Some games go down in history for their story, dialogues and characters. Others are remembered for their shameless humor. Some blew us away with the graphics, while a few marked such a profound leap forward that you can’t ignore their importance even if you wanted to. Then there are those… other titles. So different from the pack, that at first you don’t even know what the fuss is about, where all the hype is coming from. Portal is one of them.
A game where, as a colleague of mine so eloquently noticed, “you make holes in walls”. And occasionally press some buttons. Well, this futuristic drilling machine simulator almost put to shame Half-Life 2: Episode Two and Team Fortress 2 when it was released back in 2007 as part of the Orange Box, and elevated a simple Companion Cube to the rank of international star. And although Portal was meant as a simple experiment to see how players would react to a new type of gameplay, its success and universal acclaim sealed Valve’s fate. Portal 2 needed to happen.
It’s been a long time
So here we are, almost 4 years later, being invited to continue testing. But 4 years meant a bit longer in the world of Chell, the silent protagonist from the predecessor (and thus possible relative of Gordon Freeman), who now has a new look and wakes up in a crappy motel room, which foreshadows the state in which the Aperture Science laboratories have decayed since our last visited. The good news is that we’re not going to stay there too long, because Wheatley, a so-called personality sphere with a British accent, is poised to help us escape… provided we take him with us, of course. Nobody wants to stay among ruins forever, right?
The problem is that the road to Hell is always paved with good intentions and instead of escaping, you manage to wake up GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System), whose feelings towards you can be best summed up by “we both said a lot of things that you’re going to regret”. So ultimately, you once again receive the drill… uhm, Portal Gun, under the careful watch of this malevolent artificial intelligence, which on hand wants you to solve as many tests as possible, while on the other has some… deadly surprises for you.
The story gets a lot of more interesting as you go through the game though, with the producers making a habit of playing with our expectations. In fact, an important part of the story implies a “time travel” of sorts that will show you a completely different face of Aperture Science, a very eccentric and substantially different one from the flexible panels and turrets with which GLaDOS is trying to kill you. A part that I liked very much, because it marks an important change in esthetics, while keeping the known gameplay elements and introducing new ones to further complicate matters.
That’s why I highly recommend you take your time and “stall” wherever you can, for instance when you’re encouraged to open a door, press a button or destroy a pipe. The extra lines of dialogue used in these situations will usually prove extremely hilarious, while on other occasions they will reveal surprising information that you might not have discovered otherwise.
The level design has also evolved significantly, with the testing chambers and the places you’ll visit being a lot more elaborate that what you’ve seen until now. That’s because you’ll get to take a more substantial peek behind the curtain as well, exploring areas of Aperture where you normally shouldn’t have ever been allowed, discovering a lot of interesting things, usually with the help of the environment (like posters, warning signs, motivational videos or even the materials that make up your surroundings).
Besides the fact that they’re a lot bigger than those from the first title of the series (thank God for the new boots), the Portal 2 test chambers are also modular, thanks to the flexible panels that can change their configuration in mere seconds. Aside from the “HA! How cool is that” factor, it’s very interesting to see such a reconfiguration being performed right in front of you, especially when GLaDOS gradually retakes control and starts cleaning up.
Thus, the entire Aperture facility has become a giant, living organism that constantly evolves and can adapt at a moment’s notice to any situation. Moreover, those who played the first Portal will feel nostalgia setting in when they’ll see familiar places, but which are now run over by plants, have huge cracks in the walls and generally look like they’ve been through at least one World War.
The cold boot
Yet the passage of time didn’t lead just to a value drop of the housing market, because it also allowed for the introduction of new elements to help you (or make your life hell, depending on how you look at things) during testing: redirection cubes, aerial faith plates, light bridges, excursion funnels and three types of gel.
You’ll use the redirection cubes to, uhm… change the direction of thermal discouragement laser beams in order to destroy turrets, activate lifts, open doors and generally use any kind of equipment that requires energy. I don’t think I need to stress the fact that you’ll die a painful death if you stay in the beam’s path (even though Chell can’t audibly express pain), but one important thing is that the laser can go through glass, while turret bullets can’t.
The aerial faith plates will throw you around the levels – up, forward, sideways, depending on how GLaDOS woke up in the morning when she created the test. Even though the distance you travel will always be the same (barring any outside help), some puzzles will force you to synchronize your jump to catch a cube that’s being bounced by another platform. They can also be used to “speed jump” through a portal and thus reach hard-to-get-to places. Moreover, besides the “Wiiii” feeling you get every time you use them, these plates manage to elegantly convey the increased size of the levels, especially when you’re being thrown about like a pinball.
Aside from helping you get over some pretty impressive falls, the light bridges can also act as barriers to stop you right over a catwalk or as a wall against turrets, depending on the portal position or the angle in which they are generated. They can also help you to remotely press buttons and grab cubes falling in otherwise inaccessible areas through the smart use of portals.