There were certainly laughs to be had in the original Portal, but to say that Portal 2 is packed with humour is like saying that Homefront is packed with action; Portal 2 has got gags. Not gags that draw attention to themselves and serve to derail the plot, and not gags that cheapen proceedings or undercut any tension or drama; but gags that are both organic and laugh-out-loud funny, and instantly feel like part of the Portal universe. Absolutely superb jokes come at you so thick and fast that it’s impossible not to wonder if Chet Faliszek and co are destined to be snapped by Hollywood any day now. But Portal 2’s real trump card is that every single one of those jokes is matched by a moment of awe-inspiring gameplay ingenuity.
The original Portal aside, the game that Portal 2 most vividly calls to mind is Super Mario Galaxy 2. Both of those two aren’t just littered with blindingly bright ideas that the vast majority of videogame creators would have been incapable of dreaming up, they’re also explored and then flippantly discarded at a jaw-dropping clip. Each new gameplay dynamic that’s introduced – be it the Hard Light Bridges or the Repulsion, Propulsion or Conversion Gels – play a part in a large handful of (occasionally entwined) puzzles, crop up a few times later on, and then they’re resigned to the bin. As with Mario Galaxy 2, each of these ideas is so thoroughly inspired that they would each deserve an entire game of their own, if every possible variation of their individual dynamics hadn’t already been gloriously spent here.
With the exception of these wonderful alterations, fundamental changes remain relatively minor. There is an extremely helpful new marker barrier that surrounds each portal once you’ve placed it, that makes each one clearly visible through walls – which is a godsend in the larger, more complicated areas. And because so many of Portal 2‘s environments are positively gargantuan in comparison to those featured in the first game, a very handy zoom feature has also been added, and you’ll use it often. The opening five minutes are basically an abridged version of the original Portal’s tutorial levels; a smart conceit that refreshes the memory of seasoned players, and brings newbies into the fray with succinct gusto.
It’s very, very difficult to describe the frankly incredible balance that Valve have struck with the pitch of the difficulty. Portal 2 isn’t a hard game as such, but it’s completely at odds with the way that most contemporary videogames demand to be played. You’ll happen upon a few instances in which you’ll become utterly stumped, but the solutions never, ever feel beyond you. It’s the kind of game that demands patience and consideration, and racing through it at speed is easily the least satisfying way to tackle it. ‘Eureka’ moments do occasionally come immediately, but more often than not they arrive after a bit of careful deliberation. And mastering a puzzle after a short break; perhaps one that you initially suspected was going to involve the perusal of a walkthrough; is absolutely exhilarating.
The game’s two player co-op mode is an entirely separate entity, and though it isn’t quite as rich or lengthy as the single-player campaign, it’s still indispensable. The co-op dynamic is treated as yet another brilliant new toy to be played with, and because Valve were clearly operating under the assumption that co-op players will have already completed (or made a serious dent in) the main game, things are allowed to get quite fiendish right from the start. You’re also very well served if you plan on playing online with someone who isn’t a friend, as a new ping tool allows you to gesture directly to your partner, or to the exact spot where you want them to place a portal. This multiplayer mode may not have Stephen Merchant, a pant-wettingly amusing diatribe against citrus fruit or a potato as a main character, but it offers up damn near everything else.
In this age of tight developmental time constraints, jam-packed release schedules and pre-set launch dates, videogaming has begun to feel even more disposable than ever, and games like Portal 2 no longer come around very often. Whether you’re almost tempted to break into an impromptu round of applause after completing a puzzle of transcendental flair, or laughing loudly at GLaDOS’s ceaselessly snide and vindictive taunting, you’re never less than totally aware that you’re experiencing a videogame completely unlike anything that you’ve previously experienced. It’s as well written as any movie, as compelling as any well-arranged RPG, and one of the most cunningly crafted puzzle games ever made. Portal 2 is a masterpiece, and perhaps the least cynical sequel ever made.
Watch the Portal 2 trailer here: