The original Portal was basically a tech demo, included as a bonus alongside other titles in the Orange Box. And that was all it needed to be. However, it turned out to be full of dark humour and featured a computer that is one of the greatest villains/characters in any video game… ever!
Now, though, Valve have produced Portal 2. The sequel includes a cooperative campaign in addition to having twice the content in the single player campaign. This is probably the most anticipated game of the year, and if anyone can live up to the hype, its Valve. But have they done it?
The original game was basically designed to show off the ability to use portals. Portals can be placed on certain flat surfaces allowing you to travel instantaneously across the map. The game really started to melt the brain when it introduced concepts such as the preservation of momentum through Portals and required the player to solve more and more complex puzzles. The game was only a few hours long and simply consisted (at least at first) of a series of enclosed test chambers. The player was guided by an AI voice to solve the puzzles in each chamber before moving on to the next one. Yet, as I said, it was brilliant and is one of mine (and so many other peoples’) favourite games ever. Not to mention the fact that it spawned innumerable memes across the internet (most of them involving cake) and made an inanimate object (in the form of the companion cube) into another of gaming’s most beloved sidekicks (or maybe that was just me…).
So, what does the sequel has in store for us?
I’m going to try not to give away too many spoilers, but the story is a well-written, humour-filled adventure from start to finish. There are several twists and turns throughout and, though I did see some of the twists coming, they never played out quite as I expected them to. There are the familiar selection of test chambers to (re-)familiarise yourself with the Portal gun and the world of Aperture science and the inevitable escape sequence that takes you behind-the-scenes, but there is a lot more to it this time…
Part of the story takes place in a previously sealed-off wing of Aperture Science dating back to the 1960s. The posters and architecture offer a nice change of scenery from the more clinical, modern environments. You are also accompanied down in these levels by the recorded voice of Aperture founder Cave Johnson (J.K. Simmons). These lines contain a high level of razor-sharp wit and brilliant delivery, offering a similarly entertaining but different accompaniment to your adventures. These sections also reveal a lot of backstory about the facility and its founder and are part of a surprising amount of character development throughout the game.
There are some other nice touches for fans of the first Portal as well, including a scene where you get to see the results of ‘bring your daughter to work day’…
The Source engine is arguably starting to show its age, but I thought the game looked great. Aperture Science feels a lot more alive this time round, with loads of moving components, large, open spaces and the more run-down areas that have began to degrade and are now covered in foliage. Its not as pretty and detailed as a game built using Unreal technology, but as someone who doesn’t like to play games with dated graphics, it didn’t bother me at all. You can’t interact with as many objects in the environment as before, but that never really achieved anything anyway…
Portal 2 is a very entertaining game to play. Despite its focus on complex physics-based puzzles, the game never feels impossible. Each individual puzzle element is introduced and explained very well, while at the same time the game manages to be humorous and avoids being patronising. Then, when you encounter a more complex puzzle that combines elements, you already understand what it is that you need to do. The difficulty comes from working out how to solve the puzzle, not the physical process of solving it.
There are a few minor things that I found a little frustrating. The only real problem I had was that sometimes it felt too easy to fall accidentally out of the tractor-beam-like ‘excursion funnels’. Also, I’ve never been a fan of platforming in First-Person, but the character handles well and there is a lot less precision jumping than in the previous game, so its OK. Other than that, my only real frustrations were with myself for not being able to pull off the timing and accuracy of some of the later puzzles.
As is now well-documented, I’m not a fan of multi-player but the co-op mode in Portal 2 deserves special mention. You would think that having four portals would be a major brain-f***, but once again the puzzles are introduced so well that it never feels overwhelming. It can be a bit difficult to communicate without some external method (i.e. being in the same room!), but there are some good tools to help.
GLaDOS is your companion too, providing more hilarious dialogue and encouraging a bit of friendly competition… Though, it has to be said, there is some amazing potential for dicking around. Taking out a bridge under your companion while their over a pool of acid, firing them into ceilings and walls and watching them die at the hands of turrets or high-powered lasers is hilarious, whether you are the victim or the prankster. There is definitely a lot of fun to be had in the co-op chambers, as well as some of the most truly taxing puzzles can in the entire game.
The sound quality in Portal is excellent. Familiar but improved sounds from the first game and joined by lots of new effects, including distant clunking and explosion effects, that really help the facility to feel large and alive.
Voice work is also excellent. Ellen McLain is once again on top form as the maniacal AI and joining her are several other characters including Stephen Merchant’s Wheatley and, as already mentioned, J.K. Simmons as Aperture Science founder Cave Johnson.
One thing that a few people seem to be complaining about is the length of the game. While it is true that you could probably complete the entire single-player campaign in under five hours, you would only do so by rushing through all the chambers and solving the puzzles at breakneck speed. If you do this, then I really feel that you are missing the point. You will miss all the great dialogue, miss all the secrets and fun little clues and not get sucked into one of the best atmospheres in any video game.
That said, I still completed single player in a little under 8 hours, but I was also more than happy to play through again to look for secrets I had missed and get the rest of the achievements. Its not exactly a 40 hour epic like Mass Effect, but its much longer (and significantly better) that some other games (like the Force Unleashed 2!) (and it wasn’t a £45 game either, costing only £25).
On the other hand, there is a conspicuous lack of extra content. The first Portal included a handful of advanced chambers, re-worked to make them even more challenging, and a challenge mode that let you play though various chambers with a set of goals to accomplish. Hopefully we will see expansions that add this sort of content in the future.
UPDATE (29/04/11) – Valve has confirmed that free DLC in the next few months will add challenge modes and new test chambers, which is nice!
On the whole, Portal 2 has become one of my favourite games. Personally I don’t rate it higher than the original, but its still an excellent game. A great mix of story, humour, well-designed puzzles and well implemented mechanics. Its certainly one of the best games of the last few years and, particularly if they add extra content down the line, definitely worth buying on any platform.
RECOMMENDATION: Buy It!