Released in 2007 as part of Valve's The Orange Box, Portal was an unexpected success. Barely 3 hours long, with only 2 main characters, reviews nevertheless frequently reached the 10/10 mark, and the phrase "the cake is a lie" circulated around the internet faster than a picture of Justin Bieber being shot in the head by a cat on a pop tart skateboard.
As Portal is considered by many to be the perfect game, Valve had a lot to live up to with Portal 2, released in April 2011 as a standalone game for the Xbox 360, PC and PS3. What could they possibly do to improve upon the first game?
Well, for a start, the game is more story-oriented than the original game. Portal told a simple story: the player assumed the role of Chell, a generic woman in an orange jumpsuit who awoke in a laboratory and had to navigate a number of perilous white rooms using a gun which she could use to create inter-spatial portals. Put one portal across the room, and one portal next to you. Go through the one next to you and end up across the room, and vice-versa. Eventually, it turned out there was something more sinister going on in the facility, something gradually discovered as the game progresses.
Portal 2 opens with Chell, after almost escaping in the first game, waking up in the facility once again. After a basic tutorial, Chell goes into cryogenic refrigeration and wakes up hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years in the future to find Stephen Merchant, who attempts to break her out of the facility. By the way, Stephen Merchant is a spherical computer core who talks. More on his character later. This leads to a technically brilliant sequence wherein the room in which Chell is located travels through the facility, pieces of the walls breaking off revealing the decaying ruins of the lab, derelict and damaged after being abandoned after the events of the first game. This derelict effect is present throughout the first hour or two of the game, and makes for some really atmospheric scenery. The announcer, a seemingly friendly voice in the wall, guides Chell around and gives some information as to what has happened since the first game, and is the source of much subtly dark humour, constantly reminding Chell that the facility is safe, while reminding her of the constant dangers to her safety. A number of of the android characters in the game fail to quite grasp how humans think, and this creates some genuinely hilarious dialogue throughout the game, enhanced by fantastic voice acting by Stephen Merchant, Ellen McLain and J.K Simmons, along with perennial voice-provider Nolan North.
Stephen Merchant is arguably the star of the show in Portal 2. His character, Wheatley - an intellectually impaired AI sphere- provides most of the humour as he guides Chell through the first half of the game. It's difficult to go into much detail without spoiling many of the best parts of the game.
Speaking of spoilers, don't look at the list of achievements, or trophies, until after you've finished the story. There's one which spoils a huge part of the game.
The story is intriguing and really well-told, from the awakening of GLaDOS, the villain from the first game, near the start, to the mind-blowing ending sequence. Easter eggs are everywhere: look around a testchamber closely enough and you'll find all kinds of secrets, some which add to the story, some which just look weird. The attention to detail in the game is unprecedented - the story even becomes somewhat of an allegory of Greek mythology if you look closely enough at the details.
Anyway, gameplay. As in Portal, the gameplay is stellar. The simple concept mentioned earlier, of the inter-spatial portal gun, expands to create dozens of mind-bending ingenious puzzles to test the player's mind and reflexes. After a while, Chell will be flying through the air, using momentum and extremely clever use of the laws of physics to navigate numerous challenges, from lasers to deceptively-lovable, muderous automatic sentry turrets (there are also the "crap" turrets, defective turrets which provide no challenge, but a lot of funny dialogue and the name of this blog). Gameplay is considerably more varied than Portal, and new game mechanics are introduced hours into the game. The difficutly curve is quite reasonable, becoming gradually more difficult. The game also last far longer than Portal, providing about 6 to 8 hours in single-player.
Admittedly, as Modern Warfare 3 showed us, even a fun single-player can be crippled by fleeting longevity. As those of you who nticed the adverbial phrase at the end of that last paragraph, or who have just played the game in the 8 months since its release, will have realised, there is multiplayer this time, in the form of an entertaining co-op mode. It can be played online or in split-screen, and adds a load of time to the game. Unlike the single-player mode, the story is kept simple: there are two robots designed for testing the portal gun. They test the portal gun. There's not much more to it than that. If you're not interested in story and just want a load of portal-based challenges, you may prefer the co-op mode to the single-player. Two characters means four portals, and this adds to the complexity of the puzzles. It's a great addition to the game, though it's recommended that you play it with someone who has already played through at least an hour or so of the single-player mode, or things can get exasperating and you may progress more slowly than John Terry in a game of "Nothing But the Truth" (its an obscure game show hosted by Jerry Springer).
It's difficult to find many faults in a game as great as Portal 2. There are parts of the game where the expansive rooms can at times leave you spending 10 minutes looking for a square of portal-compatible scenery, breaking the flow of the game. Fortunately, this is only a problem during parts of the second third of the game. The only persistent problem is the annoyance of the loading screens. They appear frequently and, while not at the level of Duke Nukem Forever, last for an annoying long time.
Portal 2 is still a brilliant game, though, perhaps even the best game of 2011. Its excellent story and clever gameplay make up for its faults by far. I can't stress this enough: buy this game.