Let’s get one thing straight right away: Portal 2 is not Portal 1. Don’t get us wrong: Portal 2 is still completely brilliant—just in entirely different ways. If Portal 1 was an incredibly witty one-liner, then Portal 2 is a whole night of stand-up. That is to say, it’s still smart, subversive, and riotously funny, but it does manage to drag in a couple areas—if only briefly.
Portal 2 sees previous heroine Chell awaken many, many years after her fateful game of “Ha ha, got your brain” with hilariously nefarious AI GLaDOS. The first character you encounter this time around, however, is a far friendlier face (or fast-chattering robo-eye, as it were). His name’s Wheatley, and he’s equal parts cowardly, incompetent, and voiced by Stephen Merchant. Primarily for that last reason, you will instantly fall in love with him. He’s an amazing counter to GLaDOS’s morose musings and exemplifies Portal 2’s more expansive tone and breadth of material.
We’re calling it now: best new videogame character of the year.
The other new character—who we’re not going to mention by name for fear of spoilers—doesn’t fare quite so well. Put simply, his run-of-the-mill jokes and personality don’t quite reach the sterling standard set by GLaDOS and Wheatley—an issue not helped by the fact that his levels are a bit too expansive for their own good, which causes Portal 2’s pacing to take a disappointing dip during its middle chapters. Fortunately, things pick up again before too terribly long, and the resulting wave of momentum crashes into an absolutely fantastic ending.
The real stars of the show, however, are the puzzles. Once again, Valve’s masterful ability to reprogram your brain with all manner of subtly game-changing objects and techniques is on full display. With the game’s substantial increase in length and drip-feed of tools like Aerial Faith Plates, Hard Light Bridges, and redirectable lasers, puzzles are certainly more complicated this time around. Even so, you probably won’t notice, as Valve’s brilliant design could convince even the world’s worst puzzle-solver that he/she is a complete genius.
A bridge—or, as someone with a portal gun would call it, “peasant travel.”
Co-op, meanwhile, adds yet another layer of complexity (two portal guns!) and manages to be ridiculously satisfying as a result. There are some real head-scratchers in the mix, but having two heads to scratch instead of one speeds up the process more than enough to make up for it. The end result? Brain-twisting bliss. There’s really nothing quite like hitting a wall, thinking out loud for 10 minutes, and then—just when all hope seems lost—having simultaneous “eureka” moments. It’s cooperative in the truest sense, and you may very well come away feeling closer to another human being as a result.
Consequently, Portal 2 is far more than “Portal, but longer.” Its newfound scale affords it greater variety in locales, puzzles, and characters, leading to an entirely new tone and feel. By and large, Portal 2’s hugely successful in making the jump up to the big leagues, but inevitably, a few jokes are duds and a few crummy puzzles made the cut. But hey, no comedian ever has a perfect night. The best ones just give you so many highs that you forget the lows even happened.