Portal was something of a revelation. The modest game cleverly melded the first-person shooter with spatial puzzling. Players used a high-tech weapon to paint space-bending passages onto walls and escape deadly mazes. It also deftly integrated a dollop of meaningful story into the gameplay. The setting was an abandoned science lab supervised by a rogue artificial intelligence named GLaDOS, who served as an ever-present narrator and oppressor.
But most importantly, Portal was just as long as it needed to be. That’s because the 2007 game was part of Valve’s Happy Meal bundle, The Orange Box. The package was a bargain with or without Portal, leaving the game to exist unmolded by the necessities of commerce. The good news is that there’s enough fast food stuffed into Portal 2 to make it feel like a complete meal.
Valve managed to cram this much game into the box without making Portal 2 feel like it overstays its welcome. Much of this additional nourishment comes from the game’s co-operative mode, which casts online players as a pair of robots working for GLaDOS. These puzzles immediately feel more ornate and gratifying than those in the single-player portion of the game—the addition of a second portal gun makes such complexity necessary.
Though many will use voice chat to work through each test, the game includes tools to help players communicate sans speech. GLaDOS’ constant commentary adds color and laughs when your teammate can’t or won’t. Though if you really want to roleplay the scenario of being trapped in science hell, the best bet is to play silently with a random Xbox Live moron.
The Portal 2 single-player story breaks the monotony of testing chambers, revealing a sprawling robot-built fortress, the ruins of the original game and the vast, abandoned original Aperture test chambers. The scale of these areas feels downright extravagant when all it takes is one portal jump to cross their gaping spans. New experimental tech like propulsion gel and tractor beams add new wrinkles to later puzzles without becoming overexploited or overbearing. The focus is still on folding space.
Most economical are the game’s characters. Wheatley, an affable AI companion voiced by Stephen Merchant, makes players feel like Ricky Gervais. J.K. Simmons delivers a humorous turn as the disembodied voice of Aperture founder Cave Johnson. And Ellen McLain portrays GLaDOS with the same brainy venom as before, but now the opportunities of plot let us learn that the program is more multi-faceted than we might have suspected.
All these minor triumphs are a credit to Valve’s subtle but potent marriage of writing and game design. If there was ever any doubt that Portal could be expanded into a big, narrative experience with all the bells and whistles of a mainstream gaming hit, have no fear. Valve solved that puzzle with Portal 2.