Many people already thought of Valve’s original Portal as a perfect videogame. Here’s how PORTAL 2 improved on perfection – why it scored a stupendous 9.7 in our review, and why we think it deserves to be counted as one of the games of the year.
The original Portal almost felt like an afterthought – a curio tacked onto the Orange Box compilation that padded things out much like a string of deleted scenes would a DVD. But it was an afterthought that defied expectations and captured people’s imaginations, going on to be heralded as one of 2007’s most imaginative videogames.
After making such a powerful impact, Portal was a hard act to follow. But Valve made it look almost effortless – Portal 2 retained everything that made the first game so engaging, returning you to the Aperture Science Corporation’s mindbending test chambers and the icily sociopathic AI, GlaDOS, but also confidently expanding Portal’s lexicon of puzzles with some spectacular new gameplay mechanics and a whole new co-operative mode.
Pushing an IP into new areas carries the risk of spreading the quality too thin, but Portal 2 unfolds with a deftness and expertise that practically demands you see it through to the end, just so you don’t miss anything.
Valve appeared to have it down to a science. They stuck with the same basic formula – one in which you puzzle your way through each chilly, metallic test chamber from A to B, trying out new angles of attack by tunnelling through space with your portal gun while GlaDOS mocks you from on high. But in much the same way Portal itself was adapted from a project still in development (Narbacular Drop) the team added the fluid mechanics from up-and-coming cult project Tag: The Power of Paint, and the scene was set for some seriously fiendish puzzles.
Going with the flow
Before Portal 2′s release, I was dubious about fluids, but the game works them in expertly. Halfway through a plot twist throws you into a whole new area, a new set of test chambers introducing you to the different liquids just as patiently as the opening taught you how to use the portal gun. But then, in escaping, you end up breaking these new test chambers, which unleashes chaos across the entire Aperture Science complex and sets up some mind-bendingly tricky puzzles later on.
Imagine combining anti-gravity and warping through walls to float a trail of blue goo through a series of portals, in order to paint a specific surface with this liquid, which lets you bounce on that liquid and throw yourself over a gaping chasm. There were a lot of mental high-fives when I finally nailed that, let me tell you.
The puzzles are each confined to a single room, more or less, but some of those rooms are huge and demand you harness gravity to accelerate to dizzying speeds – stick one portal directly above the other and you end up falling forever. Then you break the chain and end up soaring rapidly through the air, hoping blindly for success.
I think one of Portal 2’s biggest achievements, though, was sealing the vocal talents of Stephen Merchant. Perhaps as a fellow lanky Englishman I’m slightly biased, but Merchant has a natural flair for being the grounding influence during ridiculous events, and the hours of dialogue he provides as the bumbling Wheatley – the hapless robot janitor of the facility, if you will – are perfectly delivered. Just like this year’s other dialogue-heavy videogame, Bastion, Portal 2 showed how important it is to get the voice acting right – messing it up can make a videogame unforgettable for all the wrong reasons.
Even more than in the first game, the Aperture Science laboratory itself is also one of the franchise’s most intriguing characters. It acts as an extension of your antagonist’s personality; test chambers change and alter on the fly, and again, you get to discover some of the areas outside the test chambers – deserted cubicles hanging silently above a seemingly infinite space, or the makeshift cubbyholes in which other test subjects have made homes for themselves.
These are nice little touches that give the narrative a human quality despite the cold, neutered backdrop of the test chambers. It’s these little details that make the world – right down to the ambient music that plays when you find yourself suspended in an anti-gravity field. Or peering through a portal and seeing a figure that looks like you peering through a portal at a figure that looks like you peering through a portal… it’s a diamond of a videogame, truly multi-faceted, as intelligent as it is charming. 2011 was a golden year for videogames, and Portal 2 was pretty much the finest of them all. -Lewis Anderson