The original Portal had the element of surprise. Its style of first-person physics-based puzzle gameplay was unique. GLaDOS, the murderous robotic villain, was new and vibrant and evil in the most charming way. Cake jokes and songs about surviving dismemberment were still hilarious. It was short, succinct and essential. Creating a sequel without playing all the same notes and making it feel like Portal: The Longer Version is a tough task. For Valve, it’s apparently no problem.
From the first moments of waking up in the rusting Aperture Science facility to right before the credits roll, Portal 2 rarely falters. The world is bigger, the story thicker, and the character development more surprising. The mania of GLaDOS, the facility’s operator, is molded into unexpected forms alongside a host of brutally funny personalities. The history of the Aperture Science facility is filled in, character origins discussed, and though its pacing suffers as it occasionally strikes a more serious tone, an abundance of cruel jokes and cheerfully sincere death threats prevent it from losing its sarcastic charm. When you’re not staring at your screen with wrinkled, pained expression on your face trying to figure out a puzzle, expect to be laughing.
You still play as Chell, dragged back into Aperture after the events of the first game. You soon meet Wheatley, a spherical robot, voiced by Stephen Merchant (The Ricky Gervais Show, Extras) who helps you through the early stages. It’s difficult to overstate how Merchant’s obvious enthusiasm for the role benefits the game. No word Wheatley speaks is without witty inflection, and the consistently clever writing perfectly complements the onscreen action. It’s easy to be be just as concerned about missing lines of dialogue as about progressing through the puzzles, especially during Wheatley and GLaDOS’ verbal sparring matches.
The attention to detail throughout is nothing short of stunning. The facility is in a state of disrepair at the beginning. Once GLaDOS whirs into action, so does the facility, becoming an extension of her body and personality. When you enter a room mechanized crane arms and wall plates spin and shift with an urgency like you walked in on them with their pants down. As Portal 2 progresses, the environments expand from claustrophobic test chambers to yawning underground chasms. Metal girders and structural supports break and crash into each another, snapping apart in chaotic and natural ways, consistently serving not only to entertain the eye but to expand our understanding of the game’s characters. The core appeal of something like Portal will never be the visuals, but it’s still impressive how much mileage Valve is getting out of its Source technology first used for Half-Life 2 in 2004.
Though there’s a much bigger emphasis on story and character development in Portal 2, you’ll spend a lot of time tangling with spatial reasoning puzzles in test chambers. Valve brings back the same portal gun while greatly expanding the number of gameplay toys. The gun shoots two linked portals through which you and objects can pass and momentum is maintained. To get from one test chamber to the next and through the guts of Aperture’s vastness, you’ll use your portals to redirect energy beams, coat surfaces with globular gel that makes you bounce or run at high speeds, pass over gaping pits with bridges of light and manipulate cylindrical tractor beams. Arriving at a solution will require quick reactions just as often as clear thinking, as portals sometimes need to be repositioned while soaring through the air or before timers run out. This isn’t a first person-shooter in the traditional sense, but at times it can feel like one as you zoom in with your portal gun to spy distant targets and frantically adjust your aim and fire with precision.
No matter how complicated the puzzles get, the solutions are always sensible. Sometimes you’ll “get it” right away and adjust lasers with lens blocks to activate platforms to reach switches. Other times you’ll have no idea what to do, exhausting seemingly all possible options until, eventually, a solution so plainly obvious sparks in your brain and you curse yourself for being such a dolt. Valve does an excellent job of presenting you with all the necessary clues without slapping a set of instructions onscreen to explain the way forward. Even when multiple mechanics are mixed into puzzles like jump pads, tractor beams, light bridges and gels, I never felt getting stuck was due to unreasonable or poor design, only my ability to decipher it.
As good as the single-player story is, the co-operative is the real highlight of Portal 2. The beginning of the co-op picks up right after the end of the single-player game, giving you and your partner control of two robots, and serves as a continuation of the story of Aperture Science. It features fewer characters than the single-player mode but is still filled with enough sharp writing, deadpan jokes and absurd humor to keep you entertained between puzzle sections and provide motivation toward an end goal. Better yet, instead of simply recycling puzzle designs from the single-player portion, the inclusion of another player significantly alters the way you need to think.
That’s because each of the robotic co-operative characters carries a portal gun, which means two guns and four portals. Valve takes full advantage of the increased capacity for dimensional holes by raising the level of challenge and coordination required. As is obvious if you’ve ever played Left 4 Dead, Valve knows how a good co-operative mode requires a game design that doesn’t simply encourage but requires you to work together. In Portal 2, communication is vital to success.
Getting through can be frustrating, especially if you’re playing with someone you don’t know, because there’s no diffusion of responsibility here. You can’t hide in a corner and wait for someone else to do all the work. The contributions of each person involved are plain to see, and Valve’s developed numerous tools to help make communication as smooth as possible.
You can set context-sensitive markers on parts of the environment to wordlessly indicate where a portal should be placed, where a partner should move, and even trigger a countdown clock to synchronize when switches should be hit or buttons pressed. The indicators may feel superfluous at first, but once you’re setting up four portal chains of light bridges to block turret fire or redirecting edgeless safety cubes as they fly through open air over bottomless pits, it’s obvious how useful they can be. Barely a moment will go by in silence while playing Portal 2 with another, except when you’re listening to GLaDOS belittle your intelligence with endearing sarcasm.
Really the only place Portal 2 falters is in the second act of its single-player mode, where the pacing sags and the story becomes more concerned with the past than anything else. Even so, as compared to many other linear first-person games where the stories are little more than shrink wrap and glorify a blood-is-progress philosophy, Portal 2′s mid-game doldrums are relatively far more creative and confidently original. Valve’s sequel serves as the anti-Call of Duty. Portal 2 is a first-person thrill ride from beginning to end that challenges you to think without failing to entertain.
The original Portal benefitted from its brevity. It had a concise story paired with inventive first-person puzzle mechanics that challenged you to be creative while pulling the trigger. Portal 2 makes the original look like the prototype it was. It’s filled with a larger cast of characters vividly brought to life through brilliant writing and some of the best voice acting in video games. Its puzzles are challenging without being unreasonable, and, once you’re finished with the single-player mode, one of the best co-operative experiences on the market awaits. Valve cuts no corners and finds ways to make you care about everything from the major characters to the cubes used to solve puzzles. From the beginning of the single-player story to the end of the co-op mode, Portal 2 is a novel, unforgettable experience.