Fortunately, you’re given an impressive array of useful tools to make communication as smooth as possible. You can highlight any spot you’re pointing at to indicate exactly where you’d like your friend to shoot his or her portal. Either of you can start a timer to synchronize actions, and holding down a button pops up a small screen that shows you what your partner is seeing in case you get temporarily separated and want to see what your partner is puzzling over. It’s a very intuitive and useful setup, and even with the ability to talk to each other via headsets (which I highly recommend) these tools are a great asset. You even have the ability to do silly things with your robot avatars like high five each other or laugh at your partner’s mistake. These are largely cosmetic but still fun, and it’s rewarding to celebrate after a particularly difficult challenge while GLaDOS chides her robots for acting like a couple of “humans”.
The co-op campaign is a bit lighter on story than the single-player experience, but GLaDOS’ trademark sociopathic wit keeps the levels entertaining as she comments on your rate of solving puzzles and constantly tries to convince you that your partner is trying to kill you. This accusation is admittedly not always false, as it’s difficult to play the entire campaign without being tempted to guide your friend through a portal you’ve set up to emerge over an oversized shredder. The sheer number of opportunities to play practical jokes like this is hard to pass up occasionally. You’ll ultimately have to work together to succeed, of course, but it’s well worth doing, as the campaign has some of the most rewarding challenges I’ve ever seen. It isn’t quite as long as the solo adventure, but it will keep you thoroughly entertained for several hours.
While the co-op levels may focus more on challenge than narrative, the single-player campaign more than makes up for it. The story is given much more room to grow and develop in the sequel, which is at least twice as long as its 3-5 hour predecessor. There are no cinematic cutscenes and Chell herself never speaks, so most of the details are conveyed by the computers and recordings she encounters in her travels, while certain visual clues in murals and scrawlings left by a former inhabitant of the facility paint a picture of past events as well. The origin and development of Aperture Science throughout the past several decades is explored, and many of the questions the first game left unanswered are revealed throughout the story, such as the source of GLaDOS’s personality and some of the possible reasons behind her psychotic behavior.
While GLaDOS makes a welcome comeback, the sequel has added a couple of new characters into the mix, each with a memorable personality that shines through some remarkably funny writing and superb voice acting. Ellen McLain’s GLaDOS thinly veils her passive aggression towards Chell through comments about such things as her weight, while the utter incompetence at virtually everything by Stephen Merchant’s Wheatley never gets old. One scene where he attempts to verbally hack a computer reveals that he has no idea what a keyboard is, and it was so entertaining that I stood there listening to all of it, even though it was just filler dialogue while I was supposed to be solving the room’s puzzle. Equally brilliant is J.K. Simmons, the voice of Aperture Science’s late founder and CEO Cave Johnson, whose pre-recorded messages reveal a figure who ordered immoral and dangerous experiments with such a go-getting attitude that it’s hard not to like the man despite his loose ethics.
The visuals of Portal 2 have also been vastly upgraded from the first game. The technical quality is only marginally better, but what makes the real difference is the amount of extra effort that’s gone into them this time around. The original game had panels on the walls and floors that looked as if they were designed to move around but never did. In Portal 2, these panels actually do move, transforming the environment around you like a living thing. They also allow for other visual flourishes such as moving debris around the room or defectively slamming against walls. And while Portal had only the pristine testing chambers and some late industrial levels, Portal 2’s chambers are marked by decay, with plant life bursting through the cracks in the walls. Other levels include vast, subterranean rooms and huge geodesic domes. In comparison, these changes make the first Portal feel like the small side-project it was, with Portal 2 now taking the premise to a whole new professional level.
The excellence doesn’t stop at the graphic design, either. Once again the beloved geek troubadour Jonathan Coulton provides a quirky song for GLaDOS to sing over the end credits, entitled “Want You Gone”. While it’s doubtful this tune will reach the cult status of Portal’s “Still Alive”, it’s a fun number and provides the perfect cap to the experience. Even more exciting to me was a totally unexpected song from one of my favorite bands, The National, which plays on a radio in one of the rooms you travel through. The song, “Exile Vilify”, was written for the game, and provides such a haunting and beautiful melody that I could not resist picking the radio up and carrying it with me so I could keep listening to it. The rest of the soundscape may not be as noticeable, but it’s no less effective in providing background ambience, ranging from industrial noises to light techno tracks that ramp up in intensity during the game’s more exciting moments.
In the end, it’s hard to think of anything Portal 2 does wrong. It’s hard enough to think of anything it doesn’t do as well as it could have. Valve has taken the original premise and shown what they can do with a longer development time and a more polished, full-featured release. Portal 2 no longer relies on the same “short but sweet” simplicity that helped make the original such a classic, but it doesn’t need it. The sequel keeps varying both the style of the obstacles and the environments in which the puzzles are set at just the right intervals, so it never feels like you’re doing the same thing over and over. All the while, the consistent display of impressive voice acting and some of the funniest game writing ever leaves a lasting impression of these memorable characters and Chell’s ordeal. The addition of the superbly designed co-op campaign just adds yet another layer of brilliance on top of an already spectacular single-player experience. Like its predecessor, Portal 2 is not an adventure game in the traditional sense, but genre fans will find plenty to appreciate in this story-driven obstacle course, because puzzle games don’t get any better than this.