A tiny, self-interested part of my brain has forbidden me from getting too excited about Portal 2. The last five years of gaming have, in my opinion, been the most accomplished, artful and consistently rewarding in the medium’s history, but even the most shining achievements of recent years – the Bioshocks, the Fallout 3s, the Red Dead Redemptions – are marred by significant flaws. Portal is the one and only exception; a mini-masterpiece so tightly constructed and deftly realised that the risk of sullying its perfection with something as humdrum as a bigger, better and more badass sequel seemed abhorrent.
With that in mind, it’s worth kicking off this review with a sincere apology to Valve for ever doubting its capabilities. Taking a game that excelled through simplicity and adding new elements to the mix certainly carries a large degree of risk, but after setting new standards for storytelling with Half-Life and its sequels, redefining multiplayer shooters with Counter Strike, building the most compelling co-operative experience with Left 4 Dead, and still finding time to revolutionise the way PC games are consumed and played with Steam, I probably should have offered the benefit of my doubt. Indeed, Portal 2 is just the latest triumph for a studio that looks increasingly capable of doing anything it damn well pleases.
The story picks up several years after the very silly and enormously gratifying conclusion of Portal, where the absence of malevolent AI GLaDOS has caused Aperture Science to fall into disrepair. Chell, the protagonist from the first game, is woken by from stasis by Wheatley, an eccentric robotic eyeball voiced with jittery charm by Stephen Merchant. Revealing too many plot details would spoil far too much of Portal 2’s considerable narrative appeal, but needless to say GLaDOS returns, and the ensuing game of cat-and-mouse takes you deep inside the Aperture Science facility and its history.
Much will be made of Portal 2’s puzzles, and rightly so, but while it doesn’t greatly surprise me that Valve was able to successfully extrapolate on the minimalist genius of the portal gun, the way it has expanded the wisp of a narrative is little short of astonishing. I can say with absolute certainty that Portal 2 is right up there with Day Of The Tentacle as one of the funniest games of all time, switching effortlessly between sly in-jokes, slapstick and caustic wit while never compromising its dark heart.
Indeed, that physical comedy is such a large part of the game’s appeal is testament to the quality of the animation. At times, Valve’s work recalls the fluidity and expression found in Pixar’s films.
If I had one major reservation about Portal 2 it was the numerous toys being introduced to add depth to the puzzles. Using only an entrance and an exit, Portal managed to find exactly the right balance between challenge and accomplishment, and I was fearful that any new elements would disrupt that pleasing tension. Fortunately, while Valve does give you a whole host of new variables to consider – propulsion and repulsion gels, bouncy platforms, light bridges, tractor beams – it wisely keeps the portal gun at the centre of everything.
New ideas are introduced one at a time, allowing you just enough time to understand how each can work in collusion with the portal gun before bringing on the next. As the game enters its final hours – it took me around seven to finish the single-player game once through – the puzzles require you to use the various tools in combination, and I’m sorry to say that there were moments where the solution seemed too oblique, arriving through luck rather than judgment. But the solution did arrive, and perhaps that’s all that matters.
Besides, the real challenge is found in Portal 2’s co-op mode; a standalone adventure focusing on the trials of P-body and Atlas, a sort of robotic Laurel and Hardy being put through their paces by GLaDOS. With an extra set of portals to consider, story takes a back seat in favour of collaborative puzzle-solving, which Valve encourages with a carefully considered set of gameplay tools.
There’s a three second countdown – visible to both players – that helps you to sync your actions; a mini-screen that shows what your partner is seeing at all times; the ability to tag objects in the environment to draw your partner’s attention. The combination of these elements, absolutely necessary voice-chat, and a generous measure of patience are all you need to conquer Portal 2’s co-op mode, but the blissful satisfaction of completing a room is evenly matched by the white-knuckle frustration of getting to the solution.
Portal 2 may not be as taut and finely balanced as its predecessor, but with two separate modes comprising around 15 hours of gameplay that was never likely to happen, and what has been accomplished here is arguably more impressive. Valve has crafted a funnier, deeper and more challenging game that rewards you in all of the ways Portal did, and a many more that it did not.
The wait for Half-Life 3 can go on a little longer. Portal 2 is one of the best games of this or any other year.