Back when the Orange Box came out, Portal was the odd man out. Amongst steady Valve greats like Half-Life 2, the Episodes 1 and 2 and Team Fortress, it was hard to think that only a few years later Portal would be the only one with a proper sequel. And here we are, our appetites wet for testing with a brand new adventure for our heroine Chell to tackle. And this time it's not just her and Ms. GLaDOS...
Fair warning, Spoilers may be shared to enhance the quality of this review.
The story of Portal was strong, and Portal 2 continues the tale of Chell as she tackles the various and numerous challenges inside the long abandoned Aperture Sciences facility. After waking up in a rehabilitation room, you're taking on a mad dash for freedom by your new friend Wheatley, a rogue personality sphere who aids you on your quest to escape the massive, metal prison. Along the way you grab your trusty Portal Gun and use it to connect two points in space at regular intervals, to solve massive 3D puzzles as GLaDOS watches and critiques. Harshly. And Portal 2 just takes off from there.
Graphically the game has that "Valve Engine" feel to it: smooth textures and physics combined with truly breathtaking reveals and vistas. Aperture Sciences has never looked better than in Portal 2, and *SPOILER* when you get to explore the lowermost levels of the facility it really shines. Dilapidated, crumbling structures give way to more modernization as you explore the strata of the facility itself. The development and evolution of the narrative take off during this part of the game, and I was on the edge of my seat to learn more about what Aperture was like pre-"neuro toxin shower".*SPOILER OVER* Where Portal relied on slowly drawing out GLaDOS' betrayal and dementia Portal 2 hits the ground running after her resurrection. She constantly berates you as her world falls apart at the seams, her own minions revolting...it's a madhouse, and it's brilliantly conveyed. The final encounter includes one of the coolest "OH SHIT!" moments in Valve's history, enjoy every second.
What Valve did to build on Portal for the sequel was just the right combination of new and old techniques to keep the puzzles moving, my brain in a bind, and my face split in a permanent smile. New to the game are launch pads, hard-light bridges, laser-bending cubes and three special gels that give surfaces different properties. By the time you finish Portal 2 you'll be able to walk into a test chamber and immediately get an idea for what needs to be done. The game promotes exploration, often hiding useful surfaces just out of sight, but perfectly in line with your goals. During the story, the game slowly works in all the new features seamlessly and you'll be a doctor of portals by the final fight.
The biggest new feature for me, was the addition of cooperative play in Portal 2. Two-players over the internet or on the couch can tackle a separate, special set of chambers designed for the two testing bots Atlas and P-body. Built specifically for testing they're tasked by GLaDOS to run the gauntlet, and sometime do a few special errands for her outside the testing chamber walls...The puzzles are even more devilish in the Co-op as you try to bridge the communication gap between you and your partner, catching cubes in mid-flight or sending each other to their dooms/victories. Online there's a very useful set of features for working with your counterpart, from a "Partner Cam" button to gestures specifically for "Go into this Portal" or "Stand Here" or "Look Here" or even, and this is my favorite, a 3-Second countdown timer for simultaneous events. Took the issue of chat lag right out, didn't even need a mic to play the game half the time. Valve's handling of the Co-Op was brilliant here, and despite it's relatively short length I found myself spacing out my play sessions, playing with different friends and racking up my score. The multi-player is only made easier by a smart "hub" system made for accessing any chamber, at any time. It's great for seeing what stages each player has beaten, or picking a specific one to start one during your run. Adventuring and testing as two of the most charming characters in gaming history is a new high point for the Portal franchise.
Here's a video of myself and Joe of JoeEndzel.com playing through some of the Co-Op stages in Portal 2, captured just last week!
Though it is definitely fun the first time through, the enterprising gamer who beats the game will have to develop patience for new player's baby-steps. It can feel like a grind to go back and play the same simple stages over and over each time a new friend comes over/meets up online, and the "Score Attack" game play (replay it to top your own best!) doesn't quite work for Portal. Better would be a level editor, maybe a free chamber once a week? Something regular to keep the content fresh, and not just good, so the players who've beaten the game have something to look forwards to while helping their new friends through the game. There is the promise of some juicy DLC, adding leaderboards, modes and more chambers though, so maybe that will pad out the experience for people who've already flipped the single player.
Portal 2's presentation is professional, high-quality, and overpriced. It's exactly what the world wanted from a Portal sequel, but I have a feeling I paid just a little too much for it. All together the game will take about 6-7 hours to beat the single player, and maybe 5 hours on the Co-Op (if you're just rolling it.), which is on par or better for most of the other FPS games out there but at the same time replaying Portal is not like replaying Halo. With a lack of active adversaries Portal can be speed run. Then there's the Developer Commentary track to play and listen to (a great addition, though it usually distracts me while I'm playing. Definitely for round 2 of your play through). After that...well there's nothing. For sixty dollars, that's a little steep. Despite how good it is, despite the pedigree and the faith in the name I think Portal 2 isn't quite sixty dollars worth of game. I got a feeling the game was "thin" after beating Single Player and Co-Op. Maybe "Portal Sports" should be next, cause the game needed to go that extra mile to keep it on my shelf. It has very little staying power, like watching a good movie you'll only want to every once in a while once its over. Worth the price of admission? At the end of the day, I'd say so. Good experiences are worth showing a little appreciation for.
All said and done, Portal 2 is classy. It's a great experience, a roller-coaster ride single-player and a fantastic online or offline Co-Op adventure. Valve outdid themselves with this game, and as far as sequels go it's one of the greats. We have to see a Portal 3, there's simply too much testing left to do.