Portal 2 Review – Is the cake still a lie?

There are few experiences as a gamer that make you feel like you have actually impacted a world and made a difference. With Portal 2 however (Valves successor to the hugely successful Portal) there seems to be an experience available around every corner. As the test subject known only as Chell you find yourself catapulted through test chamber after test chamber of cleverly executed puzzles and quirky dialogue. Solving puzzles along the way you find yourself embroiled in something much deeper than the average puzzle game. At the games opening you see a world much different than you’re used to, as the sterile clinical environments of the original game have been reclaimed by nature. Both battered and dilapidated it seems that the laboratories of Aperture Science have come a long way, and something feels as if you’re not entirely blameless for this whole affair.

The gameplay is fresh and interesting and provides an experience unlike any other game, even the original Portal lacks the spark and creativity that makes the sequel so thrilling. The added mechanics such as the gels and the funnels add depth to a formula that could of quickly become stale, avoiding the familiar territory of a sequel trying too hard and overcomplicating an otherwise enjoyable experience. Other improvements over the previous entry include a significant boost to the games playtime, which brings the overall singleplayer playtime to around 8-10 hours with an extra 4-6 hours added for Co-Op. The first part of the game serves as an extended tutorial for the uninitiated, but will most likely irritate those who have played and completed the first instalment. The reason for this is because most of the opening test chambers are recycled from the previous game and fail to provide much of a tangible challenge, which is worsened by the section taking up a third of the game. Luckily the pace soon picks up and you find yourself exploring the condemned underground of Aperture Sciences disused test chambers. This section of the game provides the bulk of the entertainment in the game and provides a surprising insight into the the illusive past of everyone’s favourite laboratory.

The difference between this and the other games in the FPS genre is the lack of violence, weaponry, or the ever present dodgy AI that plagues the likes of Call of Duty. Instead the AI that inhabits this world is full of life and despite being completely synthetic, appears more lifelike than many protagonists in rival games. The game enjoys many twists and surprises throughout, however it feels as if the length of the game has been artificially padded by extended testing sections between plot points. The superb mix of story and dialogue that accompanies the test chambers livens the atmosphere of the game and alleviates the tedium of the more frustrating tests.

During the first part of the campaign you are driven through an extended tutorial that explains both the old and new mechanics.

The highly publicised Co-Op of the title is an interesting distraction from the main bulk of the adventure and implements some interesting use of teamwork, with the majority of the chambers requiring one player to be stranded in one part of the chamber helping the other to progress.

Unlike many Co-Op campaigns in other games Portal 2’s actually contributes an alternate view point on the main storyline. The Co-Op campaign revolves around the robots Atlas and P-Body and their quest to complete tests collaboratively for science. It seems GlaDOS has other plans though and the couple are thrust into strange places looking for blueprints or other such suspicious objectives to please GlaDOS’ obviously nefarious desires. Set sometime before the events of Portal 2’s single player the campaign bridges the gap between the first game and introduces some features of its own such as the gesturing and pinging systems.

Most useful of the Co-Op features is “Pinging” in which players can “Ping” to points of interest or places for their partner to place portals. This feature is invaluable to solving some puzzles and aids completion of puzzles when a voice chat is not active. One of its uses is as a timer which counts from three which helps with puzzles that require two switches to be pressed simultaneously. As I was playing with a friend using a PS3 version of the game I ended up using the ping function as a method of direction, and communication with my console bound friend in the absence of voice chat.

The campaign differs from single player in that chambers can be selected and replayed from a hub which also has a huge billboard showing statistics on the players such as steps taken and Science Collaboration Points earned. This ends up being extremely useful for subsequent replays, as it allows players to easily choose whatever test chamber they want quickly and easily.

When the game hits its stride you'll soon find yourself playing with more complicated test chambers...

Story wise the Co-Op lacks depth but this doesn’t prove to be a problem as GlaDOS’ dialogue more than makes up for the lack of exposition. Often you’ll be greeted by moments whereby GlaDOS will tell one or both of you, your short comings and (occasionally) which of you she feels to be in the “lead” in the race for Science Collaboration Points. It seems that these points have no real effect on game play, but do make for some laughs later on in the game when GlaDOS decides to mess with your head.

The puzzles within Co-Op are some of the best in Portal 2 and achieve a much greater degree of complexity than any others in either game. For this reason I recommend players only attempt Co-Op after first getting fully acquainted with the different tools available to you in the game and having completed a large portion of the single player campaign.

When the gels come into the mix the puzzles can be both awe inspiring and frustrating...and you will often find yourself scratching your head over these in Co-Op.

The future looks bright for the developer if they can keep this level of production up, but I feel the Source engine is getting rather long in the tooth and needs to be replaced rather soon. Portal 2 doesn’t suffer for it however and the graphics (despite not matching the likes of Crysis) still hold their own within this competitive market. The addition of a Mann Co styled cash store (dubbed “Robot Enrichment”) is by no means necessary (or even wanted) feature but should hopefully provide a revenue stream that could result, in free DLC packs that TF2 has received.

Overall Portal 2 proves to be a spectacularly polished game which has excelled over the previous game in almost every way. The game has a an atmosphere that both engrosses and entertains, and contains moments of true suspense. Valve’s marketing campaign for the game may have been overblown and sometimes infuriating (I’m looking at you Portal ARG!) but don’t let that stop you from experiencing this truly unique romp, as it by far blows any other Valve game made so far out of the water.

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