This was a triumph! I’m making a note here: huge success!
It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction…
Even with Valve’s enviable (if somewhat rare) output, you’d be hard pressed to think they would be able to come up with something that could outshine Portal. That game, which launched with The Orange Box compilation back in 2007, was a physics based first person puzzler that wrapped up some really clever technology, including the famous portal gun, with the most entertainingly unexpected story and dialogue you could ever imagine. The only negative to it was you’d want more once you completed it.
Though Portal 2 had some pretty high expectations to meet, you can tell right away that the developers at Valve went all in this time and built out a game that no longer needs to be part of a compilation but can stand entirely on its own merits. Playing through the game now I’m actually happy to say it succeeds all of my expectations and delivers yet another entertaining experience. I obviously need my own head examined considering it’s taken me this long to finally play it.
Unlike the first game, you don’t immediately find yourself in a test chamber which can nicely throw off your expectations of what the game is going to be. It’s this kind of bookending of key sections of the single player game which I think is a real boost to the overall story. It’s still very much in the vein of Portal with much inferred through the environment or partial conversation but it’s far more fleshed out this time around with what seems like a real world outside of the game. There’s also some clever nods to Half-Life 2 thrown in as well for those with keen eyes and ears.
Gameplay begins with you once again becoming familiar with your environment and also use of the portal gun. But as you progress further you’ll also get access to additional tools and materials that help add fresh challenges for the player to face. The task is always to find out how to get from point A to B (usually an exit) but the trick is to understand how that applies to the environment you are in and what is at your disposal. Kudos has to be given to the designers and artists for building levels in a way that have enough visual clues to assist you in finding solutions. There were times when I was stuck I’d just spend a few minutes looking around and would soon enough find something I had missed that would lead me to the correct solution.
But there’s no sense crying over every mistake.
You just keep on trying ’til you run out of cake.
One thing I really like about the game is just how much the movement of your character in the environment feels both consistent and predictable. You could be jumping through portals or gaining enough momentum through to be flung across a gap and it’s all entirely in line with your character’s capabilities and the expectations you’ve built up whilst playing the game. You might find that a gap looks as wide as a hole is deep so dropping one portal here and another over there suddenly turns you into a human cannonball and you’re now on your way to the next level. Getting those challenges solved quickly is a reward in itself.
The production values are great throughout the game with the designers pushing the Source Engine with huge open levels and plenty of neat details (I love the safety signs) but it’s the audio the elevates the game to a whole new level. Ellen McLain returns as GLaDOS but is also accompanied this time by Stephen Merchant and JK Simmons whose new characters each have significant contributions to the whole story while adding further twists that thankfully avoid being a repeat of the first game. I’ve genuinely looked forward to every moment that I got to hear something new from ANY of them. It has nothing to do with the gameplay but adds significantly to the experience.
Beyond the single player campaign there is also a cooperative mode which has two players assuming the roles of robots Atlas and P-Body who are each armed with their own portal guns. The narrative even ties in with the campaign which is a nice touch that shows the extra care that Valve has put into the whole game. It’s a welcome bonus that lets players find out what it’d be like to have more than one person running around with “a neat gun”.
It’s been over six years now since Portal 2 first arrived and it still stands tall as being one of the best ever examples of what Valve did back when they were still interested in making games. For a company with such a high hit rate with great games it hard to think that they’ve walked away on making more but that’s what they did and that might be the one sole disappointment of this game… That there won’t be more of it in the future.
I’ve experiments to run. There is research to be done.
On the people who are still alive.
Portal 2 is out now for PC, Xbox 360 (backward compatible with Xbox One) and PlayStation 3. Reviewed on Xbox One.