Review by SSpectre
"Portal 2 is everything you could want from a Portal sequel, and from a video game in general."
+ Thoroughly-crafted puzzles make superb use of old and new elements
+ One of the most unique and engaging co-op experiences ever
+ Just as funny as the original, without just resorting to throwbacks
+ Fleshed-out story and larger scale
+ A respectable length this time
- A few sections in the middle are relatively slow
If there's a school out there that offers master's degrees specifically in game design, I'm pretty sure every employee at Valve has graduated from it. Because what other term than master can be used to describe someone who can create an experience in which you think, feel and do exactly what its creator wants throughout, but still enjoy every minute of it? They've been doing this sort of thing for years, and they've finally reached a new high with Portal 2, easily the most sublime, compelling, and, simply put, best game since the almighty Half-Life 2.
There was an obvious question going into this. Portal was a game of such widespread notoriety for its singular sense of dark humour, meticulously-designed gameplay based entirely off one superb mechanic, and incomparably memetic script. How do you make a sequel to that? Valve's answer, it seems, was to flesh out everything from gameplay to story, double the campaign length, add an amazing co-op mode, and never be content to rest on the achievements of the first game.
The first Portal was about using a pair of wormholes to solve puzzles and traverse a testing facility, all while being encouraged/deceived by a pathologically lying, slightly homicidal robot. And it was gold. The second game has all of that, but there's a lot more story this time around. Specifically, Chell (the protagonist) wakes up from stasis many decades into the future amidst the flora-coated ruins of the Aperture Science research facility, where she meets Wheatley, a slightly inept personality core designed as a caretaker for those in stasis. The two of them accidentally reactivate GLaDOS (the first game's show-stealing murderbot), who begins to subject the player to tests similar to the first game. That is, until a series of events sends Chell to the abandoned Old Aperture facility, where recordings of company founder Cave Johnson guide you through a plethora of new gameplay elements. And that's just the first third of the game.
Like I said, it's a much bigger game. The new gameplay elements mostly take the form of Mobility Gels: Repulsion Gel, which causes objects to bounce, Propulsion Gel, which causes them to rapidly gain momentum, and Conversion Gel, which allows you to place a portal on any surface. All three of the gels can be used to cover any surface, including some objects. The interesting part is getting them where you want them.
You see, the best part of Portal 2's new gameplay is that it all works together. Globs of gel can be sent through portals, as can the amusingly-named Thermal Discouragement Beam (a laser that can trigger switches, destroy obstacles, and be reflected with mirrors), and the Excursion Funnel (a tractor beam that carries the player and objects through the air). Hostile turrets can be eliminated by dropping Repulsion Gel on them and having them bounce around the room. A line of Propulsion Gel can be placed in front of a spot of Repulsion Gel, launching the player across a pit. Hard Light Bridges (exactly what they sound like) can be sent through portals to give you a platform, or to block turrets' vision. Conversion gel can be used to give players a headache from over-thinking. The possibilities are insane, and Portal 2 makes the most of every one of them.
This is particularly true of the co-op, which I would possibly call the best part of the game. In addition to using its existing material for new and interesting puzzles as one would expect, the mode is a rare example of co-op gameplay where the actual cooperative element is the focus. This isn't some boring co-op that can be summarized with, Fight waves of enemies in the same area but largely independently, and maybe talk a bit. Both players need to figure out how to solve the puzzle, and the variable nature of Portal 2's puzzles means that each player will likely solve different elements before the other, forcing one to teach the other what they've learned. Facilitating this is a system of player-directed symbols that convey simple messages, which is so useful and intuitive that's it's astonishing that it's never been done before.
The best part about all this? It's long. Well, longer, at least. The first Portal's major flaw (important: only major flaw) was that it was about 4 hours long. Now, Portal 2's single-player alone is probably around 7 hours, while the co-op is easily another 5, giving the new mechanics and story elements ample time to spread their wings. In fact, with that problem ironed out, the game's only real problem is that a few sections in the middle (specifically in the Old Aperture section) are disappointing. These rare rooms tend to be extremely large, and feature only a single hard-to-spot surface eligible for Portal placement, which you must find in lieu of a puzzle. They're unfortunate, but they're a very small fraction of the game and they're over very quickly.
But, everyone knows that terrific gameplay was only one half of the Portal experience. Both games would be nothing without their trademark sense of humour, and one of the best things about Portal 2 (yes, I am aware of how many things I've referred to as the best parts) is that its comedy carves out new territory for itself rather than just wallowing in the original. GLaDOS returns, of course, but all mention of that one questionably-existent cake joke that's been driven into the ground over the last four years is completely gone, and the fan-favourite Companion Cube only shows up in a way that seems to say, Yes, we did make this thing that you love. Now move on.
Wheatley's naive, bumbling personality, and Cave Johnson's enthusiastic, slightly insane prattling completely steal the show throughout the entire game, and there are a couple of scenes involving bullet-less turrets that forced me to pause the game and finish my laughing fit. Even in co-op, GLaDOS's paranoid commentary and the excellent animations of the robot protagonists (named Atlas and P-Body, for some reason) convey plenty of charm.
Graphically, Portal 2 is fantastic from a design perspective and competent from a technical one. Like most of Valve's games, everything has been specifically designed to let you know its exact purpose at a glance. The larger environments are considerably more impressive than the original's somewhat cramped, one-note environments, and the contrast between the sterile, mechanical operational facility and the decaying, overgrown abandoned sections makes them much more visually interesting. However, the Source engine is really beginning to look its age, with a noticeable lack of detail in several areas. The game also features an impressive ambient soundtrack and a neat little feature where every device has a musical piece associated with it which layers over the music when activated, giving you interesting feedback as you solve puzzles. Finally, the voice acting is spectacular, and the infamous Still Alive has quite probably met its match, believe it or not.
To summarize, Portal 2 is the kind of game that reminds me that beneath the waves of shovelware, baffling fan devotion to stagnant genres and series, and a host of other industry problems that have already been addressed by plenty of people, gaming is still the most interesting medium to be a part of today. Every aspect of its creation is full of genius, consideration, and skill, and it gives me hope that there are still such high-quality games to be made. Let's just hope the next one comes a little faster.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 05/26/11, Updated 12/06/12
Game Release: Portal 2 (US, 04/18/11)
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