How on earth are you supposed to follow up a game like Portal? I can only imagine that question had to be at the forefront of the minds of the developers over at Valve as they worked away at this game; it certainly was on the mind of everyone who watched with bemusement and curiosity when it was released in 2011. Portal as an experience was and remains one of the most universally beloved titles in modern gaming history, a surprise smash tacked onto the end of The Orange Box that no-one expected anything of. The rest is, as they say, history: it released to a huge flurry of acclaim and although the years have seen the praise lapse into dormancy, it has settled into a content place as a piece of gaming royalty. Following that up must have felt Herculean in scope and challenge.
Portal 2 (PC, PS3, Switch, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Released Apr 2011 | Developed / Published: Valve
Genre: Puzzle | HLTB: 9 hours
It seems that Valve’s answer to how you create a sequel to Portal was to expand and explain. Both the gameplay and the narrative showcase an evolution from the first game; although the end product is unmistakably Portal, it’s also a far bigger and more extravagant experience. It makes sense that Valve would try and widen the scope of Portal in this way; if there’s one thing they couldn’t do for the sequel it was simply reproduce the same kind of game. While a large part of Portal’s charm and appeal was that it was a super-condensed two-hour game that rocketed you through a rapid-fire series of test chambers one after another, I think if Valve had come out with another release that did that again, I wouldn’t have thought it would be quite as well-received, and it seems like Valve had that thought as well.
To that end, Portal 2 is significantly more plot-oriented than its predecessor. Our hero from the previous game, Chell, wakes after a lengthy period of suspended animation to find the Aperture facility decaying and crumbling around her. She is met by a new companion in Wheatley, a core module similar to those she used to defeat the monstrous AI controller of the facility, GLaDOS in the first game. He’s a bit frantic though as he attempts to hurriedly guide you out of the vast, labyrinthine halls of the facility. He’s also a bit bumbling as he smashes and crashes bits of the breaking centre to pieces in his haste. Before too long you take a tumble and find yourself separated from Wheatley, in the very same testing chambers as the beginning of the first game, except this time they’re decrepit and overrun by plants and mould. Despite that, there’s still a voice over the tannoy prodding you through the tests although in the absence of the inimitable GLaDOS a more robotic automated controller provides your ever-present dry commentary on Aperture’s questionably-ethical testing standards.
It ought not to come as too much of a surprise when you do finally see the return of GLaDOS around a quarter of the way in and suddenly the facility is brought back up to full speed. Because Portal 2 is much more interested in telling a story than its predecessor, there’s actually a fair portion of the game which doesn’t take place in any kind of testing chambers. That really was one of the strengths of the first game: it knew precisely what it wanted to do, and put you through test after test, each one more difficult than the last, never really deviating from that until the final act where you break out and start clambering through the bowels of Aperture Science, behind the scenes away from the clean greys and whites of the test chambers. Portal 2 on the other hand tends to feature test chambers – classic Portal gameplay, if you like – in short bursts. Many chapters will have longer, more corridor-like sections where you might only need to fire one or two portals just to carry on walking, taking in scenery and listening to exposition.
This is especially the case in the middle part of the game after you take a fall down through the layers and layers of the facility and come crash landing back where it all began, at the very base of an underground site where a decades old recording of Aperture founder Cave Johnson talks to the first test subjects about his grand dreams for his company. This is perhaps the most iconic part of Portal 2, as you make your way through ancient test chambers, seeing the decline of aperture preserved as it failed to compete against the rising power of Half-Life’s Black Mesa, and hearing the aging Cave become more and more bitter, railing against the disparity of life and spouting off ever crazier ideas. It’s also sold beautifully by the unmistakable vocal talents of JK Simmons as he fully channels his craziest J. Jonah Jameson vibes to bring Cave to life.
In fact, there’s generally a lot more talking (or at least, time spent listening to other people talking, since Chell remains mute in this game) in Portal 2, and it’s easy to see why. Obviously one of the strengths of Portal was Ellen McLain and her perfect deadpan delivery of GLaDOS’ lines, and it’s a good thing too given that, other than the occasional inquisitive question from a turret before it unloads all its bullets at you, GLaDOS’ is the only voice you hear. It’s a defining aspect of the first game, really, since it puts all the player’s focus on her one-way interactions with Chell, and lets the dark and dry humour of the writing shine through. It seems then that it must’ve been a risky prospect to add in more characters to a Portal game; more writing means more chances to get things wrong, or for voice actors to fall flat, for the humour to fail and become grating. It’s a testament to the sheer ability of the writing team that this never becomes the case.
It’s also no surprise that the central character around which all the dialogue tends to revolve is GLaDOS. In many ways, Portal 2 is a game about her far more than it’s about anything or anyone else. Because Chell remains mute, dialogue has to happen at and around her, but when you start adding in more characters that aspect of her, this inability to respond, runs the risk of looking more and more inauthentic. So instead GLaDOS becomes the focal point around whom the narrative expands; Wheatley fears her and tries to banter with her, and she listens attentively to and responds to Cave Johnson’s rantings. While in practice we see the decline of Aperture across its history, it’s also a story about the importance of GLaDOS and her place inside the intricate, endless maze of the facility. Other Valve games can be about following a traditional narrative as it moves forward – the alien invasion of Black Mesa in Half-Life, for example, or Freeman leading the fight against the Combine rulership over Earth in Half-Life 2 – Portal doesn’t have that luxury. The plot is insular, an entirely self-contained and isolated vignette in the wider world of Valve’s universe, much like Aperture itself in the in-world context in which it exists. The only constant element, and the thing that Valve seemed to need to build around, is GLaDOS.
Portal 2 isn’t some walking simulator though; while a lot of time is given over to the exploration of the narrative, there’s still some puzzling to be completed. Portals obviously make a return with all the same physics-retaining shenanigans as the first game (I confess, I’m gutted there’s no reprise of “speedy thing goes in, speedy things goes out”, even by the dry GLaDOS replacement-bot in the early stages when you do those chambers again). There are though plenty of puzzles that make use of same elements as Portal, including popping cubes down on buttons, redirecting lasers through portals although this time they’re in beam form and not lethal bouncy balls, and avoiding automatic gun turrets. New elements are added, of course. Spring boards fling you and cubes across stages, mirrored cubes that refract beams are scattered around for laser beam-plus-portal conundrums, and hard-light bridges and tractor beams add in more dynamic movement around test chambers. The later stages also add three differently coloured gels, each of which has unique properties; one is a bouncy surface that pings things off it, one is slippy and makes you run faster than normal, and another turns previously-untouchable surfaces into ones onto which you can open portals.
I think the risk here when you add more elements to what was a perfectly concise and balanced puzzle game is that you start to over-complicate stuff. It’s another marker of the mastery of their craft that the Valve developers have that this is only a mild issue with Portal 2. A lesser game might pile all these new tools on you at once and burden its audience with too many options to manage when trying to solve a puzzle. However, it’s the beauty of Portal that the only tool you always have access to is the portal gun. This helps keep your mind more focused when taking on test chambers as you know that whatever you’re facing has to be solved with only these 2 portals you have to hand. Obviously as the game progresses the tests get harder and more complex with more and more moving pieces, but to its credit you’re at least never going to have to deal with every single thing getting thrown at you all at once.
I feel like it was an interesting choice to do a sequel at all, really, and especially to do it this way. Granted it makes sense; I’m not sure how else it could have been done. I kind of wonder how risky it felt to the dev team when they were making it. Everything about the context of Portal 2 is entirely different from its prequel, so the weight of what was being made and asked of consumers had to be a consideration. Portal was a tiny afterthought slapped on to The Orange Box; no one expected anything of it so there were no expectations for it; Portal 2 had a full boxed release with the heft of Portal’s critical acclaim looming over it. Portal was a tiny, puzzle-focused game; 2 is an expansive, narrative experience. It would have been so easy for Portal 2 to fail, to alienate its original audience by breaking the precedent set by the original. That it didn’t and doesn’t is phenomenal. Portal 2 is still excellent, an experience different to the first in enough ways to instead stand separate and equal.
7/7 – TOP TIER.
As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.