I remember the days following the Doom craze through to about the Quake era, when a large contingent of whiny, opinionated gamers started howling portents of gloom and doom because “originality in gaming was dead” and “everything’s going first-person”. I wonder what they think of the current state of the gaming industry, with the extinction of unpopular genres, the consolidation or disbanding of smaller studios and the standardization of control schemes – they must be turning in their graves, if they’re dead.
But amid the large scale conformity to the standard point-and-shoot formula, a few rogue developers worked to bend the old first-person viewpoint to new purposes, desperately trying to open the stagnating minds of gamers to something other than click and shoot. Their attempts met with varying degrees of success, but none of them really grabbed the limelight in a big way until the 2008 release of Portal, a first-person game which used Half Life 2’s Source Engine to deliver not a shooter, but a puzzle game.
It was a short but oh-so-sweet ride through one of the most original and compelling gaming concepts in decades, and while it was originally meant to be a quick side-project, we cried out for more. The developers realized they were onto something big and worked hard to give us the recently-released Portal 2, the highly anticipated sequel which takes everything we loved about its predecessor, fleshes it out, adds in a few new ideas, and turns it into a full-length game. If you aren’t already excited, then it’s probably because you didn’t play the first game – so go and track down a copy of the Orange Box and get yourself up to speed. You won’t regret it.
The single-player mode of Portal 2 picks some time after the events of the last game. Having killed off the sadistic AI, GLaDOS, your character finally awakens from suspended animation after centuries. Guided by a hilariously endearing robot called Wheatley, you are told that it’s time to go – although there’s precious little explanation as to where or why – but you finding out is part of the fun. While navigating the now ruined Aperture Science facility, you stumble upon the recently resurrected GLaDOS, who’s not happy about being murdered by you all those centuries ago, and decides to exact her revenge by making you go through innumerable, brain-bending tests.
These tests are what Portal is all about. The goal is always the same: reach the exit of each stage, but there are always seemingly impassable obstacles in your way. The only tool you are equipped with is a portal gun, which can shoot two separate but connected portals. This allows you to, for instance, access a high ledge by shooting one portal up on the ledge, and shooting the other portal on the ground level where you are. You can then walk through the ground level portal and reappear on the high ledge. That’s a very, very, very basic explanation, though, and if you haven’t played the first game then you’ll have no idea how complex and fun it can get.
By the time you’re well into the game, you won’t be creating portals to walk through yourself – but rather to redirect beams of laser light into receptacles, to move items from one place to another and to protect yourself from hazards. Sometimes, you’ll even have to take physics into account, dropping yourself, or objects, into portals well below you to pick up speed so that you (or the object) will come flying out the other end to jump over gaps. I could write every word in this review about the kinds of puzzles you’ll encounter and still not have enough space to cover them all.
And that’s not even mentioning Portal’s newest addition: Co-op mode. Two players can play together either online or on the same machine in split-screen (for the consoles) through a lengthy campaign of puzzles designed to be solved by two players, each equipped with their own portal gun. That makes four portals in total. You can just imagine the kinds of devious puzzles the developers could create with that in mind – and that’s just what they did. The first player takes control of a lanky robot named P-Body, and the second player gets to control a shorter one called Atlas. Apart from their looks, there’s not much difference between these two robots. They can perform a wide variety of funny gestures to amuse each other or annoy GLaDOS, who comments on their performance the whole way through.
Working with another player adds an interesting new element to the game, and some of the puzzles are so complex and multi-layered that you’ll need two different views on every situation just to weigh up all the potential solutions. You’ll frequently be required to create portals for your partner, pass objects back and forth, hold items for each other, and even synchronise your portal creation, button pressing and item catching to perform complex, multi-part steps to a single objective. It’s a good laugh too, especially when you accidentally send your partner to their doom by putting a portal in the wrong place, or slam them into a wall by accidentally retracting the wrong portal during one of those timed springboard puzzles.
If only I had more space, I’d love to go into the other little things besides the engrossing gameplay that make Portal 2 such a joy to play, like the superb art direction, the hilarious, sadistic sarcasm of GLaDOS, the intriguing story and the fascinating little Easter eggs and messages you can find scrawled all over the walls in the compound. Unfortunately, just describing the basic brilliance of the game was difficult enough to fit, so just take my word for it when I tell you that Portal 2 is one of the most innovative, compelling, original and just plain enjoyable games you’re ever likely to play. If you don’t like this, there’s no helping you.