Physics is fun. Physicists still haven't been able to determine just how, mathematically, El Jefe de Santo is able to defy the laws of gravity and science from the top rope as he does. He also enjoys placing portals down and having a good time with companion cubes, good tequila and catapaulting these so-called challengers for his heavyweight title off into space.
Full Disclosure: My single player experience, for the first time through anyway, was on a Playstation 3. The co-operative I have managed to play via Steam on PC/Mac.
So, there's this game that came out in 2007 with the Orange Box called Portal. The game was a title thrown-in to the mix with Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life 2 Episodes 1 and 2 that didn't really catch my eye at first. Physics puzzle solving that involved the Portal gun. Sure why not. I, like the millions of others, soon discovered the joy of this little gem. The accolades started rolling in for the title, some even deeming it one of the best of the decade. I'm definitely in that camp.
How, then, does Valve follow up the success of a game that wasn't expected to even be a blip on the radar? The fanbase is rabid, the success quite large (4 million copies sold so far) and expectations were so high that many feared there was no way in Hell they could make a great sequel.
Well, they didn't reinvent the wheel or anything here, but what we're given is the same sort of physics-lovin', science-pimpin', Portal-shootin' escapade we all know in love with a package surrounding it that is better than before. The stakes were bigger with this game and Valve delivered in a humongous way.
Let's hit the basics first shall we?
The Source Engine has been around since the introduction of Half-Life 2 and despite its age still manages to provide a great experience. I never found myself looking at textures or environments within the confines of Aperture Science with disgust. It isn't the best looking game out there by any means but thats not what you play this game for is it? The first game is the definition of quality over quantity, substance over style and the second game is no exception.
Where to start? The voice-acting is phenomenal and Stephen Merchant steals the show as Wheatley. There is so much life and nuance brought to the performance that I didn't really view that little metal ball as a robot at all. I was very aware that it was, essentially, a ball on a rail, but he was so much more than that. He was not only riotously funny at times, but also evolved so much as a character as the story progressed. Any time a game makes me give a damn about some pixels on a screen in such a way I take notice.
GLaDOS, voiced once more by Ellen McLain, is as corrupt as ever and perfectly portrays that malicious intent that I sometimes fear all AI has underneath it. The first game had a very HAL-esque performance from McLain and yet there is still room for our homocidal robot friend to grow.
Cave Johnson, founder of Aperture Science, is voiced by J.K. Simmons and I'll be honest had some of the best lines in the game. Wheatley is, without a doubt, the star of the show, but Simmons managed to make lines that most would consider downright silly sound right. How can you not love having J. Jonah Jameson as a voice actor in your game? Yeah. Exactly. It rules.
We get yet another song from Jonathan Coulton here, and while its not quite as good as "Still Alive" its still DAMN good. The soundtrack, overall, provides a great ambient atmosphere that ramps up at exactly the right moment. The sounds, overall, are crisp and really help to immerse you in the scientific death machine that is Aperture Science.
The first game was such a big deal because of the fact that it featured not only a classic study in dramaturgy via the revelation of the problems that the pristine testing chambers hid and the slow descent of GLaDOS into murderous madness. It was, in short, a fantastic story that introduced us to one of the best villains in all of gaming in GLaDOS. It featured a dark deadpan humor that appealed to science nerds, geeks, freaks and anyone else for that matter.
The second's plotting, taken care of in an expert manner by Jay Pinkerton, remains hilarious, dark and provides us with yet another character to marvel at as they evolve: Wheatley. We are introduced to the little vivrant computerized fellow within the first few moments of the game and from that point on he is never far away.
We, again, assume the role of Chell in adventure and, well, things are even worse than the first time through the testing chambers of Aperture. Things have gone to Hell and GLaDOS is, more or less, caught offguard by your sudden re-emergence. I won't say much else because the one thing I refuse to do is spoil the experience for you, the reader, but suffice to say you won't be disappointed.
There will be portals placed and puzzles solved. The core mechanics of the gameplay haven't changed much at all and that is a great thing. One of the main reasons that the first game was so damn good is that gameplay was king. The story and voice-acting are lovely, but the game was nothing without solid mechanics. They also manage to, quite expertly, keep the pace brisk and present puzzles that are challenging but never so tough that one has to pull their hair out or have to consult a strategy guide just to figure them out. Valve manages to walk the line so well here in making sure we're stimulated intellectually yet never left to just rot if we just can't figure out where to go next. The hand-holding soon stops and we're left to figure out for ourselves what to do, but we're never truly left out in the cold.
The new elements introduced such as repulsion gel, tractor beams, light bridges and so forth bring so much more to the table in terms of how to solve puzzles that there really is no one way to solve a puzzle as the levels progress further.
The co-operative play, which takes up where the single-player campaign ends, is brilliantly done. You HAVE to work together and selfish teammates who want to just Rambo everytthing will get their partner killed and science will not get done. I've managed to play a few co-op sessions via Steam on the PC and each one had numerous moments where I laughed aloud heartily, felt proud that we accomplished something and just generally felt awesome. The two bots, P-Body and Atlas, are expressive, lively and provide excellent avatars to solve puzzles through. The gestures are great, though I'm not a huge fan of having to buy more of them a'la the microtransaction services introduced in TF2.
The single player is great, the co-op is even better and also provides a whole new set of puzzles to tackle. I'm sure more will come later with DLC and the community will step up to provide even more in time.
First things first, if you don't buy this game you're missing out on an amazing experience. If you haven't played the first one either then get that one too. Both games are fantastic, but that's not what this review is covering. The question is: Is Portal 2 great? Indeed it is.
The game, through strong storytelling, characterization and excellent gameplay, manages to provide a rich experience that challenges you but never leaves you frustrated and ready to toss the controller/mouse out the window. Its not quite as tight as the first game, but then again the scale is bigger here. There were more hands on this as it came out of the studio and, thus, offers a broader narrative than the first.
Is it better than the first? In some ways it definitely is and others it isn't. That, in no way, means I'm saying to not play it because you should. The puzzles were king in the first game, and are still a humongous component here in the second but Valve, it seems to me, wanted to make the story a much more substantial part of the overall experience here. All that said this game is an amazing ride that is well worth taking.
Buy it. Buy it now. You won't regret it. This is, without a doubt, a Game of the Year contender.
Agree or disagree? Leave a comment, email or hit me up via Twitter. Perhaps I'll appear via an exit portal and hit you with a deluxe hurricanrana that, in turn, flings you into an infinite loop set in motion by two other portals. I ROLL HARD.