Coming off the excitement of Portal as part of The Orange Box and only about a 40-minute playthrough for the experienced player, Portal 2 does an excellent job identifying what fans loved from the first game and expanding upon it. With excellent voice work from Ellen McLain and Stephen Merchant as the ever popular GLaDOS and new companion AI Wheatly, level and mechanic design which enhances the mechanic depths from the first game, and an excellent soundtrack, Portal 2 has cemented itself as a must-play classic that seems to stand the test of time.
1 - Visuals
For a game initially released almost 10 years ago, (Portal 2 was released on April 18th, 2011) the graphics still hold up. One of the most impressive feats at the time is still the opening sequence of the game, where players find themselves in a hotel room which falls apart as Wheatly man-handles it (robot-handles?) around the facility in Chapter 1: The Courtesy Call.
It was wild playing this for the first time in 2011 and seeing the state of decay and deterioration of the once-familiar Aperture Laboratories and its test chambers from the first game. Not only that, we also get to see the gradual improvement and change of these test chambers as the game progresses, either through GLaDOS fixing up the chambers, the dip into the old test chambers of years past, or through Wheatley’s new-and-improved chambers.
The level design and scene setting are on point, making the player feel like they’re in a vast underground complex without being afraid of showing the guts of said complex. For immersive visuals and great pacing, Visuals get the full 5 stars.
2 - Audio
Portal 2 has a variety of audio tracks and effects throughout the story, including some nice background progression designed to be unobtrusive to the player while they solve the various puzzles and tests as well as some memorable musical cues to play as earworms 10 years down the line.
With impeccable work from the various voice actors and well-made tactile sound effects for general movement in the game, the audio does a very good job of highlighting how alone the player is in these massive spaces without making them necessarily feel lost. There are very few moments of actual silence in the game, with atmospheric sounds and tracks associated with the different portals and energy beams providing a cool backdrop to the puzzle-dense experience.
For soundtracks which still list in my favorite personal playlists, Audio gets 4.5 stars. (The half-a-star was a hard choice, but they can’t all be 5 stars, no matter my bias)
3 - Story/Progression
The character design… the sass… the story of this game is what tends to keep players hooked for the long playtime. This ties in very neatly with the visual and audio design of Portal 2, as without the incredible work of Ellen McLain and Stephen Merchant, the characters wouldn’t have half the comedic and story value they currently hold.
The writing of both GLaDOS and Wheatly, the interactions between them and Chell, and their general egos are what drive players through the story. As we piece together the history of Aperture Science when listening to the recordings of Cave Johnson, we feel for this known killer robot who tried to kill us more than once in the first game, and it all blends together beautifully. And the ending… lets just say you have to play it for yourself, but I’ll leave you with this (spoiler) recreation of my favorite scene in the entire series.
For a story and game experience which brought me back 10 years later to write a review about it, this game earns a well deserved 5 stars.
4 - Gameplay
Portal 2 has been lauded high and low for its use of innovative physics and game mechanics, especially the use of the Portal Gun as its titular mechanic. The vast majority of the puzzles in the game utilize this tool, showing an immense feature depth and learning cure that keeps players coming back for more, and designing their own community levels with the in-game editing functions. From the Thermal Discouragement Beams (lasers), Excursion Funnels (tractor beams), and Hard Light Bridges, Portal 2 paces itself by slowly introducing new variations as players master the previous ones, leading to a gradually-building complexity of puzzles which never feel too far out of the player’s depth while keeping them intellectually challenged.
With forgiving respawn mechanics and witty dialogue to encourage players after coming up short, dying never feels like a game-ender, and players never feel cheated by unfair or challenging mechanics. The few instances in the game requiring quick reactions or precise shots have some gentle easing and guidance to seamlessly help the player, automatically shooting the correct color of portal when you have to panic catch yourself, or nuding the portal to land in the correct place when shooting a significantly long distance. These tweaks are few and far between, and practically unnoticed by the average player, keeping them immersed in the action and movement of the scene.
For near flawless gameplay and application of game mechanics, Portal 2 gets 5 stars for its Gameplay.
5 - Context
Portal 2 received a lot of rewards upon its release, which was a reflection of the absolutely glowing reviews of both reviewers and game fans at the time. Highlights include: The Game Critics Awards for Best PC Game and Best Action/Adventure Game, IGN for Best of E3 for PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 systems and Best Puzzle Game, and the 2010 Spike Video Game Award for “Most Anticipated Game for 2011.” In addition, both the single and multiplayer aspects of the game have very well done captioning, with the multiplayer especially featuring a number of non-verbal communication tools for players to work together without needing voice chat.
While I haven’t touched on it as much, the multiplayer section of Portal 2 was exceptionally well received, with many reviewers feeling it had closer ties to the feel of the original Portal than the mainline story itself. Not to mention the community level-designing aspects which continue to draw in players and allow all ranges of devs to practice and learn level design with, nurturing future games and game design.
Not to mention the very funny mini video series of Cave Johnson encouraging people to design levels, and explaining the various elements used in Aperture Science’s tests.
Portal 2 is a fun puzzle-solving game with a dark sense of humor which has players coming back to it even after 10 years. From witty writing to catchy tunes, the details lovingly put into the development and design of this game cement it as a must-play classic for years to come. So, in the famous words of GLaDOS herself: “I think we can put our differences behind us. For science. You monster.”