Considering its humble origins as a small student project called Narbacular Drop, Portal’s success was nothing short of a gaming miracle. Not a huge one like parting the ocean or smiting an entire city, more like turning water into wine or healing the lame, yet still miraculous enough to win an army of converts. Portal’s blend of first-person puzzle solving, casual violation of the laws of physics, great writing, dark humour and an unforgettable antagonist was a nigh-perfect gaming experience let down only by its short length. Fans wanted more, like a fat kid craving a certain allegedly-false baked confectionary treat, and Valve have obliged with this full-fledged, big-budget blockbuster sequel.
Portal 2?s story begins as test subject Chell wakes up in a suspended animation lounge designed to look like a cheap motel room, or perhaps a cheap motel room converted into a suspended animation lounge. After all, this is Aperture Science we’re dealing with here. An unspecified number of years, possibly decades, have passed since Chell destroyed GLaDOS, the psychotic artificial intelligence in charge of the Aperture Science Computer Aided Enrichment Centre, and the entire facility has completely gone to pot. Nature has reclaimed many of the familiar old test chambers and things are falling apart all over the shop, like an old amusement park left to rot by an incompetent local council. Chell is soon met by a friendly nervous AI sphere called Wheatley, voiced by British comedian Stephen Merchant, who offers to help her escape the ruins of the Aperture facility. Things go surprisingly well until by sheer accident they reactivate a very bitter and vengeful GLaDOS, who recaptures Chell and once more forces her to run a gauntlet of diabolical test chambers. All in the name of science of course.
One thing Portal fans wished for in the sequel were more diverse environments in which to practise their skills, and Portal 2 gleefully drags players along on a grand tour of the immense Aperture Science facility from its relatively clean upper reaches to its lowest industrial levels, and even deeper than that. Some locations are so vast they almost make you feel giddy, especially when you’re accustomed to bright sterile claustrophobic test chambers, and these dark cavernous spaces really convey how large the facility is. You really get a sense that for all its madness and bureaucracy Aperture Science was a real competitor to Half Life’s Black Mesa, though don’t take that to mean Portal 2 has a load of tie-ins with Half Life. There are a few knowing nods here and there but Portal 2 sits squarely in a ludicrous universe all its own. The price for all this scale is a lot of loading screens that detract somewhat from the immersion, though load times are rarely longer than ten seconds and become less bothersome later in the game.
Besides dealing with a resurrected GLaDOS, Portal 2?s story also takes us through the rich and zany history of Aperture Science and its eccentric founder Cave Johnson, whose larger-than-life presence dominates the older, sealed-off areas of the facility that are eerily reminiscent of Bioshock in places. While I should specifically mention that J.K. Simmons, of Spiderman and Oz fame, gives a brilliant performance as the voice of Cave Johnson, all the voice acting in this game is absolutely stellar and fan-bloody-tastic. Ellen McLain’s GLaDOS is as snarky as ever with an extra dollop of cattiness to boot and Stephen Merchant’s Wheatley is wonderfully-lovable, warts and all. Despite two of them being robots, all three main characters feel like real people due to the games’ exceptionally strong writing. All four if you count Aperture Science itself, which is every bit an individual character in its own right.
As well as the story, the puzzle elements have also been significantly beefed-up. Portal veterans will immediately feel at home, while virgin newcomers are given a crash course in basic portal mechanics to bring them up to speed before we get to play with the new puzzle elements Portal 2 has to offer. Like the first game they’re introduced gradually and players are given just enough time to incorporate these toys and tricks into their mental armoury before encountering the next gizmo. Quick reactions and snappy portal-placement are downplayed this time around with more emphasis placed on how you fit the disparate pieces together to arrive at the solution. Portal 2 is all about mental gymnastics, not physical ones, which might not appeal to some twitch gamers expecting breakneck puzzle sequences like the ones in the trailers.
Challenging as they can be, none of the puzzles are tough enough to make you want to quit and the sense of accomplishment you get when everything “clicks” makes you feel like an unstoppable genius just long enough to reach the next one. Some near the end of the game can be positively fiendish and you’ll be mentally juggling a cornucopia of hard light bridges, faith plates, lasers and tractor beams, and various gels that apply different properties to a surface or object depending on their colour, but such demanding puzzles are few and far between. By the time I got this far I’d been playing non-stop for several hours and my mental acuity was as sharp as a potato, so you may not find them too taxing if you eat the Sunday Times Crossword for breakfast and shit Rubik cubes.
Once you’ve cracked all the puzzles however and seen what the story has to offer right up to its bonkers-but-brilliant ending there is little incentive to replay it, except to catch some of the gags you might have missed the first time round. Either that or you can listen to the now-ubiquitous Valve developer commentary, which give some fascinating insights into the development process and makes me wonder why more games don’t have a similar feature. Portal 2 also feels a bit shorter than it is even though it’s a lot longer than the first game, which may not be saying much, but like a favourite book or movie you’ll never want it to end.
Alas, end it does, so thank goodness there’s a multiplayer campaign to play through too. Multiplayer that PS3 and PC owners can play together courtesy of inbuilt Steam support on the PS3 version. Hooray for cross-platform compatibility! Though lighter on story than the single-player it adds a new twist to puzzle solving with having four portals to think about instead of two and teamwork being essential. This second point can be a double-edged sword however if you get lumbered with a clueless stranger who doesn’t know their arse from their elbow. As is often the case with such things, playing with a friend and preferably with voice communication will spare you heart attack-inducing levels of stress and frustration and help you get the most enjoyment out of it.
Portal 2 is an endearing, funny, intelligent and engaging experience well worth its asking price. While it may not be as groundbreaking or innovative as Portal, it’s an excellent game that takes the original and improves on it tenfold. It’s rare to see something with so much care and attention to detail invested in it, and which stands out so vibrantly amidst the sea of brown first-person shooters and other po-faced titles on the market right now. Only someone with a humour bypass, a psychotic fixation on having to kill things in every game they play, or a very minor case of serious brain damage could fail to enjoy this quirky, beautiful polished gem of a title.