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GLaDOS returns in a fully-fledged sequel to a modest little game called Portal...
Finishing Portal 2 will make you sad. As the credits role and another of Jonathan Coulton's catchy tunes plays over the top, you'll likely think (as we did): 'I'm probably not going to play a game this good for another five years.' It really is that impressive; almost all other video games are left flailing helplessly in its wake - some might even say Valve has them Left 4 Dead (sorry). But it's not as if you can go back and replay the game on a higher difficulty level to recapture some of the joy you experienced the first time around. Such is the nature of physics-based logic puzzles that - like a crossword - once you've finished it, it's done forever. Well, you'll at least have to wait a couple of years before your long-term memory has forgotten all the puzzles and you can start again from scratch (if only science had created a widely available, memory erasing ointment - we'll get Cave Johnson on it right away).
Looking back to Half-life 2, it's telling that the logic puzzles are the most memorable moments. As good as the combat and setting were, the set-pieces that have remained implanted in our head aren't slaughtering swathes of headcrabs but, instead, it's those moments when we figured out how to raise a ramp using plastic barrels or lower a drawbridge with the momentum of a swinging industrial magnet. Portal 2 is basically a whole game of this kind of problem solving, only revolved around the central principle of inter-spatial portals and a gun that dispenses them. In fact, one of the major questions surrounding this sequel as we neared review was whether it would be able to spread a simple concept across the content demands of a full-price retail release. The original game was only ever designed as a short supplement to The Orange Box; a five-hour bonus to the star offerings of Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2. Valve surely couldn't have foreseen quite how much gamers would take the premise to their hearts and that its sequel would be the developer's most eagerly anticipated game since the return of Gordon Freeman in 2004.
While almost all of the puzzles in the original game revolved around portals, companion cubes, and gun turrets, Valve has now run with these initial ideas and fleshed them out more imaginatively than we could ever have hoped for. There are the new puzzle pieces that you might expect - jump boards and laser prisms, for example - and then there are ideas that have come completely out of left-field. Apperture Science's patented gels have to be the most fascinating: the bright orange Propulsion Gel, for example, can whisk you across test chambers like an entirely frictionless Slip 'n Slide, while the blue Repulsion Gel has you bouncing around the place as if transported by a nuclear powered pogo stick. Each of the game's chapters effectively introduces a new principle or variable for you to work with, whether it's the one-way Light Bridges or levitating transportation beams.
It all sounds pretty whimsical, I'm sure, but the important thing is that these features are what keep the portal concept varied enough to withstand a campaign of around 10-15 hours in length. At no point does the appeal of Portal 2 drop below that of its predecessor - on the contrary in fact, most of the time it manages to exceed it and then some. What's particularly noticeable is just how addictive the test chambers are. Usually with logic puzzle games - the likes of Braid and Limbo, as examples - what keeps you playing is a sense of self-improvement. The gameplay itself is actually quite high maintenance - it would be so much easier to sit comatosely in front of some reality TV - but you continue on because it makes your brain cells fire on all cylinders and leaves you with a feeling of having done something productive (well, virtually productive at least). Portal 2 bucks this trend, constantly spurring you on to the next puzzle as you repetitively attempt to convince yourself, 'Just one more, then I'll set it down for the night.'
But that's just the gameplay - Valve was already the indisputable master of puzzle solving gameplay of this type and Portal 2 keeps the studio Repulsion Gel-infused leaps and bounds ahead of the curve. What really puts the copious icing on the cake of Portal 2 (see what we did there?) is its characters, storyline, and presentation. Valve just makes it all look so easy; so effortless. It's a bit like watching Zinedine Zidane play football, Yo-Yo Ma play the cello, or Neil Buchanan create a football pitch-sized mosaic - true masters of their craft cast the illusion that they were born that way and successfully conceal the hours of blood and toil that go into the pursuit of perfection. Where other developers splurge cinematics all over their titles in the hope of being compared to a movie, Valve uses them sparingly and more effectively at moments that enhance the experience rather than impede the gameplay. While most games struggle to convey entertaining dialogue between their characters, Valve's team of writers have penned monologues so sharp, intelligent, and witty that they could cut through a steel girder. The voice-work by Ellen McLain, Stephen Merchant, and J.K. Simmons is equally stellar - if there's any justice in the world then the characters they imbue will go down in gaming lore as some of the most entertaining of the medium.
And so now you might understand why we felt sad when the campaign was completed. Thankfully, Valve has also included a co-op mode in the game (both online and via local split-screen) that adds towards 10 hours of additional content. There's nothing too complicated to explain here really - it turns out that co-operative design lends itself naturally to the Portal formula. Valve has essentially brought a range of the same gameplay mechanics from the single-player and translated them into test chambers that require multiple solutions at once. The one thing we will say is that voice communication really is a must if you're to have any hope of solving the various head-scratchers. Although a command interface has been integrated that allows players to communicate without a headset (they can tag locations where a portal should be laid or get their robots to high five a chamber's completion, for example), the solutions get so complex at times that these kinds of interactions don't really suffice. Even with voice communication, you do feel a bit like someone in the Crystal Maze shouting at their team member from outside a game room. 'Not there! Next to the other thing!' and so on...