I'll just get it out of the way now. I don't think this review or myself as a reviewer can coherently explain what it is that makes Portal 2 a great game or even do it justice with my terrible writing (or even in the manner of conversation). But I'm giving it a shot. Portal 2 is one of those special titles, that comes along in a rare while and makes you smile throughout the entire experience. I can rattle off a few individual things: perhaps the smart writing? Or maybe the clever puzzles? Or maybe multiplayer is your style? Perhaps just the fact that it's significantly longer than its predecessor? Valve has crammed so much in to this game and it honestly has been catapulted immediately in to my own personal top ten list, in spite of the nearly four year waiting period.
Chell returns as the protagonist; after having escaped the Aperture Science testing facility and destroying GLaDOS, she was placed in to stasis and is brought back into the fold. After a bit of a tumultuous ride from her stasis chamber she finds that the facility has fallen to a state of disrepair. And with the help of Wheatley, a personality core that has been tasked with watching over Chell, she's off on a trip to get the hell out of dodge once again. This adventure will take you to some absolutely amazing locations, including one pit stop that you totally would not expect, and there's even the revival of an old friend that I was not expecting. Having completed the main story, I've got to say that it's nothing short of amazing with an ending that is absolutely stunning and telling you that you have to see it to believe it is almost doing it a disservice, but I just cannot bring myself to say anything that might be construed as a spoiler. Just know that the story pacing and delivery are spot on from start to finish.
Ellen McLain returns as the manic and at times terrifying GLaDOS and her performance is absolutely amazing, and is actually overshadowed by a new character. The personality core ,Wheatley, who guides Chell through her journey is one of the most endearing sentient characters I've ever encountered in a video game. He's got a ton of personality, is very cleverly written, and Stephen Merchant deserves accolades showered upon him for his voice-work. He delivers all of the lines so well and never misses a beat. His fears, his victories, you feel like you share in all of them and have a vested interest in his and Chell's success. Even with the minimalistic cast there is still a ton of history and story to Portal 2, and it's actually quite astounding how much you learn about the Portal universe across the three distinct acts. And by the end you've been exposed to some of the best writing in the industry, with laughs all the way up until the finish. It's great to see that Valve didn't lose that dark humor that they brought with the original Portal, especially the verbal taunts directed at Chell from GLaDOS.
The great thing about these acts is that they could each have been a stand alone game much in the same vein as the original Portal. Thankfully Valve saw fit to have it just be one massive package, which in single player will clock in around six to eight hours. Once that's complete you have the multiplayer portion of the game, which can lead to many a broken relationship after shouting expletives at your friends over Xbox Live, or you can enjoy things locally thanks to split screen or system link multiplayer which will add about another four to five hours. While this is shorter than a few titles out there today, the time spent in this game is non-stop quality. Not once did I find myself wishing for a particular area to come to an end due to boredom or repetitiveness, I actually wished for the single player portion of the game to be longer to explore more story, but I think Valve got plenty of narrative packed in to this game, and to their credit every narrative hook didn't feel forced or added on just for the sake of having it present, everything had a purpose to drive the story.
When you're not busy being captivated by the story there are plenty of puzzles for you to solve, and some of these range from genius to simply diabolical in their machinations. Surprisingly each puzzle felt like a different entity to conquer, sort of like the colossi from Shadow of the Colossus, and completing each puzzle will feel like a major victory, especially some of the later puzzles that have that 'how the hell am I going to solve this?' vibe. I had a number of times where I felt lost in a puzzle, and then when it finally clicked I had that “Eureka!” feeling, like my own Miles Edgeworth moment. The new puzzle elements, specifically the gels were an absolute blast to mess around with. One gel allows you to bounce around like an inflatable bounce house, another makes the floor frictionless, allowing you to speed across the floor and off ramps for major air. And each one felt natural for the situation. That's not to say that the other puzzle additions are misplaced or throwaways, the light bridge that can double as a shield and even the new cubes all add something fresh to the Portal experience. Even getting to each set of puzzles is a puzzle in itself, so when you aren't 'testing for science' you're still using your noodle to get around the Aperture Science playground. And what a playground Valve has designed.
It goes without saying that Valve knows how to make some of the best levels in the business, and it's never been more true with Portal 2. From the plant-filled beginnings of the run-down Aperture Science facility to the crashing and gnashing of walls as the facility gets shifted around to make puzzles tougher, every area feels like a new experience. It's visually striking to watch the facility start to reassemble itself when GLaDOS comes back online to resume her testing procedures, watching the place go from being overrun with vegetation to a clean and sterile environment, and the fact that she takes pride in it just keeps you engrossed in the Portal universe. It's also surprising to see how good Portal 2 looks. Powered again by the Source engine, the world of Portal has never been more beautiful, and the Havok physics feel just right. But it goes beyond the simple textures and clean colors that go into making this game look good. The set designs are fantastic, from the lush plant life that has replaced humanity's presence, to the elevator lobbies that contain screens offering news on protocols or even blue screens of death, there is an huge amount of detail that you'll see, and some of it you won't even notice unless you turn on the director commentary, which is greatly appreciated in a game like this and I'm glad that Valve continued to do it for Portal 2. Initially I was not sold on Portal multiplayer in any sense of the idea. But having experienced it, this has got to be some of the most fun in gaming I've had in a long while. Rather than shouting expletives at my TV over cheap kills, I'm instead yelling at my friend to not close a portal that's holding up a light bridge, only to have him fire anyway and I plummet to my untimely demise. But you don't really get mad in a setting like this, instead it steels your resolve to get these puzzles figured out. At times it feels like a race to get a puzzle figured out before your friend, and at others it's the ultimate form of cooperation. You seriously will not get anywhere playing the role of douchebag in this game, but that doesn't mean you can't have a little bit of fun at your friend's expense from time to time. Even tormenting friends doesn't get old with all the portal shenanigans you can pull. The addition of P-body and Atlas and giving them personality quirks was a great decision, especially all of the little emotes that they can do, and having GLaDOS get in on the fun only makes it better. Valve also included some incredibly useful tools to get timing specific puzzles down along with portal markers so you always have a rough idea where your portals are when dealing with multi-room puzzles.
So here we are, nearing the end of this review that has maintained a gushing vibe of positive emotions toward Portal 2. Surely this game cannot be the paragon of gaming I'm making it out to be, there must be some flaws that mar this game in such an unspeakable manner that it's shocking that Valve didn't address them. Well, there is one teeny tiny thing, and seriously this is me being the absolutely most nit-picky person for even bringing it up. But the subtitles to the game, they at times ruin the pacing of the dialog, or they highlight events that take the surprise out of what follows. So if you really don't want to miss any of the brilliant dialogue then sure turn them on, but be warned that they ruin two, a whopping two moments where they could have just delayed the subtitles a little bit more. Seriously, the fact that this is the only thing I can think of that hurts the game is a testament to how well polished Portal 2 is.
Really, there isn't anything more that can be said about Portal 2, it's is simply one of the best games ever released. People may find the campaign to be a bit short for their money, but I can give you a few examples of other games that were equally as short and completely worth their asking price as well, such as Ico or Dead Space 2. The quality you get from this shorter experience far outweighs the fluff a lot of other games would throw out there, plus you'll want to play Portal 2 at least two more times to find the easter eggs and to listen to the developer commentary. The initial experience alone is worth the asking price, everything after that just seriously felt like a bonus. If you can play through Portal 2 and find reasons not to like it, then I think you might need another medium of entertainment. Because seriously, I don't see it getting any better than this for quite some time. Bravo Valve on creating something truly magical with Portal 2.