A Bigger, Better Portal
Creating Portal 2 must have been an incredibly daunting task. The first Portal took the world by storm, winning the hearts of millions of gamers and creating one of the most-quoted internet memes in recent memory. (“The cake is a lie.”) Valve had some pretty high expectations to meet, yet they somehow managed to pull it off. With Portal 2, they were able to bring back everything that was great about the original and expand the franchise into some drastically different territory without forsaking the core elements.
One of the first things you’ll notice about Portal 2 is the look. The setting is still the Aperture Science laboratory compound, but the scenery is no longer bland and sterile. It’s been quite some time since the original Portal, and things have changed drastically. Windows are broken, tiles are cracked, and vegetation has sprung up everywhere. This version of Aperture Science is insanely detailed. The beginning of each chamber even has lit panels that display animations relating to the test subjects, safety, or even the Apocalypse. (Of course, the Portal 2 version of the Apocalypse is a giant gun turret wearing a crown and mowing people down with its never-ending supply of bullets.) And to fit in with the other dilapidated background elements, many of these panels are burned out or not functioning properly.
As far as setting goes, Portal 2 is huge. The scenery is no longer confined to claustrophobic test chambers, so you’ll actually get to stretch your legs and breathe. The game takes you into quite a few never-before-seen parts of the Aperture facility, like the turret factory and the pre-GlaDOS test chambers. In fact, once you finish the first couple sets of training chambers, Portal 2 takes on a very Half-Life 2 vibe. It has that magnificent sense of scale: those wide open spaces with precariously placed ledges and catwalks on the sides of enormous structures that make you feel tiny as you climb them.
Portal 2 sounds better than the original. There are, of course, some recurring audio elements from the original Portal. GlaDOS’s auto-tuned voice, the sing-song voices of the gun turrets, and the satisfying “schwap” of the portal gun have all returned. However, to keep with the theme of decay, there are intentional glitches in the audio from time to time, and you can even hear birds squawking in the background.
Musically, there is a fairly robust soundtrack this time around. Incredibly well-composed synthesizer tracks always seem to kick in at the perfect times. Every once in a while, you’ll even hear a few snippets of classical and jazz music (intended to soothe the test subjects).
Every character in the game is bursting with personality, a feat that could have been drastically diminished by mediocre voiceovers. Yet Portal 2 uses top-notch voice actors who are absolutely perfect for their roles. Chell’s robot companion Wheatly is voiced by Stephen Merchant (co-creator of The Office), and Aperture CEO Cave Johnson is voiced by J. K. Simmons (probably best-known for his roles in Juno and Spider-Man.) These guys do phenomenal work; this is some of the best voice acting you’ll hear in a video game all year.
Portal 2’s story is completely insane. I don’t want to dish out any spoilers here, but I’ll just say there are some absolutely bizarre moments and some completely unexpected plot twists. I do find the humor to be a little too over-the-top in some places, but for the most part, the spirit of Portal is well-preserved. All the sadistic wit of GLaDOS is back, and it seems like the dark humor is even turned up another notch. GLaDOS is upset that she was murdered in the original Portal, yet she loves testing more than she hates Chell. Her bitterness is at an all-time high, and she constantly mocks and manipulates the player.
A great feature that is brand new to the Portal series is two-player Co-op. Players take on the roles of robots named Atlas and P-Body and solve puzzles that are way more complex than any you’ll find in the single-player campaign. Since you have the ability to throw down four portals instead of just two (each player gets one gun with two portals) there are far more mind-bending ways to “think with portals.”
Portal 2 adds quite a few new twists on top of the portal gun mechanic. First of all, there are various types of gel that can be splattered across surfaces to change the properties of those surfaces. Propulsion Gel gives your character an extra boost of speed, Repulsion Gel allow you to bounce high into the air, and another gel that I like to call “Portal Paste” allows you to place a portal on a surface that otherwise wouldn’t allow one.
Besides the gels, there are Hard Light Bridges, which allow you to create long bridges across seemingly impassable gaps. Excursion Funnels are slow-moving beams that can carry objects and players from place to place. Refractor Cubes can redirect the laser beams that have replaced the much slower energy balls from the original Portal, giving you the closest thing you’ll probably ever have to a deadly weapon in a Portal game.
All these new mechanics fit perfectly into the world of Portal, and each is introduced slowly enough that the player will never feel overwhelmed. The learning curve is gentle, yet the puzzles are clever enough that you won’t get bored with the easier test chambers.
The single-player campaign is a bit easier than I had hoped it would be, but the two-player co-op more than makes up for this. I played both online with a stranger and split-screen with a friend, and I must say that playing with someone you know is pretty much mandatory. It takes a lot of communication in order to navigate these test chambers successfully. But Valve gives players some clever and intuitive in-game communication tools. There is a ping tool that allows players to make marks where they want their partner to drop a portal, and there’s even the option to set a timer icon on top of a switch in case you encounter a puzzle that requires precise timing.
Portal 2 is a strong contender for 2011’s game of the year. If you loved the first Portal, you absolutely must pick this one up. And even if you’re brand new to the series, Portal 2 includes groundbreaking gameplay, a collection of deep and nuanced characters, a completely insane story, and some incredible gaming moments you’ll probably never forget.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.6 Graphics
Aperture Science looks grittier, yet larger and better than ever. 4.8 Control
Though WASD and mouse controls are preferable for shooter games, Portal 2’s console controls are intuitive. The physics feel absolutely perfect, making puzzle-solving a lot less of a chore. 4.7 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
GLaDOS is back with her sarcastic, auto-tuned wittiness, and some incredible actors lend their talent to the new characters. Voice acting just doesn’t get much better than this. The music, when present, is absolutely perfect. 4.5 Play Value
A single-player campaign much longer than the original, a completely separate co-op multiplayer campaign, the option to add custom-built content (PS3 and PC/Mac versions only), and the promise of future story-based DLC make this a game that you can spend a fair amount of time with. 4.7 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best