When Valve released the original Portal as a pack-in for The Orange Box, no one knew it would outshine their main bet, Half Life 2: Episode Two. But the promise of cake and an ever-loving weighted companion cube overwhelmingly resounded with gamers everywhere, and new Internet memes were popping up all over the place from this mostly non-violent shooter-puzzler. Portal won numerous game of the year awards, and a sequel was announced a few years later. With such an outstanding release the first time around, did Valve deliver another diamond in the form of Portal 2? You bet your cube-loving butt.
First of all, if you have yet to play the masterpiece that was the original, bookmark this review and go out to get that wonderful collection of lines of data. Once you pick yourself up from the floor after the hilarious ending, let me clue you in to the sequel. The original Portal basically only had one “person” speaking to your character the entire time, with the occasional sentence or two from turrets after you alerted them to your presence. This time around, you have Wheatley, a charming but moronic personality core whose job is to check in on test subjects. It has been a long time since the events of the first game, and when you come to things are quickly going from apocalyptic to even worse in Aperture Laboratories. Portal 2 features a lot more environments outside of the normal testing facility, and since the laboratory is in such disarray many wall panels simply fall off as you are testing. GlaDOS, the insane AI featured in the first game is, of course, back, once you and Wheatley accidentally awaken her that is. She is still mad at you for “murdering” her during the events of the first game. While the dialogue in the first game was hilarious, here is it mind-numbingly side-splitting.
Without going into too many details and spoiling so many of the intricate plot points that ties the history of Aperture Science, Chell, GLaDOS, and Wheatley together, Valve’s writers can be commended for not only extending the world of Aperture Science but also crafting so many memorable moments, a few of which involve potatoes. That’s really all that can be said here – you should experience all the epic moments and hilarious lines on your own.
As for playing the game itself, you still only ever possess one tool – the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device. You are given the ability to fire two interlinked portals that can be placed on specific flat surfaces (and one much rounder, larger surface…), and must utilize this simple mechanic to get to an exit usually placed just out of reach. This combined with new “Thermal Discouragement Beams” and the usual “1500 Megawatt Aperture Science Heavy Duty Super-Colliding Super-Button” make up a good portion of the first half of the game, before new gels to play with are introduced. Those gels add to ever more complex puzzles, typically in an older section of the facility hidden miles underground. What makes this area interesting is that you get to witness Aperture Science in its early days, and are treated as a test subject who was simply brought in off the street, as the company apparently did back then. Listening to the descriptions of certain side effects of some closed-door tests is both disturbing and incredibly entertaining.
One of the only complaints about the original Portal is that the game was short. This was true – the average playthrough was only 3-5 hours. In the case of Portal 2, the game’s single player campaign has been at the very least doubled in length, with around 7-10 hours of portal-enhanced gameplay. The story is expertly paced, with many incredible moments that just feel right. Most puzzles past those which serve an introductory purpose take around 10-20 minutes to figure out without any help, and the feeling of satisfaction that results when you finally put two and two together and get to the exit is unmatched in gaming. If that does not sound like enough game for your hard-earned dollars, don’t forget about co-op! The cooperative mode is available via the PlayStation Network, Steam (more on that later), and even the rare and coveted splitscreen mode. This other half of Portal 2 has its own separate story arc that is almost as hilarious, though equally as entertaining as, the single player campaign. There is a bit less dialogue from GLaDOS, as most of the fun to be had is in working with your teammate to solve complex puzzles together while also occasionally tormenting one another, though the dialogue that is there is of course hilarious. Remember that feeling of satisfaction I mentioned earlier when you finally solve a puzzle? Well, you can quadruple that feeling when you and a partner work out a solution to this mode’s later puzzles. You feel like a genius when your plan actually works.
Back at E3 2010, the gaming world was shocked when, during Sony’s press conference, Valve co-founder and known PS3 basher Gabe Newell not only confirmed Portal 2‘s existence on Sony’s console, but claimed it would be the best console version available. This includes Steam Cloud support. What this means is that your game saves can be stored on Valve’s servers, and you can continue gameplay from any PlayStation 3 you sign into. While these save are not cross-platform compatible, the co-op portion of Portal 2 is. Yes, you can play on the PlayStation 3 while your friend plays along signed onto Steam on their PC, whether they are on Windows or Mac. The incredible level of Steam support here is astounding, and a remarkable turnaround from the Valve of yesteryear. Unfortunately, given the current downed state of the PlayStation Network, many PS3 gamers are unable to utilize this technology at the moment, but rest assured that when the network was functioning the service worked flawlessly. Steam Achievements are also synced, which is great for all you trophy/achievement whores out there.
Much like the rest of the game, audio work in Portal 2 is superb. GLaDOS sounds like her old self, but evolved ever so slightly. Her insults towards Chell are a bit more direct, but just in case you weren’t sure if she was laying one on you she does tend to clarify to comical effect. There is no music in any traditional sense, but rather reactive music throughout puzzles. As you launch through the air after being thrown by the new “Aerial Faith Plates,” or speed up while running along “Propulsion Gel,” ever-increasing music plays, and the audio sounds as if it is playing from these level elements themselves, furthering the concept of your environment being a character in the game. It’s a small tweak that adds to the game in a big way.
Whereas the original Portal relied on little more than two portals and physics to get past obstacles, in Portal 2 you have new forms of cubes and the aforementioned gels to augment your portal gun. By the time you are introduced to light bridges, “Excursion Funnels,” and the three gels, thinking with portals becomes second nature. Yet these later levels are still quite challenging, and enormously rewarding to those who solve the puzzles all on their own. Gone is the “Companion Cube” (the original one, anyway) and any important mention of cake. In their places? Weighted pivot cubes and, well, no promise of any sort of treat after testing has concluded. But with so many new elements to play around with, the much-sought-after cake is all but forgotten.
Hello? Are you still there? If you’re still reading this review and aren’t yet convinced you need to play this game (after you play the phenomenal original), then there is little hope for you. Between the marvellous story, perfect pacing, evolving/subtle soundtrack, challenging but not frustrating puzzles, and one of the absolute best ending sequences the likes of which may never be seen again, there is literally nothing to complain about this game. And that is only talking about the single player campaign – the social gamers amongst us will be completely satisfied after running through the co-op story with a friend (or even complete stranger!). While it could be argued that Portal 2 has little replay value, that will become a moot point as user-generated levels are produced, which are expected to be deliverable to the PlayStation 3, as well as traditional DLC. Portal 2 will go down in history as one of the best lunacy-inducing sequels ever made, and if you didn’t get that last reference then you need to play one of the greatest games ever crafted in the gaming industry.
PlayStation LifeStyle’s Final Score
+ Challenging and rewarding puzzles, not simply more of the original.
+ Incredible Steam and cross-platform integration, amazing co-op gameplay.