April 20, 2011
Let’s dive into the story first. GLaDOS is alive! That's not a spoiler, really, it's been mentioned as early as the first debut trailer. You take control of Chell, the test subject from the first game who had been locked away for a long time in the Aperture Science research facility. With the help of an accident prone robot named Wheatley, the two set off to escape the facility and avoid GLaDOS at all costs. However, their plan backfires and she is inadvertently woken from her dormant state. Suffice it to say, after you killed her in the first game, she has quite the chip on her shoulder. The game takes you through the normal trials and tests that the first one did, but shortly after, you’re thrown into in the bowels of the facility where you learn all about the history of Aperture and its CEO, Cave Johnson. From there on, the story just gets crazier and revealing much more would give too much away. To put it simply, the experience is pretty darn fantastic.
With that said, what's fantastic isn't so much the story as that has remained exactly the same as the first, if not quite non-existent, but the script and the writing is what makes this adventure so entertaining. The first Portal did a great job with the characterization and the writing. Portal 2 is no exception to this. In fact, for those concerned that the sequel was simply going to use old references the entire time, rest assured, it doesn't. Portal 2 has a fresh approach with its characters, both old and new. Wheatley is quite possibly the most entertaining little robot you'll ever encounter apart from GLaDOS, who is back and will undoubtedly troll players every step of the way. Throw in Aperture Science CEO Cave Johnson and you have a pretty comical dynamic as dialogues flip between hilarious prompts, witty insults and corporate jargon. It's safe to say that you will be extremely hard pressed to find a script that is more entertaining than this.
Let’s face it, as great as the script and story may be, that’s not the only reason we picked this game up, so let’s talk gameplay. For newcomers, the concept is relatively simple. You have one weapon, the portal gun. It fires two different portals: an entrance and an exit. The entire game rests entirely on this mechanic. The gun basically creates wormholes, letting you get to places normally out of reach by traditional means. The controls are simple: run, jump, and shoot the portal gun. Sounds simple, but throw in moving panels, lasers, physics-modifying gels, pathways of light that can set your hair on fire, and you have a formula for some interesting puzzle elements. The difficulty curve was nice and gentle all the way through. Puzzles can be challenging, but not impossible.
What's new to Portal 2 is the inclusion of elements like gels and light pathways. You can use these to your advantage to speed your way through a chamber, warp a path to a high-reaching button or even use it to block a jump that might just be too high. The usual platforming and laser tripping returns as well, where players are usually charged with triggering a switch with a laser or by placing an object on a button to open up a door, all of which can be solved just by using portals. In addition, players will inevitably come face to face with the good old sentry turrets. Getting around them is as interesting and entertaining as before, although there aren't as many instances.
It's no doubt that Portal 2 resembles the art style from the Half-Life series, and the original Portal had a big dose of it in there as well. Portal 2, however, maintains a distinguishable atmosphere, one that feels like you are in this super clean research facility, even though it's gone down the gutter. Automated panels that remove debris, white walls, simplistic architecture, it all screams cleanliness. It's a solid improvement over the first game and treats the setting with good respect.
As for sound design, Portal 2 does use many familiar sound effects from the first game. Many times, it just feels bland and lazy when elements like this are recycled, but with Portal 2, it works surprisingly well as it exploits that sense of familiarity with an added dose of forboding. The music, while not entirely distinct, works well to create an ambience on the few occasions it’s actually present. And what would Portal be without a catchy final song? Jonathan Coultan is back with a new main theme for the end credits and while it wasn’t as amazing as “Still Alive,” it certainly did well to wrap up the game.
The voice acting is arguably as integral to the the experience as the puzzles are. It's easy to get sick of all the faceless and voiceless heroes in video games these days, but Portal surprises as it doesn't so much lay the role of Chell on players as it does actually draw players into the role itself. Chell doesn’t need a voice or personality, you are Chell. Her co-stars are absolutely phenomenal as well and the real stars of the show to quite a degree. Ellen McLain returns as the fabulous GLaDOS and she rocks the performance sky high. English actor, Stephen Merchant, takes up the roll of Wheatley and he absolutely crushes it. It's been a good while since a game managed to draw out such an unhealthy amount of laughter. Impressive talents like J.K. Simmons and even Nolan North also add to the experience.
Portal 2 introduces co-op which can be played via split-screen or online with friends or complete strangers as well. There are over two dozen additional puzzles to get through with your partner and many of them are complete brain teasers. The concept is exactly the same as the single player, but you now have four portals to tinker around with and puzzles that do generally require some form of teamwork. Fret not though, Valve has included a very hand Ping button that players can use to let their friends know where they want a portal to be placed, should none of you have a mic or the ability to voice chat.
It's certainly a lot easier planning out how to tackle a puzzle and where to place the portals with voice chat as a means of communication, and definitely a lot more hilarious too. The most troublesome aspect about the co-op, and even the single player campaign, are the load times in-between levels. It's quite rubbish, especially when you consider not a lot actually happens in-game. At the very least, there is no lag in the gameplay itself. The co-op mode will easily extend your play time by several hours and it's always fun tackling puzzles with a friend.
As a whole, the single player campaign is a bit on the short side, but the co-op does add a lot more, that is if you have someone else to play with if you don't like one-on-ones with complete strangers. The pacing of the game is well done, with plenty of dialogue and events spread throughout. Some might argue that you're being led by the hand in the entire game, but that's not unlike the first Portal either, and not necessarily a bad thing.
Let’s wrap this bad boy up. The writing is comical and entertaining. The gameplay is fun with just the right amount of challenge and difficulty. The pacing of the game is great. The graphical presentation has improved. The co-op mode is extremely fun and engaging. Not to mention, the voice acting is positively brilliant. Load times are on the long side and are probably much more noticeable on consoles, the story isn't all that much different from the first game, but as mentioned earlier, the writing and characterizations more than make up for it. Portal 2 is an experience you won't soon forget.Editor's Choice
Portal 2 was reviewed on the PC. You can read more about GamingUnion.net's scoring policy here.