REVIEW: Portal 2 (Xbox 360, PS3, PC)

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review-line.JPGName: Portal 2

Genre: Puzzler

Platform: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC

Price: £32.70 from Amazon on Xbox 360
£32.91 from Amazon on PS3
£24.91 from Amazon on PC

review-line.JPGThe original Portal was a cult smash, turning legions of shooter fans away from their AK-47s and making them don their thinking caps instead. A fiendishly inventive puzzler, it was also hilariously written, with each enigma solved bringing you one step closer to yet another killer punchline. It was a magic formula, and one that many argued would not serve a sequel well. Can Portal 2 live up to its lofty predecessor?
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For those who never played the original Portal, stop reading this, head down to your local used games shop, pick up the game, come back home and pop the disc into your console or PC. It’s one of the finest puzzlers ever built and is cheap as chips nowadays. While it’s not massively important to be well versed in the story of the first game in order to enjoy this sequel, you will be missing out on a ton of quality in-jokes if you aren’t, not to mention an understanding of the game’s unique central mechanic; making portals. We’ll get onto that in a second, but first; the plot.

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The game once again takes place in the Aperture Science “Enrichment Centre”, a scientific facility of questionable purpose in which you, a human guinea pig, are challenged with solving a series of mental aptitude tests. However, within minutes of firing up Portal 2 you’ll quickly realise this isn’t quite the same complex as we knew from the first Portal game. Waking up after an indeterminate-but-certainly-very-long period of time, the Enrichment Centre has had some sort of catastrophe befall it (one which Portal 1 players will quickly figure out) and is a crumbling mess. Long gone are the clean white clinical corridors, replaced with overgrown foliage and broken testing rooms. It’s a clever expansion on the original game’s pristine looks, while also giving some much needed visual variety to proceedings. Watching pistons powering up in the industrial surroundings and mechanical walls right themselves after a failure, it’s a setting both intricate and mesmerising to behold, making for a truly unique game world.

Of course, playing as pretty much an overgrown lab rat, you’re going to want to escape the complex as soon as possible, but you’re going to have to pass through a chain of rooms filled with all manner of obstacles in your path first. From lasers to gaping chasms, they seem impassable on the face of things, but here’s where it all gets very interesting. Very early on you pick up a portal gun, which lets you shoot two different coloured holes at a time onto almost any flat surface. Walking through one sees you walk through where you placed the other, making up the crux of nearly every puzzle in the game. Perhaps you are trapped in a test room with a switch controlling the exit high on the opposite side of a 100 foot drop, too far to jump and too high to reach. Pop a portal on the floor next to your character and one up on the wall beside the switch and Bob’s your uncle – instant access.

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It’s a simplified example of the mind warping ways in which Valve have constructed the second entry to the series, and they’re every bit as challenging as the first game. While the Portal system will come as a revelation to first time players, Valve are all too aware that the set-up could be a little overly familiar to returning fans, and sensibly add a few fresh obstacles into the mix to further stretch your logical abilities. A gravity ray will skew any ideas Isaac Newton had about falling apples, while a series of goo-like substances can later be used to help you run faster and jump higher as well as increasing the number of places you can pop portals onto.

While the puzzles themselves are a joy to solve, with a genuine sense of achievement when overcome, getting stuck could be a game-breaking experience were there not an incentive to see the game through to its conclusion. That comes once again in the form of the game’s stellar script. Perhaps even funnier than the original, it’s grander in scope too, allowing for the odd set-piece on top of the regular puzzling action. Though your own character is a mute heroine, plenty of laughs come from your dimwitted robotic sidekick Wheatley, voiced to perfection by Stephen Merchant of ‘The Office‘ fame. His quips and unmerited optimistic view of your plight is consistently rib-tickling. Fans of the original game’s passive-aggressive, blackly funny villain GLaDOS will be glad to see the AI’s return, in a role that errs hilariously, creepily close to that of a vengeful, spurned lover.

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The main single player portion of Portal 2 will last a respectable 9 hours or thereabouts, depending on how smart you are. It will feel much shorter however, as the game’s linear pathing lends itself well to extended play sessions, with an addictive quality kicking in early on as you look to see what challenge awaits around the next corner. It’s unlikely that you’ll find much reason to come back to the game once you’ve beat it however, as after the puzzles are solved, there isn’t a hell of a lot to replay it for.

You can however lengthen Portal 2’s lifespan considerably with the co-operative multiplayer portion, a first for the series. Weighing in at around 7 hours itself, it’s a meaty addition. Taking the role of two robots, you and a friend face similar portal-based puzzles to get your heads around. While the story here is sadly under-developed, the brain-teasers are anything but; if you think it was confusing working with two portals, try figuring them out with four. In a gaming sphere where all play with fellow humans is mostly competitive and almost solely built around shooting and violence, it’s a refreshing change of pace to have to rely on just your brains and the ability to communicate effectively to succeed.

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Verdict:

Portal 2 proves that its predecessor’s winning formula was not merely a fluke, showing that the mix of strong puzzling and dark humour can be just as fun a second time around, if not more so. An improvement in pretty much every department, a play through Portal 2 will see the Apperture Science Enrichment Centre very much live up to its name.

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5/5

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Gerald Lynch