In less capable hands, Portal 2 could have been a disaster. As part of Valve’s mighty Orange Box, the original felt like the sort of brilliant support act you sometimes find on a stadium tour, threatening to blow the main band - Half Life 2: Episode 2 - off the stage. It didn’t matter that it was short or less graphically impressive, because for its brief running time it was smart, tight, inventive and engaging. Through dint of its own imagination, it couldn’t help but capture yours.
Who can forget the increasingly mad ramblings of your AI nemesis, GladOS, the weird scribbled messages on the wall, the superb, understated finale? The problem for Portal 2 is the same problem that any support act faces when it starts touring the arenas alone. Can it hold an audience for a longer haul? Fill the larger spaces? Justify all that expectation? Or will it end up stretching a few good ideas over too many hours, and end up a saggy, overblown mess?
Luckily, Portal 2 comes out ready for the big-time. Valve has cleverly expanded on the original without diluting what made it work, and transformed a quirky, left-field game into a blockbuster without losing its heart along the way. If you loved Portal you’ll love Portal 2. If you never played Portal, you’ll still love Portal 2. In fact, provided you have eyes, a brain and opposable thumbs, it’s safe to say that you’ll love Portal 2.
At first, it's all much the same, but with a few cool twists. After a hectic opening sequence with a new guide, the Stephen Merchant voiced robot, Wheatley, you’re back in the test chambers of Aperture Science, learning how to use portals and getting to grips with switches, companion cubes and laser beams. As you might remember, your Portal gun can create two portals, one blue, one orange, which instantly transmit any light or matter coming through them - including your heroine, Chell. Objects coming through the portal also retain their momentum, meaning that you can use speed picked up by, say, falling, to hurl yourself across vast horizontal gaps. Portals can only be placed on certain surfaces, and gates are sometimes used to prevent you connecting two areas.
It sounds complex and it is complex, but it’s also surprisingly easy to pick-up, and the feeling when a concept clicks or a solution to a puzzle suddenly falls into place is one of Portal 2’s biggest pleasures. It’s not long, either, before new ideas start trickling in. Spring-pads (dubbed Aerial Faith Plates), bridges made of light and new laser-bending cubes are quickly thrown into the mix, along with old favourites like the robotic turrets (which come complete with a range of cheerful greetings before the bullets start flying your way).
Where Portal 2 really steps away from the original is in the setting and the style. In Portal the story almost sneaked out from behind the stripped-back setting and the gameplay. In Portal 2 it’s all upfront. Years have passed since the first game, and Aperture’s chambers are in a state of disrepair from the off. The old pristine whites have tarnished and decayed, vegetation creeps over rusty surfaces, and you’ll frequently catch glimpses of the machinery behind the chambers. Graphically speaking, there’s a lot more detail here than there was in the first game, with some spectacular sequences that take you deep behind the scenes of Aperture Science, and this is probably the most impressive outing Valve's Source engine has had yet.
With Wheatley and GladOS quite directly involved in the action, Portal 2 is also a less lonesome game than its predecessor, which felt (perhaps appropriately) clinical at times. The dark, paranoid humour is absolutely spot-on, as Marchant’s dumb, bumbling robot schtick contrasts with GladOS’s line of ironic, bitter put-downs, and while you're unlikely to bust a gut chuckling, it's hard to resist the game's bleak wit. The music fits the mood just as perfectly. Where Portal was more of a cerebral exercise - at least in its early stages - Portal 2 is a rawer, more emotional affair.
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In fact, it’s all so good that it comes as a bit of a blow when Portal 2 appears to be building up to a climax all too soon. Saying too much here would spoil what follows, but we can safely say that just when it seems to be drawing to its end, the game is really just building up for a second act that’s every bit as ingenious as the first. On top of the all the old Portal mechanics, Valve throws in a selection of liquid gels which radically change the properties of surfaces they land on, so you're racing and bouncing all over the place. The game then builds up for the most gruelling and thrilling set of tests we’ve seen. There are periods in this second act where you might struggle to see where you’re meant to be going or what you’re meant to be doing, but stick with it. The answer is always slap-on-the-forehead obvious when you finally spot it, and it’s definitely worth persevering. The comedy gets even better, and before you’re done you’ll have a deeper understanding of Aperture’s oddball history. Superbly paced, brilliantly designed and totally engrossing, Portal 2 does for Portal what Half-Life 2 did for Half-Life. It really is that good.
Meanwhile, the all-new co-op multiplayer mode is so much more than the usual bonus option. Featuring two new robot heroes - Atlas and P-Body - on a new mission for GladOS herself, it’s a separate campaign with an all-new sequence of levels designed specifically for collaborative play. The basic gameplay is much the same as in the single-player game, but with the emphasis on each player pressing switches and creating portals to help their partner proceed, before the roles are reversed. You can play with a stranger, but it’s much more rewarding to play with a friend. In fact, if you can’t find one online, the split-screen option works a treat, with the added bonus that it’s easier to kick someone sitting on the same sofa when they mess things up.
Valve has done it again, creating a satisfying single-player experience that can stand up with Half-Life 2, and a co-op mode worthy of the company that gave us Left4Dead. Despite some tough moments in the game’s second half, Portal 2 is mind-bending fun from beginning to end, and one of the finest games you’re likely to enjoy this year.