To tell people about a game like Portal 2 is a pretty interesting challenge. On one side you want to tell everyone about your enthusiasm for it, on the other you have to carefully guard what you are about to say so you don't spoil anything. Because just like with movies like Fight Club, Memento and Inception or games such as Bioshock, Portal 2 is without a doubt the best if you have no idea what you are walking into and what you can expect from it.
It's not that there might be a twist at some point (Is there? Or isn't there?), but because the joy of discovery is such a big part of it. It was the same thing with the original Portal, a game that is closing in on its fourth birthday and which is so old that I feel like I'll be able to discuss it without any thought about spoilers. (You've been warned.)
Because on the surface, Portal looked like a clever little puzzle game with a good concept, that took place in sterile environments that you were guided through by a cooky robot voice. The marketing for the game hadn't pointed to anything else. But as you got closer to what you thought were the end, it suddenly shifted in character completely and you suddenly found yourself behind the clean facade and the robot voice, GlaDOS, became a character with feelings, motives, insanity and a thirst for blood. It was like nothing we had seen before.
And it's the same thing with Portal 2. Valve have been very careful with what they've shown from the game ahead of release, and for a good reason. Portal 2 plays with your expectations, and can go off in a completely different direction all of the sudden. If you're a fan of the original you're probably expecting some form of twist at some point, but it will still manage to surprise you. It's magnificent in that regard, and you should absolutely experience it by yourself.
GlaDOS is of course back, but before you get to meet her you're introduced to a new character: Wheatley. He's a so-called personality sphere and the best way to describe him is like a big robotic eye, similar to the ones you broke off GlaDOS in the final boss fight in the first game. He's enthusiastic, friendly and slightly confused. The game starts in what looks like a cheap motel room, where you've spend hundreds of years in cryo-sleep, while Wheatley is frantically telling you that all of Aperture Science is threatened by a meltdown from its central reactor. Because of this you have to quickly escape, which of course means you'll get plenty of reasons to use the Portal-gun, and before you know it GlaDOS has come back to life...
She's pissed, since while you've been sleeping, she's been experiencing her moment of death - over and over and over again. That would make anyone rather bitter. But now she's back and can get back to her favorite activity - sending you through a lethal test chamber after another. All in the name of science, of course.
And that's all I'm going to tell you about the story.
Early on, everything is more or less like you remember it from Portal. In fact, a couple of the first test chambers you'll go through are the same as in the first game, only more run down after many years of decay. But new concepts are quickly introduced, the tempo feels a bit higher, and it doesn't take long before you get to play around with the new game mechanics.
There's a bunch of them. The basic mechanic, the Portal gun, is still the same. You can fire two different portals, a blue and an orange, and whatever goes into one comes out the other. It's a simple concept that's a mindfuck at the same time.
The additions to the gameplay come through the environments. Here you'll see a whole bunch of new elements that almost all of them works together with the portals in one way or another. The first one is a laser beam, that can be turned by using various lenses and that are then used to unlock doors and to activate platforms and switches. The beams go straight through the portals, which means you can activate switches that would otherwise be out of reach.
Another addition is the fate plates, a form of ramps that will send both you and other obejcts flying. They replace many of the more reflex-based puzzles from the first game, like when you had to fire portals while flying through the air. In that sense, Portal 2 isn't as stressful as its predecessor, because you don't have as short reaction times to solve a puzzle. That doesn't mean that your gray cells won't be tested constantly - just that your motor skills won't be as important to success.
There are also lightbridges, bridges of solid light that you can walk on, make longer and almost move around by using the portals. There are also the gels, a kind of paint that has different effects based on color - one acts like a trampoline, while the other allows you to run faster. And lastly there are the energy tunnels that will allow you to float in a certain direction.
Almost all of these new mechanics work together in one way or another, for example you can move or cover new areas with gel by using the energy tunnels and they are all introduced throughout the campaign. You constantly have to think in new ways, all the way up until the final moments.
When it comes to the puzzle design, Valve have really taken a big step from the already high level from the original. There's a couple of really nasty mind benders here, and when the game has really started very few of them have obvious solutions. It means that the satisfaction is even higher when the "aha!" moment finally arrives. Every puzzle feels like a small victory and when you're finally floating above the huge chasm that seemed impossible to cross you're filled with an inner peace that few games are able to live up to.
But no matter how good the gameplay actually is, it wasn't this element alone that made the first Portal so memorable. It was just as much the universe, the characters, the dialogue and the humour - which is even more obvious in Portal 2.
First of all, there's Wheatley. He's adorable, funny and completely out of touch with reality - like early on, when he notes that you're suffering from a temporary but strong and serious brain damage after your long sleep.
But the star of the game is still GlaDOS, that has become even nastier, more sarcastic and very much bitter since the first game. She's not afraid to make fun of you as you play, and she's constantly commenting on your weight or lack of intelligence. She also doesn't hold back when she tells you exactly how she feels about having been killed by you at the end of the original. "The results from the last test chamber are in," she says after one of the early challenges, and reads out loud with faked surprise. "You are a horrible person. That's what it says. A horrible person. We weren't even testing for that."
The voice acting is fantastic - which is almost a given. From the small roles, like the turrets and the other automatic voices in the huge Aperture-complex, to the larger roles like GlaDOS and Wheatley (the latter is played by Stephen Merchant, known from for example the original version of The Office) all deliver their lines with perfect timing. Voice acting in games has held a pretty high standard over the last couple of years, but Portal 2 still stands out as a class of its own. It doesn't hurt that the game will have you laughing out loud at many points throughout the game, and if nothing else you'll probably giggle every time one of the characters opens his or her mouth.
The music also deserves a special mention. Most of the time it's simple and relaxing electro, but with the twist of having an extra instrument or two added in when you're doing well - like for example by aiming a laser beam in the right direction or every time the blue trampoline gels sends you up into the air. It's a small, but refined, detail that serves as both hint and an extra boost in motivation.
Like almost all of Valve's games, Portal 2 is built on the Source-engine, that was first used in Half-Life 2 back in 2004. In other words it is getting rather old, but it's constantly getting upgrades. Portal 2 is not an exception, and the biggest difference is visible in the dynamic lighting which gives the game even more life. Both Unreal Engine and id Tech have used this for years, but that doesn't change the fact that Portal 2 is without a doubt Valve's prettiest game ever.
And while the architecture in the test chambers is pretty simple, the technology behind the game gets a lot of room to flex its muscles. It soon becomes obvious that the Aperture complex is huge and the view down a chasm or up towards a deep silo or tower will take your breath away. The Citadel in Half-Life 2 might have been huge, but it was always in the background - in Portal 2 we're up close. It's like the difference between seeing the Empire State Building as a part of the skyline or standing at the base of it looking up.
The level of detail is also much, much higher. Because Aperture has been decaying for so long, there's a lot of trash everywhere and the wildlife from the surface has made its way down into the base. You'll also come across screens that show funny clips, which introduce new gameplay mechanics or just give you an insight into the twisted view of reality that the workers at Aperture Science had.
It's actually quite easy to summarize: Portal was one of the best games, if not the best, that was released in 2007. Portal 2 makes it seem simplistic in all its aspects.
That goes for multiplayer as well. Portal simply didn't have one, while Portal 2 has a full-blown co-op campaign for two players. It picks up where the singleplayer-campaign ends, even if there's really no real story. What it does have is a lot of challenges and once you've learned the basic ropes, the difficulty level starts to build up. Almost all the mechanics from the singleplayer make a return, and some of them are even used in new context. There's a bit more focus on timing and co-ordination and you'll have ample opportunity to get you - or your friend - killed. If you do die you quickly respawn, so it's more of a source of humour and laughter than frustration. Communication is of course very important, and the game comes with some clever tools to make it easier for people not playing it split-screen on a console. Of course, GlaDOS returns to cheer you on in her own special way.
Portal 2 is a very solid experience. It's a game that doesn't really come with any weak points. If you want to complain about minor details, one thing I could mention is the fact that things like chairs, computers and coffee cups no longer can be picked up and are now mysteriously glued to the floor. At first it feels a bit odd, but I can only speculate that perhaps the designers felt that some players stared themselves blind on these objects and thought they were an integral part in the puzzle solving. I don't know. It's not a very important drawback, either way.
My only real complaint about Portal 2 is that it isn't longer. That's not to say it is short, depending on how quick you are to figure out the puzzles it's somewhere around 7-10 hours long. The co-op campaign adds another 4-6 hours to that. In this day and age that's not only a respectable length, it's actually rather long. I am still hungry for more, though. It's like a holiday that you don't want to come home from.
Valve's Gabe Newell has said that Portal 2 is the best game Valve has ever done. That's a pretty tricky statement to judge, because almost every game the company makes has been amazing. In the same way it doesn't really mean anything if I were to say it is one of their best games ever. Instead, let me just say this: Portal 2 managed to surpass my very high expectations of it and it's the perfect sequel to the classic Portal. It does everything right and doesn't take a single wrong step. It's a game that everyone should play and I can't recommend it enough.