Three years after burrowing itself into pop culture, the puzzles and wit of Portal has returned. With a larger budget and three times the staff, does Portal 2 work on a big scale? Or has the quaint charm of the original been sacrificed for polish?
Things haven’t gone well for Aperture Science. After vanquishing the malignant GLaDOS AI in the last game, Chell has been dragged back into the depths of the laboratories and placed under long-term hibernation. Some untold centuries later, she is awakened by Wheatley, a metal ball AI with a Cockney accent, who then attempts to lead Chell out of the rapidly decaying facility. Along the way GLaDOS is accidentally restored to operation, and is eager to get her favorite test subject back into the battery. Nothing stays routine when portals are involved, however, and soon Chell is cast to the deepest parts of the subterranean labs.
Portal 1 was less of a story and more a character study. But with more characters comes the instinct to add more of a narrative and in that respect, Portal 2 is ill-equipped for the task. The over-arching plot hinges on paper-thin motivations, and a twist near the game’s middle reeks of decades-old clichés. That said, none of it matters in the slightest. The script manages the impossible and packs even more wry jabs and floaty sarcasm into every line of dialog. And the new cast-members play their roles to the hilt. J.K. Simmons in particular seems to have been born into the hard-nosed Cave Johnson, Aperture’s founder. The star of the show is still Ellen McLain’s GLaDOS, especially with the larger range afforded by the game’s plot. If we have one complaint, its that we kind of miss Wheatley’s original overzealous Britishisms, from back when the game was still in beta.
When you are not waiting in hallways for all the funny dialog options to cycle through, you’ll be mulling over Aperture’s latest puzzle room. In addition to the iconic dual Portal device, you will have to contend with launch pads, light bridges, several types of ability-enhancing gels, and more objects designed either to kill you or transport you…then kill you. Despite the new mechanical rogue’s gallery, Portal 2’s leisurely game-long tutorial pace – managed even at three times the length of the original – allows for new snippets of tech to be introduced all the way into the final act, allowing for a great deal of complexity, but at a speed designed for maximum understanding.
The downside to the game’s tripled girth is inevitable padding. While light years away from the tedium of most inflated games, Portal 2 developed an intrusive habit of mixing up platforming segments in between puzzles that barely make use of the game’s many mechanics, especially in the game’s opening third. Eventually, these sporadic excursions find their stride in delivering some excellent atmosphere, but their initial annoyance is more than slight.
That may seem like a nick-pick, but when the puzzles are this good, it’s irksome to be pulled away. Whether in the single player or new co-operative campaign, the dozens of challenges in Portal 2 neither hold your hand nor toss you into the drowning pool. Hints are subtle enough when looked for, and rooms are beautifully structured, fitting the perfect mold of initialing jarring, but mechanically engaging. The difficulty curve may stay too long in the shallow end for the first hours, some tutorial missions going beyond sly hints at the first game, but underestimating GLaDOS will have you regularly stuck once the gears start turning.
If portal-hopping alone doesn’t sound appealing, Portal 2’s new co-op campaign is entirely separate from the single player story. Taking the role of either p-Body or Atlas, a pair of newly minted test robots with a kind of Abbott and Costello dynamic, players can take on a much more complex series of test chambers in either split screen or over the net. This gauntlet is expertly designed for communication, with later levels requiring mixing gels and re-directing lasers across several portals.
A lot of care has been given to keep confusion at a minimum, with two different sets of portals and inter-connecting mechanics, but split screen still suffer slightly from visual overload at times. Thankfully, voice chat is supported across all versions and platforms, and is pretty much mandatory for anything beyond a cursory glance at the mode. The game does provide a simple selection of expressions to guide most principal actions, but unless you are playing with a reliable friend, stick to the head-sets. Performance-wise, there is barely a hint of lag, even across platforms on below par connections. Its quite astonishing, considering this is the first initiate of its kind. If you do have a fellow puzzle-lover, the co-op campaign quickly proves itself as the most valuable asset to the Portal 2 package.
While not bleeding edge in any respect – with rare texture clipping and some muddy rendering in the periphery – the wonders of
Portal 2’s presentation are in the details. Machines look like believable piles of cogs in varying degrees of decay, and stark test chambers are countered expertly with creeping greenery. Portal 2 also manages an impressive sense of scope this time around; its more cavernous spaces peppered with debris tumbling far off in the distance. It’s the psychics that everything relies on, however, and we are happy to report that the grandfatherly Source engine can still handle everything thrown at it with masterful results, especially large gel globules.
But it’s hard to over-shadow the audio on display here, either. The best foley hours weren’t limited to the ethereal popping sounds of portals or robot voice overlays, although the melancholy squeaks of dying turrets is still amusing. The plethora of whizzing machinery and true-to-life objects are mixed wonderfully, despite a musical score that leaves the least impact of the presentation.
Lastly, it is worth noting that the Playstation 3 version of Portal 2 enjoys a suite of social features from Steamworks. While you are not able to enjoy your personal PC games library, cross-platform chat works better than anything Sony’s managed up to this point just in between games, and the user interface is just as gracefully implemented alongside menus and gameplay as it is on the PC.
While that intimate charm could never last under these successful conditions, Valve has managed to evolve a simple concept into a triple-A experience. The narrative feels like a poor man’s Bioshock, but most will hardly notice it beneath the hilarious back-and-forth and the intricate puzzles. What works has been improved to an almost excessive degree, and with it comes a presentation that surprises in its scope. And the stellar co-op campaign elevate the play value beyond just a rental. It may not be everything you hoped for, but is certainly more than you expected.