This game came to me quite out of the blue (or was it the orange); sorry that’s a completely unfunny in joke that won’t mean a thing to anyone who hasn’t played the game. Anyway, it appeared for review as if by magic and well, here we are reviewing it!
As the name renders patently obvious, Portal 2 is a sequel to Valve Corporation’s highly acclaimed 2007 brain-bending, physics-mangling puzzler Portal, and continues where that game left off… well several hundred years after, but you know what I mean.
For those not familiar with the Portal series, the concept can be described as a science fiction puzzler involving the manipulation of spatial, dimensional and kinetic physics. Put simply, you are a guest of the Aperture Science Company and face a series of testing chambers and industrial areas that you have to figure out how to exit. All you have on you is a device that can create inter-spatial portals on some types of flat surface (walls, floors and ceilings) through which your character can pass. You have to use the device to facilitate unlocking and/or exiting the test chamber. A very simple example, typical of the early levels of the game, would be to find yourself in a 40-foot high chamber that has an exit doorway set in a large niche high up on one wall far out of reach. To solve this dilemma would be as simple as aiming for a clear section of wall in the niche where the door is (you can zoom in for a better view) and creating a portal. All you need to do then is aim at any nearby bit of wall (or even the floor if you’d like a nice nauseous ‘which way is up’ jolt) and create a second (entrance) portal and step through. The device in question takes the liberty of colour coding the portals orange and blue, with activation of each mapped to separate left and right shoulder buttons on the controller. However either colour portal can function as entry or exit. As you can imagine, things get incredibly complicated and solving the puzzle can involve creating multiple portals, redirecting laser beams, light bridges and even fluids through them, as well as sometimes using gravity and momentum to help (like falling through an entry portal created on the floor will result in emerging through your exit –wherever you plonked it – and preserving your entry speed in a weird but most enjoyable way). The game plays with the accepted laws of physics and presents a unique and refreshing puzzle-solving environment.
Portal 2 adds a strong narrative drive and a comedic edge. From the very beginning, the game introduces an overtly comic AI personality core called Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Merchant). Wheatley plays a more pivotal role later in the game but starts out being a light-hearted guide for players new to the world of Portal. Merchant delivers his usual Bristol-boy shtick with aplomb here, and it’s a fine example of how you can add gaming instructions and story exposition to the playing experience without slowing down the game play, being dull or appearing contrived. Merchant’s slick performance reminds me of the immense value Jack Black’s vocal contributions added to the heavy metal game Brutal Legend.
Returning from Portal is the human female character Chell, who we control in first person Doom style. Also returning is the much maligned and slightly ambiguously-motivated computer core GLaDOS (again excellently voiced by Ellen McLain). Throughout the initial portion of the game (after rebuilding herself) GLaDOS again tasks Chell with puzzling her way out of the now heavily dilapidated test chambers. But, part of the narrative of Portal 2 is the idea that hundreds of years have elapsed since the first game (hence the dilapidation) and Chell has been in stasis. GLaDOS’s true agenda for Chell is shady (unless I’m missing something) and I love her deadpan HAL 9000 delivery.
Once Chell is awakened (with the help of Wheatley), it’s time to escape the facility. So plenty of fun is to be had in the bowels of the impossibly vast mechanical catacombs as well as outside and around it.
The game is chock full of amusing imagery as well as additional voice talents like the great JK Simmons (yes, J Jonah Jameson himself), who turns up (in automated announcement form) as Cave Johnson, the testing facility’s increasingly eccentric science exec, a bit later in the game. His voice work is spot on and adds yet another lift to the already high production values of the game.
One of my favourite visual gags was a 100ft high circular vault door/hatch that slowly and majestically opens upwards in all its thousand ton glory to reveal nothing more than a standard sized door with one of those ‘push to exit’ bars on it… well, it amused me anyway!
Game play is slick and smooth, and the controls are simple and instantly become second nature. The graphics have a great look, somewhere between stylised photorealism and a graphic novel. And the environment seems staggeringly vast at times, although you’re rarely completely free to roam unhindered by the direction the game wants to take you. The brain busting physics at work in graphically representing the portals are truly impressive. Personally I quite like lining the two portals up on close opposing walls just to see the graphics engine deal with the resulting infinite portal view! I know, it’s the little things in life.
As well as the single player campaign, Portal 2 also offers a two player co-operative mode. You and a chum take control of the two droids seen in the otherwise slightly misleading TV advertising for the game. Each droid has a different portal gun and players must work together to complete various doubly fiendish missions around the labyrinthine testing facility. The co-operation and co-ordination required for two players to successfully create their portals (particularly when falling) is a real skill and a lot of fun. This mode works in spilt screen or remotely over a network which is really cool too.
I like this game a lot. Not only is it vast, but the voice talent and dialogue is first class and always entertaining. The story is interesting and refreshingly violence free (at least on your part), and while some of the chambers (particularly early on) can seem a little too alike sometimes, the story doesn’t get bogged down.
It’s been a while since I played a puzzle game that is genuinely mentally challenging, and I don’t think I’ve ever played one that also manages to be so entertaining, clever and funny as hell too. A definite five star game for me.