A first person puzzle game from the makers of Half Life 2, Portal was part of The Orange Box, a collection of games including Half Life 2: Episodes One and Two and Team Fortress (an online-only Quake-mod multiplayer deathmatch game). In Portal the player controls an anonymous female test subject (later to be identified as ‘Chell’), and the game consists primarily of a series of tests and puzzles set in the clinical, prison-like Aperture Science Labs. The tests can only be solved by creating “portals” with a portal “gun”, through which the player can pass and carry certain objects in order to reach the exit of the test room. Constantly monitored and ordered around by a female AI named GLaDOS, her ever-present sing-song sarcasm and thinly-veiled menace, combined with the clinical setting and mentally taxing physics-based puzzles gave the game a truly unique and lonesome feel, and brought the game wide acclaim.
Although I was a huge fan of the original I had completely forgotten all about Portal 2 until it plopped through the letterbox, and I'm suspecting strongly that it might turn out to be one of my games of the year. From the strange but effective casting of Stephen Merchant as a sort of confidence-lacking 343 Guilty Spark (the Monitor in Halo) maintenance bot who seems to be trying to help you, to the devilishly clever physics puzzles and a substantial 2-player co-op story Portal 2 would appear to be the game fans of the original have been longing for.
If you thought you’d escaped at the end of Portal then you obviously haven’t seen the patched ending-I won’t spoil it. Chell (that’s you) has been placed in stasis for many years and are suddenly awakened by Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Merchant), a rail-based AI who seems to want to save your life and help you escape. The facility has been untouched by human hands for countless years and is now decaying and literally falling apart, even to the extent where trees and plants are overgrowing the test rooms here and there. Rather than being confined to the clinical white-walled settings of the first game, most of Portal 2’s story has you traversing the laboratory ‘behind the scenes’, which turns out to be a huge underground cavern with interlinked test spheres.
Wheatley soon helps you locate a portal gun (you fire one portal with the left trigger and the other with the right) and then the test starts for real. The initial tests are simple; using portals to get to inaccessible ledges and platforms, placing blocks on pressure switches and suchlike. Soon impossible looking leaps will be required, but if you’re a veteran of the first Portal as you’ll soon recall that you can achieve massive speed by passing through successive portals, and then ‘jump’ huge heights/distances by then exiting a portal fired in the right place. Many tests still require a lot of exploration and those gamers who have gotten used to being led by the hand in games will probably hate the lack of help you get, but it was what a lot of people, myself included, loved about Portal and the sequel is no different. Some people will wander around and try everything they can, experimenting with what they can move with portals and where they can portal to, in order to produce a positive outcome and escape, others will decide they “can’t be arsed” and go and watch My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding instead-that’s what makes us different, that’s human nature. Some locations are so large that when looking for a solution the ability to zoom in for a closer view (hold RB) is a handy feature, and, although you don’t need it often, crouch is mapped to ‘B’. I don’t know why there’s no toggle on crouch (you have to hold ’B’ down) because it would have been handy on a couple of occasions when turrets are shooting at you, but it’s not a huge problem.
New facets to Portal 2’s tests are added by the inclusion of Excursion Funnels (a sort of energy tube that you can use to transport yourself) and three types of gel; blue Repulsion gel makes any surface it coats bouncy, Orange Propulsion gel makes surfaces friction-free, white Conversion gel that allows any surface treated to be portal’ed into. The gels themselves are rendered using new fluid dynamics routines and look truly liquid. Other new features include ‘Hard Light Bridges’ which can be walked across, or used as bullet-proof barriers if laid on their side. The new features obviously open up all sorts of new possibilities for puzzles, and you’ll enter some rooms to be convinced that something is missing only to have a head-slapping “Doh!” moment as you figure the solution out. Portal 2 retains the original game’s ability to frustrate and delight in equal measure.
A sublime 2-player mode sees you and a buddy play a substantial set of 40 or so specially designed co-op tests via split-screen or Xbox Live. Playing as two robots (Atlas and P-body) true co-operative play has never been more vital, and unlike many split-screen co-op modes most levels seem to be designed so you do actually need two players to play them through. Valve cleverly included the ability to point to a surface or object, or tell your buddy via an icon system where to make a portal, or ‘stay there’, or pop up an inset screen showing your partner’s view in online co-op (you obviously don’t need this function in split-screen mode) or even to perform a countdown, as some levels require exact timing or simultaneous actions on certain objects. Valve also tried and wisely discarded an adversarial multiplayer mode (it played a bit like a game of Speedball), which would have been fun for five minutes and then discarded into the bin where all the other gratuitous multiplayer games go. The co-op story takes place chronologically after the single player campaign and the two stories are cleverly tied together, though it doesn’t really matter which one you complete first. The Portal 2 co-op story was every bit as much fun to play through as any of the big-name FPS, and more than most, and the puzzles seemed a bit tougher than the solo story, which is as it should be.
Portal 2 definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but then, what game is? Thanks mainly to Wheatley and GLaDOS’s cuttingly witty dialog, its solo story feels less lonely than the original and the new co-op mode means that problems can be shared, often with hilarious results. If you want a game to test both your hand/eye coordination and your grey matter while simultaneously keeping you genuinely amused with some sharp humour, look no further.