It’s almost unbelievable, but it’s been almost seven years since the last full length single player game from Valve. It’s not like they’ve been quiet since then or anything, on the contrary – Portal 2 is in fact the cumulation of the things learned from all their output in the intervening years: The short form Episodes provided the platform to test out the original Portal. The lessons learned from Team Fortress 2 in predicting player behaviour. How players interact with the environment and other players when playing co-operatively from the Left 4 Dead series. All these ingredients come together spectacularly in Portal 2 and as a result makes for one of the most enjoyable and best experiences of the last few years in not just video games, but in entertainment.
We return to Aperture Science some undisclosed time after the first game, GLaDOS has been all but destroyed and Chell is in stasis. She’s soon woken up by a personality core called Wheatley (voiced brilliantly by UK funnyman Stephen Merchant) in order to help escape from the laboratories. Of course it’s not too much of a spoiler at this point to say during your plans GLaDOS is awakened, and once again Chell is made to run through the labyrinthine chambers of Aperture Science while trying to survive the homicidal AI’s obsessive-compulsive testing disorder.
During your journey you’ll be running through a much higher variety of locations than the previous game, exploring both test chambers and the inner workings of Aperture Science, including some areas that would be an outright travesty for me to spoil here. However, all said environments are put together with a deft touch and a style that is impressive in scope and detail. A lot of love has gone into every location throughout the game to make it both outlandish yet believable within the universe of the game. Little touches like posters and safety diagrams, pictures and posters and scrawlings from the illusive Rattman. A really nice touch is a return to the some of the older chambers, now covered in various states of vegetative growth and looking a bit dilapidated through the harshness of time.
The expansion of the idea that chambers are made from dynamically moving panels controlled by GLaDOS is brought to its logical conclusion here, with some almost breathtaking set pieces with the environment itself as it changes around you – it encourages you to stop as you enter each new area just to see something happen, and of course the subtleties of the environment art that start helping you to understanding the way the various mechanics work is done with an incredibly deft hand while simultaneously never feeling quite like you’re being hand-held through the puzzles.
To the contrary, Portal 2 manages to train you in the use of the various mechanics through subtle iteration. Starting off simple, tasks get more complex but in such a way that it always seems like the logical next step. New apparatus such as the gels, lasers and vortexes always seemed from an outside perspective like they might have overcomplicated the game but in fact, once you’re at the point you’re using them they again feel like natural extensions to the skill set, allowing you to juggle all these mechanics so far making you feel genuinely cleverer by the end of the game, which isn’t something many games can lay claim to.
Of course, special mention has to go to the script and writing of Portal 2. It’s genuinely the most hilarious games – quite possibly ever – without relying on toilet humour or cheap gags as a crutch. This is a game that knows comedy and ensuring the delivery of it feels so natural and organic through both the scriptwriting and the delivery of the dialogue. Stephen Merchant and Ellen McClain aren’t just reading jokes from a page, they’re pulling off some fantastic performances both alone and off each other in such a way not seen often in games. Throw in JK Simmons as Aperture Science founder Cave Johnson about halfway through also manages to both be tragically hilarious while filling in some of the history of Aperture Science in such a way that makes that entire section of the game a joy to play through.
And herein lies the biggest problem with Portal 2 – you really want to go into as blindly as possible. It’s really hard here for example, for me not to spoil some of the best bits, because I want to tell you about them so much. To do so would rob you of so much of the joy of this game. As with any present, the surprise is the best part and Portal 2 throws up so many surprises it’s hard not to mention at least one – once you find someone else who’s played through the game, you’ll be sharing so many tales and those ‘do you remember…’ moments with them. They’re so good you won’t think twice about playing through the game again, and of course the developer commentary helps with that but more prominently an entire co-op mode included allows those folks you were talking with earlier to join in on more surprises.
With its own story co-op is also an enjoyable romp itself. With possibly the most adorable and hilarious robots to play as and four portals the puzzles have been made slightly harder yet at the same time encouraging familiar mechanics learned from the single player game (and you should really play co-op AFTER you’ve finished the story, believe us.). Valve have wisely considered that not everyone likes to talk on a microphone either, so they’ve come with an ingenious context-senstive ping system, allowing you to indicate where you’d like your partner to place portals, enter portals, press buttons and pretty much everything else you’d like to tell your partner, without having to go through a complex hierarchy of menus to do so.
It’s a slight shame that being a sequel, that whole element of uniqueness of the first title isn’t quite there this time, and there are slightly too many loading screens, but to be quite honest you would really have to be an impressively ill-tempered miser to let these truly ruin your experience of the game – the good outweighs the bad so absolutely. And any complaints about the length of the game are completely unfounded – the first game was a perfect length for what the game was, and the sequel manages to expand in so many ways, never feeling like it’s being padded out for the sake of it and yet managing to captivate for at least three to four times as long as the original Portal (Portal 2 took me about eight hours to complete the single player alone, about another four for the co-op). Really it’s only the enjoyment of the experience that could possibly have you wishing it lasted just a little longer.
When we first relaunched The Reticule, we had a long discussion about the scoring system, whether we should change it or modify it for the new site. One consensus we did all come to was that Red Mist games should be far rarer than they were before, the best of the best around and not just given out willy-nilly. It therefore seems rather ironic that we’re already awarding our first one within the first two weeks of our relaunch – but Valve have made a title here that not only earns that score with ease, I can proudly say that it may be one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had with a game.
Verdict: Red Mist
Platforms available: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Version reviewed: PC