What is a game? A miserable little pile of levels, some may say. Is it an exercise in pure enjoyment? Teamwork? Competition? Immersion? Do we play games to be entertained, or to give our brains a workout? If a game has to have any of these qualities, or indeed all of these arbitrary qualities we have just put forward for the sake of an introduction, then Portal 2 is a game's game. It's a gamey game's game. After the original Portal made waves not just for its brain-bending gameplay, but its meme-spurring humour, there was a lot of expectation on Portal 2 to deliver the goods. It hasn't just delivered the goods, but it's then taken us and a friend out for a lovely lobster dinner for two, which really is very nice of it. So, yeah, it's pretty good.
Portal 2 sees Chell, the first game's protagonist, waking up in what appears to be a poorly decorated motel room. However, she's soon sprung by Wheatley, a rogue robotic personality core, who reveals she's still being held inside the massive test chambers of Aperture Science Laboratories, and from the state of the facility, has been in stasis for probably hundreds of years. As Wheatley tries to do his best to help Chell escape, they accidentally re-activate that most insane of all artificial intelligences, GLaDOS, who immediately puts Chell back into testing, as she begins to re-awaken the rest of the facility.
The most important thing to know about the plot of Portal 2, without giving too much away, is that it's funny. Really funny. For most of the game, you're going to have someone talking in your ear, whether it's Wheatley rambling (a brilliant Stephen Merchant), GLaDOS calling you fat (Ellen McLain, hilariously blunt) or the recorded messages of Aperture's CEO (J.K. Simmons). All of this is sharply written, with plenty of memorable lines that will no doubt survive in signature quotes for years to come. The story does have a few twists, and there is an attempt to explain more of the backstory of both Aperture and GLaDOS, but overall it's just a fun ride, that continually gives you reasons to press on. The single-player story took us around eight hours to complete, which makes the game longer than the original, but still a brisk adventure overall.
For the Portal virgins out there, the fundamental aspect of the gameplay is the portal gun, which allows you to create a wormhole between two flat surfaces and pass through it, keeping any momentum you've gained. While trying not to spoil too much, the game alternates between long stretches of test chambers with specific puzzles for you to solve using the portal gun, and more open environments with few clues where you have to rely on your own observation and ingenuity to navigate to the exit. Of the two styles, we preferred the more open environments, which gave Portal 2 a real Half Life feel that works very well, and we wish there were more of them.
While the first third or so of the game is very similar to the original Portal, Valve was obviously not content in simply treading the same ground over and over, as they introduce several new gameplay mechanics. At the forefront are the gels, which can be applied to any surface to imbue them with certain properties. The blue gel allows you to bounce on any surface, the red gel makes the surface extremely slippery and gives you greater acceleration and the white gel allows you to create portals on surfaces which previously would not take them. These mechanics alone make for some difficult puzzles, as painting gel becomes much more free-form than simply shooting portals. When you can splatter gel almost anywhere, it becomes challenging to figure out exactly where you should be splattering it. And which colour you should be using.
Along with the gels, Portal 2 also introduces lasers which can be redirected with special cubes, aerial faith plates for jumping, as well as tractor beams and hard light bridges that continue on through portals. The tractor beams are essential for floating over certain parts of levels, while light bridges come in extremely handy not just for walking on, but for blocking bullets from turrets. Unfortunately, the environment-sucking pneumatic diversity vent that was originally demoed does not make an appearance in the game. In any case, all of these mechanics essentially leave the possibilities for puzzles wide open, and Valve try every trick in the book to get the most use out of all of them, and if you think that can get complicated, then we haven't even talked about the co-op yet.
Alongside the single player campaign is a co-op storyline, with its own characters and levels. Playing through this with a buddy will last you another five to seven hours if you barrel straight through it, although it does depend on how much the two of you clown around. As you play with a friend in split-screen or online, you take on the role of two robots sent by GLaDOS to participate in tests and recover specific items for her. The storyline takes place after the single player game, but it's definitely not a requisite that you complete that first. While technically you are helping each other as well, GLaDOS never fails to intervene to try and instill some competition between the two of you, which actually works in a sense as you find yourself never missing an opportunity to mess with the other player (taking advantage of 'trust' situations particularly is amusing).
If you thought having two portals with all of the new gameplay mechanics was difficult, try having four. The puzzles in co-op start off very basically, but increase quite dramatically in complexity about halfway through, and by the end you'll really be scratching your head in confusion, or jumping up and down in frustration as your partner fails to realise the same solution to the puzzle that you do. Every time you play with a new co-op partner, you're forced to go through a short introductory sequence that gives you some basic puzzles to solve. After that, you're shown a hub environment, where you can select which level to tackle. If you're further ahead in the co-op campaign than your partner, that's fine, as the game remembers how far you've progressed and will allow you both to continue from where you left off. Our only complaint in all this is that in both the single-player and co-op there's not a great deal of replayability. Once you're done, you're basically done, although we suppose the door is open for DLC in the future.
As you can imagine, communication is key in the co-op mode. While text and voice chat are options, Valve has also equipped the co-op campaign with gestures and the ability to 'ping'. You can highlight a location by 'pinging' it in your field of view to draw your partner's attention, and you can even select what action you'd like them to perform from a limited range of icons, as well as initiate a countdown if a timed action is required. Gestures are purely cosmetic emotions your robot can display, from laughing at a partner's failure, to giving them a bro-hug or high five. This all works rather well, especially on home console, where typing is not really the easiest solution for communicating.
We played the PlayStation 3 version of Portal 2, which comes with a line of rather interesting features. On top of receiving a free code for the PC version of Portal 2, the PlayStation 3 version is equipped with 'Steamworks'. This overlay allows you to login to your Steam account to share achievements and saved games, and more importantly it allows cross-platform play and chat with PC and Mac players. This all works pretty wonderfully, and we never had any connection issues or the like. If you don't have any friends on PSN or Steam with Portal 2, then you can still search for other co-op players if you wish. The game has a fair bit of loading between levels, which can break up the experience a little, but fortunately they're not too long.
Portal 2 is still running on the old Source engine, but comes off looking remarkably good considering. This is a game where it's not necessarily the quality of the visuals that's stunning, but the art design, animation and scale of the environments that is. Characters like GLaDOS and Wheatley really have a lot of emotion to their movement, and there is an epic amount of destruction that occurs throughout the game in the various subterranean locations you discover. The music is full of computerised melodies and atmospheres, and seems somewhat interactive as it responds to your actions within a level. It's all terrific, by the way. And yes, there is a song at the end of this one, just as there was 'Still Alive' in the original, and while this one isn't quite as memorable, it holds up rather well against it.
If you've been waiting a long time in eager anticipation for Portal 2 then it's hard to see how you'd be disappointed. The single-player campaign doubles the length of the original, and is crammed with even more hilarity and devious puzzles than ever before, as well as extending the concept with the introduction of larger environments and new mechanics like the gels. The co-op is amazingly fun, and while the story is less complex, the gameplay is even more concentrated insanity than the single player. If you have an affinity for the series, Valve, puzzle games, funny games, or just awesome games in general, you must not miss out on Portal 2. GLaDOS won't let you.