Portal 2

Portal 2

My copy of The Orange Box traded hands like children trade chicken pox. Portal was so smart, so inventive, and so respectful of the player that it was my go-to “you gotta play” whenever a friend joined the current console generation. This anecdote was a microcosm of a repeating epidemic in the gaming community; Portal’s splendor infected everyone it came into contact with. Like The Legend of Zelda, Portal was born perfect, leaving one to question how a sequel could possibly reach the highs of the original. Would it be any good if it lasted more than a couple hours? Could any antagonist surpass the cunning wit of GLaDOS? How could new puzzles extend Portal’s mechanics while remaining inviting and esoteric? And, most importantly, could Portal 2 possibly get away without succumbing to a stale cake joke?

Yes. To everything.

A hundred years after Chell dispatched GLaDOS in the events of Portal, Chell is brought out of stasis by Wheatley. Wheatley, an energetic autonomous A.I. known as a “personality sphere,” sets Chell in motion through destroyed bits of the (massive) Aperture Science Laboratories, itself in various states of decay or stagnation. Predictably soon after, GLaDOS goes back online and takes revenge through a world of challenges tests perfect for a girl and a portal gun. What follows digs deep into the foundations of Aperture Science as well as the personal history of GLaDOS.

The voice acting in Portal 2 is beyond outstanding. Wheatley, in particular, is an absolute delight throughout the course of the narrative. Voiced by Stephen Merchant, his British mannerisms and comedic timing create a character who is as entertaining as he is relatable. Wheatley’s focus and determination are constantly undermined by the subtle fact that he’s complete idiot, an observation that Wheatley demonstrates repeatedly and at great length in the segments he shares with Chell. Whether he’s droning on and on about his blatantly incorrect solution to a problem or requesting Chell turn her back while he does something ridiculous or impossible, Wheatley is relentlessly amusing.

Wheatley, as great as he is, is content to share the spotlight. Ellen McClain’s GLaDOS returns with plenty of sharp backhanded compliments. Her role is somewhat repurposed through a hilarious circumstance I’m not willing to spoil, but GLaDOS never loses her trademark acerbic charm. Of equal measure is J.K. Simmons’ (in full on J. Jonah Jameson mode) role as Aperture Science CEO Cave Johnson. Johnson’s obstinate approach to conducting science through any means possible makes for a variety of implausible and hilarious scenarios; it’s difficult to sell lines that include replacing human blood with gasoline or homeless men purchasing vast quantities of beard-dirt, but Simmons’ spot-on delivery makes it sound natural.

What’s more impressive is the complete absence of physical emotion in Portal 2’s characters. GLaDOS and Wheatley are expressionless robots with little more than a light to emote, and Cave Johnson’s bits are exclusive to voiceovers. And yet, they’re still some of the most entertaining and well developed characters to grace a videogame. It makes for a great ride, but it also gives credence to the argument that the pen can be mightier than the graphics engine.

Comedic bits in videogames are typically reserved for sophomoric one liners after horribly murdering someone or, as of late, Duke Nukem throwing feces around a bathroom. The writing team at Valve deliberately went out of their way to distance Portal 2 from its peers; the game is flat out funny all the time and in a completely untraditional manner. From absurd documentation on a wall to humorous physical gags to the plethora of sharp and witty dialogue, Portal 2 rarely skips an opportunity to pull a fast one. It also, quite miraculously, sidesteps opportunities to recycle well worn jokes from the original Portal. The writing is just so expertly composed that one can only assume it was constructed with the same earnest dedication a programmer would inject into level design. Its focus and finesse is uncommon, and Portal 2 is absolutely better for it.

The actual gameplay behind Portal 2 has also seen its share of refinement. Portaling is still the obvious foundation, and mechanics involving retaining ones speed and angle through portals are still paramount to conquering some of the more rudimentary puzzles. Basic portaling still works as an interesting mechanic on a fundamental level, but its exclusivity is confined to the brief introductory portions of Portal 2’s challenges. The rest is conceived under the guise of mad science absent of the rules and regulations that typically govern such experiments from existing.

Rationalized as devices with an objective scientific purpose, new gameplay mechanics are introduced (and combined) at a steady rate. Aerial Faith Plates can launch Chell (and whatever else) across levels while Thermal Discouragement Laser Beams must be aimed with mirror-like Redirection Cubes. Later, a variety of gels come into play; blue makes for a bouncy surface while whatever red touches makes for lightning fast acceleration. These mechanics, and others I’m deliberately skipping, are introduced on their own but are quickly employed to work together. And, as always, portals make each device more complex than it may initially seem.

Physical application of portals has also been fine tuned. With only a handful of portal-able surfaces, the real estate upon which Chell can deploy a portal seems to have been pared down considerably. It’s easy to interpret that as Valve dumbing down the puzzles for the masses, and there might be a bit of truth there for the sake of accessibility, but I feel it’s more a case of the development team ensuring the player isn’t left chasing too many red herrings. You’re not supposed to get stuck on where exactly a portal goes as much as, as the ladies will tell you, how you’re expected to use it.

Besting a few puzzles in Portal 2 made me feel like an accomplished genius. Certain solutions will feel obvious, as if the pieces all magically fall into place in your mind, while others require a good bit of experimentation, but my absolute favorite where the ones where I barely had a clue, tried something crazy, and felt an unparalleled sense of satisfaction when it actually worked. It was akin to Avion (the phoenix/eagle colossus) in Shadow of the Colossus; no one actually expected to be able to grab onto the bird’s feathers when it swooped down, but it was inevitably attempted and when it worked the collective jaws of all who applied hit the floor. There are a few immaculate moments like that in Portal 2, each begging for reality-verifying discussion immediately after accomplishment.

Portal 2’s flow is best left to mystery (giving away the structure of Portal would undoubtedly weaken the experience), but its pacing is consistent with its prequel. From a broad sense, the scenery expands beyond the sterile rooms and generic back end of Portal. Themes diverge greatly throughout Portal 2’s nine chapters, as does your motivation for progression. The only fault lies with the oddly barren and lengthy loading screens. Their engagement is alarming but more puzzling is their lack of integration into the game; level and challenge area transitions are met with a quick cut to blackness that then gives way to a loading screen. It’s jarring, inconsistent and, yes, only notable because of stellar attention to detail provided to the rest of Portal 2.

The perceived weight of the single player campaign might imply a lack of attention to the newly minted cooperative mode, but it’s surprisingly robust. Two robots, one fat blue one constructed around a personality sphere, Atlas, and the other skinny orange one (apparently) forged from a turret-bot, P-body, perform identically as the player-controlled characters. Headset support is included but the bots are also blessed with nonverbal communication in the form of a target one could place to imply, “hey put a portal right here,” along with a set of gestures ranging from a high five to a contest of rock, paper, scissors. P-body and Atlas’ place in the narrative isn’t worth spoiling, but GLaDOS guides their affair with an equal amount of respect and malice.

While the cooperative campaign is best experienced online with a friend (and with Steam friends for PlayStation 3 owners), I played it split-screen with a friend on the couch. From a gameplay perspective, co-op is essentially Portal 2 with more portals. Literally; each player has their own portal gun that blasts its own respective portals. Adding two more portals to the mix sounds simple but actually has a profound effect on Portal 2’s framework. Best of all, the co-op campaign wasn’t content to merely repurpose challenges from the single player campaign. The mechanics may be the same, but working together on everything and ensuring both players wind up at the same end-point was quite a challenge. It seemed to go by quicker, but we were admittedly less baffled because there were two of us to tackle a problem.

The sense of elation achieved when completing a challenge in the single player campaign is amplified accordingly when you do the same thing with another person. Every single challenge in co-op requires teamwork. I’ve played plenty of cooperative games before, but few accomplishments were on par with trying, (repeatedly) failing, and ultimately perfecting the means necessary to conquer a puzzle. Countless challenges were conquered with the same “hey what if…” methodology that felt so gratifying alone, and it was even better with a friend in tow.

Portal 2’s most admirable assets, namely the next-level puzzles and fantastic writing/voice acting, were expected, but it also stacks the deck with a few surprise aces. Almost seven years in, it seems no one really expects much from Valve’s Source Engine. The iteration that’s pushing Portal 2 surely isn’t the same toolset that powered Half Life 2, but, unlike Epic and their exalted numeric interpretations of their Unreal Engine, Source doesn’t get much credit. Portal 2 might change that; the game looks utterly fantastic. Misleading perspectives and incredible physics demonstrations are nice parlor tricks, but instances of visual brilliance are on better display through the impressive lighting and genuinely inspired art direction. Given, a lot of environments are composed of industrial test rooms and railed pathways, but the sense of scale in the wide open spaces of lower depths along with the forest reclamation of the upper labs does well to impress from any angle.

And the more said about Portal 2’s music, the better. I have no idea if it was composed before or after Tron Legacy, but it’s electronic, synth-heavy beats and occasional crunchy guitar seems to fall right in line with Daft Punk’s fantastic score. Better yet, smaller bits of music seemed to kick in with a well executed performance, adding even more fuel to the fire of feeling like a genius badass.

Eric Layman is available to resolve all perceived conflicts by 1v1'ing in Virtual On through the Sega Saturn's state-of-the-art NetLink modem.