April 19, 2011
Who'd have thought that such a simple concept could be so complex and intricate? Portal is like a modern day equivalent of chess, but with a portal gun, no board and no pieces. So, entirely nothing like chess then... There is the similarity of having to think several steps ahead though, so that malformed chess comparison might be of some merit after all. There's no story in chess either, unless you've made you're own narrative up, involving the queen running off with the bishop to a rook on the back of a knight. If so, then perhaps you should seek help.
So, the patented Aperture Science portal gun is back once again, and if you thought some of Portal's test chambers were convoluted, then you're in for a rude awakening with Portal 2, as there are some real brain-melting doozies awaiting in the numerous test chambers of Aperture Laboratories. Portal 1 feels like it was a dry run for this, the main event, which not only tells a killer story with more twists and turns than an Excursion Funnel (more on those later), but it takes the core portal concept and throws in a whole load of new mind-bending mechanics.
What follows is a blend of frustration, puzzlement, bewilderment and thankfully, a hefty dose of jubilation. You see, nothing beats the feeling of satisfaction upon solving one of Portal 2's expertly engineered tests, amid the taunts and barbs being dispensed by omnipotent AI, GLaDOS, who is back with a vengeance for the sequel. With the addition of Repulsion Gel, Propulsion Gel, Conversion Gel, Faith Plates, Hard Light Bridges and Excursion Funnels, Portal 2 kicks things up several notches, creating some of the most fiendish head-scratchers you're ever likely to come across.
At certain junctures, we'd become seemingly, insurmountably stuck and curse the game design, the level design and everything while trying to formulate a solution to a particular obstacle or what appears to be a total impasse. Moments like these are hugely frustrating, essentially because they make you feel stupid for not being able to get into the right mindset. And after that complete feeling of hopelessness at your own cognitive shortcomings, the reward of a 'eureka' moment, when the solution is suddenly right there in front of you, is entirely worth it.
Of course, there is a lot to learn in Portal 2, but Valve pitches the learning curve perfectly, slowly easing you into the various mechanics, gently laying things out for you so it all makes sense, even if you missed playing the first Portal. Things start off nice and simple then, once returning protagonist Chell experiences her rude awakening, and before you know it, you're back in the clean-walled confines of the Aperture Laboratories ready to be taunted and cajoled through increasingly testing experiments. Soon, you'll come across blue Repulsion Gel that enables you to bounce off any surfaces painted in the stuff, orange Propulsion Gel that speeds up your running speed and white Conversion Gel that enables you to project portals on it. Then the game throws Excursion Funnels into the mix, which enable you to float through the air to otherwise inaccessible plateaus, and it's combining all of these elements that makes Portal 2 so immensely and gratifyingly challenging.
And for a while, you'll be prodded from test chamber to test chamber, bending to GlaDOS's every whim, until everything predictably goes horribly awry. To say any more would be a horrible spoiler, but suffice to say that Valve has crafted a narrative that really does have it all. It's funny, dark and tense in equal measure, as well as consistently entertaining from start to finish.
It's the gameplay that really makes Portal 2 such a joy though and everything else is just the icing on the... - we had to say it at some point – cake. That's before you even consider co-op, which is a whole separate campaign on its own, starring the most endearing droid duo since C3PO and R2D2. Playable in local split screen – vertical or horizontal: your call – or online with a friend or a random, Portal 2's co-op is pure genius, encouraging communication and actual, proper co-ordination. Playing without a headset really isn't an option, despite being able to project markers and start countdowns via the in-game HUD, and playing with someone you don't know proves remarkably difficult, if not nigh-on impossible. Even Valve knows this, as it even thought to include a warning disclaimer telling you that the game won't be as fun if you try and play with a person not on your friends list.
Get an actual friend to play with you though, and you'll find that tearing through all five Courses of test chambers is a blast, with Atlas and P-body high-fiving and dancing their way through even more slickly designed stages that deal with each specific game mechanic Course by Course. It's enormous fun to hit Portal 2 in co-op and being given four portals to play with rather than two puts a whole different spin on the game's basic mechanics. In fact, we can't remember the last time we played a co-op title like this, that required constant communication between the two-players in order to beat each puzzle. Be forewarned though, you may need a large TV screen to get the best out of playing co-op in split screen. Online however, it all works brilliantly.
Portal 2 continues a great tradition of clever and inventive achievement lists concocted by Valve, rewarding exploration with a few Easter eggs, including a few hidden surprises that shed light on certain aspects of the Aperture Science story. There's an excellent balance between single-player and co-op achievements too, making playing both modes even more essential. Most achievements are attained through natural progression, but there might be a few you miss along the way. Luckily, upon completing both the single-player and co-op facets of the Portal 2 story, you're able to jump back into any of the chapters. This is done via the hub in co-op, where you can also mess around gesturing and playing rock, paper, scissors to your heart's content. All in all, Portal 2's achievement list is excellent then.
A riveting journey from start to finish, Portal 2 is yet another unmitigated triumph for Valve, building upon an original concept that was incredible to begin with and making it even more incredible. At times it might have you tearing your hair out, but ultimately if you loved Portal 1 (and who didn't?), you're going to eat up Portal 2 like a big old piece of vanilla crazy cake.
With great voice work, music and atmospheric sound, Portal 2 is the complete package from an audio standpoint. It's mostly the same familiar beeps and boops from the previous Portal though, which is fine.
Those sterile slick white walls give way to all manner of concealed nastiness behind their facade and it all looks great. Textures do tend to suffer slightly when scrutinised close up, however.
An absolute, unadulterated pleasure to play, Portal 2's frustrations are countered by the exuberance you'll feel upon completing a troublesome puzzle. It's wall-to-wall goodness in gameplay terms and that goes for both co-op and single-player.
With a lengthy single-player campaign and five Courses of co-op, there's hours upon hours of game in here. You'll probably go back for seconds too, although more incentive for repeat plays could have been added.
Another characteristically excellent achievement list from Valve, there's a decent balance of solo and co-op goals to attain, as well as a few well-concealed Easter eggs to discover. Lovely stuff. It's let down only by a shameful lack of cake.
Valve has worked its magic yet again with Portal 2, creating a mind-blowing game that's simply superb in both single-player and co-op. In other words, it's hole-ly essential.