I recently shared a dinner table with the CEO of the Jefferson Awards for Public Service Organization. He asked me, “Why aren’t videogames more educational?” I told him that most videogames actually are when you peel back the entertainment veneer. Videogames teach decision making, problem solving, resource management, and cognitive thinking. I brought up the newly released game, Portal 2. I told him about the game’s premise and unique “gun” that fired linked dimensional portals through which the player and objects could pass. Using the portal gun and lifelike physics, the player was tasked with solving puzzles to proceed to the next room or test chamber.
A sequel to Portal runs the risk of being a rehash of similar puzzles to the original. Also, many gamers were very wary of the title due to its extremely short single player mode. It can be completed in five to 10 hours. Asking gamers to shell out over sixty dollars for a short game experience is a lot to ask given the mediocrity of most games. Portal 2, however, is far from mediocre. Sixty dollars on an immersive and vivid world with an enthralling plot and unique gameplay experienced in 10 hours is better spent compared to a vanilla brainless bloodbath shooter that spans 20 hours or more.
Portal 2 takes the original physics based, multidimensional puzzles and aims to flesh out the Aperture Science facility in which the story is set as well as build on the original game’s unique core mechanics. Valve made sure to go bigger in all aspects. The environment is vivid and has a natural feel. The story builds on the foundation set in the original Portal. Character origins are touched on with the inclusion of brilliantly engaging non-player characters.
The player returns as the original Portal character, Chell. At the start of the game, a spherical robot named Wheatley is introduced. He will serve as a guide for the player. Wheatley is masterfully written and voiced. The player will enjoy Wheatley’s clever wit just as much as the mind-bending logic puzzles that make up the core game.
The single player campaign starts off in the cramped confines of the Aperture Science Facility. Chell awakens after a long stasis to find the facility abandoned and in disrepair. The claustrophobic corridors give way to sprawling subterranean caverns. The destruction of the environment and structures is chaotic and life-like. Valve’s application of their seven year old 3D game engine, Source, still produces impressive graphics.
The portal gun functions the same in Portal 2. A dimensional port is opened wherever the gun is aimed. Chell and any moveable objects can be passed through this portal and teleported to where ever the second portal is located. Portal 2 expands on this with the addition of pneumatic tubes and tractor beams. Portal 2 also adds paint-like gels that have their own unique physical properties. Propulsion Gel boosts Chell’s speed across surfaces. Repulsion Gel increases Chell’s jumping ability. Conversion Gel allows portals to be opened on surfaces that usually would not accept them.
The tutorial levels may seem as if they are rehashed from the original game. Progressing through the game, the player will see how much thought and inventiveness Valve put into making a worthwhile sequel. Completing later levels will have the player’s reflexes and problem solving skills tested simultaneously. Some test chambers require repositioning portals mid-jump or before a countdown timer expires. Puzzle difficulty ramps up evenly and fairly without jumping too far beyond the player’s abilities. Valve does a great job of presenting a new object or gameplay mechanic and using that to build upon what the player already knows. That “Ah ha!” moment of finally solving a difficult test chamber is gratifying and rewarding. The solutions are always elegant and brilliantly conceived.
Fans of the Portal games will want to play through a second time after unlocking the Director’s Commentary mode. The developers, writers, and artists will have notes that appear throughout the levels giving insight into their original ideas, changes, and aspects that were cut from the finished game.
The bulk of the story is experienced in the single player campaign but the highlight of Portal 2 is the addition of cooperative play. Cooperative mode picks up where the single player story left off. The players take control of two robots that become self-aware and gain access to their own portal guns. The witty humor and excellent writing of the single player mode continue in cooperative mode.
The inclusion of a second player ups the sophistication in which the players need to think to solve the new cooperative test chambers. Increasing the number of dimensional portals raises the challenge level. A successful cooperative mode makes teamwork essential rather than just encouraging it. The puzzles in the cooperative test chambers require coordination and communication.
Valve found that players were having difficulty conveying “here” and “over there” in cooperative mode. They smartly added context sensitive prompts players can use to mark locations within the level. These graphical flags communicate to the other player where to move or place a portal. There is even a prompt that activates a countdown timer for synchronizing actions. These communication shortcuts are great for the more complex and chaotic test chambers.
Portal 2, while short, extensively expands on the world and unique puzzle solving gameplay of the original. New and returning characters are detailed with witty dialogue and expertly voiced. Portal 2’s puzzles are challenging but not unreasonably difficult and reward the player when they are solved. The story continues with one of the best cooperative modes available to date. Portal 2 is an innovative and exceptional experience.