A video game's second installment leaves its cult credibility unscathed
(Xbox360, PS3, Mac/PC)
GAMER Portal 2 reminds us that "first-person" is a point of view first and a game type second. With combat-themed shooters incestuously fumbling over one another to produce the most similar experience, it takes a certain amount of marbles to deliver a shooter about strategy and narrative instead of death. But for developer Valve, Portal's sequel was never a risky gamble.
Portal (2007) was a surprise success, a last-minute addition to Valve's Orange Box bundle that boasted heavy-hitters like Half Life 2 and Team Fortress 2. It was Portal, the little game that traces its history to a college senior project in Washington state, that brought the most buzz. A puzzle game where you play a test subject in a future lab, Portal tasks you with escaping elaborate exam rooms by using a gun that shoots portals — one orange, one blue — go in one and come out the other. But it wasn't just Portal's mechanics that attracted players; the humor, pacing, and whimsical approach made it memorable.
In the same way that I can define what made Portal a sensation, Valve too was armed with the secret to its success. A joke is never as funny the second time, but Portal 2 knows its audience and does its best to satisfy old fans while telling an altogether new story.
Sometime after the conclusion of Portal, human test subject Chell is awakened in a deteriorating laboratory by a robot named Wheatly. As Chell, you must negotiate the cavernous lab and a vengeful computer AI named GLaDOS and familiarize yourself with new, futuristic technologies like force fields, light bridges, and gels that make you bounce. Early levels reiterate the first game's slow and easy increase in difficulty, but soon you are gleefully translating your puzzle-solving skills into a means of escape.
Most of the game is set in test rooms, and it's unsurprising to learn that Valve's vision for Portal 2 wasn't entirely clear: it continues its tradition of creating puzzles first and contextualizing them later. A great benefit in telling the tale comes from stellar voice-acting by Stephen Merchant and character actor J.K. Simmons. Fewer conventional puzzle rooms would be nice, but the brain teasers themselves are consistently satisfying.
Valve could easily have damaged its cult credibility by amplifying a perfectly concise experience, but Portal 2 works. With an equally satisfying (and wholly unique) cooperative mode that highlights teamwork — and a developer commentary mode that places commentary nodes within the game world — Portal 2 packs enough content to justify its standalone release. The joke might be less funny when you anticipate the punch line, but in this case it all comes down to delivery.