By Joshua OstroffIt isn't easy following an out-of-nowhere success like the famously innovative Portal ― basically a tech-demo packed into Valve's Orange Box compilation, which existed to hock Half-Life 2 to console owners ― which became one of 2007's most heralded games.
This "first-person puzzler" was set in the Half-Life game world, albeit localized in a new Aperture Science laboratory, and featured a deadpan sense of black humour, a much-loved theme song, "Still Alive," and, of course, its award-winning titular game design.
Portal was rooted in the physics-busting technology of a student-made game called Narbacular Drop, which enabled the entrance and exit of a connected portal to be placed anywhere in the game. In hindsight, it's an obvious game mechanic, but nobody had coded it before ― that ingenuity got the development team hired by Valve to make what would become Portal. Then they set to work on the sequel.
As one expects from an additional numeral, Portal2 returns with a beefed-up (if still relatively slight) single-player campaign set a few hundred years after the original, with you trying again to escape the now decayed App Science Labs. There's far more of a story this time, and they also added a totally separate co-op campaign with its unique plot.
There are some new physics-upending features ― taken from another student game, Tag: The Power of Paint, which uses gels to increase speed, bounce and other properties. Of course, they could also now afford some fantastic celeb voice work by Stephen Merchant (The Office, Extras) and character actor J.K. Simmons (the Spider-Man franchise's J. Jonah Jameson). Oh, and for good measure, Valve threw in a new song from the National.
But they still knew what made the original such a hit: cake-promising A.I. computer GLaDOS returns in all her psychopathic glory, as does the deadpan dialogue, co-scripted by Canadian Jay Pinkerton, and, of course, the fiendishly clever and impeccably polished portal-based puzzles that you must suss out while being run through what amounts to a rat maze.
The original soared high on the wings of zero expectations, but was akin to Nirvana's Bleach. And since the day it came out, we've been waiting for Nevermind. Portal 2 isn't quite there, more like In Utero or perhaps Unplugged in New York. It's an artistic triumph, to be sure, if not necessarily a revolution-starter.
But where most sequels are a case of creative bankruptcy, Portal 2's success should encourage further investment in experimental game design in hopes of eventual commercial rewards, as well as instant critical acclaim. (Valve/EA)