There are, by and large, two sorts of sequels in the gaming industry: sequels that publishers demand because they are guaranteed hits that will contribute to a company’s bottom line; and sequels that need to be made, that deserve to be developed, because the mechanics, characters, or design of the original game deserve to be fleshed out and appreciated to a degree and scope that the original never allowed for. Portal 2 is the latter, the game that needed to be made, and one that most gamers will want to experience.
In 2007, the game designers at Valve told us the story of Chell, a young woman tasked with increasingly challenging tests in a bizarre, isolated science facility controlled by a sardonic, cold, homicidal AI named GLaDOS. The puzzles revolved around the use of the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, or, for the syllabic conservationists amongst us, the Portal Gun. For as thrilling, clever, and innovative as it was, the runtime was short, and the story was minimalist, only giving the player fleeting glimpses of the rich backstory and setting in true Valve style.
Portal 2 is in many ways a departure from the winning formula of the first, bite-sized game in the series: it is story- and dialogue-driven through and through, the puzzles taking a backseat to the skillfully penned and wonderfully executed tale. In contrast to the stripped-down, almost one-woman show the first go round (Ellen McLain voiced both GLaDOS and the turrets), Valve hired out the voice talents of British funnyman Stephen Merchant to play Wheatley, a simple-minded robotic personality core who provides slapstick relief, along with J. K. Simmons to provide character to Aperture Science founder Cave Johnson. Both voice actors work wonders in breathing life into the once-cold halls of Aperture, and McLain reprises her roles in a dynamic and constantly surprising way that surpasses the subtle greatness of her 2007 performance.
The story is a big part of the appeal of this title, but a game of course needs solid mechanics to distinguish itself from films and other art forms. Luckily, Portal 2 showcases compelling gameplay from start to finish; in fact, many of the set-pieces would lose much of their impact without player input (not to spoil anything, but the climactic moment of the game is oh-so-satisfying). The puzzles, the meat of the gameplay, are well-designed, subtly nudging the player in the direction of the solution, of which there is usually only one.
Portal 2 boasts boatloads of new puzzle elements: large globs of paint, applied with the portal gun, that change the properties of a surface, lasers (er, “thermal discouragement beams”) to activate switches, and light barriers and bridges. These are introduced to the player in a gentle progression that will not confuse or overwhelm newcomers, though the learning curve may seem a tad slow to the veteran Portal player.
Two Test Subjects Are Better Than One
Portal 2 includes a cooperative play mode with an entirely separate, albeit slightly anemic, story that branches out from the main plot. Whereas the singleplayer game pushes the boundaries in terms of scripted stories, the multiplayer game forgoes the drama for straightforward two-person portal fun that will last you between 6-8 hours, depending on how much time you spend rocketing your partner into crusher panels or sending him plummeting into bubbly pools of acid. My wife and I took about 8 hours to hack through the deadly test chambers on our home network, but be aware that’s on the long side.
Most gamers will know that co-op makes almost anything fun: friends and I have played objectively, undeniably bad shovelware together for hours and laughed our heads off. That’s certainly not the case with Portal 2: the multiplayer was carefully and deliberately crafted for maximum player cooperation and enjoyment; this is not a situation of just dropping more player slots into a game to cover up a poor experience or fill a bullet point on the back of a retail box. Also, the co-op is markedly more demanding in both player reflexes and logical thinking than the single-player story is.
Portal 2 is not a perfect game. Valve devotees will notice a distinct lack of interactivity with the environments and objects strewn about the now-defunct test chambers. In the first couple hours of play, I instinctively tried to pick up the odd piece of rebar or the long-abandoned office chairs, only to discover my E key was powerless to move them. Know that this is a very minor issue that affects gameplay not at all, but one that may be jarring at first for those who have gleefully tossed desks, toilets, and CRT monitors at the Combine in past Valve efforts. I suspect some degree of paring-down of the superfluous physics and player interaction was done to stay within the memory constraints of the PlayStation and Xbox platforms, but PC gamers should not fret: nothing of value is really lost here. Also, load times seemed to be a tad more frequent and a touch longer than the first game, probably due to the improved graphics in this latest version of the trusty, dusty Source engine.
The only other complaint of any real significance I can level at Portal 2 is its length: some have reported 6-hour completion times of the campaign, and 4-hours of co-op goodness. I personally took about 12 hours to beat the singleplayer and 8 for the multiplayer, but I took the game pretty slow in order to explore the chambers (constricted though they may be) and soak in the awesome art direction the game has in spades. However, it is worth noting that an official software development kit has already been let loose to the public, and a quick Google search yielded over 100 puzzle maps available for download, both co-op and solo. Also, Valve has promised to offer free downloadable content (funded by their in-game cosmetic item store), including advanced challenges and additional puzzles, starting this summer.
Despite its minor flaws, Portal 2 is an excellent game that pushes the envelope in terms of interactive storytelling while breaking the mold in terms of fun, fresh gameplay. As of late, “linear” and “scripted” have become dirty words in the gaming community, but Valve demonstrates here that compelling narrative and weighty player interaction can co-exist in near-perfect form within the confines of a tightly-woven on-rails experience, when done right and when done with passion for excellence. Such passion is evident around every corner of Aperture Science’s twisted testing grounds. Pick up Portal 2 for the gameplay, stay for the story, and cherish it for its noble push toward the next level of interactive fiction.
Developer: Valve Software
Genre: First-Person Puzzle Platformer
Time: 8-12 hours of singleplayer, 6-8 hours of co-op
Gripes: game length, frequent load times, lack of interactivity
Get it for the: laughs, story, gameplay, co-op
Full disclosure: I purchased two copies of the game with my own money at $40/ea on Steam for this review.