Back in October 2007, I bought The Orange Box for XBox 360; I fondly remember playing through Half Life 2 and its two subsequent episodes. I remember briefly touching on Team Fortress 2 and whilst that remained a fair title, it was never something I really got my teeth into. Then there was Portal, this perfectly formed example of what video gaming should be about was there, staring at me, I was introduced to the concept of Portals, the Companion Cube, GLaDOS, ‘speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out’, Still Alive it was all there, amidst the collection of some of Valve Software’s greatest achievements was this shining pearl of innovation.
After attempting to review the original Portal several times I could never find the words I needed to explain what an earth-shakingly monumental event this was in video games, Valve had taken an idea from Narbacular Drop and run with it. Portal was a shining example of video games as a whole, it was new, interesting, intelligent, comical, compelling and most of all, fun!
But by creating the first Portal game, Valve Software unintentionally set the bar for themselves, nobody was ever going to be able to create a remake of or sequel to Portal other than Valve Software and if Valve were ever going to release a sequel to what was easily my 2007 Game of the Year, they couldn’t simply copy Portal, stretch it out for another 5 hours and tack on some insubstantial features like some publishers get away with.
No, Valve needed something new, something dynamic to either take the Portal franchise to new heights or lovingly and devotedly add to the already sensational experience that was the original Portal. So when the press release came out that said Portal 2 was going to be at least 5 hours longer, with new features and an addition co-op mode, my heart sank.
The cynic in me believed that Portal 2 was ruined and Valve had abandoned their beloved Half-Life world for a muddy cash-in that they could re-skin every other year for some quick revenue. I have never been happier to be completely and utterly wrong.
I love being surprised by video games, especially when a game such as Portal 2 not only surprises me but also slaps the cynical look off my face with such gusto that I can’t help but love it even more. Portal 2 is sheer brilliance! Valve have done what everybody thought was impossible, they have improved on an already perfect game.
The first thing that will hit you about Portal 2 is the humor, Valves trademark wit and charm are in full swing from the starting blocks. Once again you take on the role of Chell, the unfortunate mute protagonist from the first Portal game and whilst it is not explained how Chell was recaptured (though Valve did change the ending of the first Portal recently to show Chell getting dragged away after the final fight) you find yourself casually letting that slide, free of detail or explanation.
In the very first room, you are introduced to Wheatley, a small, spherical robot somewhat reminiscent of 343 Guilty Spark from the Halo universe. Wheatley is voiced by Stephen Merchant (The Office, Extras) and I have to confess that when I first heard his voice, I disagreed with the decision, I’m not the biggest fan of Mr Merchant and can sometimes find his style of comedy somewhat annoying but as the game progressed I persevered with the silent understanding that I would let this slide as there was enough of this game had already proved itself worthy enough to let a few things slide.
Fortunately I was proven correct because at roughly the 80 – 90% completion mark I could not imagine anybody else performing this role and whilst there are some videos out there that show different voice actors performing Wheatley’s lines I personally think that Stephen Merchant really made this role his own and nobody could have created this character quite like him.
Speaking of superb voice acting, another gem of Portal 2 is the inclusion of J.K Simmons (famous for his portrayal of J Jonah Jameson, editor of The Daily Bugle in Spiderman) who plays Cave Johnson, the founder of Aperture Science. One section of the game, which I can only divulge so many details about without spoiling some of the excellent story for you, is where you find yourself wandering through what I would describe as ‘Old Aperture’ and you are given almost a guided tour from the pre-recordings of Cave (ala Andrew Ryan from Bioshock) which offers a unique insight into both the company and its sometimes tenuous link to Black Mesa.
Including several new and distinctly different puzzle elements into Portal 2 may have sent scores of loyal Portal fans screaming for the hills but fear not as the incorporation of these new aspects is seamless. You have new features such as the blue Repulsion Gel, which acts as a pourable trampoline onto whichever surface it coats, there’s the orange Propulsion Gel which serves to speed Chells movement. There is also the inclusion of the curious white Conversion Gel which when covering a surface, turns it into a portal-able area.
Also making their way into the mix are the addition of laser beams and the Redirection Cubes to accompany them which can be used to guide the beams to their intended target. Hard Light Bridges which you can redirect using your portal to either reach inaccessible areas or block turret bullets and the Gravity Beams which offer an interesting spin on the other new features as with several puzzles you need to utilize the Gravity Beam to move other features such as the Gels to different areas.
Naturally, the biggest feature to be added to the game however, is of course, the co-op mode. In co-op, you and either an online partner or (for the XBox 360 version) your couch co-op buddy assume the role of two small testing robots, created by GLaDOS named Atlas and P-Body, whilst there is no significant difference between the two robots control wise, it is a nice touch that they both seem to develop their own personality as well as a deep camaraderie with each other.
The Co-Op mode is by far Valves biggest gamble with Portal 2, if you take a massively successful single player game like the first Portal and attempt to add either co-op or online multiplayer modes to it you run a dangerous risk of ruining the overall reception of the game. Fortunately, Valve knew exactly what they were doing with Portal 2 and created a flawless Co-Op mode, this is not your standard co-op mode where you play through the single player campaign with a buddy who is completely ignored in the dialogue and missing from the cutscenes, oh no.
Portal 2’s co op mode has been made as a complete stand alone campaign from the ground up, with new levels, objectives and different storyline. Both robots are not only feature in cutscenes but also commented on throughout the missions by GLaDOS where one might be praised over the other. This is an amusing touch and whilst having no overall relevance in-game, I could not help trying harder to beat my co op partner during the next test chamber, building a great sense of rivalry between us.
The levels in the co op mode are understandably more difficult as you are given two portals each to control, P-Body is given the normal blue portal but with that he also controls a purple portal whilst Atlas is given the regular orange portal in conjunction with a new red portal. The levels are paced in such a way that not only is teamwork and communication encouraged, it is mandatory. There is a very small chance that you would make it half way through the co op campaign without having to communicate with your partner.
All these features may appear unnecessary if you see them written down on paper, but when playing Portal 2, you see that everything fits beautifully into the game world with such precision that you
completely forget that these features weren’t in the first game and if you do happen to remember that they weren’t there, you are more than happy to let it slide with the reasoning that these features were obviously in another part of the expansive testing facility.
Without giving too much away, I’d like to touch on one section of the game in particular in as much detail as I dare. In one point of the game, GLaDOS (again, wonderfully voiced by Ellen McLain) disappears and without giving away too many more details, the feeling of not having that super-intelligent sociopathic artificial intelligence looming over your shoulder and around every corner is, in a word, horrifying!
You are utterly alone, wandering through dark and unfamiliar environments with absolutely no direction, there is no subtle layout of a safe and familiar Enrichment Centre, no elevator ride to take you to the next test chamber, no vilification at your characters weight or your parental situation. Nothing.
Valve have executed a masterstroke of character design here, they have taken your arch nemesis, GLaDOS, the sociopathic, murderous artificial intelligence that you ripped apart at the finale of the first game and surreptitiously made you grow attached to her. With her temporarily unattainable you feel lost. You are stood there, frantically trying to reach that next ledge in hopes that GLaDOS will be there, like a lost child, running around in the dark looking for their mother. I can only akin Chell and GLaDOS to long time rivals Batman and The Joker, forever unavoidably and inescapably draw into conflict with each other.
If Portal 1 was the game that wrote the book on innovative designs and became the How To on creating new ideas then Portal 2 has already become the textbook guide on how to create a faithful, enjoyable, loving, fun, deep, insightful sequel to a much loved game and whilst I am still slightly undecided about the inclusion of a new song at the very end of the game, it’s still something that makes Portal 2, Portal 2.
*Valve provided SlimGamer.com with a review copy on the Xbox 360 platform.