The lights are on
The ARG that lead up to the release of Portal 2 was one of the most complex and exciting promotional campaigns for a video game ever created. It had Valve enthusiasts and Portal nerds salivating at the very thought of a sequel to what many consider the best puzzle game ever made.
Portal shook the foundations of what we accept as standard FPS fair when it released in 2007 by handing us not bullets, but the ability to bend space-time- and while they were at it, the creators gave us a minimalist setting laced with humor, intrigue, and action-driven story. The Valve crowd lapped up this little gem when it came bundled in The Orange Box and it was declared a classic nearly instantly.
I should note, however, that I was not one of those people. I found Portal to be a fun diversion from the true prizes of The Orange Box (Half-Life 2 and its episodes). Its referential nature to the world of Gordon Freeman was cute and the plotline was fun. I also cannot say I did not feel quite proud of myself after deciphering the brain-bending puzzles of Aperture Science- but I'm more of a Half-Life guy at heart. I need aliens to shoot!
And yet, I found myself anticipating the release of Portal 2 along with every other gamer, constantly hitting reload on the infamous ARG countdown pages and eagerly grabbing whatever advance tidbits about the game I could find. A pre-order for the PS3/PC/Mac version was inevitable.
When Portal 2 arrived on the day of release, I frantically popped it into the ol’ PS3 and was prepared to experience the nostalgic feelings of amusement and frustration elicited by the first installment. And on this front, Portal 2 delivered.
GLaDOS, voiced by the inimitable Ellen McLain, is back again to make your life suck. Her wit, sarcasm, and punchy monotone are just as awesome as you remember. Wheatley, a new character in the Portal universe voiced by Stephan Merchant, also has an excellent showing. As a huge UK Office and Extras fan, I was ecstatic to find out that half of the Merchant/Gervais team would be lending a voice to a little personality sphere. And of course, J.K. Simmons gives a funny and at times moving performance as Cave Johnson, CEO of Aperture Laboratories.
I cannot elaborate too much on the story, but I can say that if you have played Portal, you are not going to be overly surprised by the narrative that plays out. The story arc starts off very reminiscent of the first game, leading you from chamber to chamber while it introduces you to the newer elements of Portal 2. There is of course nothing wrong with keeping what works, and it is quite fun for the most part.
The second act, however, begins to sag as you are suddenly thrust into a totally different part of Aperture and meet Cave Johnson. The storyline does not feel like it is going anywhere for a good portion of this section of the game, and it can feel a bit pointless solving puzzles for no discernible end-goal.
That all turns around in the third act, though, which is simultaneously funny, difficult, and bizarre- emphasis on the bizarre. The last 5 minutes of this game are absolutely the weirdest thing you’ll likely see in a mainstream game until Catherine hits the US.
Overall, I enjoyed my time with Portal 2’s campaign, and that isn’t even where the game ends. The co-op component adds an entirely new element into the mix, as well- via offline or online multiplayer, you and a friend can work together with two portal guns and four separate portals to figure out some of the most challenging puzzles in the game. There are some interesting story elements here, too, but I won’t spoil them- all I can say is that I would play the single player campaign before tackling this mode.
Graphically, Portal 2 is homey. The game is still running on the proprietary Source platform. Valve has yet to update their engine introduced in 2004 to modern standards, but for the purposes of their games, it is perfectly serviceable. You’ll see a large jump in detail over the first game, but compared to other modern titles, it won’t be taking home the blue ribbon anytime soon. Gameplay remains largely unchanged from Portal 1, though- and that’s a good thing. Controls are perfectly mapped to the controller/mouse and keyboard. No twitch shooting is required in the game, either, and auto-surface targeting is integrated very well, so playing on console or computer, your experience will be fantastic.
In the end, Portal 2 is a great follow-up to Portal- perhaps a bit unnecessary, but solid anyway. The story may meander mid-game, but it’s not a game-breaking issue; too much goes right for something like that to bring it down. Is Portal 2 the next Half-Life? Perhaps not- but it’ll satisfy your taste buds at least temporarily until Episode 3 or Half-Life 3 are released, especially with the just-announced free DLC challenge maps and test chambers coming this summer.
You can see my review over on 1up.com and give it a like if you dig it!