There’s a lot to be said for a game that genuinely treads new ground, daring to defy the current norms. I’m always a big fan of these experiments because they’re so refreshing in a world that’s constantly dominated by the same games repeatedly even if I do enjoy some of those titles. The original Portal was one of these such games bringing in a game mechanic unlike any that had come before it. Despite the unusually short length Portal managed to capture the hearts and minds of nearly everyone who played it with it’s distinctive humor and characters, spawning several memes in the process. Portal 2 picks up where its predecessor left off and will take you much deeper into the Portal universe.
This review contains spoilers about major plot events since I wouldn’t be able to review it properly without talking about them. If you’re planning to play Portal 2 sometime soon I’d recommend bookmarking this and coming back later 😉
The game starts off with an interesting tutorial that puts you as one of the test subjects in the Aperture Science laboratories. It appears that you’re one of many test subjects who are kept in a state of hibernation and a disembodied voice walks you through some exercises to make sure you’re not turning into a vegetable. When you next awake however the bright room you were in is now in a major state of disrepair and the voice from before states that you’ve been asleep for 9999 days. You’re then introduced to a new companion, Wheatley, a personality core who assists you in escaping the Aperture Science laboratory whilst also providing comic relief at nearly every turn.
Running through these run down test chambers familiarizes you with the basic portal mechanics that were the staple of the original game. Wheatley guides you along this journey and eventually finds you in the chamber of a dormant GlaDOS and attempts to acquire an escape pod for your escape. Unfortunately he activates GlaDOS who identifies you as Chell, the protagonist from the original Portal, and proceeds to send you back to the test chambers so that you can further science once again, you monster.
The next section of the game is in essence identical to its predecessor with each chamber being a single puzzle. The differences come from the environment which, whilst not as run down as the initial chambers you went through, show signs of being in disrepair with GlaDOS attempting to fix the problems as you enter each chamber. Apart from the introduction of the jump pads (devices used to make some of the velocity based puzzles a bit easier) there’s nothing really exciting about this section of the game. Indeed I found myself a times wondering how long I’d have to put up with this since whilst the original was adventurous and inventive this just seemed exploitative, a cop out seeking to cash in on the Portal IP.
It’s quite possible that I just didn’t enjoy the formulaic nature of this particular section of the game. I loved the humor in the original because GlaDOS was always attempting to maintain the appearance of being a computer without any emotions, whilst in this one she just seemed felt like a disembodied human who was angry at me for trying to kill her. Still the puzzles were enough to keep me going and I made it through to the next section, the reunion with GlaDOS.
Wheatley’s usurping of GlaDOS was an interesting plot point although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t expect him to turn on me immediately. However the next section proved to be my favorite by far as it takes you back to the very beginnings of Aperture Science, hidden deep underground in a former salt mine. The setting feels very 1960s post-apocalyptic, with all the remnants of the initial Aperture laboratories showing their age. The attention to detail in these parts is absolutely staggering, with the paraphernalia lining the offices giving you that distinct feeling that you’d gone back in time. I spent quite a lot of my time here just soaking in the atmosphere of it all, thoroughly enjoying the fleshing out of the Aperture back story.
Of course the old Aperture also had old test chambers too and with them comes the introduction of another new game mechanic: gels. The gels are in essence paints that can cover nearly any surface that give them a certain property. Blue for bouncing, orange for ultra speed and white for turning surfaces into ones capable of having portals on them. I found them to be quite intriguing, especially when they let you loose with a full on stream of the substances so you can paint the entire room in your chosen color, even if there’s really no point to it at all.
However this brings me to a point of difference between the puzzles in Portal 2 and its predecessor. The original Portal felt very much like there were multiple options to solving the puzzles, some of which the designers had obviously not intended (especially if you watch the speed runs). Portal 2, whilst still providing many challenges, feels a lot more like there’s only a single solution and you’re just figuring out exactly what that is. The jump pads and gels demonstrate this quite aptly since they both have to be (or have been) placed in their exact positions for the desired solution. There are some exceptions to this of course (like the first room with the white gel) but its definitely one of the areas that Portal 2 falls down in comparison to its predecessor.
Along the way you pick up GlaDOS who’s been transformed into a shadow of her former self being powered entirely by a potato. She provides some interesting commentary during your journey through the old Aperture labs and seems to get quite excited when Cave Johnson, the founder of Aperture Science, addresses you over the intercom via pre-recorded messages. She stays with you the entire time but isn’t as chatty as Wheatley was before her which I was quite thankful for when I was stuck on some of the puzzles.
Eventually you make your way back to the current Aperture labs where Wheatley has taken over the test chambers, many of which are GlaDOS’s creations with the wall panels rearranged to spell TEST in large letters across one of the walls. This of course is all leading up to the point where you face up with Wheatley in his current form in a boss fight that feels oddly-similar-yet-completely-different from the original boss fight in the original Portal. Of course nearly every mechanic you’ve used previously makes an appearance in this and for those who’ve completed the fight there’s a scene in their that tickled the space nut in me just right.
Of course whilst the single player game is the main selling point for most buyers Portal 2 ups the ante by including a separate co-op experience that you can play with a friend or random stranger on the Internet. Initially I choose to find someone randomly as none of my playing buddies were online and I must say the matchmaking system works perfectly, finding me a partner in science in under 30 seconds. Of course it’s not as enjoyable as it would be with good friends so I decided to put it off after a couple chambers, but I did give it a good run through last week.
Whilst they’ve gone to great lengths to make the co-op in Portal 2 pretty painless without voice communication it’s quite a lot better with it. Still though the pinger tool they give you, basically a laser pointer that can mark stuff or set a timer, still comes in handy when trying to guide (or be guided by) your partner. The puzzles themselves are quite interesting as well especially when GlaDOS takes you outside the test chambers to retrieve information left behind by the former human scientists. Her humor in these sections was also far more enjoyable as she taunts the robots and gets frustrated as they show human traits like high-fiving or hugging each other.
Overall though Portal 2 proves to be a worthy successor to the original Portal. I had had my misgivings about the game during the first half of it, feeling that the changes made to it were only skin deep. However the old Aperture labs turned me right around making me heavily invested in both the characters and the plot of the game. The puzzles, whilst many feeling like single solution jobs, still managed to keep me guessing and were incredibly satisfying once accomplished, especially considering I did not once reach for a walkthrough (although I’d put the credit for this to the game designers themselves, not my amazing playing ability). The co-op is also quite a fun experience, especially when done with a close friend. If you liked the original Portal or are fan of intriguing puzzle games then you won’t go wrong with Portal 2 and I’d highly recommend giving it a play through.
Portal 2 is available on PC, Xbox360 and Playstation 3 right now for AUD$49.99, $108 and $108 (PS3 edition includes a free Steam copy) respectively. Game was played on the PC with total game time around 7 hours for the single player and 2 hours spent on the co-op missions without finishing them all.