It’s been almost four years since the original physics-bending first-person puzzle game Portal was released. One of the greatest games of all time, Portal took a very simple concept—what if you had a gun that could let you go from there to here without traveling the distance between?—and made it into one of the most innovative and exciting ways to waste (a surprisingly small amount of) time in front of the computer. Adding in the dark and quirky humor of the computerized facility control AI, GLaDOS, and the experience is quite literally not like anything we’ve seen before.
Portal 2 isn’t just the icing on the cake. It’s also the cake, too. Since…you know….we didn’t get it the last-…ok. You know what? Let’s just forget that joke, ok? Ok.
*** WARNING *** This article will contain some spoilers for both Portal and Portal 2. *** WARNING ***
Portal 2 picks up quite a while after the original Portal ended. While it’s never mentioned specifically in the game, Portal 2 takes place some time after the events of Half-Life 2, in the post-apocalyptic world that Gordan Freeman is busy trying to save us from. The net effect of Armageddon on this game, however, simply seems to be that there’s a lot of plants growing in all over the place. The facility has become overrun by nature and fallen into disarray without an evil AI to keep it maintained.
You play as Chell, the same woman from the previous game. You wake to discover that you’ve been placed into stasis after the events of the last game. It doesn’t take long for you to get a sense of scale that blows the original Portal away. The first game was very much a controlled environment. Blank walls, small corridors. Occasionally you’d get some huge rooms, but they were just that. Rooms. You were constantly aware that you were moving through a gigantic, elaborate facility, but you could never actually see it. Mere moments after you wake, though the game quite literally tears the walls off of the facility and shows you just how massive this game is. And it only gets bigger.
It also doesn’t take too long for you to discover that the game’s humor is quite a bit more overt than the previous game. This is either good or bad. In the first room, we meet Wheatley, a personality sphere that is, for some reason, helping you to escape. No word yet on why a personality sphere designed to maintain the Aperture Science facility wants to escape the Aperture Science facility, but hey, if GLaDOS could turn into a murderous monster, who’s to say a robot can’t malfunction in a helpful way?
Let’s make this very simple: if you enjoy witty British humor, a la Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Shaun of the Dead, you will enjoy Wheatley’s personality. If not, you won’t. Wheatley does quite a bit of the conversing for much of the game, since it’s established (in the most amusing way I’ve seen in a game) that you can’t speak. Again, whether this is enjoyable is up to your sense of humor. It can’t be guaranteed, though, that if you enjoyed the humor in the original Portal that you’ll enjoy the humor here. GLaDOS is more obvious about her taunts, though still in the detached, sarcastic way, and Wheatley is an outright complete departure from the previous game’s subtle, “wait, what?!” humor. To be clear, the game is still hilarious, but in some instances, it’s funny in different ways. I laughed heartily throughout the game, but your mileage may vary.
In addition to the sense of scale, the game also very quickly lets you in on a little secret that we never knew in the previous game: it seems that every wall and floorboard in the entire facility is controlled by elaborate robotic arms, making the shape of the various testing chambers entirely alterable at the whimsy of GLaDOS, who is keeping herself busy bringing the facility back to full operational status. One of the side effects of this is that you frequently hear scraping metal or slamming robot arms. In one particular test chamber, there’s a large floor panel smashing away at at a nearby wall over and over. It’s a trick borrowed from those haunted house attractions that pop up around Halloween. Loud noises are unsettling and create a sense of unease. It’s not <i>scary</i> per se, but for a large part of the game, you’re constantly reminded of the looming threat around you. It’s good atmosphere.
It’s worth harping on a bit, because this was an issue Portal 2 was bound to face: Part of the fun and creepiness of the original game was that you didn’t even really know there was a villain until after you’d already had drones shooting at you. GLaDOS was kind of weird and semi-creepy, but you just assumed you were solving fun puzzles. Then you find messages written in blood on the floor. The reveals in the original game were simply mind-blowing, but now all the secrets are given up, so there’s a challenge to keep the game creepy and interesting. Several elements come together to accomplish this. At one point in the game, you have to follow Wheatley through some behind-the-scenes corridors using only his flashlight to guide you. The dark shadows and difficulty in knowing exactly where you are puts the gamer on edge. Is it the same experience as in the first game? No. But you can’t really replicate that now that you know the big reveal. Given what it’s got to go with, the game does a decent job not only of keeping the gamer’s senses on edge, but maintaining that sense of mystery as you explore more and more of the Aperture Science facility.
What was it that made the original Portal so fantastic? Was it the subtle humor? Was it the completely surprising and creepy story? Yes, that was a large part of it. But in between GLaDOS’ jokes and discovering secret rooms, the undeniable factor everyone loved was the portals. And who wouldn’t? It’s every person’s dream to be able to suddenly travel long distances in zero time. Portal not only build this concept into a game, but fully explored just how such a device would behave, how physics would affect it, what could you do if you were no longer bound by the traditional rules of space? It wasn’t just “go from here to there”. You were creating new angles of attack against robotic enemies. Leaping across huge chasms by using the momentum you gain from falling. The portal gun introduced not just new ways to get around, but entirely new approaches to virtual physics. Add that to the simple yet challenging mechanics of the turrets, buttons, moving platforms and floating energy balls and you’ve got a recipe for success.
Portal 2 doesn’t just up that ante. It blows the original away with tons of new functionality.
Among the added elements are the Thermal Discouragement Beam, which is used to power wall sockets, or in some cases destroy enemy turrets. Of note: burning up those turrets with a laser is among the most satisfying parts of this or any game. Creepy little buggers got what’s coming to them! There’s also Hard Light Bridges which can be redirected through portals to cross large distances or even to shield yourself from enemy turrets.
There’s also the introduction of three new gels: the Repulsion Gel, which makes any surface it’s applied to extra bouncy, the Propulsion Gel which allows you to run extremely fast across any surface it’s applied to, and the Conversion Gel which will permit a portal to be shot on to any surface it’s been applied to. This last one especially adds an element of uncertainty to some puzzles. Most of the time, in Portal, it’s fairly obvious what you have to do due to the fact that there are generally few places where you can apply portals. This new element adds some ambiguity as now the missing element of many of the puzzles are not just portals, but also where to place the various gels.
There’s still more new elements that add complexity to some of the puzzles, but I won’t give them all away. Suffice to say that if you were looking for a more complex game, you found it in this sequel.
If there was one major complaint about Portal, it was simply that it was too short. I remember the first time I played Portal and it was a fantastic experience. The only thing I didn’t like was that it took about two hours to beat on the first time through. Once I knew how to solve the puzzles, it was even quicker. Don’t get me wrong, the environment, the humor and the sheer mystery made it a fun ride, but it felt a bit like a theme park ride. I’m fairly certain that the day I purchased that game, I spent more time driving to the store I got it from and back than I did actually playing it.
Portal 2 has no such issues. With nine full chapters, each complete with sets of at least a half dozen puzzles as well as exploration, cut-scenes (or as close to a cut-scene as a Valve game gets), and hilarious dialogue, the gamer will not be left with a “that’s it?” feeling. This time around, touring around the Aperture Science facility is not a “real quick before bed” affair.
One other note that I wanted to include, though it doesn’t really fit under a subheading is a peculiar new practice that Portal 2 has implemented. In every Valve game I’ve played since the original Half-Life, whenever there’s a story mode, the action moves between the various “levels” by entering a corridor or a room or an elevator or whatnot where we briefly see a small “loading” box appear above the action. After a brief pause, we continue, unhindered. When I first experienced this in Half-Life, I loved it. Up until that point, games like Doom or Dark Forces always cut to a stat screen or some other non-story-related frame before loading up the next level in an entirely different area. This new seamless transition approach was both elegant and immersive.
For some reason, Portal 2 departs from this tradition and, frankly, I don’t really understand why. It’s a wonderful mechanism that manages to keep the player’s mind focused on the game while they briefly wait for the next level. Instead, in Portal 2, we are regularly cut to an Aperture Science logo, or a series of frames that depict a part of the current chapter. There’s little that adds to the story, and they’re only rarely amusing. To be honest, it’s not a critical change. Certainly doesn’t detract from the experience during game play, but as someone who’s appreciated the seamless transition from level to level in all of Valve’s other first-person shooters, I was actually a little disappointed that they needlessly departed from this tradition. But oh, well. The game is still fun.
And that’s what’s most important. This. game. is. fun. It’s not quite as thrilling as the first, simply because you can’t get that same “What is going on?!” kind of mystery now that we’ve had the big reveal, but everything else you loved about Portal is back and improved across the board. Better, more elaborate puzzles. New threats. Hilarious dialogue. Oh and did I mention more Portals? I didn’t even get the chance to review the co-op mode before it was time to publish (that may or may not come in a later article), but suffice to say, even sticking to single player, this game is a welcome and improved sequel to the original you know and love.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go have some delicious cake.