The original Portal was inventive, quirky, thought-provoking and, quite frankly, mind-bogglingly good. It was the little game that could, in many ways, bundled in as it was with far louder, already-established critical darlings - three episodes of arguably one of the finest video game series that has ever existed and a beast of a multiplayer shooter sequel that has neither waned in popularity nor appeal. But when The Orange Box came out, Mr. Freeman and co. were seemingly critically sidelined, they were old news all of a sudden. All eyes were fixed firmly on the four-hour-long pristine, puzzling gem.
The basic premise provided by the small team working on it back in 2007 was perfect in its simplicity: armed with a gun that could place physics-bending portals, one created entry and exit points to navigate 'testing rooms', not to mention various lasers, machine gun turrets and other, often literal, pitfalls. It was glorious, a tightly wound, intensely focused treat and, in GLaDOS, Valve had unearthed that most rare of characters - a comedy gem, shot through with black humour, self-reflection and manipulative psychopathy.
If there was a criticism to be made, though, it was that we wanted more. Given the taste of this new gourmet, reality-bending delight, we gamers wanted to spend more time playing about with Valve's new toy. The tasting platter proffered in The Orange Box made us yearn for a full banquet. Thankfully now, with the full weight of Valve' focus behind it, the little game that could has spawned a far larger sibling. A beautiful melody has crescendoed into a magnificent symphony. And if you were one of those people who begged four years back for more, rest easy. Your prayers have been answered. Portal 2 is astoundingly good, and here are three good reasons why...
From the minute you wake up in a retro-flavoured bedroom at the start of the game, moments before Wheatley bursts into audio range and the walls start crumbling around you, it's clear that the writers have everything under control. The script for Portal 2 is a masterpiece, perhaps a little sunnier, a little brighter than that of its predecessor, there are three main characters that serve to keep Chell company this time around.
GLaDOS is back, of course, Ellen McCain doing a marvellous job of bringing the soft spoken, criminally insane AI to life once more, and injecting her with a few personality traits that surprise even GLaDOS herself. She's joined by the effervescent Stephen Merchant as the bumblingly manic Wheatley, whose Westcountry warble brings some rather slapstick fun to the proceedings as a nice contrast to GLaDOS' resigned condescension, and also by the superb J. K. Simmons as Cave Johnson, Aperture's founder, toning down the J. Jonah Jameson for this one and clearly revelling in every chuckle-worthy line he's given, of which there are many, whilst revealing much about Aperture's past. There's even a Nolan North cameo that defies his normal 30-something, dark haired leading man tag that I didn't twig until the credits.
But it's not just about the lines or the excellent voice acting, there are so many little touches here and there, from the wall scrawlings in the Rat Man's dens early on to the amusing information posters scattered around the enormous complex, that expand upon the world of Portal and suck us further in. The team performed admirably last time, trying to tell the story of Portal through one seen character and one notable by his absence, but here the details, the world of Aperture Science (not a far cry from that of Black Mesa) come thick and fast...and all I want to do is talk about them at a high rate of speed, but taking the journey yourselves - and the pacing is spot-on - is what makes this game so damn exhilarating.
So Portal 2 tells a good story, that was nearly always going to be the case, but a worry with extension, one we had when we spoke to Chet Faliszek a couple of weeks back, would be how sustainable the puzzles would be over a longer period of time. Would Valve be able to squeeze invention out of a twelve hour game? How much more was there to be done?
The answer is lots. Portal 2 is stuffed with new...erm...stuff to augment and add new dimensions to Chell's puzzling. You have things like the Aerial Faith Plates - springboards that fling you across large spaces; the Excursion Funnel - basically a tractor beam that you can use to move objects and yourself back and forth along straight lines; and then of course the are the Gels. The Repulsion Gel that makes you bounce, the Propulsion Gel that speeds you up and the previously unseen Conversion Gel that allows you to create portal-worthy walls where they were previously unhelpful. Each new mechanism is eased in, slowly initiating you and preparing your mind for the bigger challenges later on, when multiple toys combine with walls of deadly lasers, spiked smashers and trash grinders.
And 'bigger' is certainly a word we need to note. Forget the claustrophobia of Portal, the sequel is a true epic - grand in scale and ambition. although there are moments of quiet testing, there are also points in the game that will make you gasp as you apply all that you've learned to sprawling vistas of mechanical dilapidation and begin to realise just how big Aperture is. It's a joy to worm your way behind the scenes and have a look at the world outside of the testing labs, the labyrinthine corridors, gantries, factories and proving grounds making for a far greater, more diverse rabbit run that wholly keeps your attention throughout and awards you even more satisfaction when you complete a section. For me, it reminded me of the first time I played Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, looking up at these vast puzzle rooms and working out how to get from A to B. Portal 2 is a game that forces you to take your time, to use your brain, where completion is its own reward...and an immensly satisfying one at that.
Finally, we come to Portal 2's biggest new feature: co-operative gameplay. It would have been easy to simply toss off a series of ten challenge rooms and tack it onto the game, but instead there's a fully realised mini story here that took us around 8-9 hours to complete. Taking place after the events that unfold in the main story, you and your partner take on the roles of Atlas and P-body, a robotic double act, one tall one short, whose slapstick adventures take them through five testing courses, with seven or eight chambers to navigate in each. But don't worry, we scrambled straight into the co-op after only an hour of the singleplayer story, and there are no real spoilers to be had as such.
It's worth pointing out that this is true co-op, too. In so many games that offer co-operative play, if there' s a skill difference, say in an FPS, you find one person doing the lion's share. If the other one dies, there's still a chance to beat the level. Here, though, it's imperative to work together, and all the better for it. Although the PC doesn't have the option, both PS3 and X360 offer split screen - split left and right rather than top and bottom - and it was good to have someone else in the room.
With a different tone set by the slapstick actions of our robotic avatars, it brought out a fun, experimental style of play that saw myself and my partner in portalling crime (thanks, Steve!) constantly trading ideas. It wasn't long before we'd developed our own conversational shorthand to more easily communicate complicated thought processes. Thankfully, though, the game makes that pretty easy too by letting you place markers, points of interest that can flagged with an eye, a portal symbol, or an instruction to move. It's simple, but hugely effective, immediately conveying what can sometimes be tricky to express out loud. 'If we put a light bridge on the panel in the right corner of the second atrium...' is helpful to no one, but a quick button tap and two seconds later, it's done.
There's another fascination too: it helps to finally get to see portals working from a third person perspective. Sure we've sent the odd cube through before, but watching your friend zooming off a ramp thanks to a combination of gels, using the velocity to shoot themselves out of a higher portal, then turning, placing two more in mid air, and zooming over a giant ravine and onto a thin metal walkway is incredibly satisfying.
That's the feeling you walk away with from Portal 2, a smile of sheer satisfaction. I never found myself wanting anything more, as soon as I even thought about the possibility that it might maybe perchance get a little samey (and that happened to me once, and only once), there was something new - be it technological or aesthetic - that grabbed me once again. The PC version will undoubtedly look the best (although they all look pretty damn stunning, even in local split-screen), and the PS3 version will offer the most content and value for money, but we playtested most of this on the Xbox 360 and still found virtually nothing to fault.
And there might be things, the Jonathan Coulton track at the end is nowhere near as catchy as 'Still Alive' was, but you won't care. It's absolutely everything we could have wanted from a Portal sequel and, thanks to that impressively sized co-op appendage, it's more too. Hats off to you Valve. We've waited a fair few years since Gordon's second outing for another Valve epic. Wish granted.
- Excellent presentation - graphics, sound, acting, the works...it's all brilliant
- Excellent puzzles - bigger, better, more diverse...all brilliant
- Excellent co-op - playing with a friend is brilliant fun
- ...Microsoft are idiots for passing up on Steamworks
The Short Version: Valve turn a mini-project into a triple-A winner and show that big budgets and big ideas aren't mutually exclusive once again. Whether playing on your own or with a friend, the quality simply shines through unerringly. Funny, fiendish and fantastic, Portal 2 is an utter triumph.
Special thanks to Steve Marchant for being my co-op buddy, without whom this review would not have been possible!