[This review contains spoilers, so don’t even think of reading it if you plan to play i!t]
Portal 2 is a game that does everything right, but your experience can vary quite a lot depending on if you have played its predecessor before. Valve did really the best possible job anyone could have done on a sequel of a game that drew much of its acclaim from an innovative and quite genius feature.
I’m talking about the portal gun, of course, and if you have played Portal before, this game will not give you quite the same feeling of joy right from the start. Instead, you’ll feel happy to be back in Portal’s world, and intrigued to see the new things. There’s a fine balance here to strike, to ease new players into the game but also to give veterans new things to feast on. I find Valve did perfectly in almost every aspect.
The game starts when Chell wakes up in what appears to be a crappy old motel room, which soon turns out to be a simulation where the test subjects of the Aperture facility are keep in some sort of cryogenic sleep. Anyways, Chell soon gets to meet one of the stars of the game, a robot called Wheatley. Oh he’s such a great character. He’s so well written and immediately sympathetic. The voice acting in particular is top notch.
Soon the player realizes that a long long time has passed since the first game. Some apocalypse seems to have taken place, where all the other test subjects died and the entire facility abandoned, lying in ruins. It would have an eerie feel to it, were it not for Wheatley and the funky almost Danny Elfman like music. So one makes their way through the first easy tutorial challenges. Perfect for newcomers, and still interesting for veterans, because of the condition of the test chambers. You have vegetation growing from cracks in the walls, debris lying around everywhere and it gives it a whole new post apocalyptic feel.
And yet, there is a sense of nostalgia, as some of the first tests are exact replicas (maybe the exact same ones?) of the chambers in the first game. So anyways, with Wheatley around, the game fills in the absence of GLaDOS in the beginning. Soon though, you both revive GLaDOS, and then it really begins. It’s a cold, but also fun reunion with her, and you find yourself in the almost same situation as in Portal, working your way through her creations.
Her bitterness at having been defeated by you, and her hatred towards you is expressed in her fun lines throughout that stretch of levels. With the help of Wheatley though, you soon get on the track of defeating her. I thought that this was the end, when you plug Wheatley in the system to take over her. Oh was I wrong. In a great twist where GLaDOS is put into potato battery by Wheatley and him becoming mad with power, you find yourself hurtled into the deepest depths of Aperture Science, and going through a little history lesson of the place. You also learn about the origin of GLaDOS and Wheatley, and while the world was hardly explained in Portal 1, everything becomes now much more fleshed out and fascinating.
This is where Portal 2 loses its focus a bit in being a puzzle game and it deviates more into a sight-seeing tour. I don’t mind that one bit though. After all, the writing is still top-notch, with Cave Johnson the latest source for an internet meme (lemon rant). The new mechanics introduced, the 3 types of gel raise the level of complexity of the puzzles quite a bit higher and they are a lot of fun. One finds GLaDOS and sort of teams up with her during this act. I even started to feel some compassion for her, she’s just an AI, modeled after the brain of a dead scientist in love with Johnson, and her affection for him made me pity her a bit even.
Valve was so right to shift the focus of the game a bit from the linear puzzle sequence and to give the world more context, in my opinion. For hardcore puzzlers, this will seem annoying, and there’s people who even stated that this is “just” Portal, a puzzle game with portals, so to hell with all that story and the environments. I feel that for a AAA single-player campaign, these things are very important and I’m glad they’re there. After all, the hard-core puzzling is found in the coop mode, and I believe that modders will provide new maps in the future.
The only problem I had, though minimal, was that because the story sequences were so awesome, I wanted more of them, I wanted more story and events to take place, and so some lengthy, pure-puzzling sequences made me impatient, where in Portal 1 I was never impatient.
Oh and the sound of the game was just perfect, so, so, perfect. It’s always easy to forget about the soundtrack, but it supports the game so much. From the perfect voice acting to the whacky/ominous/sciencey/thrilling sound effects to the ending credits song, they’re all done really well, and fit in great. I turned my head many times to see out the window if a house collapsed in my neighborhood. It’s almost creepy.
Many people will argue about which is better, the first or the second game, and hold some things against Portal 2 that it can’t be faulted for (less sense of innovation, or trying to give more story and context to the world), but hey, is there really a need to choose either one? Let’s just think of the Portal games as one big game! Really, try playing them one after the other, I did it and it was awesome.
One thing: I wish more developers had a commentary mode. I realize that it wouldn’t fit well into many other styles of games, but the insight one gains is awesome, it adds more replay value than all the branching storylines or achievements in the world for me.