I spent the latter half of this past Saturday humming random bars from Jonathan Coulton’s brilliantly written ending credits song for the original Portal, Still Alive (We do what we must, because we can…)* After a handful of bars, my wife turned to me and asked, with more than a hint of exasperation, “Am I going to have to listen to you humming that all weekend?” I regretfully informed her that, in the words of the Magic 8-ball, all signs pointed to yes, and apologized before breaking into a particularly stunning rendition (if I do say so myself) of the song from the beginning. Why was I in such rare form this weekend? Portal 2 was in my 360, and my controller was in my hands.
I loved Portal. Yes, the action/puzzle gameplay was great; the portal gun was an excellent puzzle tool. What I loved most about Portal, however, was the writing. GLaDOS was gorgeously written and voice-acted, moving from somewhat benign to devastatingly malicious in such subtle steps. The writers behind her subtly hinted transition are artists, and not in the I-smeared-crap-on-a-canvas-and-called-it-art kind of way. My absolute favorite thing about Portal 2 is that the writing shines, if possible, even more brightly than it did in the original Portal. Cave Johnson, founder of Aperture Science and the impetus behind all of the…sciencing…, voiced by J.K. Simmons in the kind of voice that only J.K. Simmons can do, appears as a series of pre-recorded messages playing back in certain areas of the game. Wheatley, a new character perfectly voiced by Stephen Merchant, is an absolute joy to listen to. I found myself stopping and letting him ramble until he ran out of programmed conversations because they were so incredibly entertaining (and, at times, utterly moronic). GLaDOS, still voiced by Ellen McLain, takes her personality to a new level of fun. Understandably, she is nursing a bit of a grudge over the events of Portal. Her backhanded way of insulting you in a polite manner is amplified by her bitterness, and every word drips with sarcasm and disgust. Portal and Portal 2 stand, hand in hand, as two of the most wonderfully written games I have ever had the inimitable pleasure of playing.
Portal 2 starts centuries after the events of Portal, with your same character being awakened in a small room by a frantic personality core named Wheatley. The objective: escaping the Aperture Science testing facilities! Through Wheatley’s utter idiocy, though, the escape attempt is cut short by GLaDOS, accidentally awakened by aforementioned utter idiocy. GLaDOS takes advantage of your presence and begins the…interrupted…experiments again, but with far more malice and ill-will than the first time around. She tosses you into the same little cube you started from in Portal, and you make your way through a few of Portal’s starting levels, though time has certainly taken its toll on the environment. Don’t worry, though; the familiar environments don’t last. This isn’t Dragon Age 2, filled with re-hashed and re-used environments; here, they actually gave a crap and built new experiences after giving a nostalgic nod to the past.
The gameplay starts off, for the most part, unchanged. You begin with a single portal gun and eventually come across the dual portal gun, which you use for the rest of the game. Blue portal goes here, orange portal goes there, and voila. It’s what you expect it to be. Gameplay is eventually enhanced, however, as you play. New environment items provide new puzzle mechanics to solve, but that’s the least of the game’s upgrades. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen…the blue goo. The first major gameplay enhancement comes from three gels. The blue gel acts like a trampoline without the limitations of a trampoline, by which I mean there is no upward limit of your bounce; it all depends on your momentum as you hit. Orange gel acts as a speed force. Your speed is greatly increased as long as you’re moving on propulsion gel; if propulsion gel is spread all the way to the edge of a jump, your momentum will stay with you as you jump. White gel creates portal-capable areas where portal-capable areas did not exist before. With clever portal maneuvering, you can paint most of a room with white gel, giving you access to any area you need. Throw in some solid light walls, lasers, and a slipstream tube to round out the basic gameplay updates found in Portal 2. Each of these updates can be manipulated by intelligent use of the portal gun.
Co-op takes the gameplay one step further. Allowing you to either play with one friend locally, or one friend online, Portal 2’s co-op puts you in one of two testing robots, Atlas (a modified personality core) and P-Body (a modified turret). The co-op campaign takes place chronologically after the single player campaign, so testing resumes with the robots in the humans’ place. Each robot has its own dual portal gun which you would think would make the challenges easier. Fortunately, the tests scale in difficulty to accommodate the additional pair of usable portals. The robots also have a communication system. Part of the communication system allows them to emote, while the other part allows them to remotely tag areas for the other robot to interact with. Teamwork and co-operative play are absolutely essential for working through the co-op campaign, so working locally with a friend, or with an actual friend online is the way to go. There is a kind of matchmaking option available to find a random person online to play with you, but playing with someone you can feel comfortable with does make the experience better.
For those of you who breezed through the original Portal, fear not; Portal 2 is considerably longer than its predecessor. The single player campaign should give you at least six hours of chin-stroking entertainment, while the co-op campaign does the same, depending on your skill and the skill of your partner. Portal 2 is also, at times, considerably more difficult than its predecessor. There are no impossible puzzles in this game, though at times you may feel like there are. Every puzzle has a fairly straightforward and simple solution. The trick is allowing yourself to see the simplicity of it. If you end up getting stuck, my advice is to put the controller down, sit back, close your eyes, and just relax. More often than not, the puzzle solution will pop into your head out of nowhere a few minutes later. The length, difficulty, and enhancements of Portal 2 make the original Portal look like the tech demo it was.
The game has, of course, improved graphics over the original. The overall sensory stimulation provided by this game is excellent because of the incredible attention to detail. The once-ruined enrichment center is slowly repaired and cleaned as you progress, while the subterranean caves below the enrichment center remain dilapidated and dark. Background noises are what you’d expect, with the hint of hidden servos in the testing chambers to the creaking of old, rusted metal in the caverns below. The voice acting is absolutely perfect. The actors did an excellent job of actually caring about the characters and expressing their unique mannerisms. The writing is perfect, but it could have been ruined by bad voice acting. Thankfully, the voice acting completely elevates the quality of the writing by bringing it to stunning life. Jonathan Coulton once again provides the ending credit song, and while it is very good, it is, in my opinion, not quite up to par with Still Alive.
So, what’s the verdict? Portal 2 is unbearably good, and is now the best game I’ve played all year (sorry, Torchlight). Valve has made good use of their Source engine and created a sequel that completely and utterly (except in the ending credits song) dwarfs its predecessor. Portal 2 is available today at a retailer near you or online. Seriously, buy this game. Now. Go. Click click. Drive drive. Spend spend.
Co-op play (local and online)
I can't think of a single one.
It's that good.