Almost four years ago, Valve released Portal, a unique genre-blending puzzler that had flown largely under the radar and took everyone by surprise, far surpassing all expectations. The obstacles were deviously clever, increasing in both variety and difficulty the further you went along. The plot was minimal, with only one speaking character, but what a memorable character that was, and Portal was rightly lauded as one of the best-written games of that (or any other) year. Yet even after such an overwhelmingly positive debut, Valve wisely took its time in making Portal 2, a game that has many more expectations to meet than its predecessor. After all the praise that has been heaped upon the original, can the sequel really live up to the hype? Fortunately for all of us, it certainly can. There’s no need to be subtle: Portal 2 is as close to perfection as a game gets, regardless of genre.
Before going further, it’s important to mention that Portal 2 really is a sequel in every sense of the word. Everything, from the story to setting to puzzles, is built on the foundation of the first game. Portal 2 is so well designed that newcomers will likely still make their way through without much confusion, but why would you want to? If you are one of the three people who find themselves intrigued by Portal 2 but haven’t played its predecessor, stop reading right now and go purchase a copy of the original. You’ll be doing yourself a big favor, as it’s very reasonably priced at this point and not only is it one of the best games ever made, you’ll be ready for more when you’re done. And more is exactly what you’ll get, in some grand and exciting new ways.
In Portal 2, you once again play as Chell, the mysterious female protagonist who only barely survived her training the first time around. Despite having attained her apparent freedom at the end of her ordeal, Chell now finds herself back inside the Aperture Science testing facility. The reasons for this reversal are left unexplained, but those curious about the backstory between games can read the ”Lab Rat” comic released by Valve. As far as Chell knows, her experiences in Portal 2 begin in a small room that’s been keeping her in a cryogenic sleep for who-knows-how-many years. She is awakened by a British-accented, high-strung A.I. named Wheatley, who looks like a basketball-sized chrome ball with a single, glowing blue eye. Wheatley informs Chell that they need to escape and insists this can only be accomplished together. As they make their way through the now-decaying facility, Chell finds herself having to pass through previously unexplored test chambers with the portal gun. The seemingly dead facility isn’t quite as inert as it first appears, however. Fans of the first game will be entirely unsurprised to learn that GLaDOS, the rogue A.I. from the first Portal, is very much still alive.
The entire game plays exactly like a first-person shooter, except the only things you ever shoot are interconnecting portals. On PC, you’ll move Chell with the WASD keys and pan the camera with the mouse. Point the crosshair at an appropriate wall, ceiling, or floor and click the left button (or corresponding gamepad button) to produce a blue portal. Point at another surface and hit the right button to produce an orange portal that connects directly to the blue one, wherever it may be. The concept is as simple in theory as it was in the original, but in practice it becomes far more complicated. The first game often focused on using portals to guide energy balls into receptors to power devices and experimented quite a bit with momentum. Drop from several stories high into a portal on the floor, for example, and you’d watch yourself shoot out the other strategically-placed portal to reach that otherwise-unreachable ledge. Portal 2 builds on both of these mechanics (though the energy balls have been replaced with lasers), while also adding a tremendous amount of new material.
This time around, moving tubes of air can be ridden to reach high or distant areas, while solid bridges of light can now be redirected through portals to help cross chasms and pits or block hostile turrets from firing at you. Colored gel runs from giant faucets in some later levels, which can be splashed on certain surfaces to increase Chell’s running speed or give her jumps a boost. And a new type of floor panel catapults whatever lands on it in a predetermined path. All of these elements on their own make for some pretty complex and entertaining challenges, but after the facility’s superb built-in training guides instruct you how to utilize them, the game starts to combine all the elements together into some real brainteasers. At first I thought I was going to have to criticize the game for being too easy, but then I got to the later levels and realized that Portal 2 had simply been preparing me for what was still to come.
Most of the challenges “simply” involve getting an exit door to open and then guiding Chell to the door itself. This often requires finding a way to acquire boxes to weigh down pressure buttons, and sometimes a new type of cube that redirects lasers shot into it. The obstacles to overcome are many and varied. High platforms, bottomless chasms, and shimmering blue fields that disintegrate any object you try to pull through them are among the more benign difficulties. Later you’ll come across stationary but ever-vigilant turrets which will fire on Chell if they catch sight of her. Death is only a minor inconvenience, however, as you merely have to start the puzzle over if it happens. Like in the first game, it’s important to note that Portal 2 does not require an itchy trigger finger or honed reflexes. Almost all dangers are surpassed more with thorough planning and clever thinking than how fast you react. While the interface may be different from more traditional adventure games, the puzzles once again focus on brains, not brawn.
As challenging as the single-player campaign eventually gets, it never reaches an epic level of difficulty. That pleasure is reserved for the impressive co-op campaign. In this new feature, you and a friend can connect through the Internet to play as test robots that GLaDOS is putting through her challenges. Both of you have a portal gun, but if you think that only doubles the possibilities then you’re underestimating the creative minds at Valve, as the degree of puzzle opportunities seems almost squared at times. The designers clearly believe the old adage that “two heads are better than one” and set the difficulty accordingly. Setting up your respective portals at exact locations and performing actions with precise timing is often the only way to solve many of the test chambers, and they only get harder as you progress.
Fortunately, you’re given an impressive array of useful tools to make communication as smooth as possible. You can highlight any spot you’re pointing at to indicate exactly where you’d like your friend to shoot his or her portal. Either of you can start a timer to synchronize actions, and holding down a button pops up a small screen that shows you what your partner is seeing in case you get temporarily separated and want to see what your partner is puzzling over. It’s a very intuitive and useful setup, and even with the ability to talk to each other via headsets (which I highly recommend) these tools are a great asset. You even have the ability to do silly things with your robot avatars like high five each other or laugh at your partner’s mistake. These are largely cosmetic but still fun, and it’s rewarding to celebrate after a particularly difficult challenge while GLaDOS chides her robots for acting like a couple of “humans”.
The co-op campaign is a bit lighter on story than the single-player experience, but GLaDOS’ trademark sociopathic wit keeps the levels entertaining as she comments on your rate of solving puzzles and constantly tries to convince you that your partner is trying to kill you. This accusation is admittedly not always false, as it’s difficult to play the entire campaign without being tempted to guide your friend through a portal you’ve set up to emerge over an oversized shredder. The sheer number of opportunities to play practical jokes like this is hard to pass up occasionally. You’ll ultimately have to work together to succeed, of course, but it’s well worth doing, as the campaign has some of the most rewarding challenges I’ve ever seen. It isn’t quite as long as the solo adventure, but it will keep you thoroughly entertained for several hours.
While the co-op levels may focus more on challenge than narrative, the single-player campaign more than makes up for it. The story is given much more room to grow and develop in the sequel, which is at least twice as long as its 3-5 hour predecessor. There are no cinematic cutscenes and Chell herself never speaks, so most of the details are conveyed by the computers and recordings she encounters in her travels, while certain visual clues in murals and scrawlings left by a former inhabitant of the facility paint a picture of past events as well. The origin and development of Aperture Science throughout the past several decades is explored, and many of the questions the first game left unanswered are revealed throughout the story, such as the source of GLaDOS’s personality and some of the possible reasons behind her psychotic behavior.
While GLaDOS makes a welcome comeback, the sequel has added a couple of new characters into the mix, each with a memorable personality that shines through some remarkably funny writing and superb voice acting. Ellen McLain’s GLaDOS thinly veils her passive aggression towards Chell through comments about such things as her weight, while the utter incompetence at virtually everything by Stephen Merchant’s Wheatley never gets old. One scene where he attempts to verbally hack a computer reveals that he has no idea what a keyboard is, and it was so entertaining that I stood there listening to all of it, even though it was just filler dialogue while I was supposed to be solving the room’s puzzle. Equally brilliant is J.K. Simmons, the voice of Aperture Science’s late founder and CEO Cave Johnson, whose pre-recorded messages reveal a figure who ordered immoral and dangerous experiments with such a go-getting attitude that it’s hard not to like the man despite his loose ethics.
The visuals of Portal 2 have also been vastly upgraded from the first game. The technical quality is only marginally better, but what makes the real difference is the amount of extra effort that’s gone into them this time around. The original game had panels on the walls and floors that looked as if they were designed to move around but never did. In Portal 2, these panels actually do move, transforming the environment around you like a living thing. They also allow for other visual flourishes such as moving debris around the room or defectively slamming against walls. And while Portal had only the pristine testing chambers and some late industrial levels, Portal 2’s chambers are marked by decay, with plant life bursting through the cracks in the walls. Other levels include vast, subterranean rooms and huge geodesic domes. In comparison, these changes make the first Portal feel like the small side-project it was, with Portal 2 now taking the premise to a whole new professional level.
The excellence doesn’t stop at the graphic design, either. Once again the beloved geek troubadour Jonathan Coulton provides a quirky song for GLaDOS to sing over the end credits, entitled “Want You Gone”. While it’s doubtful this tune will reach the cult status of Portal’s “Still Alive”, it’s a fun number and provides the perfect cap to the experience. Even more exciting to me was a totally unexpected song from one of my favorite bands, The National, which plays on a radio in one of the rooms you travel through. The song, “Exile Vilify”, was written for the game, and provides such a haunting and beautiful melody that I could not resist picking the radio up and carrying it with me so I could keep listening to it. The rest of the soundscape may not be as noticeable, but it’s no less effective in providing background ambience, ranging from industrial noises to light techno tracks that ramp up in intensity during the game’s more exciting moments.
In the end, it’s hard to think of anything Portal 2 does wrong. It’s hard enough to think of anything it doesn’t do as well as it could have. Valve has taken the original premise and shown what they can do with a longer development time and a more polished, full-featured release. Portal 2 no longer relies on the same “short but sweet” simplicity that helped make the original such a classic, but it doesn’t need it. The sequel keeps varying both the style of the obstacles and the environments in which the puzzles are set at just the right intervals, so it never feels like you’re doing the same thing over and over. All the while, the consistent display of impressive voice acting and some of the funniest game writing ever leaves a lasting impression of these memorable characters and Chell’s ordeal. The addition of the superbly designed co-op campaign just adds yet another layer of brilliance on top of an already spectacular single-player experience. Like its predecessor, Portal 2 is not an adventure game in the traditional sense, but genre fans will find plenty to appreciate in this story-driven obstacle course, because puzzle games don’t get any better than this.