While having a massive budget and armies of programmers are great ways to take a game from concept to store shelves, sometimes all that’s needed is a creative mind, sharp wit and a dash of borrowed code. I’d be lying if I said a bit of cake didn’t also help. And there it is, my allotted cake-lie-meme quota for this article has been filled.
Who could have imagined that a freeware college project would become the runaway success that is the Portal series? Based off the Source engine, Portal is a first-person shooter without guns, a story without background, and a generation defining adventure without requiring dozens of hours to play through it. For most of the final years of the 2000s you couldn’t go anywhere on the Internet without coming across a quote, picture or meme from Portal. The premise is simple: girl gets Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device; girl is put through a gamut of portal testing in the name of science; girl defeats the psychotically hilarious GLaDOS who would have had her running tests for all eternity.
With a much larger budget and greater number of minds at work, Valve released Portal 2 to the awaiting masses. It was tough to imagine how they could improve upon such a simple concept without sacrificing simple wit for hackneyed story, unique stage design for repetitious puzzles, and basic gameplay for unwanted mechanics. However, they managed to overcome these obstacles, improving upon almost every aspect of the original.
The most obvious improvement is in the visuals where the graphics have been bolstered to take advantage of modern technology. Although still using the Source engine from Valve’s Half-Life 2, the PC version is able to take advantage of advanced GPU processing power to deliver a substantially better visual experience than the original. Aperture Science is not only crumbling all around you with scaffolding snapping from above, portions of walls breaking apart, and damaged electronics struggling to repair themselves, but it’s also being overrun with lush jungle vines, flowers, and rivers. Some of the best visual improvements can be seen in subtle ways such as when a Hard Light Bridge reflects placidly across a poisonous pool trap. It really makes you feel that you’re experiencing something new rather than Portal 1.5.
What is also a welcome improvement from the original is that the storytelling plays a far greater role. Topnotch voice acting and script writing prevail in weaving together the sordid history of Aperture Science, the rise and fall of GLaDOS, and the tragic fate of founder Cave Johnson. You begin with a wakeup call from an Intelligence Dampening Sphere named Wheatley voiced by the hilarious Stephen Merchant who quickly briefs you on the current state of Aperture Science. What you will immediately notice is the decrepit state the Enrichment Center has fallen into. No longer the ultramodern haven of technology and science, the Enrichment Center is akin to a post-apocalyptic wasteland. An unknown amount of time kept in suspended animation has passed for Chell who, GLaDOS would tell you, ruthlessly murdered the innocent science testing machine.
After picking up your portal device, treading through familiar ground, and even meeting an old friend, you are whisked back to your original cell to begin testing all over again. Valve was aware that they couldn’t match the novelty of the original through gameplay alone, so instead focused on fleshing out the story of how the Enrichment Center came about. Portal 2 does not disappoint in regards to story, dialogue, and length, all of which are vast improvements over the original. I was pleasantly surprised to have invested 20 hours to complete the main story, which kept me amused, intrigued and enthralled from start to finish. Clever plot twists accompany the telling of Aperture Science’s history, which is only made better by the cast of characters Chell meets along the way.
If you were a fan of GLaDOS’ perfectly delivered snark from the original, you won’t be disappointed by the amount of fantastic voice work, biting sarcasm, and imaginative situations that come about while trying to complete your new batch of testing. You’ll come across a plethora of absurd humor, ominous and amusing wall drawings and potato-focused science fair projects.
Speaking of science, there is plenty of it to be conducted in Portal 2. After a brief reintroduction to the mechanics of the dual portal gun, you’re thrust into chambers that keep the novelty novel and rarely ever bore. As you progress you’ll come across puzzles that require you to use innovative, yet silly named, mechanics such as Redirection Cubes, Aerial Faith Plates, Hard Light Bridges, Excursion Funnels, and three different kinds of special gels that can be spread on surfaces for interesting effects. Turrets, lasers and companion cubes all make a return to help and hinder your testing progress. The best part about Portal was the satisfaction of discovering the solution and watching as you defy physics and gravity to reach the end. Some chambers have obvious solutions while many more require far more brainpower to solve. Many of the chambers can seem impossible or frustrating, but nothing beats that feeling of accomplishment (and foolishness) when the solution seems to present itself before you. Portal 2 continues this trend without ever becoming dull. The new mechanics, new characters and genuinely interesting story fit impeccably well with the gameplay introduced in the original.
On top of the fantastic single player campaign, Portal 2 also introduces a series’ first: multiplayer. Nowadays a game seemingly cannot be released unless it also has a multiplayer mode of some sort and Portal 2 is no exception. Unlike other games, however, time and effort were clearly put into crafting an enjoyable, amusing, and challenging co-op mode where you and another person control two robots equipped with fully functioning portal guns. There is an actual story in this mode where GLaDOS takes center stage providing her infamous commentary on life, death, and science as she sends her robots to do her bidding. Working with a friend or stranger, you must coordinate your tactics using four portals at once. Much like other multiplayer Valve affairs, teamwork is absolutely essentially in completing each of the five test chambers.
There is little reason not to experience Portal 2, especially for fans of the original. The graphics may not be of the same caliber of other AAA titles, and the story may falter from time to time, but those are paltry excuses not to experience one of the best current generation games around.