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Portal 2 review: Alternate dimensions

Justin McElroy

It was a crush.

That was the feeling I and others were trying to relate when we'd hurriedly tell others that they had to drop everything and play Portal. It lingered like the memory of a summer camp romance, cut short and all the sweeter for it.

So, if you're returning to Portal 2 worried that the reality won't live up to the memories, allow me to dispel that fear right now: Your crush is smarter, funnier, prettier and just plain better than you remember.

Gallery: Portal 2 (E3 2010) | 7 Photos

Malevolent AI GLaDOS, good as her word, is still alive. And boy, is she ever angry at speechless protagonist Chell -- understandable, what with Chell murdering her and everything -- and even though it's been a long time since they met, GLaDOS refuses to let bygones be bygones.

The blame for everything can be laid squarely at the feet of the buffoonish Wheatley (played to perfection by Stephen Merchant). Well, not his feet, seeing as he's a spherical personality core, but you get the idea. Panicked about the declining state of the Aperture facility, Wheatley awakens Chell from stasis and ... well, things happen. You don't want to know. You'll see.

Grudges aside, GLaDOS still has the best interests of science at heart, meaning a grueling battery of tests. If I had to point to one singular achievement of Portal 2, it would be these puzzles and the less ... regimented ones that follow. They're all but flawless, juggling obfuscation and subtle hints so well that it's impossible not to leave the game feeling like your mind is some sort of lethal weapon that the government would be negligent not to harness for the greater good.

Between co-op and Chell's adventure, Portal 2 provides a stupendous package.

But Chell's journey takes her beyond mere lab rattery, through both the literal and historical bowels of Aperture, and face to voice with the company's founder, Cave Johnson (hilariously voiced by J.K. Simmons). These cavernous spaces, which haven't aged nearly as well as the main Aperture facility, exponentially increase the Portal visual palette. It's recognizable, sure, but filtering the facility's doodads through Johnson's macho approach to science provides a nice break from the sterility of GLaDOS' world.

As Chell gets deeper, she also discovers some new tools at her disposal in the form of gels that either speed her up, set her to bouncing or provide a portal-ready surface, depending on their hue. While none of the new mechanics provide the brain-pureeing novelty the portal gun did and still does, the variety they provide helps to keep the 8–10 hour campaign from becoming repetitive.

While our hero bounces, runs, falls and crawls her way through the facility, Valve also takes a big risk and reveals more layers to Portal's most compelling and, yes, occasionally evil figure. Considering she's as close to an icon as you can be without a corporeal form, it's a little surprising to see how deep Valve is willing to go into GLaDOS' backstory, but thankfully the studio pulls it off without a misstep.

Portal 2's other big undertaking is its co-op mode, which casts two local or online players as disposable drones Atlas and P-Body and tasks them with the tests GLaDOS deemed too dangerous or difficult for humans.

Whereas video game co-op has a tendency to boil down to a binary choice between both shooting the same dude or both shooting two different dudes, Portal 2's mode is true to its name, forcing real cooperation between players. In one instance, I had to be the eyes of my teammate, helping him to navigate a maze that would have been almost impossible to complete from a first-person view. In another, I had to trust that he'd open a portal below me and send me rocketing towards our goal, the culmination of a complex, six-portal-long solution.

Sure, there are plenty of opportunities to pull the rug out from under your buddy, but the consequences are rarely so dire that any feelings are hurt by it. No, the only lingering feeling you two will share after wrapping up the four hours or so of co-op is that of being the co-smartest partners on the planet.

Between real, actual co-op and Chell's adventure, Portal 2 provides a stupendous package. So stupendous, in fact, that I feel tremendously guilty admitting that somewhere, way deep down in whatever critics have in place of a heart, I kind of wish it didn't exist.

Now, don't get me wrong, if Valve was going to put out a full game and call it Portal 2, I'm not sure the studio could have done better than this. It was certainly beyond any expectations I had. But there was a moment, fairly late in the game, when I realized that I'd had my fill of Portal. I kept playing, I was certainly still enjoying myself, but I was sated.

I had traded in my crush for something ... deeper. Something great, but ultimately just a little less special.

Portal 2 is outstanding, really, a top-to-bottom success from one of our best developers, and 90 percent of me is completely delighted I got to take the journey. But in the process of falling in love with Portal 2, I lost something kind of magical about Portal 1.

The first Portal wasn't just a great game, it was one that knew when to make its exit, knew how to leave me pining for a future so great that no reality could match up.

It was, in short, a crush.

This review is based on final code for the Xbox 360 version of Portal 2 provided by Valve.

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