Spoilers for the ending of Portal (though you shouldn’t be reading this if you haven’t played that yet!) and some spoilers for the story of Portal 2 (nothing beyond the first half hour, though).
It’s hard to believe that 2011 was ten years ago. Alongside remembering that it’s been ten years since the boyband Blue represented the UK at Eurovision (man, it feels like yesterday), it was quite something to realise that it’s been ten years since the sequel to one of the games I remember most vividly from my childhood released, and yet I still hadn’t played it: that is, prior to about a month ago.
At risk of sounding like those recipes on blogs where the chef tells their entire life story before they actually get to the point, I’ll keep this brief. As detailed in my first article on the game, I loved Portal but never played the second game (probably out of ignorance). Fast forward to a few months ago, I saw people posting on social media about the anniversary of this game that, they said, was influential on them, that they adored. And incidentally, I’d picked up the sequel alongside the first game during a sale, so there was never a better time to try it.
Portal 2 can best be described as being very familiar and yet very different from the game it follows. A good sequel should keep the energy of the first, coherently following a story progression (if a story is present) and not fall into the common traps of being less interesting or original, over-ambitious, or simply superfluous. Many sequels are just not up to the standard of the first game (we all know that this is particularly true with films), but many are fantastic and as worthy of being called a classic as the first.
Portal 2 absolutely falls into the second category, and the main reason for that is that it captures all the ingenuity of the first game. It never ends up feeling like ‘more of the same’, however, for two major reasons: the first is that a number of new mechanics are introduced that keep the puzzles fresh and engaging, and the second is that it feels more like a conventional game than the original.
Portal feels much more stripped-back, since we only ever really see interactions between Chell (who doesn’t speak in either game) and GLaDOS, and the only real division in the game comes when GLaDOS, you know, tries to kill you — and then you have to escape. The game changes from sterile test chambers to dingy sewers, and then, finally, you reach GLaDOS. Portal doesn’t exactly have a ‘plot’, more like you’re aiming for objectives, first to reach the end of the testing as encouraged by GLaDOS, and then to escape, but there certainly are story elements tucked away, such as the areas where you can find messages left on the walls. Portal 2, by contrast, feels more like it has a plot, or at least a narrative thread, due to being divided up into chapters, and it’s probably fair to say that there is a bit more polish on the game as a whole. Portal 2 feels like Portal fully realised, transplanting the original concept and puzzle-solving into a really driven and excellently written plot.
The game opens with Chell waking up in a pretty grim room following the events of Portal, having been in a state of stasis for a very long time. An orb-like robot (like the personality cores from the first game’s boss fight) calling himself Wheatley appears before you, voiced by the comedian Stephen Merchant, and informs you that you need to escape the facility RIGHT NOW, and that he will help you. Right off the bat, the game establishes a far different tone to its predecessor, because although both begin with Chell waking up in a strange place, the only guide you’re given in Portal is GLaDOS, who explains nothing. Wheatley, on the other hand, is a lot more urgent and you immediately get a sense of imminent danger, compounded by the fact that the room you’re in starts moving, requiring you (and Wheatley too, although he is on rails) to have to literally risk your life within about thirty seconds of the game starting. Whereas Portal begins in a very slow and measured way, Portal 2 is chaotic.
Your escape takes you through dilapidated versions of the very first test chambers from the original, and it’s quite fascinating to see how the facility has been lost to time. Of course, eventually, the route takes you to the ruins of GLaDOS’s chamber, and — to no one’s surprise — she’s not really dead. GLaDOS rips Wheatley from you, chucks him into the void, and resumes her role from the first game, putting Chell through test chambers. She’s so angry with Chell (again, to no one’s surprise), and so also resumes her taunting. One thing I really like is how we get to see Aperture Science as a living place: first, in the sense that we get a lot of information about the place’s history, and also because as Chell enters the test chambers, the rooms are actually rebuilding themselves, presumably thanks to GLaDOS, with panels sliding back into place and sections being pulled together on brackets. It provides a nice contrast with the lifelessness of Portal’s test chambers. Portal 2 is therefore not only Portal fully realised, but even Portal deconstructed (and reconstructed again). Not only that, but this game is genuinely hilarious. The writing is fantastic and so intelligent: there’s nothing wrong with the first game’s writing, but Portal 2 puts the talent of the writers on full display.
As the story progresses, so do the tools that become available to you to help you solve the puzzles. The pellets from the first game do not return, but you have red beams of light that can be bent and redirected using special cubes; walkways made out of light that can be used to cross distances via the use of portals; substances that change how surfaces behave; and a couple of others. We also see the turrets again, in all their adorable murderousness. These mechanics, again, help Portal 2 to feel a bit more fleshed out than the first game, keeping the puzzles fresh without taking them too far away from how they were in the first game, and although you wouldn’t be able to mistake a Portal 2 puzzle for a Portal puzzle, there’s a definite, natural progression from the first game to the second.
So without spoiling too much, I’ve tried here to convey how Portal 2 is not only a worthy sequel to one of the best games of the 2000s, but a fantastic game in its own right. While Portal is timeless in its own way, Portal 2 feels more like a modern game: I suppose the four-year gap between them made a whole lot of difference. It’s the perfect sequel, in my eyes, and of course, it’s well worth playing if you played and loved the first, just as I did.