Portal 2 review
Always Thinking With Portals


The cake is a... oh wait, we did that one already. So if you play games on the PC then you should be aware of the original Portal (and if not I'm interested to know what alternate dimension you just slipped out from). It was a first person puzzle game that used a portal system to create challenging and ingenious puzzles for the player to solve. It proved so popular that at one time you couldn't move without someone referencing the game in some way. So just imagine the fangasm when Valve decide it's time for a sequel.

During your first steps back into Aperature Science you see an immediate upgrade of the graphics. The test chambers still maintain their cold sterile style but now this is mixed with the results of your efforts in the first game. This means broken tile panels, plants growing through cracks and chunks of rooms fallen off into an abyss. You'll also find yourself spending a lot more times in more varied locations that, while mostly switching the light greys for more murky dark themes, makes exploring that much more interesting. The effects the game produced are also awesome. The effect of the portals in seeing the room in different ways helps create a very impressive effect and you also get some nice sights like the hard light bridges to really work that scifi element in.

Of particular note is the animation, which is just fantastic and helps gives the centre and characters within that spark of life. You'll see this early on as broken areas of the facility are moved and fixed by the AI, but simply simply things such as Wheatley trying to move around assisting you where he can demonstrates so much expression that you can't help but be drawn into the game.

Loading times are more noticeable than before though. They're certainly not game breaking and any player should be able to live with them fine enough but it's just long enough to make an impact on the player between areas.

Portal 2 opts to implement more in the music department than the original so you've got more than the sound effects most of the time. This is probably what I'd consider the weakest element of the game, which says a lot when the tracks used are still nice but simply don't stand out all that well.

However, where the game barely earns a "meh" for music, it delivers a gold standard in voice acting. GLaDOS returns with all her snarky mannerisms intact and is joined by the somewhat inept Wheatley. Both are paired up with voicework delivery that perfectly matches their personalities and even pick up on subtleties such as changing moods. This is a big reason that you get sucked into the story so well.

And yes, sucked in you shall be. The original script was a lot to live up to, but Portal 2 hurdles past and gives the player a story that blows it out of the water. Chell, the protagonist of the first game, is brought out of stasis sleep in what seems to be a long time after the events of the first game, and is soon joined by a personality node called Wheatley. Together you both try to make an escape from a now decrepit research facility.

To say too much more on the events would spoil things but needless to say the game throws some clever twists and set pieces at you that will make you want to see the plot through to its conclusion. A lot of what makes it work though is the dark humour. Both GLaDOS and Wheatley appeal to the player in their own ways with such fantastic dialogue that helps drive the game forward and marks them out as very important characters.

OK, so you should know the gist of working with portals already. You can set up two portals, where when something enters one portal it exits the other one. The game then challenges you to solve puzzles using this core mechanic. It's not as simple as just using portals to cross gaps, as you'll have to make use of game mechanics with these to achieve goals. For example, you might need to catapult yourself across a gap by falling down to a portal from a great height in order to build up enough velocity to clear the pit.

Fortunately the game is accommodating to new players and keeps things fairly straightforward at first to give a chance to get used to the whole idea. Veteran players might find this a little boring but it doesn't last long as the game starts bringing in new elements as you progress. New elements? Yes, we're not stuck with basic variations of the old puzzles here. Hard Light Bridges are one example, where you use portals to channel these in order to cross pits or shield yourself from turret fire. Another are the special gels that produce effects like causing you to bounce when you fall on it or speeding up your movement speed as you run over it. Much like the first game, these new elements are introduced to you slowly and then the game layers on the complexity. While an element is mostly introduced by itself, later areas will usually require more complex applications of their usage.

This is a very strong point of the game as you will be challenged with seeking out the solutions to some ingenious layouts. The answers aren't of the impossible kind requiring cuckooland logic either as every area is simply designed to make use of concepts of physics you should have been learning about as you progressed. It's simply that later areas will have some very interesting ideas as to the use of their elements for opening and reaching the exit that will sometimes force you to think about the various methods around and decide which one will apply in the current scenario. If one fails you would try to look at it from another angle. It's the right kind of challenge that makes things difficult without being terribly frustrating and that's an excellent balance to manage.

I do like how this game has made travelling around the facility a lot more interesting too. Previously a lot of the content was simply passageways leading you from one chamber to the next. The end was cool though where you ended up travelling through the back parts of chambers on a route that wasn't pre-determined by GLaDOS. Yes, well, Portal 2 is basically that end section but for the whole game. As well as the test chambers you'll find yourself in broken down rooms, running along metal walkways, making your way through offices and exploring several open construction areas. Generally the game is still fairly linear as you must go from A to B to C in order to progress, but this approach manages to make the progression feel a little more open and varied than simply running along clinical passageways to your next destination. It can also mean that you have to solve puzzles en route to more puzzles as you work out how to bypass an obstacle or locked off area.

Portal 2 also manages to address the longevity issue of the original, boasting a single player campaign that is much longer, giving you plenty to work through before you see the final scenes. There's little incentive to replay the single player afterwards, but you can extend the game some more with the excellent addition of a co-op. This isn't simply the single player with a buddy though. The Co-op uses its own specific set of maps and uses puzzles that take advantage of the fact that there can be up to four portals in play at once.

Not much more to say here. Portal 2 takes everything that made the original so brilliant and runs with it, crafting an experience that will remain in memory long after you've finished with it. Living up to the first game was always going to be a difficult task. Surpassing it as Portal 2 has done is beyond imagination. This is one of those games you simply have to play at least once.

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