(This review presumes a knowledge of the original Portal. Whilst it is not essential for the enjoyment of the sequel, there are a few in-jokes and references within the new game that will only make sense after a full playthrough of the original, and ideally an understanding of the wider Half Life universe. The reviewer suggests that you stop off at Half-Life 2: The Orange Box (Xbox 360)
before making a purchase on this page)
I will admit to a certain feeling of trepidation after the announcement of a sequel to Portal, which grew with the appearance of each new teaser and tech demo. Were they overcomplicating its simple beauty? Were they taking it too far down a comedy route, as the arrival of Stephen Merchant suggested? Would it all crumble under the weight of cake-related fan service?
Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. Portal 2 is every inch the sequel Portal deserved: full, fleshed out and still damn funny.
The new puzzle elements - such as the various attribute-enhancing gels, hard light bridges and whatnot - add new levels to the gameplay without detracting from the elegance of the central conceit. The difficulty curve is spot on, allowing the player enough time to get to grips with a new idea before bringing up a real head-scratcher. Thus, solving the cunning physics puzzles remains a feat of logic, lateral thinking and understanding of 3D space, with the satisfaction of finding the solution utterly gratifying.
Likewise, the comedy element has been successfully beefed up. Where the humour in the original built up slowly, Portal 2 wears its mirth on its sleeve from the get-go. Merchant's performance as the incompetent Wheatley is particularly enjoyable - just annoying enough to be amusing and at times pathetically sweet - whilst GlaDOS returns with all her acid wit intact.
The single player campaign is packed with twists and turns, tracking through the crumbling remains of Aperture before culminating in one of the most eye-popping and unexpected finales ever seen in this or any other console generation. Don't give in to the temptation to look at spoilers - you'll want to go into this one fresh.
Single player is only half the story, though, as Valve have provided a full, entirely separate two player co-op experience, playable online or split screen. After a bit of cajoling, I managed to persuade my wife to join in for a bit of the latter, and can gleefully report that this side of the game is every bit the equal of the single player event.
By necessity, the setup for co-op is simplified, with progress made by completing a series of isolated tests accessed from a central hub, rather than working along a story-led path. Each player takes command of an endearing test droid, equipped with a portal gun apiece, and forced to work closely to complete puzzles that are rather more complex than those found in the solo game.
Practically every move you make in co-op demands the work of both players, so neither feels like a spare part. That said, the difficulty has been weighted so that one player can, if need be, take on the trickier aspects of portal wrangling, meaning that adept portaleers can work alongside the less experienced players, both working toward the same goal and neither feeling bored or out of their depth.
In terms of criticism, one could argue that the game is a little short. It can be completed - both solo and co-op - within about twenty or thirty hours, with nothing (aside from some actually quite interesting developers' commentary) to lure you back for a replay.
Nothing, that is, except for the sheer joy of it. As someone who has played through the original Portal more times than I can reliably count, I am certain that the sequel is a title that will never be far from my Xbox. There is nothing else quite like it, from the humour to the excitement to the simple root concept. Unique experiences such as this deserve to be treasured.
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