Portal is a perfect little experience which proves games don’t need to be particularly long to leave a lasting impact. At the same time, I’m certainly not going to complain that they made a sequel which expanded upon the core ideas while maintaining the same consistent quality in both puzzles and comedic writing, all sustained over a longer experience.
The central concept of the portal gun is one of the best ideas in gaming. In the original Portal, the puzzles revolve around finding the right place to put the two portals, with harder puzzles adding elements of momentum. Portal 2 adds a bit more complexity through the introduction of colored gels. The blue repulsion gel repels anything which touches it, resulting in the player being able to jump onto it and bounce back to a similar height. The orange propulsion gel makes anything which comes in contact move faster, while the white conversion gel allows portals to be applied to otherwise impossible surfaces.
While these are initially introduced as static features, the player soon accesses tubes which endlessly pour out the gel. By placing a portal where the gel lands, the player can splatter the various corridors with the necessary paint. Understanding how all of this works is simple, but figuring out what to place where can be challenging. It’s also just fun to do things like coat the bottom of two adjacent towers with conversion gel, only to place a new portal ever higher up the opposing towers until they’re both completely coated – Valve knows how to make observing physics effects fun. Where the original was largely concerned with finding just the right angle, Portal 2 adds the fun step of first making those angles accessible. The best levels leave Chell in a massive room with little obvious guidance beyond the presence of these tubes.
While the original Portal had a lot of charm, the only truly developed characters were GLaDOS and the Weighted Companion Cube. With the latter being the tragic silent type, it was largely a one-character show. To play against GLaDOS’s cold passive aggressive nature, the game introduces Wheatley, another artificial intelligence who is literally programmed to just be the most unbearable idiot. Stephen Merchant plays the role with a perfect frantic energy, another stark contrast against GLaDOS’s robotic monotony.
And when you reach an abandoned section of the laboratory, pre-recorded messages by company founder Cave Johnson guide Chell through the puzzles. He’s an overbearing tycoon who puts new ideas and profits over safety, making it clear how the company ended up in this mess. He also has a wonderful performance provided by J.K. Simmons. All three of these characters form a perfect triangle of foils, all hilarious in their own distinct style.
There’s not much more to say about Portal 2 without diving too deep into specifics – the charm is simple and straightforward. This sequel expanded upon the already stellar concept of the original. This is the physics puzzle genre at its best, with a wonderful cooperative campaign adding an additional layer of complexity. Meanwhile, the entire experience is wrapped in some of the best writing the medium has to offer. Portal 2 is video game presentation at its sleekest.