I want to take you back in time. No, not to 2007, earlier. Not 2004 either, farther than that. I want you to, if you can, think back thirteen years, to November 19, 1998. On that day, Valve released their first title: Half-Life. The game was so popular, it inspired three expansions, and countless mods, some of which became full-blown titles. In fact, if you type "half-life" into Google, the FIRST result if the wiki article for the game, the second is the article for the chemical decay of compounds.
Six years later, Valve released the sequel, Half-life 2, a game many, including myself, consider to be the single greatest first-person shooter of all time. It was perfect in almost every way. It spawned two epsiodes, which continue the story, all of which were included in 2007's Orange Box, along with Team Fortress 2, a sublime multiplayer shooter I still play today.
Oh, and there was also Portal.
This hidden gem quickly earned enormously high scores, as well as a stand-alone release on XBL. What it lacked in length it made up for in originality and ingenuity. But for all of it's excelence, it still fell short of the Half-Life series as Valve's best. Half-Life 2 was still the king.
Portal had a very simple (yet eloquent) plot involving 2 characters, three if you count the scriptures left behind by a deranged test subject. For the first two-thirds of the game, there did not appear to be any over-arching story, it was simply a series of testing gronds which required the use of a new piece of technology. Unfortunetly, by the time the story began to wind up, the game was already in it's final act. As such, many were left wanting more.
In Portal 2 however, the story is a much larger part of the game, and now will often take precedence over the puzzle at hand.
You play as Chell, the test subject from the previous game that managed to destroy GLaDOS, a rampant AI which attempted to kill her. Waking up an undeterminate (but very long) time later, Chell is still trapped within Aperature laboratories, the setting of the previous title. Things quickly get underway when she is broken out of captivity by Wheatley, an AI core that is also trying to escape the facility.
"I can't do it while you're looking..."
As one would expect, things quickly go sour, as Chell is forced once again to run tests for GLaDOS when she is reawakened from her slumber.
The story is far more memorable, with more characters, surprising twists, and superb backstory. Even if the immediate plot doesn't interest the player (which would shock me to say the least), the character development is so spot-on it's hard not to get pulled. Wheatley is just so damned adorable, even when he [REDACTED].
The first Portal was an original, exciting concept, with a new weapon on par with Valve's other major contribution to video game armories: the gravity gun. Obviously, the portal gun is back, as are turrets, pressure pads, cubes, and lazers.
Part of what made the first game so great was the novelty. It was such a breath of fresh air, and unfortunately there is no way valve could replicate that. However, what is lost in originality, valve made up for ten-fold by expanding heavily on the original concept, throwing in several new elements and devices, enough to make your head spin.
In all, there are four new elements to the game. the first is the termal discouragement laser, which acts much like the energy balls from Portal, except it is now a continuous beam. It will not kill the player, and you will need to use a new mirror cube to direct it towards another panel to activate it.
The second addition, is actually two (3) different ones. Valve has introduced gels which can be used to "paint" an envirenment using Portals, giving the area special properties. The orange gel will acclelerate Chell when she moves over it, the blue one will bounce her up and down. Both must be used correctly to pass a puzzle, and knowing how, where, and when to place them is key. There is a third variant, which has not been shown in any marketing/demos. I'll keep up the secret, but rest assured it's cool.
Making a mess...
Next are the light bridges, which are exactly what they sound like. It's unfortunate how sparringly these are used, as their versatility and application make for some interesting situations. Luckily the final new element plays a slightly similar role, so no harm done.
The final addition I don't know the actual name of, so I am going to call it the vortex tube. The vortex tube works similarly to the light bridge in that it begins from a set origin and can be navigated using Portals, however it self-propeeled, and one-way, giving the player limited control of direction.
In general, Valve has somehow managed to outdo themselves. I was skeptical that they couldn't improve on Portal, but they have indeed.
What fun would all these toys be if there weren't some seriously awesome testing grounds to play around in? Luckily, Valve has, yet again, improved mightily on the original.
The first few levels will be maddeningly simple for those who have played the first, but are necessary for those who haven't. Once you get past those however, the game is quick to open up. A perfectly scaled difficulty curves slowly ramps up the difficulty as you progress. Every time a new gameplay element is introduced, it is slowly implemented with some easy puzzles before becoming more and more complex.
In later levels, players will be forced to combine several of these elements, such as redirecting a lazer to activate a vortex, which then carries a stream of blue gel over to a platform, allowing Chell to bounce off of it. Yeah, it's intense.
The single player can last up to eight hours depending on your proficiency and skill. One aspect which players will either love or hate is the focus on timing on later tests, meaning even if you figure out HOW to beat the test, you may lack the skill to beat it. It can be frustrating, but it's a great way of combining skill and intellect, and means replaying old puzzles is still fun.
As good as the SP is, it is trumped by the Coop. Valve decided to create an entire cooperative campaign (split screen or online), which lasts just as long as the single player. It features an equally dark/funny story. The tests, which will require nothing short of total teamwork, are even more intriquite and difficult than the hardest in the SP. And hey, if you have four portals to work with, you wanna get the most out of them.
Voice chat is ideal for this, as things can quickly get complicated, but if you can't chat with your partner, Valve has included an ingenious singal system to allow players to communicate with each other. You can place symbols to indicate placing a portal, or use a timer to coordinate actions.
This calls for an epic theme song.
Steam is an amazing resource, and it's implementation on the PS3 is a great move on both Sony and Valve's part. Microsoft is going to be kicking themselves when almost everyone who has both consoles picks the game up on PS3, since they're basically getting two copies for the price of one.
The Source engine was first introduced seven years ago in Half-Life 2. That said, it's remarkable how much Valve is still managed to wring out of it. Everything is super-detailed and well designed. Textures are clean, and there is little-if no- pop-in.
Water effects are still great, which have always been a strong component of the engine. Valve was very smart in going witha less-is-more approach, using sterile, predominantly white envirenments to mask the games age. It begins to show in some of the middile sections, when you venture down into old Aperature, but the level design is so exceptional it's hard to notice.
But the visuals, as good as they are, play second fiddile to the voice acting. The writing is sharp and funny as hell, actually some of the funniest in any game ever. GLaDOS, once again voiced by Ellen McLain, is much more in-your-face and sinister this time. Despite this, her dead-pan delivery remains an absolute gem.
Wheatley (Stephen Merchant) is absolutely adorable, and his antics will certainly keep you laughing. Very much the Yin to GLaDOS' Yang, Wheatley is loud, passoinate, and hilariously stupid.
As good as McLain and Merchand are, it's J. K. Simmons who manages to steal the show. He voices Cave Johnson, founder and CEO of Aperture Science, and his voice guides you during certain sections of the game, as well as filling in the backstory. While I imagine most of lines were written by someone else, his delivery of them makes for pure, side-splitting hysterics.
"Luckily, in order to keep these chambers rat free and clean, they are made of 100% asbestos."
Portal 2 is Valve's most polished, well-written, expertly designed game ever. And it's damn fun to play too. While I await their next release with baited breath, I imagine it will take great effort to top this.
I am not going to give a Value score for this, it shouldn't be necessary.