Upon having completed Portal over three years ago I felt as though I’d just played a near perfect game. So where does that leave its sequel? After all, it’s a game that manages to improve upon everything the original brought to the table, and then it goes the extra mile and adds even more.
It’s been a while since the events at the end of Portal and it goes without saying that GLaDOS is none too pleased about how that all turned out. You play as Chell yet again, the same mute, imprisoned protagonist and test subject from the first game, as you attempt to escape once more from a quickly deteriorating Aperture Science complex.
Helping you escape is Wheatley, a dim, well-intentioned personality core charged with looking after the human test subjects, of which you are the lone survivor. As you make your way through the facility you’ll run into GLaDOS once more and begin testing all over again as the homicidal AI rebuilds the chambers.
One of the best parts of the original game was the dark humor provided by GLaDOS’ commentary as you made your way through the chambers. Of course, this was before she revealed herself to have a penchant for murder and so the same wouldn’t work this time around. Instead, GLaDOS jumps any opportunity to toss an insult your way during your time in the test chambers. Over time this becomes increasingly grating and the jokes simply fall flat at times as a result. Thankfully, Wheatley’s position as comic relief is more than enough to make up for this, and GLaDOS’ role from the first game is taken up by a disembodied male voice providing you with weird and ridiculous facts about Aperture Science and the universe.
The overall scope has grown immensely in Portal 2 when compare to its predecessor. While the original did break away from the sterile and bright test chambers midway through the game, in Portal 2 you’ll spend just as much time exploring the innards of Aperture as you will solving puzzles in the dilapidated test chambers, which serve as a stark reminder that things have really gone to hell around here since the last escape attempt. The amount of detail placed into every cavernous hall, and every assembly room is absolutely astounding. The Source engine has clearly received a nice fresh new coat of paint as the environments and lighting look gorgeous.
While the music and sound effects are all top notch, the voice work is where Portal 2’s sound design really shines through. Considering it’s place as a comedy game, the voice acting alone is what could single handedly make or break the experience. Stephen Merchant and J.K. Simmons both deliver perfect performances as Wheatley and Aperture Science founder, Cave Johnson, respectively. Ellen McLain also returns to reprise her role as GLaDOS, and let’s just say that she does a wonderful job of making sure you understand that GLaDOS is angry, and also incredibly terrifying.
You should come into Portal 2 expecting two things: mind bending puzzles, and gut busting humor; and for the most part the game delivers on both.
While GLaDOS casts a dark, sinister cloud over the beginning of the game with her constant insults and jabs, overall Portal 2 is funnier than the original with both sharper writing, and comical set pieces mostly thanks to Wheatley’s antics, and Cave’s crazy yet sound ideals. And for those of you wondering, there is almost a complete lack of cake jokes, with there only being one appearance that tastefully handles a meme spawned by the original that had quickly spun out of control.
Having Wheatley following you around also lets the humor feel more engaging; despite Chell being a completely silent protagonist, it doesn’t fell as though you’re simply being talked to in a one-way conversation as GLaDOS would in the original. Specifically, Wheatley has a handful of jokes that will only progress with some form of action from the player, making you feel much more involved in the whole process.
Up until the midway point of the game, most of the puzzles feel very straightforward, and fairly easy to solve. The introduction of the various colored gels will certainly get you stumped at one point or another as you’re required to use what you’ve already learned in relation to portals while applying your newly gained knowledge and abilities. As a result, through most of the second half of the single player campaign the game manages to be challenging while avoiding overly frustrating the player, or seeming too easy.
Those really looking for a challenge however should find a friend, look to the cooperative campaign. It follows a similar structure to the single player layout, progressively getting more and more challenging as you encounter many of the same basic concepts such as flinging and gels. The extra pair of portals is what will end up tossing a monkey wrench into your normal Portal puzzle solving methods though.
Ideally, you’d be playing coop with a friend sitting with you in the same room, and if you’re willing to give up some screen space the console versions support split-screen play. Though if that’s not an option, and voice chat of any kind is out of the question as well, Portal 2 comes with a very handy “ping” tool. It opens up a radial menu for you to select from, letting you tell your partner where you want them to move, or where you’d like them to place a portal. In puzzles where both players need to act within a small window of time it will also let either player initiate a countdown so that you can both stay on the same page.
The pay off at the end of each puzzle is made all the better when you and your partner have just managed to solve a particularly tricky puzzle, or one that required you to work closely together to make it through. And that’s without taking into account the events at the end of the campaign, which I’ll let you discover for yourselves.
While Portal 2 simply can’t take us all by surprise like the original did for many, it is sharper, funnier, and just plain better than the original in every other way. It looks, sounds, and plays better; and the writing along with the performances from the game’s main players is sharper and funnier than before. Simply put, Portal 2 will be one of the best games you play this year, no questions asked.