You should be playing "Portal 2"

You should be playing "Portal 2"

I love “Portal 2.” L-U-V, love it.

OK, if you follow my Twitter account or Facebook page at all, you might be inclined to believe that I made up my mind about that fact long before I ever played the game.

You’d be wrong, though. I was really worried before I got my hands on developer Valve’s latest, as many of the sequels I’ve eagerly anticipated in the past — “Modern Warfare 2” and “Bioshock 2,” for example — have ended up falling short of my lofty expectations.

I was prepared to find fault in so many ways: too short, not darkly comical enough, not challenging enough, not addictive enough.

But my fears weren’t realized, not even one little bit.

OK, sure, “Portal 2” IS shorter than I want it to be. But I’m pretty sure I’d still think that even if the single-player campaign was so long that it took the average player more than 40 hours to beat. The Aperture Science facility, the game’s setting, is a place I don’t really want to leave — even if the whole goal of the game is to win my freedom.

And it’s not the same sterile environment we found in the first game. Time has passed since our character, Chell, a determined young lady, escaped from the lab the first time. (How she ended up a prisoner again is detailed in the comic “Portal 2: Lab Rat,” which you should be able to read for free if you click here.)

Vegetation has wormed its way into the facility, and some areas have crumbled, as there’s nobody to maintain things. After all, Aperture Science’s tyrannical overseer, the computer GlaDOS, was destroyed at the end of our previous adventure. Or was she?

Well, if you’ve seen any of the commercials advertising this sequel, you know she’s still around somehow. I won’t spoil the exact details of her resurrection, though.

OK, maybe you aren't too familiar with "Portal" — and by extension, the premise of "Portal 2."  Both are essentially puzzle games played from a first-person perspective. You get a "gun," just like in a first-person shooter, but instead of firing bullets, it fires two "portals," temporary doorways that rip a hole in space. If you walk through one, you exit out the other. And it's the placement — and replacement — of the portals (on walls, ceilings and floors, generally) and your use of basic physics, such as the laws of momentum, that will be the key in determining how quickly you advance through the game.

Ultimately, the puzzle you are trying to solve is how to escape the Aperture Science facility and the psychotic computer, GlaDOS, who wants you to run through a gauntlet of potentially deadly tests. In the first game, that meant going from one starkly utilitarian test chamber to another, waiting for an opportunity to present itself. The sequel departs greatly from that formula, transforming the whole of the Aperture Science facility into a realm to roam — and you uncover a lot of backstory on how everything you're undergoing came to be.

There is a sameness to the puzzle-solving between the two games, as there should be. Often, beating a room involves finding a way to permanently trigger a button that holds a door open or to cross a giant chasm with no portal-able surfaces near it.

Special features and obstacles in the rooms help keep each challenge unique. For instance, you might need to figure out how redirect Thermal Discouragement Beams (lasers) to activate elevated platforms, or create a series of trampolines using Propulsion Gel. "Portal 2" has added a number of such tools that weren't found in the first game, and has dropped the bouncing balls of energy that were in the original.

I miss them a little, I think, but the lasers kind of take their place. Still, dodging the balls while trying to safely deal with a laser could have been amusing.

As far as obstacles, there are plenty of pits of instant death, i.e. you die if you fall in the "water," and other hazards around.

And my favorite nuisance, Turrets, are still in the game. How could anyone hate anything as cute as these guys, even if they are trying to riddle Chell with bullets. They say hi when they see her in such a sweet, childlike voice, and concernedly ask where she went if she manages to hide from their view. I almost feel guilty when destroying them.

One thing I noticed though is that the puzzles this time around aren't really tests of a player's reflexes anymore. Toward the end of "Portal," there is a big emphasis on making rapid portal transitions while flying through the air; "Portal 2" doesn't really ask you to do that sort of thing.

And this sequel does fix one minor flaw from before. Now, if your portals aren't visible from where you are, you can still outlines of them through walls, which makes it easier to know which one you need to move to achieve a certain effect. It's a great tweak to the game.

Of course, the single-player game is only one aspect of "Portal 2."

There's also a wonderful two-player cooperative mode, playable online or off. The offline version is split-screen, of course, and Valve has wisely left it up to the players to choose if they want the screen split horizontally or vertically.

There's a story to the co-op game too. You and a friend play as two robots — Atlas, who is short and round, and P-Body, who is tall and thin — who are on an unspecified mission for GlaDOS. Each character has a portal gun capable of firing two doorways. However, a portal fired from P-Body's gun will only connect with the other portal from P-Body's gun; there's no interconnectivity between the two guns' doorways.

Players have to work together to make headway, as the game is wonderfully designed so that there's no way to survive without cooperation. Still, it can be fun to sabotage the other person momentarily — dropping them to their doom — especially if they get lippy with you.

And, frankly, unless you are a saint or the ultimate team-player, there's a great competitive aspect to this mode too. When I sat down with my friend Niko to play, we tried our hardest to beat the other at figuring out how to beat the room. (I beat him most of the time, if I do say so myself, though I've got to give him credit for figuring out some of the harder ones before I could.)

Valve has wisely included tools so that players can signal ideas to each other — and point things out — even if direct or indirect voice communications aren't possible. Even though Niko and I were in the same room while playing, we made use of them sometimes when one of us was being particularly dense.

Beating the single-player game will take anywhere from 8 to 16 hours probably, depending on if you stop to smell the roses and truly enjoy everything the game has to offer. The cooperative mode clocks in probably somewhere from 6 to 10 hours.

Both are chockful of delightfully dark humor. If you are playing without having the volume up loud enough to hear every direct insult, backhanded compliment and observation by GlaDOS or another character, you're missing out big time. BIG TIME.

And there's a new end credit song by Jonathon Coulton. It's not quite as mind-blowingly fantastic as "Still Alive" from the original, but it's still pretty wonderful.

So as I said, "Portal 2" is a great game.

...

Oh, yeah, I kind of should note that the PS3 version of the game comes with some notable extras, the first of which is ... the PC version of the game. Yes, if you get the PS3 version, you get a code that gives you the PC version for free. And since Valve's special Steam platform allows a PS3 player to play the cooperative game with a PC player ... well, you should be able to figure out the implications there.

Also, the PS3 version — if you create and connect your Steam account to your PlayStation Network ID — allows you to save your game on Steam's "cloud" and continue playing that game from where you left off on any other PS3.

I also must note the PC version comes with extras that aren't available on the consoles, mostly alternative costumes for the cooperative 'bots, as well as hilarious explainer videos about Aperture Science's inventions and a trailer for the Steven Speilberg movie "Super 8."

"Portal 2"
Platforms: PS3, PC, Xbox 360, Mac OS X. Reviewed on PS3 and PC.
Publisher: Valve.
Price: $59.99 consoles; $49.99 PC and Mac. Downloadable at store.steampowered.com.
Rating: E for everyone 10 and up.
Recommendation: Buy it. Buy it now. It's a keeper. OK, rent it at least. It's replayability is limited, but it's one of those games that's great to pick up again for its humor or just to show it off.

Images courtesy of Valve Software
First: GlaDOS awakens in a ruined lair.
Second: Atlas burns P-Body's posterior using a Thermal Discouragement Beam directed through a special refractive cube and two portals.

 

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