A Beautiful Sequel to a Genius Game
I, like many other video game fanatics was a huge fan of the original Portal. The gameplay, narrative, and environments of the game captured my mind in a specific way that no other game was able to do before, nor has been able to do since. Naturally my expectations for Portal 2 were very lofty, perhaps unreasonably so, but Portal 2 surprised even me with its quality. The game brings back everything you loved about the first game, but with a more in-depth and varied approach to every component which comprises it.
Portal 2 puts you back in the place of the Portal 1 protagonist Chell, a particularly unfortunate test subject, trapped in the research facility of the morally questionable and frequently hilarious research group Aperture Science. You are awoken centuries after the first Portal, in which you shut down GLaDOS, the homicidal AI running the facility of now dead employees. This time round one particularly quirky AI core by the name of Wheatley wakes you up, wishing to escape the facility with you, but as you might expect this cunning plan screeches to a halt in almost no time whatsoever. In your quest for freedom you and Wheatley accidentally resurrect the formerly deceased GLaDOS, who now embittered at the way you treated her in the previous game, places a Portal Gun in your hands and drops you right back into the test chambers, with a whole new sense of disdain for you, and so begins the mind-bending rollercoaster that is Portal 2.
Of course, at its core Portal is made what it is by the Portal Gun; a simple yet ingenious game mechanic, allowing the player to create doorways between any two “Portalable” surfaces in the surrounding environment. In Portal 2 it’s back in full force and just as much fun to use as it was in the first game, however the game keeps things new and interesting by introducing a number of smaller but still very clever new mechanics to the equation. You’ll deal with tractor beams, laser beams which can be redirected with special cubes, substances that can make the walls or floors bouncy, special plates which catapult you through the air, and more. These new additions to the game are all simple enough for you to understand immediately, but still smart enough that when used in conjunction with each other and the Portal mechanic, they make for fascinating puzzles which give you a genuine feeling of accomplishment to solve. The level design is just as good this time round as it was in the original Portal, if not better, and from a game design perspective the puzzles in the game are an absolute marvel to behold.
There is also a co-operative mode where you play as Aperture robots Atlas and P-Body, conducting more tests of the Portal Gun under the watchful eye of GLaDOS. In many respects this mode is similar to the single player; You play through a series of isolated rooms with new mechanics in the game being introduced to you slowly as you make your way through, however, in the co-op mode both you and your partner control two Portals, making for mad situations where you must solve puzzles with a total of four portals between you. The co-op mode also includes a number of tools such as a countdown timer and the ability to marks specific areas of the world to show where portals should be placed, however voice communication is still essential to solving puzzles without a lot of frustration and angst. Providing that you’ve teamed up with a partner that’s at least somewhat reliable, co-op is great fun and you’ll be left with a real positive vibe from overcoming the obstacles in your path alongside your buddy.
Personally I found Portal 2 easier than the original, even if there were points at which I had to stop and think now and then. This may have just been because of a significant amount of practise with the original Portal, but the general consensus seems to be that while Portal 2 can leave you a little stumped at times, the game provides a level of difficulty accessible to the large majority of players. One unfortunate technical issue which the game carries though, is that it does feature more load times than perhaps would be desirable, but they’re generally never that long.
One of the most memorable aspects of the original Portal experience was the narrative, and Portal 2 presents an even more story-focused approach than its predecessor. With sequels across all forms of entertainment, a common problem is that by presenting us with the same world and characters the second time round they give us an experience that just feels more worn-out and stale than the original. Portal 2 manages to dodge this common writing peril with beautiful grace by presenting more interesting characters and a level of detail to its plot which its greater length allows for. While fans are still revelling even now in the wit of many of the memes that grew out of the original Portal, the writers at Valve chose to toss out many of the played-out tropes that the original Portal was associated with, in favour of a whole new series of running jokes and hilarious one-liners.
The story takes some genuinely wonderful twists, introduces some great new characters (primarily Wheatley and former Aperture Science CEO Cave Johnson), provides a captivating look at the back-story of Aperture, manages to provide a refreshingly different role for GLaDOS, and ends in a climactically shocking finale. Good stories and good humour are hard enough to do in video games in any context and the fact that Portal 2 manages to deliver such an enthralling story and genuinely unique dark comedic experience speaks to the quality of the writing. In the co-op mode the story is noticeably pushed aside, although this is understandably done so that banter between you and your team-mate is not rudely interrupted by story exposition.
The games’ writing is only further enhanced by the superb performance of Portal 2s voice cast. Just as the original Portal had Ellen McLain voicing GLaDOS and all the turrets, Portal 2 has a modestly small group of voice actors but manages to do a lot with them. Ellen McLain returns in her previous roles, however, this time round she is able to display a wider range of vocal talent, especially further into the game. Stephen Merchant provides a fantastic air of perpetual anxiety as Wheatley, Nolan North blends in well as the many voices of Apertures’ defective AI, and J.K. Simmons uses a wonderful mixture of power and madness to turn everything that comes out of Cave Johnson’s mouth into pure gold.
The games audio holds up very strongly, introducing newer other-worldly sounds of Aperture alongside some familiar sounds from the first game, although one thing that really shines through is how much the music in the game has evolved. While there is one track from the game that fans are likely to remember in particular, the general music in Portal 2 is no longer simply a background affair. While the game has its subtle mood-setting tracks the sound is also punctuated with various energetic, synthesised pieces and in some cases traversing the chambers using gels or the aerial faith plates also yields small pieces of music which blend into the rest and certainly add a positive touch to the game.
While the environments and graphics of the original Portal were suitably minimalist, Portal 2 takes a different approach, not only providing many more detailed and complex environments, but also putting forward a far more eclectic range of them; from ruined test chambers similar to those found in the first Aperture, to more behind the scenes environments and the rusty disused depths of old Aperture. Sadly the same level of environmental diversity doesn’t exist in the co-op mode, but the co-operative test chambers still look very nice in their own right. Everything is wonderfully well-animated as well, not only do the co-op robots display an impressive level of humanity, but in the single-player the game makes it clear from the start that its serious about its animation and even characters such as Wheatley, who is essentially just an eyeball, are able to convey a stunning range of emotion through their animation.
All in all every tiny piece that makes up Portal 2 is incredible in its quality and any weaknesses in the game seem simply miniscule and trivial in the face of everything else. The game not only stands up as one of the greatest puzzle games ever created, but also one of the greatest games of this generation. Unless the thought of any kind of puzzle game makes you wish you curl up in a corner and place a gun to your head, I implore you to check out Portal 2. Games of this quality are very few and far between, and Portal 2 is a consistently amazing journey from start to finish.