A truly ingenious concept. A brain-bending demand for spatial awareness. A twisted, oddball sense of humour. All these things and more conspired to make Portal a modern day masterpiece, a game which was and indeed remains almost impossible to pigeonhole. It’s a puzzle game, only on a grander scale than anything else in the genre. It’s a platform game, just one where many of the usual rules either don’t apply or can be bent to your will. It’s a first-person shooter where your only weapon is science. It’s an adventure game whose primary journey is one of discovery. Valve’s voyage into science was a unique, standalone nugget of gaming perfection and, while it never cried out for a sequel, we’d be stupid to turn our noses up at a full-length return to the Aperture Science testing facility, especially when said return will be a shoe-in for pretty much every Game Of The Year shortlist on the planet.
While the ending of the original saw Chell escape from the facility having broken GLaDOS’ heart and killed her (and torn her to pieces, and thrown every piece into a fire), the more recently retconned PC ending had her recaptured, and it’s this version of events that Portal 2 uses as a jumping off point. Once again putting players in the shoes of the silent protagonist, Aperture’s vast laboratory has fallen into disrepair without the constant attention of its matriarch, but it isn’t long before normal service is resumed amid the chaos and the testing begins anew. Those with prior experience of using coloured ovals to break science might find the early tests somewhat beneath them, but as both a way of fleshing out a longer game and a method for easing newcomers into the series, it’s hard to begrudge Valve this liberty.
The introductory sequence is far from the only time you’ll be free from the clinical white walls of a test chamber, either. Framed by more traditional first-person adventure sequences – the kind of gameplay hinted at by Portal’s endgame, where the decrepit wall cavities and maintenance areas offered a safe haven from GLaDOS’ ever-prying electric eye – Portal 2 changes gear at several key points, taking you out of the safety of the test chambers and dropping you into increasingly dangerous (not to mention surprising) chunks of what can only be assumed to be the ‘real world’.
It’s at times like these when Portal 2 is arguably at its worst, the kind of contrivances that are easy to forgive in the meticulously planned test chambers sneaking into everyday architecture and even urban decay – you don’t so much feel like you’re beating the world with your superior technology and brainpower, rather as though the world has been assembled (or disassembled) specifically in order to be fallible. While some of the extra-curricular sequences are still able to thrill and impress, others will see you yearn for a return to proper testing. The outside world is generally made to feel like one big overly drawn-out puzzle but, even at its lowest point, Portal 2’s not-so-secret weapon will always see it through – Valve has in both Wheatley and GLaDOS characters that can turn even the most tepid sequence into a laugh-out-loud entertaining one.
Serving as a bizarre counterpoint to GLaDOS’ digitised jibes and backhanded complements, Wheatley offers companionship and support through the early stages of the game, even if it is the companionship and support of as moronic a ball of wires, transistors and microchips as has ever been assembled. Brought to life by Stephen Merchant, he provides a (literally) constant flow of amusing idiocy as you reacquaint yourself with the joys of testing. But with so familiar a voice, it’s likely that some players will struggle to suspend disbelief. Which, in a game primarily about transcending space and time, could be seen as a valid issue. GLaDOS, meanwhile, returns more scathing and cuttingly sarcastic than before – understandable given the events of the original – and her new found resentment only makes her goading all the more amusing. It’s hard to discuss any interaction between the two without boarding the direct service to Spoilerville, but we can safely convey that it’s uniformly excellent without even approaching ‘Aeris dies’ territory.
Depending on what you want from Portal 2, though, there could be more serious issues to be found elsewhere. The accessibility vibe that is clear during the elongated opening extends to pretty much the whole game and, while the new features like gels with various properties, hard light bridges and gravity-defying tunnels certainly have the power to stump you, with few exceptions they never really feel like they’re used to their fullest. Using tunnels or bridges is usually a fairly simple affair by virtue of the fact that having to lock up one of your two portals just to get either into play necessarily simplifies any possible solution you might dream up. It just feels like it’s missing that one final practical exam where you piece together everything you know in a test that might take days to work out, where every element comes together to further science in the most pointless yet oddly rewarding manner imaginable. It comes close on occasion – particularly thanks to some clever use of multiple gels and surfaces – though you can’t help but feel that the difficulty of the puzzles has been reined in to ensure that everyone will be able to reach the gloriously daft ending. And boy, is it daft.
That’s not to say that those looking for a challenge are poorly catered for, mind. Well, strictly speaking that’s actually entirely the case – the speed run and minimal portal challenges that unlocked after finishing the original don’t make a repeat appearance. Still, those looking for a challenge //in a less literal sense// need only hit up the two-player co-op mode, where an extra pair of portals sets up for some of the most brain-bending challenge rooms we’ve ever seen. Again, it eases you in gently enough, but before too long you’re throwing bridges around hither and thither through a handful of portals, which make for a tangled knot of science that is near-impossible to navigate or alter without dropping one or both of you to a goopy demise. Which, in turn, resets the portals of the fallen, demolishing the best-laid plans and often meaning it’s time to start over.
If that sounds a little frustrating, fear not. Valve succeeds once again with this new duo of characters and, where something so knife-edge has the potential to quickly irritate, failure here is always comical. Seeing P-Body and Atlas go about the tests for which they were designed is an utter delight, emotes and interactions between the two building more character into voiceless robots than should be possible. It’s tricky not to get sidetracked with games of rock-paper-scissors or constant high fives, and cheeky pranks are commonplace. But as much as we love this robotic double act, the real star of the show is the test chambers themselves, making far more ambitious and unlikely use of the additional portals available than we expected to see. Communication, even without voice chat, is simple and all kinds of pointers, prompts and timers ensure that whatever you’re trying to get your buddy to do, they should be able to at least get the gist. Simply put, this is among the best standalone co-op modes we’ve ever seen in a game and, with Achievements and stat tracking to keep you going back (not to mention the potential for alternate solutions and fresh amusement to be gained from playing through it with somebody else), its relative brevity is utterly moot.
From gloriously glib opening to predictably musical finale, Portal 2 is a genuine delight and a game of rare quality. A well-judged sense of humour meets with some truly ingenious puzzle design to create a gaming experience that will linger long in the memory. But look at us, still talking when there’s science to do…