In a year of highly-anticipated sequels, one that was on everyone’s watch was the bigger, better, fuller sequel to the unexpected classic Portal. Originally, Portal was just a tech demo running on the Half Life 2 game engine. But then it was made into a full (albeit short) game with amazing physics-based puzzles and a clever story. Oh, one of the best senses of humor of any game this side of Grim Fandango. What made the first game so great is what makes the second game even greater, because this isn’t merely more levels (like the expansion Portal: Still Alive). This is a full-on cinematic masterpiece that expands on the original, adds in new elements, and delivers even more laughs and, dare I say, ambiance than the original did.
In short, Portal 2 is better than Portal 1 in almost every way, and is a game that you’d be an idiot to pass up.
The most pressing question on every gamer’s mind isn’t if the game has more features and is longer, because let’s face it, if they had kept the same elements and made it longer than the original, it would still be amazing. But what was most anticipated was the humor. The original game had a killer dry, sarcastic sense of humor that was fresh and, quite frankly, hilarious. The star of the original was GlaDOS, the malevolent sentient AI bent on testing your patience and your ability to live. Thankfully, the ol’ gal makes a return to stellar form in this one, but the real star of the show is your helpful personality sphere Wheatley, voiced brilliantly by Stephen Merchant.
I wasn’t incredibly familiar with Merchant before this, until I realized he was in cahoots with Ricky Gervais. Now, I’ve never watched the original The Office on BBC, but I have seen Merchant on An Idiot Abroad and The Ricky Gervais Show. Here he shines though, as the helpful yet bumbling little robot who turns from confident to terrified to delightfully optimistic at the drop of a hat. It’s amazing how his dialogue flows so freely and seems so natural; it immerses you in the experience. His character will follow you with his, um, “eye” and his lines will reflect what actions you are taking. As hyped as Merchant’s role was, I think he went above and beyond the call of duty and should win some sort of award or something. If there’s an Oscars of videogames, he should get Best Supporting Sphere for sure.
Without spoiling other surprises, note that yes, the adorably violent turrets make a return, as well as some new additions to the team that will keep you howling. J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man, the State Farm commercials) has a bit role that is also brilliantly written and perfectly in line with the macabre sense of humor the world of Aperture Science is known for. Scribblings on the walls, warning signs, and other hidden gems of the building add to the amazing humor, and make Aperture feel like its own dark, twisted world.
The biggest improvement over the original is that aspect itself. Aperture Science has seen better days, and it shows in gorgeous, well-animated detail. You will see every inch of the miles-deep laboratory, from pieces of the walls extending and recessing, wild foliage exploding out of grates, massive caverns and infinitely long free falls. The lab is rendered in stunning detail, with every nook and cranny being addressed, and it’s easy to stop and just marvel at the amount of work the designers put into building it. You’ll shoot through the air over miles of steel grating to land in a small office adorned with motivational coffee mugs. You’ll plummet to nearly the core of the Earth itself to find large steel doors swing open to reveal more massive areas. Even the test chambers themselves seem to have more color and personality, as it feels like you make way through this building in a desperate attempt to survive.
And survive you will, most of the time. The game is never frustratingly difficult, much like its predecessor, though this time around the game is less “complete this room, move to the next” as it is “complete this room, then get thrown through a wall as you make your way behind the scenes past turrets, flinging yourself through broken buildings and narrow passageways in order to avoid instant death”. Yes, the original game was very much a puzzle game, and only at the end did it feel like a desperate escape. This game feels like one long chase scene, with some puzzle rooms mixed in for effect. The amount of tools you have at your disposal are, well, the same: your Portal gun. Only now you can interact with things a bit more (pressing “X” can open doors sometimes, or flip a lever, which was nearly absent from the original). Also, the world is a bit more destructible. Okay, a LOT more. In fact, the world is basically crumbling around you, and it truly FEELS that way as the screen shakes, your controller rumbles, and metal tears around you.
With the world in such disarray, the new elements at your disposal make otherwise inescapable obstacles easily maneuverable. Along with your in and out portals, now there are jump pads that fling you through the air, transport tubes that create a beam of blue light that travel you in one direction, and three sets of gels: one that creates portal-ble surfaces, one that creates a “bounce” sort of effect, and another that increases your speed to lightning fast. There are also puzzles that incorporate lasers you must redirect with special boxes. A fun thing to do is use the box to aim the lasers at turrets, which engulfs them in flames as they scream for mercy. Sounds twisted, yes, but somehow it’s funny in the context of the game. Using all of these tools in conjuncture makes the game much more involved than the first, with many more options to complete stages and further the game. Describing the methods in writing does not do them justice. You have to play with them to really get the effect.
So where does the game fault? In only one area. No, it’s not length, for even though it seemed like the game flew by, it lasted much longer than the original, and there is a co-op feature (which I have yet to play, if I ever get the chance to) that adds more. Sadly, and I feel like this is a minor gripe but an important one, the thing that took me out of it were the loading screens. The thing is, it’s not a series of stages like the original. It’s one long chase sequence. When you DO have challenge rooms to beat, it’s not too jarring to be thrown a black loading screen with the Aperture logo on it while you’re riding an elevator to the next test chamber. However, when the game is really moving (and it’s incredible when it is), it takes you out of the experience when suddenly you land on a grate and it fades to black. I know, it’s impossible to avoid with this current technology. But I think it’s a testament to how amazing the game really is: the pacing and flow and ease of the game are so amazingly good, that when it stops to load, it reminds you that you’re playing a game, instead of watching an amazingly well-written and involved story play out before you. If only our tech were good enough and we didn’t have to endure these hiccups, but alas, here we are.
Portal 2 is an amazing game. It’s one of the best games I think I’ve ever played. It’s so enjoyable and challenging without being frustrating or painful. It’s well-written, it has amazing pacing and characters, and it’s funny as all hell. The only downside are the loading screens. That’s it. But it’s so easy to look past them when you have something that just pushes the bar in terms of writing and storytelling and gameplay combined. The guys at Valve make games where you see something and think “I hope I can do that” and then you CAN. That’s the amazing part. There are no real limits to what you can do, and everything feels so natural that when you play it through the first time, you feel like you’re playing through it the 500th time. It feels that good. Oh, and the ending is absolutely brilliant. Pay attention during the game. You won’t regret it. This is a must play. Play it. Love it.
Recommended playing: Portal, Half Life 2, Grim Fandango