A fantastic sequel
First things first: This review is spoiler free.
Back in 2007, Valve released a product called The Orange Box which offered five games for a damn good price: Half-Life 2, HL2: Episode 1, HL2: Episode 2, Team Fortress 2 and Portal. The set was incredible deal and offered an incredibly rich Half-Life experience to those who haven't played it, but it was Portal that was gaining the most widespread attention. Portal was a puzzle/adventure game and instead of shooting bullets at monsters, you'd shoot sets of portals on and around the environment in order to complete a series of tasks. A spiritual successor to Narbacular Drop, a game designed by a students from the DigiPen Institute of Technology who were hired by Valve, Portal was unique because the primary mode of transportation was a slick piece of tech involving portals, which allowed the player to seamlessly move from one part of the room to another in mind bending ways. A loose narrative was built around the gameplay: you were a test subject for Aperture Laboratories, a company that acts as a foil for Black Mesa (the science lab from Half-Life). The game was a runaway hit and a critical darling, launching a torrent of "The cake is a lie" and "Companion Cube" memes as well as hundreds of "Still Alive" covers.
After four years of cake jokes and plushie companion cubes, Valve returns to the world GLaDOS built with Portal 2, a sequel that expands on the concept of the first game with new puzzles, mechanics and a deeper narrative. With Portal 2, Valve shows that they are masters of their craft and the kings of detail and story telling. Rather than take the easy way out by riding the coattails of Portal's success and reusing the same jokes, Valve has crafted an entirely new experience from the ground up, resulting in a longer and enjoyable experience.
Portal 2 begins an indeterminable amount of time after the previous game, where Chell finds herself in what looks to be a cheap, humdrum motel room in a serious state of disrepair. You are then introduced to Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Merchant), an Aperture personality sphere who is surprised to see you alive and offers you an escape. Without giving the process away, you and Wheatley bear witness to the resurrection of GLaDOS, who is not happy to see you. By way of revenge, the newly empowered AI throws you deep into the bowels of Aperture Laboratories in order to complete another series of tests, each more harrowing than the last.
At its core, Portal 2 is exactly like the 2007 game: you'll use the portal gun to create holes to navigate through a series of test chambers. Portals can also be used to move objects from one place to another and traversing them with momentum will fling you to hard to reach areas. Portal 2 introduces new elements, such as lasers that need to reach wall switches, light bridges and repulsion gel. You'll take baby steps for the first hour or so in order to prepare you for some of the crazier stunts you'll be pulling off late in the game. Those late game puzzles from Portal? Child's play compared to what you'll experience here.
Portal 2 is all about the details. As with previous Valve titles, these games won't directly tell you what is going on but instead Valve let's the world do the talking. We know that a large amount of time has passed since Chell was brought back into Aperture Laboratories because of the condition of her room when the game starts. The wallpaper is torn, there's rust on the appliances, the room is dark and, most telling of all, there's an imprint of Chell's body on the decaying mattress. As she explores the facility, we see that nature has begun to take over as vines and weeds creep through exposed parts of the building. Just like the "rat holes" from the first Portal, wall scribblings speak of the minds of those trapped in the facility after Chell took down the AI. One of the coolest little things the developers included was an animation sequence that involves robots constructing turrets. Watching four pairs of robot arms build a turret from a sheet of metal and package it into a cardboard box is nothing short of hypnotic.
Characterizations are another element that Valve has a high degree of skill over. Valve has this impressive ability to apply so much heart and soul to their fictional characters. Wheatley, the personality sphere, is an incredible character who manages to express lots of emotions - and he doesn't even have a face. This is due to a combination of excellent voice acting (Stephen Merchant should get an award for this) and superb character animation. I caught myself taking a break from gameplay just so I could watch him emote. GLaDOS has been characterized differently this time around, mainly because she's super pissed off and her brow beating comments grow increasingly sinister and cruel to the point where I had felt unnerved. The third star of this show is J. K. Simmons as Aperture Laboratories founder, Cave Johnson. Simmons is hysterical, as Johnson's message are the ramblings of a man who's incredibly enthusiastic with science, despite the fact that his experiments are really stupid and morally questionable.
Speaking of which, check out the history of Aperture Laboratories. It's a scream.
Portal 2 features a co-op campaign (separate from the main game) that sees you and a friend portray Atlas and P-Body, two robots constructed by GLaDOS to run through various training exercises and tests. After a tutorial on how to work together, you are taken to a hub world that connects to a series of testing areas. The two players will have to work together in order to reach the end of each area, utilizing the tricks and tactics used in the single player. Communication is done through gestures and a ping system that allows the player to mark an area for the other player to move to or place a portal. There's also a countdown ping for puzzles that require simultaneous action.
Working together to complete tests is really satisfying and there's nothing more thrilling than seeing the two of you work together by creating portals to transport objects in a way that would make Reuben Goldberg smile - providing, of course, that you're playing with someone you know. This is the sort of co-op you're going to want to play with friends and other people you know, since it is so easy to grief and intentionally screw the other player.
If Portal left you hungry for more, Portal 2 will without a doubt quench your appetite. It's a substantially longer campaign than the original and comes packed in with a secondary co-op that is as long as the main game. Narratively-speaking, Portal 2 has it all: mystery, intrigue, comedy and is, at times, really moving. Valve could have taken the easy route and make more cake jokes, but instead created a much more interesting story filled with fantastic dialog.
Portal 2 is available for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 (there is no install for the PS3). The PS3 version comes with a free PC copy and the Steam Overlay, a "lite" version of Valve's Steam service that offers cross platform play and chat between PS3 and PC owners (and runs along side PSN and you don't even have to install anything!). I only wish that text entry or voice chat was easier on the PS3, since typing on the PS3's game pad is a total chore. There was one map in co-op that voice chat or a keyboard would have been really helpful, but I found that spamming the ping button worked in a pinch! The game looks great on the PS3 and I have yet to encounter any game breaking bugs, glitches, texture issues or any other graphical impediments. Because the experience on the PS3 is so great, I'm even more excited to see what Valve has in store for the platform.
If there is one bad thing to say about Portal 2, it's that once the game is over, you will no longer have a sense of awe and wonder during repeat playthroughs. Granted, knowing how to solve the puzzles leaves you with more of an opportunity to explore the world and find out the little secrets to earn some extra trophies/achievements, but unless you plan to get lobotomized after each playthrough, there aren't a whole lot of reasons to go back afterwards. Er, except for the sensational Developer Commentaries that is.