Portal 2

Year: 2011
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Developer: Valve
Genre: Puzzle
Review Date: 3/25/16
Rating: ****

"You know what my days used to be like? I just tested. Nobody murdered me. Or put me in a potato. Or fed me to birds. I had a pretty good life. And then you showed up. You dangerous, mute lunatic."

When we last saw Chell, her unconscious body was being dragged back into the Aperture Science Enrichment Center by a mysterious mechanical figure (presumably a party escort robot). Years, decades, or even centuries later, her dystopian post-apocalyptic nightmare continues when she is awakened from suspended animation by a neurotic and chatty personality core named Wheatley. He helps her escape from the crumbling testing facility, but inadvertently reactivates GLaDOS, the murderous A.I. from the original game. Her previous defeat has left her bitter and angry, and she's none too pleased to see Chell again. But that doesn't stop her from putting Chell through a whole new gauntlet of devious test chambers. Later in the game, Chell and GLaDOS temporarily put aside their differences and team up to take down the increasingly maniacal Wheatley, who has become corrupted by power and threatens to annihilate the entire Aperture Science complex.

The original "Portal" was a small, simplistic, and relatively short budget game, whereas "Portal 2" is a full blown sequel with considerably more content and a much larger scope. The once clean and sterile Enrichment Center is now dirty, broken down, and overgrown with invasive vegetation. Chell's exploration of the facility leads her to the condemned and infinitely massive underground science complex that founder Cave Johnson created back in the 1950's. As she progresses through the antiquated test chambers, the decor and technology slowly evolves through the 60's, 70's, and 80's, accompanied by Johnson's increasingly psychotic pre-recorded messages. A lot of back story is hinted at, but never fully fleshed out, which leaves everything frustratingly vague. Hearing Johnson's voice sparks a personality change in GLaDOS, as she recalls parts of her former life as one of his lab assistants. This makes her a much more sympathetic ally, but can she be trusted and how long will their truce last? Chell remains a complete mystery as a faceless and voiceless entity who still can't see her own feet, which is a bit disappointing. The fact that her last name has been redacted in her file hints that she may actually be the love child of Cave and Caroline, but that's never explored. The climax is a bit disappointing, apart from the fact that Chell finally makes her way back to the surface, and hopefully lives happily ever after.

In addition to the single player game, "Portal 2" also offers a 2-player co-op campaign where GLaDOS guides two robots named Atlas and P-Body through a series of test chambers and fetch quests. Each robot has a fully functional portal gun and each puzzle requires the two of them to work in tandem, which is a completely different experience from Chell's adventure. Of course, as with most co-op games, the biggest challenge is trying to find someone fun to play with.

The presentation is superb and employs the same game mechanics as the original. The controls are much more console friendly this time around, and new features include various gels that can be used to enhance movement and create portal surfaces. The graphics are excellent and much more detailed than the original game. Apart from a couple of unreasonably difficult jumps, the biggest issue I had was that there isn't a comfortable walking speed. Chell moves either too fast or too slow for my tastes. The learning curve ramps up at a slow and steady pace and the testing chambers feel appropriately challenging. The game design also ensures that there's no way to get stuck, so you're never forced into having to restart from the last checkpoint (unless you die, of course). The only time I got stumped and had to refer to a guide was in the caverns of the old lab, where it wasn't obvious what structures were non-obstructive and what surfaces were receptive to portals. Similar to the original game, the final showdown is overly difficult and requires considerably more dexterity and precision timing than the rest of the game. Thankfully, the generous auto-save feature saves your progress after every milestone, so you don't have to start the entire battle from the beginning every time you die (and I died a lot).

Not surprisingly, where "Portal 2" shines brightest is in its writing and voice acting. While Wheatley is incessantly chatty and extremely annoying, his dialog is excellent and Stephen Merchant's enthusiastic performance is outstanding. Ellen McLain reprises her role as GLaDOS and is absolutely wonderful. In addition to her cold and calculating dark humor, condescending sarcasm, fanatical commitment to testing, and murderous undertones, she also expresses unfiltered bitterness, anger and hatred towards Chell, and clearly has revenge on her agenda. She has the best dialog in the game and listening to her is a constant treat. Her attempts to undermine Chell's confidence focus on blunt and unwarranted fat shaming, which I feel slightly guilty about enjoying so much. Unfortunately, later in the game she ends up speaking through a small and tinny speaker, and I had to turn on subtitles in order to understand what she was saying. The other major player is the eccentric Cave Johnson, who is voiced with cocky authority by J.K. Simmons. While his dialog isn't particularly interesting, Simmons's delivery is superb and a pleasure to listen to.

Overall, "Portal 2" is a wonderful game and I found it delightful to jump back into Chell's horrific world. I would have liked a deeper and more concrete back story, but that would have derailed the game and killed its forward momentum (especially since all information is presented through spoken dialog). If you enjoyed the original "Portal", appreciate science fiction and dark humor, or just like quirky puzzle games, "Portal 2" is a worthy addition to your collection.

Some noteworthy quotes:
"You may have a minor case of major brain damage."
(regarding test subjects) "What do these people spend their money on? Tattered hats? Beard dirt?"
"In case of implosion, stare directly at implosion."
"Caution: Do not fall down elevator shaft."
"I think we can put our differences behind us. For science. You monster."
"Well done. Here come the test results: You are a horrible person. That's what it says: A horrible person. We weren't even testing for that."
"Most people emerge from suspension terribly undernourished. I want to congratulate you on beating the odds and somehow managing to pack on a few pounds."
"Hmm. This Plate must not be calibrated to someone of your... generous... ness. I'll add a few zeros to the maximum weight. You look great, by the way. Very healthy."
"Look at you. Sailing through the air majestically. Like an eagle. Piloting a blimp."
"When you die, I'm going to laminate your skeleton and pose you in the lobby. That way future generations can learn from you how not to have your unfortunate bone structure."
"This next test involves turrets. You remember them, right? They're the pale spherical things that are full of bullets. Oh wait. That's you in five seconds. Good luck."
"That jumpsuit you're wearing looks stupid. That's not me talking, it's right here in your file. On other people it looks fine, but right here a scientist has noted that on you it looks stupid."
"Well, you know the old formula: Comedy equals tragedy plus time. And you have been asleep for a while. So I guess it's actually pretty funny when you do the math."
"If I'd known you'd let yourself get captured this easily, I would have just dangled a turkey leg on a rope from the ceiling."