfortunately, the seemingly one negative thing from the first game in my opinion has carried over to this one. Why is it necessary to have a load screen after every puzzle? In my play through, I counted at least 20 load screens. They range in length, but some of them are placed during the middle of action sequences. It might seem nit picky but throwing a load screen smack dab in the middle of a tense moment is extremely jarring and kills the immersion
Valve's Source engine has undergone several evolutions with each new release since it debuted in 2004. Back then, games like Half-Life 2 showcased the clean graphics along with the exceptional performance of the graphics engine. Seven years later, the engine is no slouch. Valve has continued to improve upon it, resulting in a above average looking game. I played on the Playstation 3, so it would be safe to assume that it would look better if you are planning on playing the PC version and have a decent machine. Aliasing has never really been a problem in Source, but the textures do look a bit dated in parts. It's nothing that ruins the immersion, but it's noticeable in spots. The well designed engine certainly compliments the art style of the game. Clean, sterile-looking test chambers are wonderfully offset by the foliage overgrowth that has ravaged the Aperture facility during your time in stasis. The game features a few more scripted events than the last iteration, and many of these are thrilling, good-looking, and help create a sense of size and scale. There also seems to be quite a bit more ambient activity this time around. Pieces of the walls will fall off randomly. At times, the test chamber will simply be built around you as you progress through the level. It's neat to watch tiles slide in to place as you walk in to a room.
Often times while playing Portal 2, I found myself smiling. Not just because the game is an absolute riot, but because the sound design was just down right clever. What Portal 2 lacks in big time shooter noises like guns cracking off or deep guttural booms, it makes up for in spades. Everything in the game seems to have a musical theme to it. Every platform and puzzle piece you activate has some sort of quiet music that plays along with it. In rooms with several pieces of a puzzle operating at once, they form a sort of harmonic song. Because of how subtle it is, it isn't distracting but its presence is felt enough to add a pleasing ambient effect to the whole thing. Heaped on top of this clever use of music in the puzzles is a great big helping of fantastic voice acting. Those characters that are voiced, specifically Wheatley, are done so naturally that they almost seem to mumble to themselves as they speak. Stephen Merchant seemed to go off script a good amount of the time and it really made his character come to life.
The Verdict :
Portal makes a triumphant return with Portal 2. The game continues on with it's tradition of hilarious characters, unique puzzle/platforming gameplay, and absolutely stupendous level design. Valve, in kind, continues its tradition of fantastic game making.
If you enjoyed the first game, Portal 2 is definitely worth the $60 price point. If you didn't, go buy it on the cheap, enjoy it, and then play Portal 2.