Ok, so I’ve just finished Portal 2’s exceptional co-op campaign and the first question that pops into my mind is: Is Portal 2 better than Portal 1? The answer….well, that’s a tricky one. This is going to sound like a bit of a cop out but the honest answer is yes and no. Portal 2 is a much bigger game than the original, it expands successfully on everything that was great about the first and manages, in my opinion at least, to deliver an even better script. The voice work is some of the finest the industry has yet to deliver, the writing throughout is exemplary and the gameplay and pacing are nigh on perfect. Ok, so the song played over the end credits isn’t quite as magical as ‘Still Alive’, but it’s still a fantastic piece of perfectly befitting music in its own right and the fact that it’s just about the only negative I can think of right now probably gives you an idea of just how good I think Portal 2 is. The thing is, as great as Portal 2 is, the fact of the matter is, familiarity inevitably dulls the game’s initial impact.
While technically and creatively a superior product to its predecessor, Portal 2 inevitably lacks that sheer unexpected wow factor that came with booting up Portal for the first time. Snuck onto The Orange Box compilation (surely the best deal in videogame history) Portal was thrown in as a little experimental treat that went on to steal the hearts of million gamers. Yeah it was short, but it was so perfectly formed, so perfectly contained within its own world that it seemed to create its own definition of what could be perceived as a perfect videogame. Portal 2, with its broader scope and more eager to please script, has lost some of the original’s magic, but to criticise it for that would be criminal. Portal 2 was never going to wow like the first one did; it simply didn’t have that ninja-like air of surprise about it, but as a sequel to one of this generation’s finest games, it does just about everything right. It may not be the perfect videogame like its predecessor but there is little arguing with the fact that Portal 2 is nonetheless a masterpiece of videogame design.
The first hour of the game, which sees you back behind the eyes of mute test subject Chell, delivers one of the finest, most unobtrusive tutorials in videogame history. While the introduction of new additions will mean that you are always learning (almost right up to the games fantastic denouement) it’s the way that it seamlessly integrates the essential introduction, or re-introduction, to the game,s controls. It’s just one of the many behind the scenes skills that set Portal 2 apart from, well, just about everything and stresses just how talented the team at Valve really are. This links intrinsically to the games pacing – every time a set of puzzles hint at becoming tiring or exploration begins to bore, Valve seem to step in at almost the perfect moment with something new and fresh throughout the game’s relatively beefy running time.
It’s not just a matter of throwing something new at the player, it’s about taking it down a notch before ramping up the challenge again at just the right time. As a collection of test chambers, Portal 2 could have easily become wearisome, but in the skilled hands of Valve, it becomes a game that you never want to end. By the end of most first person shooters, I’m usually happy to see the end credits, but in the case of Portal 2, well, let’s just say I’ll be buying the DLC if any were to rock up.
Portal 2 initially takes you on what feels like a similar journey to the original before dropping you out of those relatively familiar surroundings and into a slice of Aperture’s past. This move to a collection of 70’s inspired Aperture test chambers not only delivers a pleasing aesthetic change but also provides the game’s stand out vocal performance. While Stephen Merchant as the idiotic, frantic but hugely entertaining robot Wheatley is consistently fantastic, and the returning Ellen McLain once again shines as GLaDOS, one of gaming’s most compelling and quietly sinister villains, it’s JK Simmons as the quite brilliant Cave Johnson who really steals the show. You might know Simmons from his brilliant character work with the Coen Brothers and his pitch perfect turn as J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy, but I would argue that his alpha male tone and first class delivery have yet to be put to such good use. Valve’s script is rarely less than fantastic and when delivered by the brilliant Simmons it provides a constant stream of laugh out loud moments that is rarely, if ever, found in the videogame industry. After Bulletstorm’s collection of poorly conceived cock jokes highlighted far too clearly the immaturity of the industry, along comes Portal 2 to prove that videogames can be smart and funny and don’t have to appeal exclusively to the lowest common denominator.
To quote any of the script, or to dig any deeper into Portal 2’s plot would be to ruin the experience so I’ll stop there, but needless to say, despite the array of diversions, it is still the test chambers that prove the star attraction. Although similar in their core design, it is the scale on which they are built that sets Portal 2 apart from its predecessor. Although early levels start of in much the same vein as the original, the combination of vast chambers and the game’s newly introduced gels give latter puzzles in particular an almost bewildering sense of scale. Stepping into a chamber, only to see the exit sitting miles above you can be a daunting experience at times, but rest assured, the rooms, while challenging (a few towards the end are especially tricky) are always fair and are built around the kind of faultless logic that will leave you laughing and genuinely impressed when you finally figure them out.
On top of the game’s peerless portal mechanics, the introduction of 3 gels that can change the entire outlook of a chamber in seconds stands as the games major innovation. Although the sound of a blue gel that adds bounce, an orange gel that reduces fiction and a white gel that changes any surface into a potential portal may not sound all that exciting on paper, in practice, they are undoubtedly game changing additions that add a whole new dimension to the Portal experience. Combine that with the return of the strangely loveable turrets and the all new laser modifying boxes, light bridges and gravity lifts and you are left with an almost dizzying amount of options to consider. Some of the latter chambers actually manage to combine all of these into the most epic, elaborate, but logistically perfect puzzles I have ever come across – they are really quite brilliant. And that pretty much sums up the single player campaign. Brilliant. Replay value is obviously reduced by the strict nature of the game, but when co-op is next on your to do list, it’s not an issue you are likely to dwell on for all that long.
With four portals instead of two and a six hour long campaign built around teamwork, responsibility and, gulp…….trust, Portal 2’s co-op campaign is every bit the equal of its single player counterpart. Playing as P-Body and Atlas, the robotic Laurel and Hardy of the videogame world, showcases Valve’s exemplary character design and their knack for physical comedy and fantastic animations at almost every turn. Although both mute, thanks to a collection of gestures and the game’s reliance upon an always precarious sense of trust between players, P-Body and Atlas are often home to some of the game’s biggest laughs. Believe me, even the most trust worthy of friends will be tempted to drop their fellow computer-based companion into the abyss. The design of each co-op chamber often, and quite purposefully, puts a player’s fate in a teammates hands in such a way that it would almost be rude not to send them plummeting to their death every once in a while.
Although the best way to experience the co-op is unquestionably with a friend sitting right next to you ready for that much needed high five after a successfully navigated chamber, playing online is a smooth experience as long as you are equipped for communication, and with the PS3 offering up cross-platform play with PC owners, it really does offer up a potentially unique and unifying experience quite unlike anything else on the market.
Portal 2 doesn’t have the visual fidelity of a Gears of War or Killzone, but its clean sharp lines and exemplary art design more than make up for any minor deficiencies in the ageing graphics engine. It may not blow you away with its graphics, but Portal 2 was never going to be a visual showcase. Instead, it once again highlights what can be achieved by a team of imaginative, technically brilliant and clearly very intelligent game designers working at the very top of their game. Portal 2 may not have the wow factor of its predecessor, but it delivers just about everything else you would hope from a sequel to a perfect game.
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