It’s been a long, long time. Three and a half years after the cult classic forever changed the internet and bred many a meme, Valve Software returns after two years of zombie bashing with science! Literally throwing players into a mix of physics tests, momentum challenges and cooperative head-smashing, the acclaimed developer has finally delivered Portal 2. And it is grand.
As in the original players take on the avatar Chell, a tenacious woman who we know nothing about and whom we can only see by using the portal gun to look at ourselves. GLaDOS returns, as noted in the various trailers, and one new character is introduced, Wheatley. The three – well, two since Chell never speaks, which is comically visualized when Wheatley asks Chell a question, wherein gamers jump the answer – converse with one another using trickery, sarcasm, sadism and the occasional philosophical quip that keeps players on their toes. There is nary a line worth missing, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve reloaded parts of the game because I missed a single line of dialog.
This is to be expected, considering Valve’s prior titles, including and especially Portal. Those unfamiliar with the original will feel behind the curve, especially in puzzle-solving, though it’s more akin to not being in on a joke than not hearing the joke at all. Life goes on almost the same without having played Portal, but the experience of Portal 2 is richer with that background, especially when playing the cooperative campaign.
In a somewhat painful twist of irony, Portal 2 suffers because of its prequel. Portal was simplicity at its finest, a treasure trove of puzzles and imagination that so elegantly enabled players to live, to really breathe the entire experience in. Valve clearly suffered to recreate that same feeling while still building a new game. Having spent much time in Portal, even years back, I was able to pick up the portal gun and solve half of the game’s new puzzles in the single-player campaign with minimal effort. The use of momentum, acceleration, buttons and cubes, lasers and avoiding bullet-filled apologetic turrets…it just isn’t new, and considering past experience, not very demanding. Some of the newer additions, like light bridges, aerial faith plates, and excursion tunnels are interesting twists, but they don’t have the same “huzzah!”, and lack the learning curve that took so much time and effort to get to, of the original. Many players can already think with portals.
Once past the halfway mark, a serious shift in plot and gameplay occurs. Instead of GLaDOS’ voice insultingly commenting on how Chell is fat, adopted, has no friends or is fat, Cave Johnson – brilliantly voiced by J.K. Simmons – takes over the narrative with manly charm through a selection of pre-recorded tapes for test subjects. This second half introduces several new ideas for portal puzzles, all revolving around three gels: repulsion, propulsion, and one unnamed gel. They allow players to jump and bounce incredible heights, run at dashing speeds, and place portals on most any surface, respectively. Combining these with the old and newer elements can quickly turn a previously ripe mind into duck soup.
Following up such an incredible tale must have been overwhelming, because in many ways Portal supersedes its successor. Wheatley’s character is comical in a childish way, and at times his antics fall on slapstick instead of intelligence (which there is an interesting reason behind). GLaDOS’ role is minimized, but even her constant jabs lack the bite they once had. Cave Johnson is an exceptional narrator, and if you’ve watched any of the trailers, know that those aren’t the best he has to offer. The overall plot is simple and straightforward, and the bag of tricks has thinned out over the years. It isn’t until the curtains close where a jaw-dropping event occurs, one so clever that it will blow your mind.
Cooperative play is an absolute joy/nightmare. Like Left 4 Dead, Valve’s cooperative games require absolute collaboration, not the façade we see in the Call of Duty’s and Halo’s of today. As two machines – curiously named Atlas and…P-body – players solve puzzles together using two portal guns, meaning double the portals. Not only must players work entirely in tandem, they must communicate clearly, and often quickly. That means you had better find someone good to play with, someone at your level, or one of you will be doing all the work and collecting all of the frustration.
There are a few immediate benefits to the cooperative campaign over the humanized solo missions. First, GLaDOS is fully in-charge (and yes, the plot in the single-player campaign does work with the cooperative one sensibly), and she doesn’t hesitate to lash out at foolish robots with her witty repartee. Second, as robots, Atlas and Peabody can be rebuilt at any time. Taking a wrong step off a cliff or into a laser has no real punishment; in a few seconds a new body is there for the taking. This is especially great because of the long load-times between levels, which on the Xbox 360 is tragic. Finally, because communication is so important, three main functions have been added specifically for cooperative play: a navigation pointer, a 3-second countdown timer, and a selection of fun, quirky animations, including a friendly wave, an unfriendly head slap, and six others. This makes it possible to play the game without actually speaking directly to your partner, though in my experience not being on the same television set can be incredibly frustrating.
Both campaigns take about eight hours to complete, and I recommend playing the solo campaign first, which acts as an excellent segue into the cooperative missions, especially if you have limited or no experience with the original Portal. Furthermore, because of the dual-player nature of the cooperative campaign, those missions are more difficult and will require more processing power to complete from both players. And as a puzzler, Portal 2 isn’t something anyone can complete in one sitting. Some puzzles need a fresh set of eyes.
Throw in Valve’s signature “developer diaries”, a built-in tool which allows players to listen to different members of the development team explain why they built a level a certain way, or give a behind the scenes look at the game, and players can double their playtime instantly. Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 owners can rejoice because Portal 2 is excellent, though in my heart of hearts I know that the PC version is the one to own, if not for the hope of Gary’s Mod 2, then just for free future content, faster load times, and the option to play with a keyboard and mouse. And on home consoles, Portal 2 is truly a game to behold, even if we don’t get another “the cake is a lie” line.