Before it was hip, I was dying to get The Orange Box. Not because I hadn’t played Half-Life 2 (I had, and it is transcendental) but because of a quirky little addition named Portal, a first-person puzzle game assembled quickly by some recently hired college grads. Before people were keen to lies being equated to cake and so forth, a legit few and I were busting through a series of ever-challenging puzzles (in which we were required to think with portals) with the incredibly amusing GLaDOS (some distant relative of SHODAN) narrating our trip. Over three years later, the game has built a cult-like following and Valve thought it was well that we receive a sequel with a lot more content. Yahtzee asked, “is it better than Portal 1?” and replied with “No.” I’m inclined to agree.
Oh Nick, you’re just being contrarian. No, I just expected more than just more. I suppose the hype was just going to let me down anyway. Portal 2 features both a single-player and co-operative campaign that are each twice as long as the original game, meaning there’s roughly four times the Portal in this game. This isn’t a bad thing and in fact, having roughly fifteen hours of game for sixty dollars is a pretty good reward for investing in a game in its first or second printing. But, when I wait almost three and a half years, I expect a lot more than sheer quantity to compensate for the time in-between. I want new ideas. I don’t even care if some of them are half-baked, just switch up the formula.
Portal 2 takes place some hundreds of years after the first game after you’re awakened in a cryo suite (dressed like a cheap hotel) to help a robotic sphere named Wheatley escape from the Aperture Science facility. After a thrilling and top-notch ride, crashing through every possible wall and object along the way, you wind up in the original chambers from the first game, reacquainting you with how the mechanics work. You shoot a portal here, you shoot another one there, walk through here, end up there, etc. Along the way, you awaken GLaDOS, the evil bugger from the first game. It was the sterility of many of the levels in the first game that left you guessing as to where portals needed to be shot to complete puzzles. Now, the fight becomes ‘find the bloody spot on the wall you can place a portal’ and then ‘place portals on those surfaces and win’, removing much of the guesswork. That isn’t to say some of the new puzzles aren’t befuddlers – and they are – but it’s obvious that playtesting had a heavy hand in design here.
As you progress, things happen and you wind up in the rustic old sections of the facility that have long since been obscured by history. Instead of GLaDOS or Wheatley guiding you along, you have the hilarious Cave Johnson (J.K. Simmons) guiding you through the experimental chambers that hosted some of their earliest experiments, including the big new addition to this game: gels that allow you to accelerate quickly, jump far, and create portal-able surfaces. These changes are welcome, but don’t add quite enough to the experience. These old sections are even a neat reflection on Aperture’s history, but aside from the logo changes, there really isn’t that much of a difference as you ascend through the facility like years in a fossil record. To their credit, Valve made the world of Portal 2 much more luscious and robust than the original, but at times I wondered if there wasn’t more they could’ve done to distinguish the environments.
The co-operative campaign (you play as robots P-body and Atlas) is mostly brilliant. Each cluster of levels is accessed by a central hub and capped with a ‘behind the scenes’ level that will twist your brainsponge. It lacks the organic, narrative structure of the single-player game and GLaDOS’s comments at the beginning and end of each level (their attempt to compensate) tend to grate after a while. It also makes progression more dutiful, but the puzzles are fantastic enough that you don’t mind as much.
Valve made Portal 2 for a wider audience, but there’s still plenty of fan service to go around. (I’m not quite sure how new kids will fully appreciate this universe, but whatevs.) One thing I truly missed from the original game was the Challenge Mode, in which you complete in certain levels under restrictive criteria (like so many steps or so many portals), but that’s said to be coming in free DLC a little later. At the end of the day, Portal 2 is a fantastic game that feels like more Portal and certainly more robust Portal, but this feels less like a sequel and more like what the original game should’ve been all along. I suppose that’s what three years of expectations will do.