It’s fair to say that Portal was a bit of a breakout hit. Bringing revolutionary, mind bending puzzling like no one had seen before, it was a genuine marvel of digital entertainment that quickly rose to cult status amongst the gaming community. Impeccable level design, witty humour and some sharp development made for a short, but very, very sweet ride, and one that people wanted more of.
Now, three and a half years later, Valve has delivered the second coming of the mind warping puzzler, and this time it’s a full blown title, complete with online and split screen multiplayer. You know what I say? Let them eat cake!
This cake is great
As regular readers will know, I always try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, so I’m not going to go too into the story for this second visit to Aperture Science, save to say that this time there’s more story, and we get to see more of the history of the ill-fated science institute. And yes, GLaDOS may well play her part in events too.
What I can say is that the single player story is far more substantial than the original’s rather brisk campaign, and it’s also more varied, with differing locations and more puzzle elements to play with.
All of the original’s puzzle mechanics are here, with the awesome portal gun taking centre stage once more. This facet of the gameplay hasn’t changed all that much, and this is good, as the mechanic worked perfectly then and still does now, with the left and right triggers creating blue and orange portals as easily as ever, and a tap of the X button being used to pick up objects such as cubes and turrets.
This simple control system is flawless in its execution, and ensures that Portal 2 is every bit as fun to play as its debut outing. However, Valve hasn’t rested on its laurels, and there’s more to get your head around this time, mainly thanks to some new puzzle elements, namely, the new gels.
Goo, goo g’joob
These gels, found later on in the game, have different effects when you come into contact or interact with them. Firstly, there’s the repulsion gel. This blue goo acts as a liquid trampoline, and allows you to jump higher and also bounces you around, either upwards off the floor, or even side to side off walls. The second goo is an orangey mixture that, when you run on it, lets you run at blistering speeds, able to jump long distances and clear massive chasms.
The final goo is the white portal paint. When applied to a surface, it lets you place portals on it. As many of the game’s areas don’t feature portal-prepared surfaces, which were so abundant in the first game, this is a real benefit.
These elements, clearly inspired by Tag: The PowerOf Paint, are interwoven with the portal puzzle elements brilliantly, and in some of the more complex levels you’ll need to mix them together to solve the test.
For example, you may need to jump across a large gap, and to do so you’ll need to use portals to guide dripping propulsion gel onto a long runway-like path, and then use portals to guide some blue repulsion gel to the end of the runway as a springboard, forming a running jump to get you across the pit.
This is a very simple example, of course, and some of the puzzles require much more complex solutions and some heavy lateral thinking. This is made all the more challenging, thanks to more new additions, such as tractor beams, which can be redirected using portals and new laser-bending reflection cubes, all of which can be found in some of the sharpest puzzles you’ll see.
What’s more, other items can also be affected by the gels, such as puzzle cubes which, when covered in repulsion gel, will bounce around wildly (often with benefits). Water is present in some situations like this, and can be used to wash gel off objects, and in other situations acts as a barrier to solving your current test.
It’s all finely-tuned stuff, and it’s very addictive to boot, with a real ‘just one more test’ pull to it. The simple controls also help this addictive nature, as you’re always free to think about the solution to the puzzles one hundred percent of the time, without having to worry about how to physically perform a certain task, as controlling your portal gun toting heroine is second nature.
This is plain, simple and downright brilliant design, make no mistake.
I’ve experiments to run
Sadly, Portal 2 isn’t perfect. Whilst the level design is solid as a rock and bears all of the hallmarks of the original, it’s also feels even more linear in a way, with a much greater feeling of being herded through the story and with limited ways to solve many puzzles.
Of course, due to the nature of the testing you’re undergoing at Aperture, this does make sense. Later on in the story, though, things happen that make you think the game is going to open up, but it never really does all that much, and although some puzzles are devious, and give your noggin a workout, most are pretty well signposted, and it’s really never that hard to figure out what to do.
A more loose hand-holding approach would have benefited the challenge, I feel, something that the original wasn’t afraid to do. And, when you’ve completed the story, there’s little in the way of replayability. Once you’ve solved each puzzle, there’s no real reason to do things again differently.
Still, this isn’t a major problem, such is the sheer quality of the title and the content of offer, and even when you’ve hammered through the single player, there’s always the new co-op mode to have a go at, and I’m happy to say this is every bit as fun as we’d hoped.
As two portal gun-wielding robots, two players can work together to solve various tests, with solutions requiring crafty teamwork. The levels here are very well designed and working with a friend to suss out each chamber is a real joy. The simple controls, tweaked slightly for co-op play, work very well, and thanks to the decision to include split-screen play, even those without online access can take part on the sofa. Great stuff.
All of the joyous gameplay is backed up by some truly excellent presentation, and the sense of humour Portal was famous for is back in spades, thanks to brilliant performances by the retuning Ellen McLain as GLaDOS, J.K. Simmons as Aperture CEO, Cave Johnson and, most notably, Stephen Merchant, with a superb outing as new A.I. Wheatley.
The script is spot on, the game is full of laugh out loud moments and the single player story is absorbing, especially as it sheds more light on the mysterious world in which the game takes place.
Portal 2 is pretty much everything we all wanted, and contrary to any worries people may have had about expanding Portal into a full-fledged release, Valve has managed to craft a truly entertaining and enjoyable first person puzzler like no other. It delivers on almost every level and is a truly great game that will, no doubt, find its way into game of the year nomination lists. A classic.
Portal 2 is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.