Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk
Though their idea of what conforms to “episodic” content is at odds with most of the rest of the planet, Valve not only have a knack for producing immaculately polished games but bringing through ideas that others may consider a little too outlandish for mass appeal. Bearded, nerdy protagonists? Buying up mod makers? Melting your brain as you unhinge your concept of the relative dimensions and fabric of time and space? Well, just space, but either way, it’ll never catch on.
But, boy, did it.
The first Portal blew many away with its subtle blend of humour and inventive puzzling, something that has not been lost in the intervening four years. Any worry that it was somehow a flash in the pan, a one trick pony, is swiftly put to bed as the people behind Half Life not only manage to extend the offering into a complete standalone package, but also succeed in significantly improving upon it.
What made the first such a success, tucked away inside the Orange Box, was presenting a joyful gaming amuse-bouche of the highest order. Three or four hours honed to a tee, but that sort of length would never do for a sequel. Rather than pad, however, the tale leads us on a trip through the lengths and depths of Aperture Science’s complex.
Spring-loaded platforms; bouncy, blue Propulsion Gel; speed enhancing Repulsion Gel, gravity lift-esque Excursion Funnels and hard-light bridges are all unearthed in long forgotten vaults, and each is slowly introduced to enhance the rich toolbox the puzzle designers have created to test your grey matter.
The original premise of placing rips in the very substance of the universe – or “portals” as they are so lovingly known – is always at the heart of any situation you may find yourself in, but steadily it is not just white walls you need to concern yourself with. At times portals become more a means of accessing the other tools at your disposal, and this change of tact further adds to the wondrous conundrums on offer.
Drop one end of the portal under the propulsion gel tap and place the other over there, put a spot of repulsion gel to the left and before you know it you feel like a highly trained circus performer. Bouncing and sliding, flying through the air before passing through your portal to be thrown across the map: the sensation of a high octane (or cerebral) solution is barely matched in any other digital experience.
The inclusion of additional elements also allows level design to blossom, with vast structures where exits are barely visible, adding to the feeling that everything in number two is bigger and better. And yet at no point does Portal hold your hand. There’s the odd “Press X to pull switch”, but bar the usual keen sense of direction smuggled away in lighting and understated background design, you’re left to your own devices. As such, when tricky solutions come about, you are left feeling a genius, knowing that you somehow beat this latest test of wits. The lack of patronising hints is most refreshing, especially as a considered look around your surroundings will do much a similar job.
Throughout the eight-hour campaign, ideas are never left long enough to go stale. Your initial introduction and escape from the compound with lowly droid Wheatly, voiced by one Stephen Merchant, swiftly makes way for the return of an old friend, which in turn makes way for a variety of challenges and settings that are almost unthinkable given the first Portal.
If truth be told, my biggest fear was the inclusion of Mr Merchant. The Office co-writer and general whitterer’s presence as lowly droid Wheatly had me in mind of Danny Wallace’s appearance in Assassin’s Creed 2, whose stilted performance did little for anybody. By contrast, the character and bumbling nature Merchant’s casual and superb comic timing brings to the role creates a perfect and amusing counterpoint to the dry, calculating GLaDOS. Between the pair of them they both contribute to some truly fantastic one-liners, far too numerous to be noted here.
To round the package off, if fantastic pacing and puzzling weren’t enough for you, there is a dedicated co-op campaign that’s as well-rounded as the solo equivalent. This isn’t just a second pair of hands helping you on your way, these test chambers are just as – if not more – polished, for when you’ve got four portals as opposed to two a whole new set of brain teasers can come to the fore.
Your team will require communication and timing if you are to struggle through the obstacle courses that GLaDOS has waiting for you, but their extension on the main story shows just what variety and depth can be still be extracted with just a subtle tweak on the formula. That’s if you can get over the childish fun of yoinking out portals from beneath your partners feet and sending them crashing to their doom.
Portal 2 delivers on every possible level. From the iteration and refreshment of the original, to a story that amuses and flows from beginning to end, Valve have excelled in presenting an at-times devilish puzzler that somehow makes you feel like Einstein and Superman in the same stroke. There’s no debate about it, Portal 2 will simply make your life better.
Just like smooth jazz, which will be deployed in 3… 2… 1…