Portal 2 was originally released in 2011 for Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360. This reviewer’s playthrough was on PC and mostly covers the single player campaign. Read my review for Portal here.
The original Portal was an unexpected and pleasant surprise when it was released in 2007 as part of The Orange Box. It was a unique and thoughtful approach to puzzles and platforming with an entertaining idiosyncratic computer program to insidiously guide you along the way. The game premise was well-suited to the mechanics on hand, the portal gun was something mind-bending and headache-inducing at points but lead to some satisfying results when the player could figure out the puzzles. It was short, pleasant, had very few characters or story elements that gave context on the world of the game, but felt like a fulfilling experience nonetheless. Luckily for us, Portal 2 gives us more of the same offbeat, quirky humour tightly wrapped around a setting that once was mostly orderly in the previous game, now mostly fallen apart. Gameplay becomes more varied and requires thought thanks to the additional features such as gels or laser cubes which manages to make the game a challenge for people who played the prequel. More than anything, this game seems to have a bigger personality more so than Portal and its tones and humour is emphasised more so than before making it a sequel that does not disappoint.
Portal’s penchant for concealing the truth or misleading the player about the world the game exhibits is once again on display from the moment we start the single player campaign. The protagonist, Chell, finds herself in comfortable surroundings after the events of the previous game which saw her being dragged by something unseen before fading to black. This facade literally falls apart, we meet a new companion and character, Wheatley, voiced by Stephen Merchant, who humorously reacquaint ourselves to the game mechanics. Whereas GlaDOS was cold and pretentiously arrogant in her capabilities and intelligence, Wheatley comes off as more personable and incompetent in comparison while add a sense of erratic, dithering humour to the game as he helps us through the opening stages of the game. Players find themselves in a familiar place, if you played its predecessor, yet its a new side to the world we witnessed with much more emphasis on exploring between the cracks of this (now decrepit) facility. There’s a broader scope with what’s on display.
Portal 2 explores more about Aperture Science labs, giving it more character and intrigue into the post-human technological landscape at display here and its underlying roots that reveal a somewhat intriguing history. The core essence of this place that Portal entreated us to had is now extended to its turrets, the artificial intelligence bots and corrupted cores that we encounter, showcasing their own quirky idiosyncrasies. The world of Aperture now feels like a mutated form of the AI overlords that control it with everything, and construct whatever may please them with moving mechanical parts and walls. It gives you a grounding and context to how GlaDOS could construct puzzles or manage the facility herself as well as tying in well with the idea of “levels” in a video game as segments or test chambers is an artificial construction created by the ruling AI.
In terms of gameplay, much of what we saw in the original Portal is once again on display here but with a more varied and content-rich assortment of tests and puzzle gameplay.Players are quickly reunited with the portal gun and get to grips with the controls quite intuitively despite perhaps some sensations with travelling through portals and remembering some of the fundamental aspects of puzzles encountered in the previous game. New features such as laser cubes, gels, light bridges change the feel of the game in later stages and add a new dynamic to puzzles that now have to be approached in ways hitherto were not available. The puzzles can be remarkably complex at times and might feel impossible to solve when the player feels stuck, but immensely satisfying and rewarding when you actually manage to solve them.
A lot of these features also tie in with the exploration aspects of the game such as using a certain type of gel or the portal gun to reach a certain area, especially in the later stages of the game or when you are taken outside of a testing environment. The structure of the game feels much more askew and fragmented than Portal were you did the tests, escaped death, made your way to GlaDOS. In Portal 2 you’re moving between test areas and the chambers themselves, old and new, and movement can be horizontal or vertical as you make your way across and between the walkways and moving rooms. The facility also feels endless compared to Portal, with huge chasms and gaps between platforms the player must manoeuvre across, which is not always so easy. Testing chambers also feel bigger and open compared its predecessor which makes space for more complex puzzles requiring savvy use of the portal gun or newer mechanics.
The game keeps itself feeling varied throughout the game by introducing new features as well as new environments that feel different and unexpected. Portal 2 explores the depths of Aperture’s origin story and founder, Cave Johnson (voiced by J.K. Simmons). Videogames will sometimes try to tell the story of its world had transformed from one state to another, like we see in BioShock. It’s a visual revolving door of interior design changes and progressively stingier Cave Johnson quips, but it’s also a fun introduction to some new mechanics like the gels. While it’s somewhat interesting to see how Aperture formed and changed under the reign of Cave Johnson, I found what was happening above with GlaDOS and contemporary Aperture and how it changed since we last played the first game to be more interesting.
The story and character development is something which deserves its own articles about and something which I hope to touch on exclusively at a later point. Thanks to the great and humourous writing in Portal 2, artificial or robotic characters manage to have interesting, zany personalities that bounce off each other that create farce and chaos in all the right ways. GlaDOS makes a welcome return with much aplomb, seemingly more menacing as her character embraces her megalomaniacial and vengeful characteristics than ever before, and is not above making fat comments that are cruel yet oddly funny when delivered in her deadpan delivery. The game even gives the inconsequential, unimportant extras like turrets a greater range of funny quirks to help flesh out the expanded game world with lived in artificial creatures.
The game does not overstay its welcome, it makes the most out of the game mechanics at hand, old and new. Portal 2 also features a cooperative mode with its own intricacies and types of gameplay that sadly, I did not experience, but adds additional playtime onto the game which the original Portal lacked. The longer single player campaign does not tiresome at all even if you’ve experienced its prequel. The puzzles still feel as challenging and rewarding as ever and the new features adds new and interesting approaches to testing chambers and the endless labyrinth that is Aperture Science.