In an industry that relies on weapons to maim and kill, Portal 2 is a rarity. Games have long used blood and gore to mask the essential aspect of progressing from A to B. While life might uncoil in meandering fashion, games are tightly weaved. There’s always an end goal, an inevitable credit sequence (barring massively multiplayer games, of course). Portal 2 doesn’t hide this. When it hands you a gun it asks that you find a way to bridge A and B. From one room to the next, the exit sign is often in plain sight: what matters is in figuring out how to get there. In Valve’s sequel, much like its predecessor, the joy is all in the journey itself.
And what a sequel it proves to be. Aperture Science is a shell of its former self. Gone is the gleam and gloss of before; instead, crumbling walls and broken platforms necessitate that you’re more attentive (and inventive) than ever. The core mechanic, of creating one portal and exiting through the other, is given a narrative in the form of an extensive singleplayer campaign. Writer Erik Wolpaw’s careful characterisation and eye for back-story draws comparisons with Bioshock’stale, yet Portal 2’s warmth and wit is never far from hand. Valve could simply have slapped in more of the same, but they’ve addressed the limitations of the first game and fleshed it out into a truly excellent successor.
Your avatar Chell is silent throughout, though a clever tutorial gag pokes fun at this. But what Chell lacks in speech is more than made up for by Wheatley, the first of Portal 2’s cast. Fans of Ricky Gervais and his show Extraswill recognize Stephen Merchant as the voice behind Wheatley the robot; indeed, his self-deprecating British humour flavours the opening scenes as the game slowly works you back into the fold and reintroduces the mechanics of the portal gun. Finding the balance between accessibility for novice players and intrigue for diehard fans is a tricky tightrope, but Valve covers both bases, and with Wheatley at your side you’re given a taste of what’s transpired since the end of the original.
Midway through Portal 2 hits its stride as a clever plot twist and a host of new toys make the test chambers all the more interesting. Furthermore, you’re taken outside the usual testing capacities of the original as the game sheds light on Aperture’s origins, and a man by the name of Cave Johnson (expertly voiced by J.K. Simmons ) lends his dry humour to the task. As you traverse Cave’s labs the game feeds you a portrait of the man, and his voiceovers (including the odd titbit from his secretary) are comic genius. Indeed, it becomes conceivable that Aperture was once a facility in which humans and robots co-existed. This is a realm that went largely unexplored in the original, but with the resources to cover both the gameplay and narrative, Valve has fleshed out an extensive backstory and crafted a narrative that moves at pace-perfect zip for this, the sequel.
Where the story falters, ironically, is down to Wheatley. While GlaDOS is back and at her sardonic best, and Cave Johnson delivers lines of great dialogue, Stephen Merchant is forced to play up his British sensibilities. American audiences will likely take delight in his performance, but those accustomed to Gervais and Merchant will note that he loses wind towards the end. Yes, he performs admirably as the bumbling Wheatley, but the script forgoes subtlety for a barrage of British staples. The humour is lost in these moments. Nonetheless, the three principle characters merge in such a way that not only is the plight of Aperture clear for you to see, but you’re also kept guessing until the end in which the conclusion is as outrageous as it is satisfying.
Valve also demonstrates they have an eye on contemporary games. In a departure from their mantra, scripted sequences occasionally wrench control of Chell away from you. In these moments you’re left a spectator, but the scenes are so well crafted and used with such restraint that it adds flavour to the story, rather than detracting from the gameplay. And yet, with this in mind, Portal 2 still feels like a Valve game. It has all the cleverness and careful attention to detail that has hallmarked the Half-Life series. This might not take place in Gordon’s realm, it might not even be on the same planet, but Portal 2 draws comparisons with Valve’s other magnum opus. Indeed, it’s their first-full fledged game since Half-Life 2.
Much like Half-Life 2, Portal 2 is perfectly paced. When the gameplay threatens to bore, a new arena is unveiled. When one mechanic becomes old, Valve introduces a new toy, like a gel that lets you leap great heights, or run at great speeds. This is clearly the product of careful planning and methodical testing, and the puzzles themselves never feel unfair. Past midway and the game takes a sharp spike in difficulty, but the solution to the problem is often in plain view – only it’s cleverly disguised. Some solutions require experimentation and an inventive mind to work out, but in every instance there’s a satisfying buzz in securing passage to the next level/room.
Portal 2 is that rare breed of game that forgoes a happy trigger finger for a cerebral mind. But not only is it clever, it’s also fun, and wraps the experience up in a satisfying story. Once your solo excursion of Aperture Science is done, a co-operative mode introduces teamwork and a double dose of fun. Here, GlaDOS takes center stage, and her dry humour is a delight throughout.
Valve has proved time and time again that they are masters in their craft. Portal 2 is so expertly made that you can’t help but savour its creation. The story keeps you engrossed, the gameplay is fine-tuned and accessible, and the co-operative mode is a blast. Keeping to recent form, Valve also includes a developer commentary mode, in which the team comment on the game’s creation and bring to light aspects of the development process you would simply have glanced over. The Source engine also keeps pace. Early on, Portal 2 might appear a tad dated, but as the game sweeps you up in its lore it’s impossible to nit-pick. Yes, the odd texture looks a little grainy, but Valve hides any technical limitations behind their impeccable art direction. Moreover, the voice work and soundtrack is such that visual quibbles will soon fade from view.
What you have then is a package brimming with quality. The singleplayer campaign expands on the original and turns it into a fully-fledged game. The co-operative mode is an entirely separate beast, with different chambers and puzzles, and can be accessed via split-screen or online. And then, as a final treat, you can revisit Portal 2 and listen to the developers comment on this game’s creation. Were life to imitate art, we might all be shooting portals and stepping out through the other end. Indeed, this is both mathematical and storytelling art-work; it teams a gripping narrative with an inventive gameplay mechanic that makes for an excellent and unforgettable ride.