The original Portal was a success I don’t think anyone anticipated. Arguably the best part of The Orange Box, it was a remarkably clever and original puzzle game, with an absurd amount of character. But to everyone’s disappointment, it was all over too soon. But we were not forsaken; quite the contrary. With Portal 2, a direct sequel (by which I mean to say you should play the original first, as well as before reading this review which will inevitably spoil it), Valve has not only given us a bigger and better game, but one of the greatest pieces of interactive entertainment ever. I mean no hyperbole when I say Portal 2 is an absolute masterpiece on a grand scale, and a game absolutely everyone should get the chance to play!
Fair warning, there is no way to talk about Portal 2 without spoiling everything that occurs in the first game, so keep that in mind if you have yet to play it (by which I have to ask, why the heck not?). Disclaimers out-of-the-way, Portal 2 once again places you inside Aperture Science, an expansive underground scientific research and testing facility with fewer ethics than living test subjects. Which is to say just you, Chell, reimprisoned and put to sleep for who knows how long, only awakened when the entire facility is on the verge absolute destruction. Unlike before however you aren’t alone, now joined by a naive little robot named Wheatly. With GLaDOS in pieces, escape seems like a simple objective. That is until someone flips a switch to turn her back on…
The original Portal is still one of the best written, and most hilarious games I’ve played, and yet its sequel is miles ahead of it in every possible way. With only a handful of characters, it’s amazing how charming and witty every line is. Hilarious, clever, and maybe even a little touching, I can’t think of a game that even comes close to matching how perfectly timed and expertly written every moment of Portal 2 is. It’s minimal cast does an amazing job of breathing life into the decrepit facility, and makes the simple aspect of walking from one door to the next and immensely enjoyable activity.
And it isn’t just the writing that deserves remark, but how Valve has implemented it to seamlessly interact with your actions. Characters respond to what you’re doing in such a realistic manner that it’s hard to believe they are simply programs setup to do so. With so many games relying on traditional, uninteresting storytelling mechanics, Portal 2 moves the medium forward in ways developers need to take note of.
However smartly written the dialog may be, it’s in the portal puzzles themselves that Valve’s intelligence really shines. Not content to simply reiterate the same mechanic we saw in the first game, new elements such as propulsion gel and laser maneuvering cubes are added regularly and consistently expand on the basic portal mechanic in unexpected and interesting ways. Every time I thought I’d seen all the ways a mechanic could be used, Valve expanded the spectrum and again astounded my expectations with the outwardly simple variances in usage that never would have occurred to me. Even on my second playthrough the puzzles never stopped being incredibly rewarding to solve, and giving me just enough of a challenge to consistently test my intellect in a wholly unique fashion.
For how old the Source engine is at this point, you’d never know Portal 2 was built on it based on how it looks. To this day I am utterly astonished at what Valve manages to pull off with the engine, and this is easily its most impressive usage to date. The once sterile Aperture Science is now presented in a gorgeous display of disrepair. Walls crumbly around you, lights flicker and cast dazzlingly shadows, plants grow through into the facility, and it all looks absolutely amazing! Even with its makeover, Aperture is still an eminently memorable and distinct place to inhabit, and the increased variety in locations does an impressive job of realizing the sheer size of the facility which we’ve only scratch the surface of.
I always forget to mention the soundtrack, not because it isn’t a fantastic accompaniment to your journey through Aperture, but because it blends so well with the rest of the game that I almost forget it’s there. That’s not a slight against it however, it’s a complement to how suited it is for the game that I can’t separate one from another. It’s a brilliant score with so many layers I couldn’t begin to pick it apart to describe it to you (but thankfully I don’t need to, as even if for some reason you don’t play the game the soundtrack is freely downloadable). As for the ending, well let’s just say Jonathan Coulton is a genius and leave it at that.
And then there is the coop mode; yet another brilliant way Valve has surprised me, turning the solitary campaign into a multiplayer experience that demands cooperation. This is what impresses me the most about the mode; it isn’t just two players going through a game designed for one, but an entirely new set of levels purposely designed to force you to work with your partner to complete them. It’s amazing what can be accomplished with two sets of portals, and this is fully taken advantage of in what are perhaps the best designed puzzles in the entire game. If you don’t have a friend to play with, go make one for this game. It’s something you shouldn’t miss out on.
I can’t get over it. I’ve been impressed by Valve numerous times in the past, love Portal to death, and thought I knew what I was getting with its successor. But Portal 2 is so much more than that. It’s an incredible achievement in everything it attempts, from its outstanding script to the bewildering puzzles and spectacular presentation. It’s the best game Valve has ever made, one of my all time favorites, and without a doubt one of the medium’s greatest accomplishments!
Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s testing to do.