Portal 2


Written by Chris Price
26 Tuesday 26th April 2011

Portal originally appeared back in ’07, as a kind of semi-student project. Developed from the same game engine that evolved during the Half-Life games, bolstered by seniors from Redmond WA’s Digipen Institute of Technology (who’d developed a ‘teleporting puzzle game’ entitled Narbuncular Drop) Portal was initially an add-on. Bundled with ‘The Orange Box’ – a triptych of games all riffing off Gordon Freeman and ‘The Black Mesa’ incident of Valve’s seminal world-ending first person puzzle/shooter Half Life 2.

Their experiment in four-dimensional puzzling, guiding mute lab-rat Chell (a “low-risk” test subject) through a series of scientific tests in the cavernous Aperture Science Facilities proved an immediate PC geek-chic favourite. A refreshing approach to lateral thinking and quick reaction was the perfect compliment to the Half-Life main. Quirky elements like the reward of ‘Cake’ for success, anthropomorphous storage crates, lonely machine-gun turrets and wry in-jokes.

But the star of the show was GLaDOS. As some psychotic distant female relative of 2001’s Hal, her binary auto-tuned narration of your activities steeped the whole game in a bleak purgatorial humour. A short, but perfectly formed experience, that left millions of gamers hungry for more. After three years of development both Chell and GlaDOS return to an Aperture Science Testing Facility in a standalone, multi-format release.

Once again, it’s time to strap on the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device (dubbed the "portal gun") as you run an evolved series of testing ‘in the pursuit of science’. GLaDOS (once again voiced by the excellent Ellen McLain) has evolved more human tone, as well as a massive chip on her digital shoulder brought to the fore in spectacularly entertaining style by writers Eric Wolpaw, Jay Pinkerton and Chet Faliszek. But Portal 2’s most innovative developments come from the addition of 3 new characters. Portal 2 is a buddy-buddy adventure. It’s become a broader, longer, more accessible experience - with a level of understated characterization that usually exclusively the domain of entertainment deities such as Pixar.

Portal 2 is like assembling flat pack furniture while in some dystopian padded cell. Simple in premise, yet open to interpretation. Portal is about the Portal Gun, creating an entrance portal and an exit portal onto surfaces around each test room, with the goal of opening the exit door by way of depressing buttons, or aligning lasers. Dropping into portals at speed or an angle will propel you with the similar properties from the other. Elements such as gels that alter surface properties and hard-light walkways can be directed utilizing portals – either offensively of defensively – all vital techniques as the game continues.

For 10-12 hours of solo play you’re accompanied by the ocular rogue ‘Personality Core’ Wheatley. A blinking blue janitorial globe with eyebrows who wakes you from your stasis, equally keen to hide from his oestrogenical overseer, as he is in helping you escape the facility. Voiced by Stephen Merchant (of Extras/The Office), Wheatley is the antithesis of the sinister GLaDOS – a babbling yet amiable village idiot of a robot, delivering a breathless adlibbed stream of chatter with a genuine warm charm and personality. Providing both guide and companion while parrying wonderfully with the synthetic faux-emotion of increasing bitter and satirical GLaDOS.

Portal 2 also sees the introduction of a co-operative play. ‘Orange’ and ‘Blue’ are Aperture engineered robots who test in partnership via split-screen, or over network. Players communicate using ‘Pings’, an objective direction to your partner – Portal 2’s “over there” nod. The ‘Gesture Wheel’ allows emotive actions – waving, hugging, high-5’s lending both a unique charm to the robots.

Gone are the drab 70’s Super-8 stylings of the original. Now each room is a subtle hive of industrious robotic elements as GLaDOS hastily rebuilds each room as you test. Audio again is wonderfully understated, with incidental tunes emitted by hard-light walkways and ‘thermal discouragement beams’ (aka lasers).

In purposefully limiting each element of the game, Portal 2 ensures that you’re fully in command of the tools before challenging you. It’s a thoughtful process of progression rarely seen in games, ensuring even seasoned players continue learning throughout the games process, keeping each test uniquely rewarding. Even co-op mode ensures that you’re comfortable pinging your partner, before even giving you access to a Portal Gun.

Valve's intensive hours of play-testing ensuring that any problem posed for over 30 minutes was “too hard”. Consequently, each test never resorts to blind ‘portalling’ just to find a solution. Gone are the majority of twitch-reflex tests, replaced by a much more steady flow.

Whether it’s Valve’s trial and error approach to development, its intensive playtesting, or its work ethics – but Portal 2 never feels unfair, laboured or pointless. That and an effortlessly cynical, dry script conveyed through some excellent voice acting conspires to produce a perfect-storm of charm, individuality and accomplishment. Portal 2 is more than a puzzle game with personality – it’s an outstanding piece of interactive entertainment, in the truest form. Valve, once again have outdone themselves and continue to raise the profile of videogaming.

Portal 2 is out now on PC, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3

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