Dictionaries have a bunch of different definitions for the word ‘perfect’. It’s hard to quantify, so for the purposes of this post we’re going to go with the good old Oxford –
Having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics; as good as it is possible to be.
A perfect game doesn’t need to please everyone. It doesn’t need to make critics unanimously fall to their knees and claw out their eyes in sheer ecstasy. It just needs to be the absolute best game that it can be within its own potential. From this standpoint, anything from the lowest-budget indie to the biggest AAA blockbuster can achieve their own individual perfection – and so few games do. One of those games is Portal 2. At the risk of looking vaguely like a clickbait website, here’s why.
#1: Life really is better with portals
Much like Half Life 2 before it, Portal’s world is bursting with character and wit.
Portal was groundbreaking. It brought puzzle gaming into the 21st century, bundled with an amazing soundtrack and some stellar voice work. Portal 2 takes everything that the first did well and cranks it up, further expanding the world around Aperture’s labs and layering brilliant new mechanics atop the core portal gun mechanic. Decaying test chambers, the deep, rusted bowels of a vast, abandoned laboratory – a steady breadcrumb trail of new puzzle elements is laid out before you before they eventually intertwine in continually surprising ways.
This sequential format is nothing new, but Portal 2 nails it. Even the most mentally taxing parts of the game are enjoyable, and when you finally crack the test that’s been splatting you against a wall or dropping you in toxic waste for the past half hour the solution almost seems breathtakingly obvious. You never fail because of rubbish physics or flawed mechanics – you fail because you suck. The world it all takes place in is a marvellous mesh of sterile laboratories fighting off encroaching overgrowth. Twisting white panels and searing laserbeams giving way to collapsing walkways and neglected corridors leading you further still into GlaDOS’ web. Portal 2 will surprise you time and time again, with the slick complexity of its puzzles and the emotional gut punches delivered by the steadily unraveling plot.
First you will be baked. And then there will be cake.
The first Portal introduced us to GlaDOS, the ever-present AI antagonist with a love of science and an intense dislike of orphans, but Portal 2 expands on her menace and the greater Aperture facility in a huge way. Valve favourite Ellen McLain lends a singularly brilliant characterisation to GlaDOS. Synthesised snark, discordant menace, and a passive-aggressive streak that’d outdo any middle-class British person on their best day. I defy anyone to spend even the smallest amount of time listening to her dialogue and not fall head over heels for it.
Her reanimation right at the beginning has to be one of the finest moments in recent gaming history. Wheatley bumbling into turning the power back on, the soundtrack building to an ominous swell as mechanisms grind back to life and a familiar orange light reignites. “Oh. It’s you”. GlaDOS regards the stray subject that killed her and dismantled the facility she controlled with all the cool weariness of someone bumping into an ex they dumped for being too clingy.
GlaDOS is the perfect counter-point for silent stalwart Chell, their almost symbiotic relationship a constant source of clever jokes and character assassination. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that GlaDOS is Portal’s main focus, and rightly so – the latter half of the game has you piecing together tragic parts of Aperture’s history and GlaDOS’ origin. It gives you a whole new perspective on the terrifying artificial intelligence that’s been forcing you through a gauntlet of deadly lasers and chirpy turrets. She is quite simply one of gaming’s greatest bad guys, and her fantastic dialogue is reason enough to play Portal 2 start to finish.
#3: …and everybody else
For a talking LED bulb Wheatley is incredibly expressive.
Though GlaDOS will consistently steal the show – as a malevolent AI or tragic potato consciousness – Portal 2’s supporting cast are just as unique and lively. Leading the charge is Wheatley (superbly voiced by Stephen Merchant) whose misguided, well-meaning antics create some excellent tension and drama. Wheatley and GlaDOS bounce off of each other in a way that feels more human and believable than most games that don’t star faceless maniacal robots. Aperture CEO Cave Johnson makes a frequent appearance through old recordings and advertisements, again laying a breadcrumb trail of details that leads you to piecing together the background story as a whole. Cave is mostly absurd and hilarious (I don’t want your damn lemons!) whilst at the same time providing some poignant insight into GlaDOS’ origin and the inner workings of Aperture as a company.
Portal 2 does that better than anyone else. Rather than having blatant exposition or unwieldy cutscenes rammed in at every opportunity the story takes a backseat to the gameplay, allowing players to engage with it at the level that they want to. You can whizz through the whole thing to master the puzzles and hoover up some achievements or you can crawl through test chambers with a fine tooth comb deciphering desperately scrawled notes on the walls to try and support your mad theories. It’s great. Even the bit players, the psychotic turrets and defunct AI cores that litter the path out of the testing facility, are crammed with enough quirk and character to make Pixar throw their entire back catalogue into a fire and start again from scratch.
#4: Scientific advancement through modification and co-operation
Modders are constantly remixing and reshaping Portal – Aperture Tag is one of the greatest examples.
After delivering refined, unique gameplay, a story that ricochets from hilarity to tragedy with absolute ease, and the best voice acting in a videogame to date, Portal 2 comes with a co-op mode that is essentially an entire campaign within itself. Taking place after Chell’s story ends, testing robots Atlas and Peabody go through some truly mind-bending portal trials. It continues to shine some light on Aperture’s murky past, and any extra time spent listening to GlaDOS insult test subjects is well spent. It’s great to sit down with a mate and try to conquer the madness that ensues when you have to combine the use of four portals and confounding timing.
Portal 2’s co-op mode is the sort of experience that will break your relationships down and build them back up again. Every missed portal, every fluffed jump – it all goes towards making eventual victory all the sweeter (in rare cases extended use of Portal 2’s co-op campaign may cause divorce, aggravated assault, and complete disintegration. Consult your doctor if you’re worried). This could have been released as DLC, perhaps even a standalone game – hell, lesser studios would have released this as Portal 3 – but Valve bundled it all together because this is a perfect game. And new content is still being created for Portal 2 to this very day.
Valve’s constant support of the modding community results in some absolutely fantastic content, breathing new life into their games years after release. You can download hundreds of fan-made test chambers for free, and some of them are just as devilishly inventive as the ones offered in the core game. One of my favourites is Aperture Tag, which comes with Valve‘s approval and a small £3.99 price tag (at time of writing you can pick it up on Steam for a paltry £0.79 – it’d be rude not to). Tag puts a brand new science gun in your hand that sprays the speed/jump boosting gels prevalent in the later missions and delivers a series of new challenges alongside it. It even has voice acting and a standalone story – though not quite up to Portal’s 2 obscenely high standard. Even the briefest of searches on Steam Workshop will come up with a host of interesting new takes on the game’s mechanics. There’s time travel, racing tracks, entire chunks of new story, and ambitious projects to recreate the entirety of the first game using Portal 2 assets.
If you love Portal and you haven’t delved into the mod scene, do it as soon as possible. It’s so easy to do and builds on a wonderful experience with imagination and ingenuity.
Portal 2 is the very best game it can be. There are no missed opportunities. It lives up to the entirety of its potential. While Valve fans are ever-clamouring for the elusive third entries, I wonder if Portal even needs another sequel. 2 is the complete package – and if, somehow, you haven’t played it yet, you’re missing out on one of the best games ever made.
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