2007′s The Orange Box (reviewed here) may have been the best value-for-money new game release of all time. For me it was because of the arguably still-unmatched Half-Life 2 series, combined with the first Portal – one of the most pleasant surprises to come out of any studio in this generation of gaming.
While the first Portal introduced players to the series’ now-trademark wit, charming art style and most importantly, the best 3D puzzle-solving action gaming ever conceived, ultimately it felt like rather a small, if perfectly formed little game.
And there’s a good reason that Portal 2 has taken this long to surface. It’s Valve we’re talking about here – and Valve seldom does things half assed.
“This feels like a full-price epic in terms of production values.”
It’s one of the few games this year I was really excited about and after losing a night of decent sleep literally dreaming about how to solve one of the game’s trickier puzzles, I’m pleased to say I’m not disappointed.
My fear was that Valve would just offer some rehashed puzzles we already got in the original, tack on some random gameplay mechanics, while investing a bit more time, money and manpower to soup up the graphics and sound… but not much else.
Well… they certainly souped up the graphics and sound. There are some scenes in this sequel that really blew me away. The whole art style of the game retains the character and charm of the original but does it real justice with a more elaborately constructed world and a richer palette, which features several further types of environment than we found in the clinical-looking box-world from before.
Admittedly most time is spent in Aperture’s “test chambers” (though even these exude a lot more personality than before, because of the decay that has occurred in the unknown amount of time since the first game was set), but you will also see jungle-like and factory-style settings that border on Pixar-like beauty at times.
And sure, some gameplay elements have been added, but fortunately not randomly tacked on. Just as every gameplay element was perfectly realised in the level design of the original, so too is the new stuff in Portal 2.
There are three different coloured “gels” (that look like big blobby coloured paint) that when applied to certain surfaces (often via portal use, obviously) produce different effects – running faster on red, jumping higher from blue, and the ability to convert many non-portal-able surfaces to portal-able ones using white.
Several other strange and funky new mechanics have been added but I think it makes most sense to let players discover them for themselves, because this stuff is better experienced than explained. Rest assured: it all works wonderfully in gameplay and puzzle-solving terms, and is exactly the kind of serving I was looking for above and beyond what I already got from the original. If you’re worried about just replaying the same levels or that Portal 2 might be more about nostalgia than innovation, don’t be.
Special mention must go the game’s audio production, which just like previous Valve work, is really outstanding. The soundtrack on the whole is suitably epic and on some levels, where tension is starting to build, the behaviour of (often essential off-screen) gameplay elements even affects the chords of the music, which is really proper next-gen audio production, folks.
But the audio also benefits in a BIG way from the excellent contribution of famous UK actor Stephen Merchant (of The Office fame) alongside the returning voice of GLaDOS, as well as the (at least to me) surprise introduction of J.K. Simmons (you know, the newspaper editor in the Spider-Man movies, and the CIA supervisor in Burn After Reading).
This cast comes together unbelievably well as it interacts with the Freeman-like silence of singleplayer character Chell not only in terms of casting and voice acting, but in terms of narrative as we continue to learn more and more about the personalities, stories and histories of this bizarre group, even after the game is finished. The cocktail Valve has come up with on this front is, simply, creative genius.
While I did get stuck on two levels in the immensely entertaining singleplayer (for which I think Valve should consider a “hints” option after a very large amount of time in a level passes, or if less skilled players choose to play on an “easy” setting), I’d still easily put the single player at 8 hours+ even for players who don’t get stuck much. Challenge on the whole is rewarding, and about the same as the first game.
And when every level is so well realised, that makes this a smart, stimulating singleplayer experience that’s absolutely not to be missed.
Ed already discussed much of what works well in multiplayer in a separate feature, so I’ll take the easy option of echoing that – really this helps complete a superb end product from Valve. Having said that, while I appreciate the Directors’ Commentary that’s been included, it would have been nice to see some sort of time trials or other play-through extras to add longevity.
Portal 2 is also the reason why, with talk concerning Half-Life 2: Episode 3 once again hotting up recently, I have new faith that the series’ send-off will not only be fantastic but hopefully a whole lot more than we got in the first two brilliant episodes.
At a time when so many games just look and feel more and more the same to me, Portal 2 is unique and wonderful. Clearly it’s going to be one of the best sequels in gaming this year, and it won’t surprise me to see people saying it’s the one they liked best.
Buy it on PC, Steam, Xbox 360 or PS3. (Xbox 360 version tested).