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GAME REVIEW: Portal 2 (PC)

The original Portal was one of the biggest, most delightful surprises in video gaming - a simple, student-created project eventually turned into the quiet fifth party member in the sentai squad that comprised The Orange Box - Valve's ingenious 2007 video game compilation release. Portal introduced us into the world of Aperture Science and its demented computer overlord, GLaDOS, who ran you through a gamut of puzzles requiring the use of the Dual Portal Device, which you eventually used to escape certain death, break free, and bring an end to GLaDOS's seemingly unstoppable testing rampage. Portal was a short but satisfying affair, and as the credits rolled, the world was left to wonder - what now?

It's been a couple of years, but we finally have our answer, and it's hard to think that any human alive could be truly dissatisfied with it.

Not since HK-47 has being hated by a soulless murdering robot been so charming.

Portal 2 features the return of Chell, the mute template of a player character that you used as your avatar in the first title. You (as Chell) awaken apparently hundreds of years in the future in the ruins of the much-bigger-than-I-thought-it-was Aperture Science facility, put on ice until such time that testing could resume. You're roused by Wheatley, a well-intentioned but completely idiotic robot core that needs your help in escaping the collapsing structure. It's not long before the ressurected GLaDOS is on your trail, setting up lethal tests and traps along the way.

The ravages of time have made Aperture look like my college dorm room... only without all the posters of Spike Speigel.

The story, narrative, and presentation of Portal 2 are perhaps the best in nearly any game I've seen so far. The game manages to make you care about other characters and the world around you despite the fact that you never encounter another human being, alive or dead, for the entire span of the title. The game never loses its stride (or rather, it doesn't on account of the story, but I'll get to that in a minute) but rather uses clever vignettes and set pieces to keep the action moving. The writing is top-notch, as is the voice-acting, with industry talent like JK Simmons and Stephen Merchant joining up alongside the terrifyingly familiar Ellen McLain, who reprises her role as GLaDOS.

Don't look down!

The main gameplay - basic first-person platforming and puzzle solving with the Dual-Portal Device - remains intact, and a number of the initial puzzles in the singleplayer game are set up with the express purpose of refamiliarizing you with the game's puzzles and pacing. While the environment is a delight, it took a couple of hours for the game to hit its stride, as far as I was concerned - and very close to the second hour, I got the feeling that I was seeing a pretty straight-faced rehash of the first title. Thankfully, the game switched it up very close to that point in time and I started venturing into new territory - literally as well as figuratively, as you explore the mid-20th-century bowels of the Aperture facility.

While the game had impressed me up until this point, it wasn't until the underbelly of Aperture that I started to get truly excited about the game. The whole area feels both like the factories of pre-nuclear holocaust Fallout and like the tunnels of Bioshock's Rapture, reinforced in a big way by the boisterously charismatic JK Simmons as Cave Johnson, the founder and CEO of Aperture. Much like Andrew Ryan from Bioshock, Cave Johnson's pre-recorded messages reveal an understated hostility, a hostility borne of meddling with things that should not have been meddled with. This kind of change in character really, REALLY helped push Portal 2 above and beyond its predecessor - a change in character in the environment, area, and not least of all the mechanics: While I won't get too much into the details, there are some fantastic twists on liquid physics and environmental modification that begin around the time of the Old Aperture areas that help the mechanics of the game feel as innovative as they did in 2007.

Aperture's ruins hold more secrets than even players of the first title will assume that they hold. Secretly. Holding them.

The game comes with a co-operative campaign adventure that clocked in at about 6-7 hours in total for me and my chosen accomplice, and this after getting stuck on some of the trickier puzzles. The co-operative adventure is a great addition that, once again, helps the gameplay feel fresh and different. While it's not necessary (even storywise) to play the two adventures in a particular order, I found myself really wishing that I'd played the co-operative campaign after the singleplayer campaign for reasons of difficulty. The singleplayer game is a ton of fun, but I was never stuck on a given puzzle for more than about two to three minutes, whereas some of the co-op puzzles were thirty-to-forty minute head scratchers.

The game auto-picked the fat robot for me. I have to assume that GLaDOS had something to do with this.

I have only one major complaint with Portal 2, and that's that there's not more of it. The original Portal came with advanced versions of the original maps, plus challenge chambers, allowing for additional content above and beyond the main campaign at the expense of weeping only at your own puny intellect and its inability to overcome the puzzles found within. While the original Portal was much, MUCH more compartmentalized and it was probably a lot easier to repurpose the "maps" in these ways, I still would've really appreciate some kind of challenge content to pick at on my own once the other adventures were done. However, Valve's already publicly said that they're planning on releasing Portal DLC this summer - and they've announced that they, as a company, really like the Team Fortress 2 style of content release. These facts should satisfy my want for more test chambers pretty soon.

Portal was one of those games that almost everyone played when it came out, including non-gamers. Portal 2 is a game for all of these people and more. It's a game that demonstrates an unrelenting dedication to quality in every aspect of a title, and a desire to put the fun of a game in the hands of the player no matter what.

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