Amongst my friends and I, Valve are almost revered; we’re all hardcore gamers and customers of Steam, and Valve’s dedication to the PC platform as well as their undeniable talent at producing truly innovative and enjoyable first-person shooters is more than welcome in today’s games industry. When Portal first burst onto the scene four years ago as a short companion to Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2 in the Orange Box collection, I don’t think anybody expected it to be received quite as well as it was: quirky, intuitive and almost entirely non-violent, it wasn’t standard shooter fare and it certainly wasn’t a typical Valve production. Now, after countless delays and an almost palpable amount of hype, its sequel is hitting as a full-scale cross-platform retail game, which looks to be Valve’s biggest launch since Half-Life 2.
Players reprise their role as Chell, test subject in the Aperture Science Enrichment Centre, although a considerable amount of time has passed since the previous game. Chell is woken from stasis by Wheatley, a small and fairly helpless robot to which Stephen Merchant lends his voice and personality. There’s no doubt that he will soon become a favourite character amongst many, thanks to his endearing friendly demeanour and Bristol accent. After he unintentionally revives GLaDOS, the robotic manager of the facility, Chell is once again flung into the facility’s test chambers to resume the slew of portal-related tests started in the previous game.
I’ll be honest here: I held high expectations, having seriously enjoyed the first game, and Valve managed to fulfil most of them. Portal 2 has a strong narrative, and the three primary characters you’ll hear speaking to you are brimming with character. There’s a huge chunk of Aperture Science’s history revealed through the game as you find yourself exploring test chambers which have remained undisturbed since the ’70s and ’80s, complete with aged propaganda and old company slogans. There’s much more depth to the story than there was in the previous game, humour consistently complementing a more serious aspect of story development. There’s not much more basis provided to tie the Portal and Half-Life universes together, besides what is already known about their shared universe, although a reference to Black Mesa and a derelict drydock has certainly stirred more interest in Half-Life 2: Episode Three.
While I managed to beat the single-player in little less than seven hours, this didn’t feel particularly short to me. There was a fantastic narrative, plenty of difficult puzzles, and some beautiful environments. Dialogue was never interrupted as it often was in the first game, and the testing never became overly tedious; ultimately, they managed to find a good balance of length and quality with which to explore the classic Portal formula of “test, escape, destroy”. It also seems as though it’s harder to break the rules, whereas the first game contained plenty of glitches commonly exploited by speed-gamers. Annoyingly, loading screens appear frequently and break up the pace significantly, as the simple “Loading” text overlay has been dropped in lieu of a black screen bearing the Aperture Science logo.
The new gameplay mechanics also help add more layers of puzzle to the game, introducing three gels which alter the properties of surfaces coated in them: Repulsion Gel and Propulsion Gel create bouncy and frictionless surfaces respectively, while Conversion Gel allows players to create a Portal on any surface coated with it. Manipulating these gels through portals is much easier than it might sound, but requires careful co-ordination and intuition, and demands a much better awareness of your surroundings. Ultimately, it eliminates your ability to simply look around for portal-friendly surfaces, eliciting a little creativity on the player’s behalf. Unfortunately, I found most of the gel-heavy puzzles to be annoying, although they are thankfully implemented much more subtly in later challenges following their introduction. Hard-light bridges are probably the best substantial addition to the game, creating solid bridges that extend through portals, serving as both walkways and shields from turrets.
Some gameplay elements from the original game have also been replaced with updated counterparts; the energy balls manipulated to active switches in the first game have been replaced with “thermal discouragement” lasers, which can be refracted and redirected with special boxes to activate switches and destroy turrets. Some of the most complex puzzles in the game involve redirecting lasers several times with portals and boxes to activate several switches, which can be delightfully confusing. While similar in function to the energy balls, their increased precision and complexity provides a wider range of challenges, and some key puzzles force you to interrupt the refraction of lasers previously arranged.
There’s also a considerable shift in setting from the first game to the second. While the Enrichment Centre looked pristine in the first game, it has now been subject to hundreds to thousands of years of weathering and damage, destroying its structural integrity and resulting in rampant plant growth. The building may be in bad condition, but it looks great, with dirt and detriment adding character to what would otherwise be bland white walls, and the sight of GLaDOS actively repairing chambers as you proceed through them is undeniably impressive. Some sections of the game involve travelling outdoors, where the detail in the environments truly show the improvements made to the Source engine in terms of lighting and environment rendering. In higher resolutions, the game looks simply gorgeous. If Episode Three looks anywhere near this impressive, we’ll be seeing a lot of pleased fanboys, even if gibbing hasn’t been improved.
The sound design of the game also deserves praise, as the score becomes a dynamic complement to the action. While a more ambient sound was given to the first game, Portal 2 uses a more electronic and upbeat sound, which I found to be reminiscent of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ The Social Network score at times. Not only this, but the music adapts itself, with complementing melodies appearing and disappearing as switches are activated and deactivated. It’s subtle but it’s pleasant, and it creates an organic and improvised feel to a soundtrack that is decidedly electronic. Of course, there’s also the brand new credits song from Jonathan Coulton, who wrote “Still Alive” for the original game, which promptly became an Internet culture phenomenon. The new song, “Want You Gone”, drops the distinct guitar sound of its predecessor in favour of a poppy electronic melody, matching the score and tone of the game.
A large chunk of the game is comprised of the co-op mode, which stands apart from the single-player campaign. Any two players can team up to make their way through all-new test chambers as Atlas and P-Body, two Aperture Science robots designed for testing. Communication is necessary to work together effectively, although Valve appear to have enforced this by removing the ability to turn off your microphone. The first few minutes of my first co-op experience were muddled and confused before I realised my partner was not using a headset and the sound of his game was causing an echo which we couldn’t combat. Issues aside, the voice communication is kindly complemented by a pointer tool, which allows you to quickly point out particular surfaces to your partner, or even initiate a three-second countdown to synchronise timing-sensitive operations.
The inclusion of co-op easily doubles the game’s playtime, as the co-op chambers take roughly seven hours to work through. There is narrative here too, although it’s difficult to focus on dialogue when constant voice communication is enforced. There’s a subsection in the menu called the “Robot Enrichment Centre” which also allows players to customise their characters by donning hats or skins. These work similarly to Team Fortress 2 in that they can be equipped from your Backpack, and are either unlocked in-game or purchased from a virtual store for ridiculous prices. While I would never entertain the notion of dropping three quid on a virtual skin that only other players would see, I’m sure this feature has a market in the rich and the irresponsible.
The biggest question here is, of course: does Portal 2 live up to its predecessor? It’s a difficult question to answer, as there are vast differences in length and complexity, particularly since only one is marketed as a full-retail game. However, despite the relative lack of innovation, Portal 2’s seven-hour trek through Aperture Laboratories is fascinating, enjoyable, and difficult to criticise. Much of the writing is comic genius and delivered perfectly; playing Portal 2 with the sound turned off is probably one of the most horrific affronts to comedy worldwide. When co-op and its resultant scope in playing multiplayer is brought into the equation, it’s hard to deny that this is one of the most poignant games I’ve played in a long time.
Is it worthy of the title “Game of the Year”? It seems too early to say, as we’re barely a quarter of the way through 2011, but it’s certainly one of the most impressive games I’ve played this year. The ending is vaguely open-ended but entirely satisfying, and I’ll be more than happy to see the Portal series end here, but it’s clear there’s plenty more of this universe to explore, and Half-Life 2: Episode Three could certainly pick up the reigns of the narrative from here. Even if puzzle isn’t typically your thing, I can only think of reasons to encourage you to buy Portal 2: it may be the best thirty quid you’ll spend all year.