I’m going to say this once and then never again: I am woefully late to this party. Currently, I’m around 6-8 years behind in video games in general with a current list of “next to play” including the veritable antiques of Assassins Creed 3, Arkham City, Dishonoured and Shadow of Mordor. I haven’t owned a console since the 360 and still have launch titles from that which I haven’t played (looking at you, Perfect Dark). In short, pretty much any video game review that appears on this website will be pretty behind the times, but that doesn’t bother me very much. It means I can limit my gaming to the franchises and sequels that rise to the top (I’m aware AssCreed 3 doesn’t exactly fit that requirement but it was free with a graphics card I bought) and pretty much exclusively buy games at >75% off their retail cost.
None of the above really explains why I’ve failed to previously play Portal 2, however. I was given the game as a gift months after it was released, whilst I was at university and still actively gaming. By all accounts it is a worthy successor to its predecessor, with near universal acclaim and I absolutely adored Portal. Really, I think that adoration has been the block – I genuinely didn’t believe that they could pull it off a second time.
In many ways, with Portal 2, Valve hasn’t pulled it off a second time. The original game fired out of the gates with a clever puzzle element that rapidly took on a life of its own as an intricate, hilarious and downright stunning story emerged. Half of Portal‘s success was that it dropped, fully formed, an instant classic, out of nowhere. There’s no way that a sequel could ever recreate that sense of wonder and excitement. But that’s not really Valve’s fault and, despite the massive odds, Portal 2 does live up to its first part in just about every other way.
You can definitely tell that Valve put together a full team and a large budget for this sequel. The game itself is happily four times as long as the original, with very little retreading of ground and a number of genuinely interesting, clever new gimmicks up its sleeve. The environments are huge, varied and exceedingly well designed so that you never feel like your hand is being held but are consistently nudged in the right direction. Learning to read the clues left in the level layout almost becomes part of the puzzles itself. Finding an angled wall made out of portal bearing material gives you a hint that you’ll need to use it; there are rarely red herrings or elements added just for the sake of it. Every stone feels specifically placed to help or hinder your attempts at locating the solution and these, in turn, allow for very little deviation. The result are a set of puzzles that get increasingly complex but remain utterly rewarding.
The voice acting is also worthy of mention. Ellen McLain returns as GLaDOS in as fine form as ever (that voice work is utterly perfect) but is joined by Stephen Merchant and J. K. Simmons, both of whom are exceptional. Merchant’s mechanical Wheatley plays a fine line between antagonist and comic that works well, keeping the game refreshing to play as the (much longer) plot unfolds. The inclusion of Simmons’ Cave Johnson fits a similar niche as you travel back through the various ages of Aperture Science and learn, through his pre-recorded announcements, a genuinely humorous and insightful history of the company. Between them they provide a fantastic excuse for massively extending the game time and the early era testing facilities, in particular, are a brilliant touch that prevent the game getting stale or repetitive by mixing up the environment and introducing new mechanics.
Despite that, my one aside would be that the game’s pacing doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot the original managed. Whilst I was still left wanting more, there was also a twinge of relief that the game was completed once the credits rolled. A few sequences dragged on a little long and there were times that the dialogue felt a little encumbered, even if it was all exceptionally well written and frequently very funny. A little more signposting of your progress would have been welcome, especially as you slowly made your way up through the epochs of past laboratories with no real knowledge of when it would end. Sure, it’s clear you start in the 1950’s, but when is Portal even set? Do you have four decades or forty to puzzle your way through? A couple of quick comments from GLaDOS would have been sufficient to give you a sense of how far off the “end” you actually were, without breaking immersion.
My other reservation is that the game spends so much time fleshing out the world it is set in, the history of the antagonists and the corporation that build them and generally building a clever, interesting story but fails to address the most crucial plot point: why is Chell still in the facility? At the end of Portal she can escape back to the surface yet Portal 2 begins with her being brought out of suspended animation yet again. At no time is this discrepancy addressed or even mentioned, despite GLaDOS sounding pretty surprised to see Chell again.
These incredibly minor niggles aside, Portal 2 remains a brilliant game. The story is humorous and immersive, the characters are fantastically well animated, written and acted, the game design if incredibly tight and the puzzles are intriguing, well paced and immensely rewarding. Valve did well to not constantly feel the need to reference the original; there’s no mention of cake and only brief nods to other concepts like the companion cube. Instead, they built on those elements they needed for this plot to work and fleshed them into something new and just as interesting. They also managed to expand on the puzzle elements from the original very nicely, keeping in just about everything that Portal had whilst augmenting the puzzles with new mechanics that genuinely worked. Everything from the light paths to the various interactive gels were intelligent additions that added depth to the game, rather than being just one off throwaway concepts they could have developed into. A seriously worthy game to use as a return to the medium.