Innovation. That’s a word that gets thrown around a lot in game reviews, and rarely is it ever really deserved. Portal was an exception. From its humble origins as a student project at DigiPen, Portal’s innovative (See? See what I did there?) yet stunningly simple mechanics did things that truly had not been done before. On top of that, the game managed to do those things with a very distinct style and fantastic writing. Having aced all areas of the test, Portal is a legitimate all-time classic.
So it’s worth asking the question—does Portal 2 need to exist?
Just because it’s a classic doesn’t mean there aren’t things to criticize in Portal. For example, the game was only about three hours long, the environments were sterile, and some of the puzzle mechanics became repetitive by the later levels. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a fantastic game, but it felt…small. Even considering how good it was, it still didn’t seem to have reached its full potential. Fortunately for us, Portal 2 fills that potential with luscious, gooey gel.
The Portals are, at their cold and dismissive hearts, puzzle games. There is a succession of levels with steadily increasing difficulty and a specific solution (usually) that the player has to find. It’s a very traditional setup that gaming has used since ancient times—here’s your goal, now figure out how to get it. Of course, the key to making all of this unique is the portal gun itself. “Thinking with portals” is a very apt phrase, since the portal gun makes the player think in a very different way than most other puzzlers. The challenge is not simply “how do I get past these obstacles?”, but “how do I make the obstacles work for me?”
The single-player campaign of Portal 2 clocks in at about twelve hours (give or take depending on your puzzle-solving prowess), assuaging anyone who thought the first game needed to be beefier. The obstacles are much more varied this time around, and new toys are introduced at such a rate that any sense of staleness is kept safely at bay. The “ohhhhh” moments of finally realizing the solution to a given puzzle are as enthralling as ever, and if you’ll permit me to get a little less serious for a moment, the portal gun is still just plain cool.
Fun toys and good puzzle design would be enough to make a good game on their own, but Portal wrapped all of the goodies in a funny and memorable package; GLaDOS. The cake is a lie. Weighted companion cube. Still Alive. Anyone who hasn’t been living under a cube probably knows what those things are even if they’ve never played Portal. Its notoriety far outpaced anything the game itself could have possibly achieved with mechanics alone, and Portal 2keeps the flame going in this regard.
The humor on display is still crisp and biting as GLaDOS picks up right where she left off with her gleefully condescending monologues. However, Portal 2 takes quite a few steps beyond simple gallows humor and inserts a bit of real character. The story that is steadily revealed about the Aperture facility and the origins of GLaDOS, while still amusing, actually made me feel for her. (Just a little bit.) Add in Stephen Merchant’s Wheatley and a delightful appearance by JK Simmons (who arguably outshines GLaDOS herself) and we’ve got an experience that matches the original in terms atmosphere. Writing and voice acting can make the difference between a good game and a great one, and it’s a concept that Erik Wolpaw and company seem to understand perfectly.
Now if what I just described was all Portal 2 had to offer, then it would be more or less a meatier version of the first game. That’s still a damn good game, but it’s not quite in the upper echelon with some of my other favorites. However, Portal 2 also comes with one of the most ingenious and enjoyable co-op modes that I’ve ever played. It’s this aspect that pushes it beyond the original and makes it a great game in its own right.
The addition of a second player with a portal gun makes for some wonderful possibilities. The process of solving puzzles collectively with the other player is an absolute blast, and GLaDOS’s amusing little chats carry over seamlessly. It’s also a riot when one of the players (usually me) thinks to himself “oh yeah I know how to do this” and then proceeds to throw himself to an incredibly amusing death. Besides, the co-op robots are just so… cute. Both my partner and I developed a childlike fascination with messing around with the extra portals and the robots’ various gestures. Again, adding that extra sense of feeling is what pushes it past a merely mechanically impressive experience.
However, because the enjoyment of co-op is so strongly tied to solving puzzles together with a partner, I very strongly recommend that the co-op mode be played with someone who doesn’t know the solutions to all the puzzles. Playing with someone who had already been through them all made me feel like I was just tagging along, and GLaDOS was all too quick to reinforce that notion. Besides, the little race to see who can solve the puzzle first is quite thrilling.
So do we need Portal 2? Do I need it? Maybe not, but I’m sure as hell glad it exists. The portal aspect has probably reached its zenith in Portal 2, and given the way the game ends I don’t think there’s much room for a Portal 3. Indeed, I would say it’s time for portals to branch their physics-defying awesomeness into other genres. Think of it—someday we critics might snarkily dismiss “run of the mill portals” as a mundane, outdated mechanic like key fetch quests or unskippable cut-scenes. However, in the meantime we can give Portal 2 the jubilant praise it so rightly deserves.