This review is as free as possible of Portal 2 spoilers, but contains discussion regarding the end of Portal. If you want to go into Portal 2 completely blind, please don’t read on.
Every once in a while, a game appears that ignites a tired industry with the kind of vigour and verve normally reserved for other media. Valve’s 2007 title, Portal, was one such game, an effervescent, dynamic game that transcended pigeon holes and threw away the aged rulebook, and captured the heart and minds of anybody that was prepared to invest an afternoon in its delights. It was, looking back, better than anyone really realised, and still stands tall as one of the best games ever created.
Portal 2, you’ll be delighted to hear, is better.
It might seem churlish to simply label what amounts to a direct follow-up that’s richer, more developed, better produced and stronger in plot as a mere one word comparison to the first game, but you need a frame of reference, and that’s the best one we can offer. And whilst with most sequels we’d naturally recommend a play through of the prior game in advance, with Portal 2 it’s almost a requirement – diving in to this game blind is akin to starting Lord of the Rings at the Council of Elrond: yes, the good stuff’s just about to start but you’ll have missed all the build up.
Oh, it's you.
It should be no surprise that player character Chell returns, then, dragged back from the surface and housed in what appears at first glance to be a motel room but over the ravages of (accelerated) time soon ages and withers along with the rest of the Aperture Science facility you realise you’re still trapped in. Enter Wheatley, a Stephen Merchant voiced Personality Core awakened at the end of Portal, who’s intent on escaping and – it appears – taking you with him. His needs become clear soon enough, his goals forming much of the game’s first third.
A first third that continously teases the player. You’re thrown straight into test chambers, of course, but things are different this time around – without GLaDOS the tests are less threatening, seemingly easier to an experienced subject; but it’s all deceipt and deception, the game throwing curveball after Companion Cube, constantly changing the rules as the plot starts to take hold. Sure enough, when you think you’ve become accustomed to the tricks, Portal 2 switches everything around again, and the inevitable reunion gives Valve the chance to flex some muscles.
I think we can put our differences behind us. For science. You monster.[drop2]With the tables turned, the escape is more deliberate, more forced, more dangerous. Chambers take on a whole new sense of menace and unpredictability, and the diversions outside the pristine walls of the first Portal seem like minor side steps as you navigate your way through rough, overgrown vegetation and an AI that harbours one hell of a grudge. Of course, you’ll see much more of the inner workings of the test chambers this time around, although nothing you’ll have heard can prepare you for what happens at around the half way stage.
There’s no way to really describe what happens, and where, and how, without spoilers – suffice to say that anyone looking for some backstory to Aperture Science will be well served, and – yes – there’s a little nod to Half Life 2 in there for good measure. What we can talk about, though, is some of Portal 2’s new mechanics, the main element of which start to appear as the exposition takes a wild diversion: you’ll have heard much about them, they’re the paint gels that have graced much of Valve’s pre-release marketing.
Quite. So, as Chell progresses onwards, vast vats and tubes containing – at first – a blue gel that enables repulsion and – secondly – a red one that allows propulsion make way for puzzles that involve jumps and speed respectively. Naturally, both begin to combine for trickier, head scratching portions of the game, especially when they’re combined with the portals that still make up much of the testing. The actual portal gun remains unchanged, and you’ll need it to manipulate and convey the gels as you slowly figure out what’s going on.
A third gel, white in colour, allows you to place portals anywhere that it touches, leading to vertigo-inducing leaps of faith and climbs and jumps that would never have been possible in the first game. These new toys make up a good few hours of gameplay, the locale and direction distinct enough to ensure they get their time in the spotlight before the plot reconvenes for the concluding third, which brings everything together for one hell of climax including a final, singular portal jump that really conveys just how portent these tools really are.
Wait. Don't do that.
It is, of course, a brilliant ride. From start to finish, Portal 2’s pacing is exemplary, leading more towards Half Life exploration at times rather than the confined, focused first game – that’s not a negative, Portal 2 had to make a few brave steps outside the comfortable realms of familiarity or it wouldn’t have had half the impact it has. There’s a few sections that drag a little, signposting could have been clearer, but the overwhelming sense of achievement as you figure out the sticky parts for yourself is more than reward enough for your troubles.
And that, naturally, is the key to Portal’s success. Individual puzzles play an important role (although they’re never too hard in themselves) but it’s the flowing, arching and twisting plot that provides the most fun: things change, at both a high level and – literally – right beneath your feet, and only a liar would say they saw everything coming – Valve are the masters at first person storytelling, and Portal 2 doesn’t disappoint in that regard. At the conclusion, when all is done and dusted, it’s hard not to smile and say – yes – I did it.
Technically and presentation wise, visually the PS3 version is night and day in comparison to the first game, the graphics are gorgeous, alive and animated, the sound is pitch perfect and the various AI are humourous, cognisant and deliciously entertaining. The test chambers riff on old tricks whilst splicing the known with the unknown, never prosaic and always fresh, and, as the game goes on, consistently unpredictable in execution. It would be a shame to list all the new elements, bulletpoints don’t do their integration any particular justice.
And whilst there’s no way to dip in and out of completed chambers once back at the main menu, a comprehensive co-operative mode, playable online or split-screen, makes up just enough. It’s clever, built around a central hub and featuring some of the trickiest puzzles in the game, made even more so by the reliance on a friend to get the job done. Gestures, tagging and the ability to see what your partner sees eases any communication problems, and – somewhat surprisingly – offers up a considerable slice of game once you’re done with the story.
- An unpredictable, brave plot takes you way beyond the first game’s limits.
- Plenty of fan service.
- Beautiful graphics.
- Stephen Merchant is fantastic.
- The middle third needed a little more direction at times.
- The end segment is a slight disappointment.
Portal 2’s clearly aimed at fans of the original, and rightly so – Valve have made no concessions to the uninitiated beyond the first hour or so: the puzzles might be a tad easier, but there’s much more of them (the game takes between 10 and 12 hours to get through) and there’s huge sections well outside the white walls of the labs that take real concentration. Areas hidden away between the vents provide some additional backstory, too, so the patient, curious player will definitely get the most out of the game – this isn’t something to be rushed.
The biggest disappointment is realising that, once you’re done, Valve Time will mean we’ll be without the warm bosom of GLaDOS for – presumably – years. Regardless, games like this don’t come around very often, and if you miss out on this one you’ll be skipping one of the finest examples of the medium the industry has to offer: Portal 2 is compelling, exciting, wildly capricious and, most importantly, laugh out loud funny. And who knows, maybe there’ll be a surprise waiting for you – at the end.
We could be friends, you know?