*WARNING, THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS*
The unfortunate thing about writing reviews is that you have to spend most of your time talking about the things that didn’t work and why. Which is a shame since Portal 2 is quite easily on this reviewer’s “Top 10 Games of All Time” list.
Valve Software’s latest title, Portal 2, continues the story of Princess Chell who was locked in a tower and guarded by a fearsome dragon named GLaDOS, she has awoken from her eternal slumber to finally kill GLaDOS and escape her castle-prison. Of course not. On the other hand, replace, “tower” with, “Aperture Science Facility” and, “dragon” with “sentient artificial intelligence” and you’re on the right track. Basically if you are reading this and had absolutely no idea that the “Princess Chell” thing was a joke then go ahead and download Steam, buy Portal and Portal 2, and thank me later. As many fans of the series saw from the trailers, Chell awakens to the dystopian ruins of Aperture Science and is guided around some of the early chapters by a personality core, similar to the ones you tore from GLaDOS in Portal, named Wheatley, voiced by Stephen Merchant.
Merchant does an excellent job especially considering he’s not exactly a veteran voice actor. However, the biggest issue with Portal 2 is definitely his character, Wheatley. The character itself is well thought out and well written (I suspect a lot of dialogue was written by, or with assistance of, Merchant himself given how naturally he plays the role). The animation is extremely good, making a spherical robot have almost human expressions as it speaks is a tough problem to handle but Valve, as always, deliver perfection. So you may be wondering, what’s wrong with him? It took me a long time to pin it down but on my second play through of the single player campaign, it hit me. While GLaDOS (voiced by Ellen McLain) is well-written, developed and animated, to the same level as Wheatley, Merchant’s voice is just too human in noticeable contrast to the hilariously dark and computerised voice of GLaDOS. Everything else that isn’t human in the game doesn’t sound like it could be a human, from the turrets to the personality cores at the end of the original Portal. Yet Wheatley has the purely human voice of Stephen Merchant. Admittedly it doesn’t distract you too much on the first play through since, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be sat giggling like a schoolgirl in tense anticipation for all the twists and turns of the story, but it’s still a problem.
The second play through on any game is where the player really starts to notice small flaws in anything from gameplay to story and unfortunately Wheatley comes close to ruining the experience. He’s funny, dim-witted and charming but he sounds and behaves far too human. He expresses human emotions like fear, anxiety, and joy but nothing in the Portal universe has been known to feel these things with the possible exception of GLaDOS herself. But at least GLaDOS has a reasonable explanation for why she would perhaps display signs of being human, chief among which is the fact she’s supposed to be the combined effort of presumably hundreds of highly qualified scientists whose job it was to create as “real” an AI as possible. Wheatley on the other hand, as it later turns out (spoilers by the way), was created by a team of scientists as an intelligence dampener, or “tumour” as GLaDOS so delightfully put it, to restrict the intelligence of GLaDOS. Why then, would it display all these human emotions? At the end of Portal, (more spoilers) we see other cores similar to the main core of GLaDOS which all have their own particular traits. For example, one is curious, constantly asking questions about the player or about where they are (or what that burning smell is), while another core is simply incoherent growls to represent rage or anger. Again you have to ask why someone would deliberately add this feature to an already unstable AI but Portal was all about the fun and it only featured for a few seconds before you threw it into a fire. Portal 2 has tried to be more realistic in its scenery and far more in-depth in its story so it seems odd for Wheatley to be a Swiss Army core while every other core we have seen to this point has had one particular function and that’s it.
Portals themselves work in exactly the same way as in the previous game, with the player returning to some of the first test chambers from the original game with a few tweaks here and there. The biggest differences in most of the early chambers in Portal 2 compared to the original are mostly cosmetic, Valve again proving their level design prowess by turning the chambers into absolute wrecks but still clearly reminiscent of the chambers from the original game. New mechanics are introduced and taught at an excellent pace, never allowing the player to feel they don’t know exactly how to use each mechanic at each test chamber while also challenging the player with each new chamber up to fairly satisfying levels of complexity, though admittedly not as complex as in the original.
Character development was obviously a major topic of conversation in the offices of Valve since we get to learn a lot more about GLaDOS and Chell while also learning about the new characters, Wheatley, Cave Johnson (Aperture Science CEO, voiced excellently by J.K. Simmons), his assistant Caroline (also voiced by Ellen McLain) and of course about Aperture Science itself. At the start of the game, the player is confined to the once sterile test chambers now covered in vegetation and in a state of disrepair. As GLaDOS gets the facility back to normal, the player returns to sterile test chambers but after the first major twist of the game, the player is launched almost back in time as they stumble across the Aperture Science Facility’s history with ornamental awards going back as far as 1947. The whole area has an appealing, rustic charm and acts as great contrast to the clean and simple test chambers. Players will find themselves loving these areas for the art direction and added depth of understanding of the facility and how it worked as an organisation. Through recorded messages from Cave Johnson, the player relives some of the history of Aperture Science. Initially picking test subjects from a list of astronauts and olympians, Johnson states to these test subjects, “You are here because you are the best.” While he later admits to picking up homeless people from park benches.
Portal was known for more than its portal gun however and the dark humour returns even better than before. Some of the most hilarious dialogue I’ve heard in a game, Wheatley included, and for once it doesn’t feel crowbarred-in like in so many other games. Cave Johnson has some of the best lines in the game but the real star as always is GLaDOS, “Well done. Here are the test results: You are a horrible person. I’m serious, that’s what it says: A horrible person. We weren’t even testing for that.”
Despite my many complaints about Wheatley, Portal 2 as a whole is a fantastic game, a testament to how gameplay and story should be interlinked so as not to distract the player from the gameplay but to also allow those who want story to find plenty of it. Valve have proven since the 1990s that they are the kings when it comes to merging story and gameplay in the Half-Life series. While fans wait for the release of Half-Life 2: Episode Three, which is probably still going to be in alpha testing by the time 2050 comes around, Portal 2 is a very welcome reminder of just how amazing Valve are and what they are capable of.