I'm not usually one to start off reviews with such hyperbole, but in the case of Portal 2 it's necessary. Because the above isn't simple hyperbole; it's fact.
Portal 2 is a game made of nothing but the utmost excellence. Not a single element falls short. Everything delivers only the absolute best. The writing, witty and humorous, giving the characters infectious personalities; the gameplay, constantly challenging your mental faculties with cleverly crafted puzzles; the story, lengthy and full of intrigue. The sheer amount of care put into crafting this game is immense. That level of love and care is what makes Portal 2 the truly astounding game it is, and, without a doubt, one of the most enthralling gaming experiences ever created.
Portal 2 picks up many years after the events of the previous game. You awake once again in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, this time having woken from cryogenic storage. In the years since your last trek through the sterile halls of Aperture Science, the place has changed -- and not for the better. The facility now rests in a dilapidated state. Plant-life has taken over the place, now resembling a sort of makeshift jungle. The interior lay in shambles, wall panels and broken machinery littering the floor. A more haunting, abandoned tone permeates the scene now, compounded by the low ambient beats of music infrequently chiming in.
Your old friend GLaDOS is back as well. She's now rebuilt herself after you destroyed her in the last game, and is just as dangerous as before. She's now in the process of rebuilding the testing facility, sending Chell (the game's silent protagonist) through another series of test chambers. This time around it's not just you and GLaDOS. You're often accompanied now by a small spherical robot named Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Merchant). He's a meek fellow, bumbling about the place with only a slight measure of knowledge of what it is he's doing. He and GLaDOS are who you hear for the majority of the game, but eventually you encounter the man behind Aperture Science himself: Cave Johnson (voiced by J.K. Simmons), who can only be described as... insane -- and in the best way possible. He's an upbeat guy, always speaking with a strong sense of positivity in his voice, even while explaining the horrific effects his tests may have on participants. (For instance: test subjects' blood being turned into pure gasoline.)
|That's Wheatley, by the way.|
All of the voice actors give brilliant performances. Wheatley is particularly noteworthy because he just seeps comedy without even trying. He's written to be the comedy relief, yet it doesn't feel like he was made for that purpose. It all comes off as just a natural part of his personality. GLaDOS continues with her sarcastic and insulting remarks, which she states with perfect deadpan delivery. Her disdain for Chell literally drips from her voice, the vitriol she spews being superbly hurtful and witty. Just sitting back and hearing the cast talk is one of the most rewarding parts of Portal 2. You often don't want to act immediately because you don't want to miss a line of dialog. Wheatley in particular has a tendency to drivel on, and on, and on, and on; the comedy gold only increasing with each new line spoken. Most amazing is the attention to detail. Do something out of the ordinary -- say, breaking monitors or voluntarily falling into an obvious death trap -- and often the characters will comment on it. Re-playing the game multiple times just to see every line of dialog, therefore, becomes an enticing proposition.
Of course, simply playing through previously conquered test chambers entertains as well. Portal 2 is a puzzle game first and foremost. Its prerogative being to challenge you mentally, yet never once overtax your brain with all the little details. And, boy, are there plenty of small details.
The concept of portal placement may seem like a pedestrian one on cursory inspection -- just place 'em wherever you want and solve puzzles instantly, right? But it's actually much more complicated. Portal thrives on its concept of "thinking with portals." To think with portals, you need to be able to think in multiple dimensions, to understand how portals can be used to propel yourself about the environment. Portals don't act only as gateways, you see. Throwing on the wall next you and another on the wall high above you to access a raised platform may be a common use for portals, but more often than not, they act as a means of transporting other objects and liquids around, setting the scene properly for your elaborate solution.
Puzzles always revolve around finding a way to open the exit. They start off as easy block placement puzzles to get you settled, portals being set at predetermined locations. Then thing start getting increasingly intricate, forcing you to think creatively as you get full control over portal placement. You can only set two portals at a time -- a blue one and an orange one (the colors letting you set them apart; they both function identically). And with those two you will pull off incredible feats.
Moving around the environment is the most common employment. Most of Aperture Laboratories is made with such means of traversal in mind. White walls -- the only ones you can create portals on -- litter both the test chambers and the inner assembly-line workings of the facility. Outside of test chambers, the white-covered walls lead you onward, pushing you toward your next obstacle.
|Repulsion gel: a destructive force when applied on boxes.|
In test chambers, portals take on a greater number of uses. The first game only focused on portal placement. Figuring out how to traverse each test chamber using only portals was all you had to do, which in itself was challenging enough already. Using them to power up doors and transport blocks in addition was enough to generate thought-provoking puzzles. Portal 2 expands on the initial concepts, introducing a ton of new variables to work with. Chief among these are the propulsion and repulsion gels. The former causes you to bounce off of it upon contact, the latter causing you to break into a sprint whenever you walk on it. Used in conjunction, you can fly almost anywhere, within reason of course. Another new element is the solid beams of solar energy, which are used to bridge gaps and as shields against turrets. How these gels interact with portals is typically as a means of directing them around the environment, finding the proper placements being a key component of the puzzles in which these elements appear.
Knowing the many ways portals can be employed is crucial. Looking upon a puzzle for the first time, you'll likely be at a loss at how to proceed. The solution is always in the realm of possibility, though. Never does the game expect you to figure out some outlandish, left-field logic. Labyrinthine solutions aren't ever employed. If you can't figure something out, it's only because you aren't thinking creatively enough. The solution always remains grounded in the game's own logic. By the time the game starts getting more complex with its puzzles, you've already been taught everything you can learn about using portals, gels, and whatever else the game throws at you. It's just a matter of figuring out how to apply that knowledge. The key lies in experimentation.
Portal 2's greatest pleasure comes from solving puzzles. The puzzles here are all intelligently designed, each making you feel incredibly smart for having solved them. As far as rewards go, that's most certainly one of the better ones. The process behind discerning solutions is a long and involved one. It actually feels like you're testing these advanced technologies and elements, participating in some lunatic science experiment. The complexities of working with every puzzle component all at once (which doesn't actually happen, but comes close), require so much micromanagement, so many different applications of portals that keeping everything straight is in and of itself a puzzle. It's tempting to look up the answer, but you don't, because you know you can figure it out. Because you want the satisfaction of solving these devious tests yourself.
At their core, the puzzles are simple; no doubt there. Moving blocks onto buttons, using the environment in creative ways to traipse about the scenery -- it's all stuff that's been done before. They're very familiar concepts. But it's rare to see them done so well, and in such a fresh, remarkable fashion. It's all so varied. In one room you're flinging yourself about via springboards, attempting to catch boxes out of mid-air; the next, you're carefully moving about corridors littered with turrets, attempting to dispatch or avoid them. It always feels like you're doing something new and unexpected.
|Scenes like this are a common sight.|
Things only get better in the cooperative mode, for the dynamics of two players working together concurrently with the aforementioned variables make for more elaborate puzzles and solutions. The co-op sees you take control of two robots, named ATLAS and P-body. GLaDOS created them for a separate cooperative testing program, a story which occurs independently of the single-player campaign. The story here is a lighter affair, consisting solely of navigating test chambers while GLaDOS employs her usual downplaying of their successes and tries to turn the two against one another (and of course fails).
Communication is important, as you can imagine. Working in working together teeters on that very concept. Though voice chat would be the easiest method, Portal 2 has its own solution. Mapped to the d-pad are gestures and ping tools. Gestures are purely there for fun, causing your character to perform a variety of actions ranging from waving or high fiving, to performing ridiculous martial arts-like moves or playing rock, paper, scissors. Doing these in front of cameras draws humorous responses from GLaDOS. The ping tools are what really help. With them, you can direct your partner toward points of interest by pointing and pressing L2, which will set a temporary target on whatever it is you've pinged. You can also set countdowns. It's not a replacement for real communication, but the tools help remedy the usual frustration that comes with not being able to properly communicate something.
Most interesting about the PlayStation 3 version is its Steamworks support. By connecting your Steam account (if you have one), you can gain access to play with players on PC as well as gain access to the Steam Cloud, allowing you to back up your saves online. Though its use is limited if you aren't a regular Steam user, it's a novel idea.
Portal 2 is undoubtedly a masterpiece. It does everything right, exceeding expectations greatly. The puzzles are smartly designed and gratifying to solve. The cooperative mode is a worthwhile addition, receiving the same amount of craft as the single-player portion. Games rarely get anywhere near this level of quality. Portal 2 isn't just a masterpiece: it's one of the greatest games of this generation.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”