No Holes in “Portal 2”

Courtesy of Valve Corporation

The first “Portal” was one of the defining games of this generation of consoles. It was an original idea executed almost flawlessly and was held together with a humorous and unforgettable story. While the original game had the element of surprise as well as its short length working in its favor, “Portal 2” has neither of those. “Portal 2” is a stand alone game and it manages to surpass the original by constantly throwing new ideas and gameplay mechanics at the player for the duration of both its single player and its new cooperative campaign.

The base gameplay of “Portal 2” is very similar to the original. Armed with a portal gun, you can shoot two different colored portals on certain surfaces. Walk in one, and you will come out through the other. The majority of the puzzle solving constitutes using your momentum, as well as figuring out how to move lasers or cubes to the correct switches.

Although its controls are very similar, the new elements for the puzzles give “Portal 2” a much different feel altogether. Whether it is the gels that coat the walls of the test chambers, or the really cool light bridges that you can walk on and direct with your portals, these new elements serve to make the game feel fresh the whole way through.

This is in large part to the stellar level design and pacing. While the game is a little slow to begin with for both single player and co-op, it quickly hits a good stride that doesn’t let up. Each new test chamber highlights certain aspects of the mechanic being tested. In other words, after solving one puzzle you are immediately presented with a new puzzle that doesn’t recycle too many elements from any previous puzzle.

In single-player mode, the uniqueness of the challenges is further highlighted by the pacing of the story. Any time things start to become a bit too routine, a plot twist is generally introduced which offers fresh new environments and situations. There are actually some really cool and exciting set-piece moments this time which really serve to break up the pace of the constant stream of puzzles.

In spite of there being really interesting solutions to some of the puzzles, no puzzle ever really becomes so elaborate that it becomes frustrating to solve. Additionally, most of the puzzles requiring quick and precise midair placement of portals is gone, which goes a long way toward making the game more playable to a wider audience.

Without spoiling anything, the game’s story is a bit more involved this time around. It largely focuses on the past of Aperture Science as well as some of the lingering mysteries from the first game. Chell, the protagonist from the first game, must once again try to survive and escape the facility since she was dragged back by a party associate in the extended ending to the original game.

In addition to the return of GLaDOS, the malevolent AI from the first game, there are two major new characters who are both equally compelling. Wheatley, voiced by Stephen Merchant, is a witty and insecure robotic personality sphere who you meet early on in the adventure while Cave Johnson, voiced by J.K. Simmons, is the crazy founder of Aperture Science. All three are fully realized characters and the voice actors expertly delivered their dialogue with passion. A large source of the humor and enjoyment from “Portal 2” is found in just listening to these characters talk.

The co-op campaign, either played in split-screen or over the Internet, is just as excellent as the single-player. What makes this mode so special is the existence of two portal guns, and thus four portals, so the larger difficulty is attached. Co-op is difficult in the sense that you must work together and, most importantly, communicate with your partner to succeed as the puzzles are scaled to make use of all four portals. One person cannot cover this campaign alone — it really does take two people. While that seems intimidating it actually is a welcome challenge that never is too complex to be unsolvable or less fun. There are a lot of little touches that make the mode stand out, from extra dialogue from GLaDOS, to the little gestures the two robot characters can perform.

My only minor complaint about “Portal 2” is the load times for the game. There are fairly lengthy load times after each test chamber in the game. That doesn’t sound too bad or odd at first except that the first “Portal” didn’t have this issue, as the really short early levels were combined into one room so it only loaded once. Oddly enough, the larger and more elaborate levels of “Portal 2” are the ones that are strung together. The lengthy loads early in the game thus make it more frustrating to get into, but again this is alleviated as the game goes on.

“Portal 2” is one of the best games released this year. The excellent co-op and a lengthy single-player adventure together make for an unforgettable experience.

Rating: 5/5 Stars