The challenge: Create a sequel to one of the most respected and unique titles in recent history without ruining the novelty or charm of the original. Easy eh?
It would have been so very easy to make a mess of Portal 2. The original Portal title was only 3 or 4 hours long but took the world by storm with many people splashing out on the whole Orange Box package just to play it. But what else could Valve do apart from a few more puzzles involving shooting portals around the place in increasingly complex ways? Quite a lot, it would seem.
The excitement building up to Portal 2 has been immense, especially since Gabe Newell appeared at E3 explaining his plans for the PS3 version and its Steam integration. With that very version loading up in front of me I found myself holding my breath in anticipation and, if I’m honest, slightly concerned about what was to come. I needn’t have worried. As soon as you begin the main campaign (continuing your role as Chell from the original Portal game) you know something is different. Being woken up in what appears to be a small hotel bedroom you perform some very simple medical tasks to make sure you can move around properly, then go back to sleep only to be woken up to very different surroundings. Time has passed, the room is looking rotten and derelict, and there’s someone at the door wanting to talk to you who turns out to be Stephen Merchant. Well, a robotic eye thing called Wheatley actually, but the voice work of the Extras star is instantly recognisable and constantly fantastic. In fact if you’ve ever seen Merchant’s work in Extras as a slightly clueless bumbling agent, you’ll know just what to expect from Wheatley and can look forward to a series of genuine laugh-out-loud moments.
But aside from the comedy, Wheatley drives the story forward in the early stages of the game, trying to help you to escape the main Aperture facility before the story takes it first of many shocking twists and turns. I won’t go too far into the story – you really need to discover it for yourself – but looking back at the original Portal makes the older title look very pale in comparison. The depth and excitement of Portal 2’s story is one of its biggest improvements over the original, and possibly the biggest reason that the 10 or 11 hour campaign very rarely feels slow or repetitive. Some of the plot twists are hollywood-esque and will leave you aghast on more than one occasion. The facility you get to experience during this journey is breath-takingly massive as well, far beyond what has been experienced before and you’ll get to find out a huge amount more about Aperture and believe me, you’ll be in for a surprise or two. This also means the puzzles in place have far more scope and variety, more so when you also bring a few new toys into play…
The new paint gels have been talked about over the past months, but their impact once you start to use them is so much more than you could imagine. By distributing these different coloured gels in the right manner you’ll be able to jump or bounce much further, run faster or attach portals to surfaces that normally wouldn’t accept them. Using these gels individually give you something to think about but won’t stretch you too much – it’s combining them that makes for mind-bending and dizzying jumps later in the game, especially considering you have no direct control over the gel; they get pumped out of tubes and you’ll need to use your portals to manipulate where they land. It’s difficult to explain without spoiling your enjoyment, but streaking surfaces with red, blue and white goo in just the right way to reach the next area of the facility can be a huge, but not unrealistic, challenge. Even the way that the gels are introduced is a work of genius, although again that’s something for you to find out.
And that sums up the puzzles throughout your escape really. There are far more areas to navigate and work through and even when it takes you an hour of staring at the scree, wandering around and waiting for that all important brainwave to strike you never feel like you’re being cheated. The game isn’t harder this time round as such, there’s just a lot more variety in the problems you face and requires you to look at different puzzles in different ways. Each solution is very much achievable though and will make you feel genuinely pleased with yourself for working them out, more so when you achieve what appeared to be impossible. The middle section felt a little overly long, but you’ll be flicking between grinning and frowning so often it’s tricky to notice.
Visually you’re in for a treat with Portal 2. As already mentioned time hasn’t been kind to the Aperture labs since GLaDOS got knocked out of action last time round and wherever you go you’ll find areas crumbling around you, natural vegetation growing through the not-so-pristine laboratory walls and impassble bridges that have long since collapsed. After the clean surroundings of the first game this is all so different, such a stark contrast that you can’t help but feel a little freaked out as you make your lonely way through the bowels of the facility. The lighting and shadows employed are stunning at times, little more so than the early stages of your escape when Wheatley turns on his flashlight to help you; it’s a genuine open-mouthed moment. GLaDOS herself tries to make life as difficult as possible, dropping digs and insults your way whenever you’re within earshot and teasing you with fake promises and harsh weight-based comments. The chirpy robotic song-like delivery of all of these lines only makes them more disturbing and I found myself feeling strangely guilty for laughing at some of them.
Another much discussed element of Portal 2 is the co-op, which takes a separate role from the main campaign and allows you and a friend to take control of two robots either by split-screen or over Steam. Valve have done a great job of making the co-op feel more than just a bolt on, and the opportunity to combine four separate portals to solve some mind-blowing puzzles is irresistible. You can tag areas of interest which show up on your partner’s screen, so if you’re struggling to get your point across of it’s nice and easy to label where exactly you want. It’s not merely a bolt-on, there’s a lot of gameplay here and a huge amount of head scratching which will need every bit of intelligence from both players. Steam itself works like a charm too, letting you save your game to Steam Cloud and carry on the same campaign on a different PS3. You can also communicate seamlessly with other Steam users even if they’re sat at their PC, and whether or not Valve take their Steam integration any further away from Portal 2 this has made communicating and playing with friends all the more simple.
So have Valve done what seemed so unlikely and done a good job of a full game to follow their previous small box of tricks? Hell yes. I was asked the other day if Portal 2 feels like a full game or just an expensive set of extra levels, and I can very comfortably say that it’s a game very much worth being part of most gamer’s collection in its own right. The comedy, writing, craftsmanship and quality of the puzzles often beggars belief and apart from the middle section sometimes feeling a little slow and directionless there’s very little to criticise. It won’t be for everyone, especially those who get frustrated quickly and rely on some pointers when they get stuck, and anyone who hasn’t yet played the original will be best served to get through that first, but there’s no doubt you owe it to yourself to experience Portal 2. You even get a nice little surprise when you’ve finished it.
It’s impressive. Very impressive. And the final battle and ending? Holy hell…