The addition of Stephen Merchant as Wheatley in Valve’s Portal 2 allows me to make a slightly tenuous comparison between it and Merchant’s other vehicle: his work on The Office and Extras. When producing work of such a high standard there’s an obvious temptation to milk the winning formula dry and to wring every last drop of blood from its rotting carcass. Thereby leaving it in a state where its fans are left with no choice but to argue about the exact moment it dropped the ball and began scraping the barrel, recycling old jokes and diminishing that initial magic that made it so brilliant in the first place. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant ended The Office and Extras at the perfect moment. They’ll both live long in the memories of fans and went out on a high rather than a downward curve.
Different mediums entirely, but Valve could quite easily have done the same thing with Portal. It was the perfect game: high in concept, genuinely funny, entertaining and moving, and never out-staying its welcome. Making a sequel, then, was surely a huge risk, even for a company as large and resourceful as Valve. Could it continue the story without resurrecting GlaDos in a forced and contrived manner? Was there enough mileage in the application of the portal gun to spawn a sequel? Or would it be forced, quite literally, down a generic First-Person-Shooter corridor?
Thankfully, with the release of Portal 2, Valve has answered all of those questions with aplomb, and has delivered a game that far exceeds even the highest of expectations. And, were it to end the series there, would be doing so at the absolute perfect moment - on a massive high.
For those of you that never played the first game, and shame on you if you haven’t, the whole premise behind Portal is that you’re a largely anonymous test subject running a gamut of intellectual and physical challenges at the Aperture Science laboratories. Using the titular Portal gun, which is capable of firing two portals, you have to navigate increasingly complex test chambers while simultaneously trying to outwit GlaDos, the omnipotent over-seeing super-computer. The magic of portals is that you go through one to come out of the other, which allows for a myriad of ingenious puzzles and applications as over time you master velocity, mass, timing and all three worldly dimensions.
Portal 2 continues sometime after the first game, with you still taking on the role of Chell, waking up in a secure cell disguised as a chintzy hotel room. And it’s here that you first meet Wheatley, the on-rails sentinel robot, voiced by Merchant.
"Alright my lover"
GlaDos’ synthesised voice was a perfect fit for the Portal universe, so at first, having a robot voiced by someone with such a distinctive accent seems an odd fit. But this notion is dispelled almost immediately as Merchant’s performance is delivered with such flair and authenticity that there soon becomes a point at which it’s impossible to believe anyone else could have played that part. Wheatley is the perfect human counter to GlaDos’ robotic overtones.
As ever things aren’t quite what they seem but when a game is as well written and realised as Portal 2, it would be churlish of me to spoil even a modicum of it for you, so I'll refrain from spoilers. What I will say is that GlaDos inevitably returns and she's soon back to her old ways.
The language of game design
People talk about games often having their own language, vocabulary and grammar, and normally I dismiss their claims as pretension hokum, but in Portal 2 there’s a real and definite sense of subliminal communication going on between the developer and you the player. Often you’ll find yourself stuck with no immediately obvious solution available but then something will catch your eye or grab your attention, or you’ll intuitively do something out of the ordinary on the odd chance that you might get lucky. And lo and behold, 9 times out of 10 you’ll find the solution.
In fact, one of Portal 2’s biggest strength is how it tricks you into thinking you’re cleverer than the developer. That you found a solution it could never have anticipated. But it’s almost always a case of Valve holding your hand and leading you right up to the solution, without you even realising. It’s powerful stuff and constantly leaves you with a sense of the game playing you rather than the other way around.
But as you progress through the game, you will start to pick up on the visual clues and ticks. First and foremost are the obvious white ‘portal-able’ wall panels, the ones you know you can fire a portal at. But you'll realise that the lighting plays a discreet but extremely important in part in proceedings too. From time to time you’ll see spot lights and lamps in the environments and at first mentally disregard them as incidental furniture, but in reality, they tend to point towards the solution or missing key to the puzzle. It just takes you a long time before you realise you’ve been following the subtle pointers all along.
Another masterful part of Portal 2 is how consistent, whole and real it all seems. The first game hinted at an over-world, at a bigger picture, at you being a small cog in a very large machine, but the sequel realises it quite brilliantly. You’re not just making your way through a series of test chambers, you’re exploring a believable, authentic reality with as much back story, history and charm of its own. Look hard enough and there’s plenty to discover over and above what’s explicitly delivered to you. It’s very BioShock-esqe in its portrayal, particularly the second half of the game which introduces you to the new liquids – another game-changer.
Everything's better with co-op
In addition to the outstanding single player campaign there’s also an additional Co-Op mode which sees you and a partner taking on the role of Atlas and P-Body - two Aperture Science robots. They’re very Wall-E-esque in their design and equally as charming, particularly so once you begin to unlock the many gestures and animations.
Playing co-operatively challenges the player perhaps even more so than the single player campaign. Having two portals each opens the game up to an insane number of possibilities, and communication quickly becomes key. Realising this, Valve added a few masterstrokes including the ability to ping an area – to highlight exactly where you want your partner to place a portal, as well as the ability to initiate a timer – in order to perfectly time those “1,2,3,GO!” moments. It's fiendishly clever and even more longevity to what's already a considerably experience. I've heard reports of some people finising the game in shy of 5 hours but I reckon it took me nearer 10, and I only got stuck once.
In one side, out the other
With Portal 2 Valve has delivered a sublime experience. It’s among the most well-written and rounded games I’ve ever played, from the sardonic and dry sense of humour of GlaDos and Wheatley, to the incidental one-liners spoken by the ensemble cast. And for those of you that are heavily invested in the Half-Life universe as a whole, well there’s plenty of subtle clues and references to a bigger picture. Whatever comes next from Valve is guaranteed to be exciting.
Can Valve take the franchise any further? I’d have said no after the first game, but this is a sequel that not only builds upon the first game, but just when you think you’ve seen it all, throws another fantastic twist on proceedings and has you thinking outside of the box. Quite simply it's an oustanding candidate for game of the year even at this early juncture and if you have any reservations about it, well put them to one side, you won't be disappointed.