Well, they did it! As thrilled as I was at the concept of a follow-up to Portal, one of the most original and winning-on-every-level games of recent times, I had my doubts that they could do it justice. The thing with fantastic original material is that the sequel can never be as original. That may be true of Portal 2, but the developers have managed to serve up an entertaining, challenging, and once again hilarious game that builds on the legacy of Portal, but doesn’t simply rehash it.
Of course, there are inconsistencies and oddities. GLaDOS the coldly psychotic AI returns for all her fans, but she has a different feel to her in the sequel. An uncertain (but long) time has passed since she was ‘murdered’ by the protagonist, so time has changed her, as have her rather different circumstances this game. She is a lot more passive-aggressive, a lot more human. At the end of the original Portal we got to see a much more human side of her once she was vulnerable, so it may just be that we’ve broken through the facade. Portal 2 offers us multiple characters (none of them living humans) and gives us the majority of our interaction through background voices like GLaDOS was for most of her first appearance.
Portal 2 fleshes out the premise of Aperture Science as a ridiculously advanced company, with a ridiculously large and complex premises (you’ll have no idea how big it is until you play the game). We get a lot of history of the company, of GLaDOS, and how things got to the point we first encountered them. The comic Lab Rat is a great insight into GLaDOS and her takeover of the facility, and the Rat Man of the comic is the source of many doodles and scrawls in-game. To expand too much more on this history would be to provide spoilers, something I would rather avoid, since Portal 2 manages to throw a few curve balls and make a few subtle revelations which are best discovered through exploration and careful listening. There are also a few plot twists which, while not totally unpredictable, do spice things up significantly.
One of the ‘twists’ (it’s not really) that I really appreciated was that the game starts off following very much the same structure as the first Portal, but it is much, much longer. This time around GLaDOS has no need to dsiguise her disdain for humans, and has a very explicit vendetta against you personally, but you have good old Wheatley to look out for your interests. Of course, it’s kind of his fault GLaDOS got woken up to imprison you in her test chambers again, but…he means well. These two are combined and contrasted with Cave Johnson, the original founder of Aperture Science, to make a cast of largely disembodied voices for your entertainment (Cave through old recorded messages from Aperture’s heyday).
If you’re looking for cake, look elsewhere – Valve wisely kept the cake references to a minimum of one or two, and focused on new jokes using the new characters and opportunities provided by Portal 2’s story. Potatoes were already a theme before the game was actually released, and won’t be forgotten any time soon; a certain SPACE core has gained some popularity, and there are many other good lines and gags which make for potential meme fodder. If the old jokes had been re-used, Portal 2 could never have developed the independent identity it strives for.
One of the major and exellent innovations in Portal 2 is the co-op mode. The first game, which made such a huge impression despite its light tone and short duration, quickly cried out for a co-operative form of play, but designing it must have taken some time and some playing around. The result seems to be just the kind of thing we were hoping for.
The ‘Co-operative Testing Initiative’ is mentioned in-game, and the robots who are our player characters make a brief appearance, but generally the co-op campaign is a series of independent levels with puzzles specially designed to require two players, each with their own pair of portals. These levels use the same techniques and gadgets (excursion funnels, propulsion and repulsion gel, faith plates) as the single player and provide a sort of parallel game experience for those who can find a friend online or at home. GLaDOS’s commentary adds an extra level of hilarity to the co-op, as she seemingly arbitrarily picks favourites, criticises, and tries to turn players against each other. It’s a great addition to Portal’s game, and since the original Portal had great re-play even with a group, Portal 2 should prove the same in either single or two player modes. The robots are surprisingly rich characters too, although anyone who encountered them in the early E3 promotional material could have predicted that.
An overall summation? Portal 2 does not disappoint. Sure, it may not be as good as the original game, but that was new, innovative, and unexpected. Valve have managed to extend the concept without ruining it, and have provided a longer game and some nifty new features as a sort of reprise. It’s just different enough to feel like a different game, but playing Portal and then Portal 2 certainly allows a richer identification with the games’ main characters and issues. At this point I would not anticipate a Portal 3: not only does the ending make it difficult to see how a third game would connect, but I also wouldn’t bet on Valve being able to make such a satisfying sequel again. They did a better job than I’d hoped on this one; let’s let them leave it at that, and maybe some regular DLC maps for an extra challenge in the future.