Portal was released in 2007 as a part of Valve’s gaming collection, The Orange Box and was an unexpected hit with many gamers considering it the highlight of the package. No mean feat when you take into account the package included one of the highest rated and most loved video games of all time and its two subsequent episodes, the long awaited follow up to the wildly successful online FPS, Team Fortress. Despite being a puzzle game of barely a few hours in length with no weapons; or combat, Portal managed to impress and win over gamers with its mind-bending puzzles, a terrific and outright hilarious sense of black humour, and one of the most memorable, and likable video game bosses in recent memory.
Portal had an undoubtedly wonderful charm about it and came as a complete surprise to many who played it, who assumed it to be merely filler to pad out the already stellar release. For Portal, a game unlike the other titles in The Orange Box with no prior release to steal the limelight is a testament to both how good the game is, but also to Valve, showing us once again why they are one of the most loved games companies out there. Portal’s short length meant fans quickly clamored for a new release, which Valve has delivered upon. Fortunately, while Valve could have taken the easy route and churned out a second Portal with just new maps, they took the time and effort to create a true sequel to Portal, a fully fledged stand alone release with a far larger scope and emphasis on plot development than the original. This, plus a slew of new gameplay mechanics help to make Portal 2 feel familiar to fans who played the original, but still gives Portal 2 its own identity to stand out from it’s wildly successful predecessor.
Platform(s): PC, Mac, PlayStation 3 (Reviewed), Xbox 360
Players: 1-2 players (Single-Player & Co-operative)
Genre: First Person, Puzzle-Platformer
Release Date: (PAL) April 21st 2011, (NA) April 19th 2011, (Steam) April 19th 2011
*SPOILER ALERT* Those that haven’t played Portal may want to skip this section
Portal 2 takes off right where the first left us. After defeating the unstable and corrupt AI, GLaDOS and destroying a large part of the Aperture Science facilities where players spent time performing tests and escaping from, the silent protagonist Chell is put into stasis for a few hundred years inside the remains of the Laboratories.
When Chell is awoken, she stumbles upon the bumbling and incompetent personality core Wheatley, impeccably voiced by the hilarious Stephen Merchant (British The Office), who aids her in her attempt to escape the now crumbling ruins of the minimalist facility. Shortly into the game, both characters inadvertently awaken the thought-to-be destroyed GLaDOS, who enlists Chell to continue her testing for Aperture Science, while GLaDOS repairs the damage caused by your last face-to-face encounter.
To reveal anymore of the plot would spoil it, but the game is far more plot heavy than Portal, and has a number of twists and turns that keep it engaging and a joy to play through, with the story only outstaying its welcome a bit during the middle parts of the game where focus suddenly changes from a frantic and surprising turn of events to a much slower paced recount on the history of Aperture Science. The story does pick up however, and is accessible enough for people who never played the original to understand what is going on, but the gameplay may not prove to be so easy for newcomers to grasp.
The most unique component of Portal was the portal gun, which provided players with a unique way to solve the game’s puzzles. It looks like a normal gun, but creates two portals, or pathways where you enter one and come out the other. The concept sounds simple enough, but as anyone who has played Portal will tell you, this simple concept can take time to get use to, even for seasoned gamers. An understanding of this mechanic is essential for playing this game. Valve incorporates a tutorial for newcomers early on, where old test chambers from the previous are re-used to get players familiar with the gun. The tutorial works well however for more advanced levels later in the game, an excellent sense of logic, along with an understanding of the ins-and-outs of the portal gun can make puzzle solving a lot less frustrating.
As someone who has played and loved the original Portal, Portal 2 is admittedly much easier than the original, or at least feels that way. There is much less moments of “what do I do now?”, or feeling completely and utterly dumbfounded by the clever level design. Because of the more narrative based adventure, less focus is on using the portal gun to solve puzzles and more on getting from point A to point B. Those wanting much more challenging puzzles in the single player experience will be left disappointed as the single player campaign doesn’t start to get fiendishly complex until the latter parts of the game, and even then I felt that the most challenging parts of Portal 2 pale in comparison to those in Portal.
New mechanics are introduced in Portal 2, such as “Repulsion Gel”, a gel that allows one to defy gravity and bounce much higher than before, and “Refractive Cubes” that bends and changes the direction of lasers to activate switches and destroy turrets, to “Light Bridges” which allow you to create pathways to walk over hazards. These all help to give the game a refreshing set of new challenges and keep the puzzle solving as interesting and engaging as the story, giving the player more reason to progress so they can see just how ingeniously they all work together to create puzzles which truly amaze you at times and wonder how Valve came up with them in the first place.
With all these elements working together in such mind-bending ways, the single player game never feels punishing or even overly difficult. The game could easily have turned into a frustrating mess, but all the elements are slowly brought in so the player is eased into understanding how to make use of them. Even when all the different mechanics are brought together, the learning curve is so gentle that it is almost impossible to feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the game’s puzzles. Being such a well crafted game with virtually no bugs or unfairness on Portal 2’s part means that even when you are stuck, you will find yourself questioning your puzzle solving abilities, compelling you to look at the situation in a new perspective, rather than becoming frustrated or angry at the game being ‘cheap’, deliberately raising its difficulty level.
Clocking in close to 8 to 12 hours, the single player is an absolute blast, if a tad on the easy side, but if you’ve got a friend to play with, you can experience one of Portal 2’s biggest additions, Co-op Mode. Co-op is an entirely new experience based around the concepts of the single player mode, but expanded upon with entirely new maps, characters and storyline. The real challenge of Portal 2 is definitely in Co-op, as with a second player, four portals are brought into play which compared to the maximum of two in single player, creates some truly mind-bending and challenging puzzles. While this mode gives you a similar challenge curve as single player, the real difficulty comes from who you choose to be your partner. If they are of same level or better than you at Portal 2, solving puzzles can make the partnership a highly enjoyable and relatively challenging (but stress-free) experience. However, with a newcomer Co-op can be downright frustrating and infuriating at times.
Aided in communication by both voice-chat and contextual visual cues, you can tell your partner where to look and stand. Both of these work together as best they can if you both aren’t in the same room, but they are far from perfect. If you lack a microphone, visual cues still make puzzle-solving possible but incredibly frustrating at times if your partner cannot make the connection as to what you want them to do. This boils down to not a fault on the game’s part as the tools are as good as they can be, but to ensure the most enjoyable multi-portal experience possible, a friend of equal experience will make this Co-op a much more fun and less annoying 7-9 hours further along in the gameplay.
The only other flaw with the Co-op is its lack of re-playability, which to an extent is a flaw of single player. Once you know how to solve the puzzles, there is little incentive to replay them again except for the achievement/trophy hunters. With the added reliance on a second person, multi-player again becomes more frustrating when a very obvious solution is right in front of you but your partner cannot see it. This however should be remedied in the future as Valve has announced downloadable content for Portal 2 on all platforms, free of charge. With the possibility of extra multi-player maps, there should hopefully be more incentive to drop back into Co-op in the near future.
It should also be mentioned the PlayStation 3 version of the game has Steam integration. With it, you can access your Steam account and even play with your PC friends while still remaining on the PlayStation 3. Steam Achievements can also be unlocked while on the PlayStation 3 as well. I played the PlayStation 3 version of Portal 2 with both Steam and PlayStation Network players, and based on my experiences there is no noticeable difference between the two platforms. Both held a strong connection and ran completely smooth. Fortunately, due to the nature of the game, the difference in control schemes had little to no impact on the performance of either player, which gives everyone an equal playing foothold online. Xbox 360 users however can only play with other Xbox Live users sadly, and I cannot comment on the quality of play on the Xbox 360 platform, but I would assume it is of equal quality to the PlayStation 3 and PC.
One final note, those that purchase the PlayStation 3 version of Portal 2 will also receive a redeemable code to get Portal 2 for free on PC or Mac. If you have a PlayStation 3, I would highly recommend getting this version. Even if you prefer the control set-up of your PC, you still have your copy of the PlayStation 3 version, and for a game this good, two copies for the price of one is a phenomenal deal.
Overall, Portal 2 is a must play experience for both new and old players of the original game. It does enough differently with new features to keep the experience from feeling dated, but keeps enough familiar to remind you why the first was so memorable to begin with. Many fans of the original Portal may not feel blown away; especially those looking for a challenge in the single player may find the campaign to be slightly disappointing. But even in the face of these minor flaws, along with an online mode that is very much dictated by the quality of the comrade you have chosen, Portal 2 does everything the original did right. Building upon and further creating an experience arguably superior to the original, Portal 2 is very much worth the price for both those returning to Aperture Science, or experiencing it for the first time, wondering what all the fuss is about.
9.0 – Excellent. Fun, enjoyable, engaging, and memorable but is missing that little something that will make it exceptionable. People will fondly talk about this for generations to come.