Portal 2 Review
Valve Software surprised everyone with what, at first, seemed like an innocuous little first-person puzzle game thrown in to 2007's The Orange Box, a fantastic first-person gaming bundle that had much bigger names as its headliners. But over the years, Portal has lived on in memory and in nerd pop culture, not just because of its innovative technology and mind-bending puzzles, but also its razor-sharp wit and unforgettable storyline. Any follow-up to such a beloved game has a lot to live up to, but thankfully Valve has put together a nearly perfect sequel that stays close to home when you need familiarity, and then surprises the hell out of you right when you start to get used to your settings and challenges.
Portal 2 continues the story of Chell, an Aperture Science test subject that was recaptured almost immediately after destroying the rogue AI named GlaDOS and trying to escape to the surface. After some apparent global-collapse "mishaps", Chell wakes up suddenly after spending centuries in cryostasis, and the Aperture Laboratories she remembers is very different. Vines and roots have overgrown the facility, junk lies everywhere, and oh yes, there's a little AI named Wheatley (voiced by veteran comedian/actor Stephen Merchant) trying to help you escape. It's not long before GlaDOS wakes up, too, and we're also introduced to Cave Johnson (voiced brilliantly by J.K. Simmons, who played J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man flicks), the founder and CEO of Aperture Science.
Through all of this, you'll find that the puzzle-solving portal action hasn't changed too terribly much - at least, not to start. You'll navigate through one test chamber after another, solving physics puzzles and figuring out how to get from one place to another, dropping portals and jumping in them all over the place. Veteran players will notice that the focus has shifted away from puzzles that test your aim or reflexes. Instead, your noggin will be challenged a bit more. It's likely that this was initially done so that console players (a much bigger target audience for Valve this time around) aren't fumbling with their thumbsticks trying to do snap 180-degree turns and such, but I find that this has expanded what I liked the absolute most about Portal's test chambers, so it's possible that Valve thought this was best for all players, not just those with gamepads. Your mileage may vary, of course.
GlaDOS is back and in a big way, constantly reminding you about how you killed her, telling you what a horrible person you are, and even making some laugh-out-loud jokes about Chell coming out of cryostasis a few pounds heavier than when she went in. If there's one thing I was disappointed about in the game's first several chapters, it's that not much was really surprising for me. Then the game's second act started, and my disappointment quickly gave way to slack-jawed wonder and pure enjoyment.
From the perspective of the puzzles themselves, you'll find several new elements that make you think even further outside the box than the first game did. There are three "flavors" of gel that you can use portals to cover surfaces with: the orange stuff increases your run speed, the blue stuff allows you to bounce off it like you were on a trampoline (even off of walls), and the white stuff allows you to place portals on what would otherwise be an incompatible surface. Then there are light bridges which can be used as walkways or as barriers when they're turned on their side, gravity beams that suspend you (and objects) in mid-air and push you along their path, and refracting cubes that change the path of laser beams. There are a few bits of the first game's puzzles that have been removed, like the bouncing balls of energy and the like, but much more has been added than has been removed. Near the end of the game I did get stuck on one particular puzzle for almost an hour, but the feeling of accomplishment in figuring it out made that hour I spent easily worth it.
Speaking of hours, gamers are currently debating whether the game is long enough to warrant the $50 price tag (plus another ten bucks on consoles). For the record, I took my time to sit through areas where clearly there was extra fun stuff if you waited, I often got stumped on many puzzles for a few minutes each, and I explored quite a bit, and the game took me about nine hours to complete. But that's not really fair to measure a game's value solely in hours spent, as anyone that has played Desert Bus will attest to the need for fun, not just hours killed. I found that Portal 2 delivered surprises, fun, challenge, and laughs that add up to a charm that's not only vastly different from what we have gotten in other recent games, but it's just better, too. I doubt many catchphrases will come out of this game like they did with Portal, but it almost seems this time like Valve was purposely trying to avoid them. Think about it: if you think you're sick of hearing "the cake is a lie", imagine what it's like for a Valve Software developer at a party.
Valve has carefully added many small references, Easter eggs, and little touches that you may miss on your first time through. From the the sparse and minimalist music that builds up as you put together solutions in some test chambers, to the new Half-Life references, little things you can do to unlock specific (and completely optional) achievements, and quite a few plot elements that you'll have to work out on your own, Portal 2 will probably warrant at least a second play-through for many gamers.
Finally, we come to the cooperative mode. Jumping in with a PC or PS3 player to solve several hours of additional test chambers might seem a little weird for what, at its heart, is a puzzle game - especially if you're trying not to look like an idiot who can't solve a puzzle to save his life in front of random Steam players. Valve even stops you before joining a public session, strongly recommending that you play with a friend instead of a stranger. Still, there's a system for quickly communicating puzzle solutions, as you can create an objective point anywhere in a test chamber for both players to see, and you can very easily use text or voice chat to explain a two-player solution to a problem. All of this works really well to facilitate solutions, and you're going to need these tools because both players can each fire two portals. If you were expecting a greater challenge from the single player game and didn't get it, make sure to jump into the online play. One bonus is that you'll also be playing a fully fleshed-out separate campaign, complete with more excellent voice work and the same production values you'd expect from Portal. Just, try and avoid the temptation to start buying hats for real-world dollars. Seriously. Don't support that kind of thing.
Is Portal 2 a worthy successor to one of the most surprisingly lovable games in recent memory? I've tried to figure out a way to answer that simple question with any response other than a resounding "yes", but I'm completely incapable of it. With this sequel, Valve has ramped up the brain-cramping puzzle elements and expanded the cast with immensely lovable characters, and they did it just enough to make sure the whole thing feels fresh and interesting for the longer campaign. I think it's very likely that you'll come away with a huge smile on your face once you're done. Some PC gamers will wait until the inevitable Steam sale hits, but no matter what you pay for it, I'm betting that Portal 2 will completely pull you into its charming world and make you lose track of time for hours on end. Frankly, not many recent games have been doing that.