[Games] First Thoughts: Portal 2

Portal was perfect. A bonus gem tacked on to the already stunning Orange Box alongside Half Life 2, its two follow-ups and Team Fortress 2. It arrived with almost no fanfare and quickly became the surprise hit of 2007. It was though, in a very real sense, a limited experience. The game only lasted about four hours, but given the fact that it came supplied on the same disc as the staggering Half Life 2 saga and one of the best multiplayer games of all time, who could complain about that? Even when Portal was rereleased as a standalone product it came bundled with extra content and was sold at nowhere near full price. The big question therefore about this, its uber-hyped, full-priced sequel, is – is there enough game in here to justify £40?

It’s a question that, after three days with the game, I’m not sure I can fully answer. If you loved Portal, if you were one of those who played it for a second time just to follow the commentary nodes placed in every nook and cranny, if you wore cake t-shirts and had Still Alive as your ringtone, then you’ll be fine. The trademark humour is still in evidence, although the inclusion of characters other than GLaDOS (most notably Stephen Merchant’s Wheatley) could set some purists’ teeth on edge. The puzzles are just as devious and satisfying to solve as last time around too, and with the inclusion of new mechanics like gels, aerial faith plates and hard light bridges there’s far more to think about.

Aperture Labs has fallen into a sorry state since you were last there.

Aperture Labs has fallen into a sorry state since you were last there.

Perhaps though, if you saw Portal merely as a bonus, you’ll feel differently. If you bought the Orange Box for Half Life 2 and its two follow up episodes, and came across Portal as a distracting add on, if you never got past the original game’s testing levels and saw behind the scenes at Aperture Labs, if you never pulled GLaDOS to pieces as she mocked you, then maybe Portal 2 will disappoint. It is, after all, just more of the same.

Oh sure, the graphics are swankier, there’s far more content and the plot is far meatier. Yes the game is longer, and it does include a wonderful co-op mode that stands aside from the single-player experience as a separate story. But there’s still a nagging sense that a product that derived part of its joy from its unexpected inclusion in something already wonderful has been blown up beyond what its worth.

There are lots of new mechanics to get to grips with in Portal 2's test chambers

There are lots of new mechanics to get to grips with in Portal 2's test chambers

It’s an odd analogy, but it reminds me of one of those spin-off shows that are sometimes commissioned after the success of a particular sit com. A single character who, while part of the original cast, offered added humour, is thrust into their own narrative. The marketing goes into overdrive, the expectations are raised, and more often than not the protagonist flounders, bereft of the support mechanism that allowed their humour to work on the first place.

It’s a nagging worry that remains with me as I sit somewhere around a quarter of the way through the single-player campaign. Will Portal 2 turn out to be a Frasier, the rare spin off that works better alone than as one part of a multi-talented whole? Or will it be a Joey, a cold, calculated over-inflation that takes something beautiful and leaves if bloated and dying under the weight of its own marketing hyperbole? Only time, and more play, will tell.

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