[dcs_small_block color="#FFFFFF" border="true" align="center" bcolor="#DDDDDD" bgcolor="#737373" fheight="14" fsize="11"]Platforms: PC [reviewed], Mac, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 | Released: April 19, 2011
Developer: Valve Corporation | Publisher: Valve Corporation[/dcs_small_block]
There are few things in this world quite as terrifying as scientific progress. Without a solid moral compass to weigh us down, there is no telling what we could have achieved as a species by this stage of our existence. It’s lucky for us then that Cave Johnson isn’t governed by such narrow-minded philosophies. He’s prepared to go that extra mile and do what the yellow-bellied scientists of yesteryear dared not. He believes in progress, not from standing on the shoulders of giants, but from individual research and the good honest sweat off a man’s brow. He believes that when life gives you lemons, you shouldn’t make lemonade. You should get mad and burn life’s house down with the lemons!
This cavalier attitude and complete disregard for human life will come as no surprise to those of you who have played Portal. The great thing about Portal 2 though is that it doesn’t require you to have played the original. The basic premise, as you will quickly surmise, is that you are a human testing subject being held at an abandoned laboratory against your will. A long time has passed since the end of the first game and the facility has fallen into disrepair. A plucky maintenance droid named Wheatley awakens you from your suspended animation and takes pity on you, deciding to help you to escape. Complications arise, though, when the omnipotent super AI GLaDOS (that you defeated at the end of Portal) is accidentally rebooted. Predictably, she is less than pleased about the fact that you tried to kill her and elects to remind you of this constantly as she subjects you to a series of life threatening experiments.
These experiments, or “tests” as they are referred to, are really the heart of Portal 2. They require quite a bit of patience, but as soon as you can understand the bonkers laws of physics that they employ, you’ll have a great time in solving them. There are few moments in gaming that can compete with the simple but giddy thrill you get after making it to the end of a tough test. It makes you feel genuinely intelligent, as if all those years of abuse hurled at you by high school science teachers have melted away into nothingness. Or maybe that’s just me.
It is perhaps a shame then that this established format of back-to-back brain teasers isn’t prevalent throughout Portal 2. The game is divided into three distinct acts, with the first and third portion devoted to testing and the middle section essentially feeling like filler. For about three hours, players will find themselves wandering through huge baron “Restricted Testing” sections in a vain attempt to find their way back to the original testing areas. The puzzles in these sections are far less tightly focused and usually involve trying to spot a tiny section of a distant wall to shoot a portal on to. It’s a great shame that it turned out like this, especially considering the brilliant and hilarious events directly preceding this interlude, but I suppose it’s to be expected when a small game like Portal is stretched out into a fully-fledged blockbuster.
There are some good things to be said about the middle section of the game though, namely the musings of Aperture Science founder and CEO Cave Johnson. As you progress, you will hear recordings of the dead eccentric billionaire play out over the loud speakers of ancient test chambers, shedding light on the history of the company and its untimely demise. J.K. Simmonds does a great job here as Cave, but it’s Steve Merchant’s portrayal of Wheatley that really steals the show for me. He is completely believable as the lovably dim and unexpectedly evil little robot and has a great chemistry with Ellen McClain’s GLaDOS, contrasting starkly with her icy wit and intelligence to create memorable and hilarious one liners. This is the type of comedy material you don’t usually get treated to in video games and it’s almost worth the price of admittance alone.
The art design for Portal 2 is also uniquely striking and a treat to behold and whilst Valve’s Source engine is certainly showing its age, it holds its own comfortably with other modern games. GLaDOS actually appears to be rebuilding the facility piece by piece as you pass through it and it is clear that the white stonewashed architecture is slowly being reclaimed by nature. You’ll also notice that everything appears on a much grander scale than in the original game and you really get a sense of the size of the facility and how it might function. This level of detail is not matched in many titles and whilst the textures may look a little bland, the upside is that the loading times and frame rates are smooth as silk.
Of course, all good things must come to an end. The main story mode of Portal 2, whilst significantly longer than Portal, is still only about ten hours in length. Gamers could have forgivably felt a little short changed if this was the entirety of the game, but Valve have included a couple of little Easter eggs that could conceivably keep us portal-ling indefinitely. The first of these offerings is the Co-Operative mode, which amazingly is a completely separate and fully voiced story intended to be played by two players. This mode is not half as long or involved as the main story, but it’s still a very welcome addition that adds a completely new dimension to the gameplay as up to four portals can be active on screen at any one time. The second of these additions is Valve’s new creation suite, which actually allows players to create their own tests and share them with the community. This “Perpetual Testing Initiative” has only been in existence for a short time, but there are already many great tests out there that even compete with the ones Valve designed specifically for the game. I actually had a go at making a test myself and whilst I couldn’t think of anything particularly compelling to create, I found the creation tool a breeze to use thanks to the extensive tips and official Wiki support.
Portal 2 is quite unlike anything you’ve experienced before. It takes the original concept of creating portals and expands on it in every way: masterfully integrating deep gameplay mechanics, ambitious level design and brilliant dialog. Yes, there are some rough patches around the middle of the game, but these can be overlooked because of the sheer amount of inventive content and community support that Valve offers. I would most certainly recommend this game to fans of the first and newcomers alike. It simply is original and compelling gaming.