You always know where you stand with Valve — well, most of the time. Granted, Portal’s developer lied about rewarding us with cake for completing its puzzle-platformer, but with the likes of Left 4 Dead and the genre-defining Half-Life series already under its belt, you can guarantee that the studio will always try to inject something a little extra special into every project it undertakes. Portal 2 is no different. Despite the initial familiarity of some of the test chamber puzzles, the sequel to the 2007 bite-sized hit offers a master class in level design and script-writing. And, the further you venture into the Aperture Science facility, the more crazy and ingenious the level design gets as you face a wide range of immersive physics and momentum-based puzzles that never fail to challenge and entertain.
Portal was way ahead of its genre in 2007 when it introduced the portal gun. Blasting portals into walls, floors and ceilings – and scratching our heads rigorously trying to work out ways to teleport across the environment to escape from the test chambers – was both challenging and totally absorbing. These portals basically created a visual and physical connection between two different locations in a three-dimensional space and added a completely unique game mechanic. You could then move objects, such as blocks, through the portals and use momentum to generate speed and height. Though the concept of environment-based puzzles — where you simply have to try to work your way out of an enclosed location — is fairly uncomplicated, the execution was anything but.
Though Valve’s portal-popping formula hasn’t changed drastically in Portal 2, it’s still as compelling as ever and even more challenging. Valve has made its sequel into a fully-fledged game this time around (the original lasted only a few hours), complete with a ten chapter single player campaign that will take you ten hours or more to complete. This is in addition to a captivating co-op mode with tougher puzzles designed to be solved with a friend. There are also a number of new mechanics to compliment the laying of portals, as well as an increased the variety of ways in which you can escape a chamber. With new game mechanics and more elaborately designed chambers, Portal 2 can occasionally push your brain into overdrive and cause it to over-heat. When you do manage to escape a test chamber, however, you get a real feeling of achievement and satisfaction. It’s the buzz you get from completing these tough challenges that fuels your passion for more. As such, once you get into the Portal mind-set, you’ll find it hard to leave.
The way that you smoothly move around the test chambers from the first-person perspective is identical to the first game. Once again, Valve has used its Source engine to power Portal 2, so graphically there’s also little difference between the two games. Nonetheless, there’s a real sense of scale to some of the locations as you get to visit new parts of the facility. Furthermore, Valve uses impressive light and shadow effects to give the environments depth and life. On the whole, the Aperture Science facility, though in a state of disrepair — with nature now creeping through its brick-work — is a more pleasant place to explore with splashes of color brightening up the grey/blue chambers.
Each chapter in Portal 2 is usually made up of test chambers that get increasingly difficult to solve. You can pick up and drop objects, use your portal gun to teleport around the chamber, and use a variety of items to help you escape from a room — perhaps manipulating a block so that it redirects the path of a laser, which in turn could be used to destroy a turret. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, Portal 2 throws something new at you, which adds another layer to the challenge. You can manipulate air currents to blast away at turrets, or use repulsion gel that transforms surfaces into a trampoline. There’s excursion funnels allowing you to pull objects through portals and a new weighted pivot cube that allows you to change the direction of lasers. There’s a lot to think about, and a lot of fun to be had out of experimenting with some great tools. Indeed, Portal 2 is at its best when it challenges you to use a combination of these tools to escape.
Nonetheless, Portal 2 isn’t going to appeal to everyone. Though it does well to introduce you to new tools and tries to break you in gently by giving you some fairly simple puzzles to solve, it can get extremely challenging later on, which may lead to frustration for those who don’t have the patience. The game also loses a little bit of momentum about halfway through, when you enter the depths of the Aperture Science Facility; though it soon picks back up. During this section, escaping becomes more about guessing how on earth you can make your way through this large environment, rather than logically having to puzzle your way out. We were trapped for over 45 minutes in one section, before realising all we had to do was find a tiny gap in a metal fence that allowed to us to shoot a portal into a wall far away in the distance. The new environments look great, but it can be a little frustrating trying to escape, and it’s fairly unclear about what you need to do to progress.
Portal 2 isn’t just about puzzle solving of course. One of the highlights of the original game was the storyline and this second instalment continues the good work. We’re very wary about spoiling the story and even referring to the ending of Portal just in case anyone hasn’t played it, so we’re not going to go into specifics in this review. However, fans of the original aren’t going to be disappointed. Once again, you play as Chell, the Aperture Science Test Subject; and there’s far more character interaction than the first game and lots of dry humor and sarcasm to enjoy. The brilliant Stephen Merchant plays a blinder as Wheatley, the personality core, and his quick-witted humor complements the monotone voice and put-downs of GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System.) Even taking a leisurely ride in an elevator, or walking down a barren corridor, can be something to look forward to as the storyline amuses and teases in equal measure before unfolding into a satisfying conclusion.
When you’ve finally managed to complete the test chambers in the single player campaign, there’s also a fantastic co-op mode to look forward to which introduces two droids, P-body and Atlas, who were constructed by GLaDOS as test subjects. The co-op mode can be played in split-screen or online and the beauty of the PlayStation 3 version is full STEAM integration, which allows you to jump online with PC players too. With the wrong team-mate, co-op can be utterly frustrating, but with communication and teamwork, it’s one of the most satisfying multiplayer modes we’ve ever played. The fact that the test chambers are even more intricately designed and you now have four portals instead of two that you can punch into the environment makes progress incredibly tricky, but just as absorbing and satisfying as the single player. And, once again, Valve puts together some stunning and creative level design to ensure you’re kept entertained throughout.
Portal 2 has been a hot topic of discussion over the last couple of months. Most gamers we know are talking about it, and even those who have never played the first game are intrigued as to what all the fuss is about. Indeed, if this next iteration of the portal-popping puzzler doesn’t top the charts on hype and positive word-of-mouth alone — even before anyone has taken it out of the shrink-wrapping — then we’d be totally amazed. Hype, of course, can be a very bad thing and can destroy games totally if they fail to live up to their billing. Yet, from the moment Portal 2 was announced, we haven’t once been worried that Valve would let us down.
The first game introduced such great technology with the portal gun and laid down a solid framework from which to gain further inspiration; the sequel simply had to be even better. The good news is that Portal 2 doesn’t disappoint; in fact it’s exceeded our expectations. From the captivating storyline and the casting of the brilliant Stephen Merchant as Wheatley, to the sheer volume of puzzles and the ingenuity that has gone into their design, Portal 2 is everything it promised to be and much more.