So I could start this review off with a well-spoken diatribe qualifying Portal 2 and its brilliance. Perhaps I could wax poetic about the franchise’s relatively modest start as a budget pack-in title in a compilation already stuffed with Valve’s heavyweights. Or I could somehow make a contrived observation of the deeper meaning behind it all, and try to argue the old “games aren’t art” case so eloquently it’d convince even Roger Ebert.
But f*ck it. Eloquent? Poetic? That’s not me at all. The fact of the matter is this: Portal 2 is the gaming benchmark of this generation. From the wildly charming beginning to the speechlessly epic end, it’s filled to the brim with clever gameplay, even more clever writing, and a narrative that’s compelling, to say the least. That’s really all you need to know, but if you want non-spoiler-filled specifics, read on.
First off, this review is going to be as brief as I can possibly make it, so as to avoid any spoilers. Portal 2 is one of those games that should be experienced with as little knowledge of the game as possible; to even give a couple minor, specific examples within the game would be a disservice to Valve and the masterpiece they’ve crafted.
Most of that is due to the impossibly clever writing and narrative Valve has managed to cull out of their staff. The writing is just hopelessly brilliant; it’s the kind of creative achievement that most people strive their entire careers to complete. The dialogue between characters is just so witty, funny, and fresh, you can’t help but be depressed, knowing you will never be able to write anything that good EVER.
Wheatley, one of the new characters, is perhaps the first iconic character of this decade. Voiced by British comedy superstar Stephen Merchant, there’s not one line that comes out of Wheatley’s mouth that isn’t perfectly executed and hilariously charming. GLaDOS is back and displays a magnificently cruel sense of humor, and Aperture CEO Cave Johnson utters some absolute gems later on, but Wheatley just completely steals the show. This is right about where I’d list examples, but to do so would deprive you folks of being able to hear the dialogue firsthand. It would be the equivalent of spoiling the funniest moment in a classic comedy for someone who’d never seen it before, except in the case of Portal 2, nearly every funny line is the funniest line in the game.
The best part is all of this is somehow contained within the confines of the narrative. These aren’t throwaway jokes or one-liners; they’re lines of dialogue that actually drive the engaging narrative. As we’ve known for a while, GLaDOS and Chell are back at Aperture, except the circumstances have changed quite a bit. As Chell, you’ve just woken up from an extremely extended sleep, with no clue what’s going on. What follows is the most impeccably well-paced, delightfully written story in years. Not only is the dialogue smart, but the plot is just so original and refreshing, it’s almost jarring in this era of sci-fi/military/post-apocalyptic/zombie madness.
The best way to describe Portal 2′s plot would be “Pixaresque”, right down to the signature Pixar humor, plot development, and perfect balance between light-hearted moments and intense, dark emotional sequences. Few games this year, or hell, this generation, have figured out to make a game full of epic set pieces, personable characters, and captivating plot, but Valve has somehow managed to not only mesh those together seamlessly, but do so within the first fifteen minutes of the game. I never thought I’d say Portal 2 contains more “holy baby Jesus on a stick!” moments than Crysis 2, but it’s undoubtedly true. The graphics may not even come close to anything Crytek puts out, but the Source engine is pushed to an impressive level with Portal 2 that’s more than serviceable.
Combine that with the most satisfying gameplay I’ve had this year, and you’ve got something special. The Portal Gun is back from the first game (duh), and to make sure the standard physics puzzles wouldn’t get too old or too easy, Valve has added other puzzle elements into the mix. Things like lasers, tractor beams, launchers, and gel make their debut, and they make Portal 2 considerably tougher than the first one. You won’t notice too much of a chasm in difficulty though, as Valve introduces the additional obstacles on such a manageable curve that by the time tractor beams are introduced, you’ll just be using your noggin to solve the puzzles, and not have to wrestle around with the new roadblocks to find a way to the exit.
If there’s one thing that I could’ve wanted more out of the gameplay, it’s more twitchy type puzzles, like those found in the first game. Most of them here aren’t as dependent on shooting another portal at a different platform as you pop out of the other portal; rather, they’re affairs in which you plan out your route and course of action, and then undergo that plan to succeed. It’s not much of a complaint though, because once you figure out the solutions, you’ll still feel like an accidental genius or a straight-up badass, especially with the puzzles involving gel. Thanks to the orange Propulsion Gel, Portal 2 might be the best Sonic the Hedgehog game I’ve played since the originals.
And besides, some of the more twitchy puzzle-shooting was saved for the co-op, which truly is the most cooperative game I’ve played since Left 4 Dead 2. This is true, balls to the wall co-op puzzle solving, where a trustworthy, intelligent partner-in-crime is required to solve all the puzzles, which are often much more difficult than those of the single player variety. It may be a test of patience for some, but when the meticulous planning is done (headset required of course), and the puzzles are solved, it’s so damned rewarding, you forget about all of that. It’s like they’ve managed to solve the one flaw of the single player: when you solve a particularly hard puzzle all by yourself, you have no one with which to revel in your badassery. In co-op, it’s a downright celebration afterwards, and it’s a true-to-heart team building exercise.
The superb writing is just as present in co-op as well. Instead of making it an out-of-canon collection of levels, Valve has actually added an equally compelling narrative to the co-op that ties in pretty well to the single player story. I’d recommend you play the co-op after you’ve beaten the single player, as it references some events in the single player that you may not want spoiled.
It’s GLaDOS’ time to shine in this mode, not only because she utters some absolutely hilarious one-liners, but also because throughout the entire co-op campaign, she tries to pit the two players against each other with some hilariously caustic, manipulative banter. Often times she’ll say things to one player that the other player actually won’t hear; the only way I was made aware of this was when John Colaw and I were co-op’ing, we’d ask each other if we just heard what GLaDOS said. It’s so cunning, I was rendered speechless; it begs the question, how many people are even going to notice it?
I also have to mention that the PS3 version of the game was advertised as being able to play co-op with PC players via Steam, and I don’t know what kind of sorcery they used, but it works, and really damned well for that matter. I played a couple hours of co-op on my PS3 with Mr. Danl Haas playing on the PC, and aside from some literal split-second lag, the connection was seamless and absolutely unnoticeable. If it weren’t for the big fat “Steam on PlayStation 3” status message in my Steam profile, I don’t think Danl would have realized I’m playing on a console.
As of this writing, Portal 2 has been out for about two days, and already I’ve put about 20 hours into the game. Beating the single player took about eight hours, if that, while the co-op took five. That may sound short, but I’ve already started up the single player again, and am set to play through the co-op with other friends later on as well. There’s just so many things I feel like I’ve missed in the single player; if you’re like me and beat the game in one sitting, you really should play it a second and/or third time and take your time exploring every single nook and cranny of the game and find all the hidden goodies and Easter eggs. Additionally, as with all Valve games, it’s most definitely worth it to play through the game again with the developer commentary, as you’ll gain insight into how such a perfect environment was crafted.
At this point, I’m all out of synonyms for the words “perfect” and “brilliant”, so I’m just going to conclude with this: Portal 2 is the perfect game. I can’t find one thing wrong with it, to the point that it’s almost frustrating/depressing that I can’t. Where do I go from here on out? What video game could I possibly play that could top Valve’s brilliant writing and unrivaled gameplay? How is Portal 3 even going to top this?
Existential gaming crisis aside, Portal 2 is a seminal entry into this gaming generation, and the very first literal “must play” of the year. In the future, when there are classes on playing video games, Portal 2 will be “required reading”. It’s my game of the year so far, hands down, and I’m not quite sure anything else can beat it. Hell, I don’t even know if I want any other game to beat it. Go play it any which way you can; you owe it to yourself to experience the magic.
Or should I say, science?