Portal 2: For fun, for everyone, for science

This week Portal 2 hits the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Steam as its own full-length game, extending the mythology of GlaDOS--the game's maniacal nemesis--Aperture Laboratories, and much more.

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Jeff Bakalar
Dan Ackerman
Scott Stein
4 min read


Portal 2 is the follow-up to the 2007 cult-classic original that was bundled inside Valve's Orange Box collection. Since then, Portal has gone on to spawn a loyal following that has been clamoring for a sequel for years.

This week Portal 2 hits the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Steam as its own full-length game, extending the mythology of GlaDOS--the game's maniacal nemesis--Aperture Laboratories, and much more.

Watch this: preGame extra: Portal 2 interview with writer Erik Wolpaw

We listed Portal 2 as one of our most anticipated games of 2011 for good reason. It is by far one of the most unique gaming experiences available, forcing the player to think well beyond the laws of physics. In the process of creating a brand-new gaming genre, Portal 2 also delivers some of the most clever and unique level design around, allowing for an overwhelmingly satisfying experience.

If that weren't enough, Portal 2 doubles the value by adding a fully fledged co-op campaign that is totally different than the single-player mode. The most complex puzzles are found here and the sense of accomplishment and mutual discovery while playing with a friend cannot be overstated.

We got to chat with one of Portal 2's writers, Erik Wolpaw--the 8-minute interview of which is embedded above--about the process of creating the highly anticipated sequel and how Stephen Merchant was brought on as the voice of Wheatley, one of the game's new characters.

To Wolpaw's credit, Portal 2 is just as funny as it is challenging, something that just isn't found in a lot of video games. It's this marriage of compelling gameplay and entertaining story that other games can only dream of achieving, but which Portal 2 is so convincingly able to pull off.

Portal 2's presentation oozes with top-notch production value, from the expertly crafted sound effects, music composition and layering, to the hysterical informational videos that litter each elevator room.

But perhaps what we like about Portal 2 best of all is the game's accessibility. This is a title for any age, the perfect software to show a friend or relative whose preconceived idea of video games is nothing but guns, blood, and guts.

If we can give players one piece of advice, we'll pass along what Erik Wolpaw told us: Take your time; explore and listen. Just because the game is waiting for you to do something doesn't mean you should. Think you can sneak behind that plate? Try it. Think you can fire a portal behind that crack in the wall? Go for it.

April might be a bit too early to crown a game the best of 2011, but there's no doubt Portal 2 will be in contention come December.

For more on Portal 2 including a demo of one of the early levels, please check out this week's episode of preGame.

Watch this: Game trailer: Portal 2

I've been sitting and trying to rack my brain about what it is I like so much about Portal 2. It's not enough to say it's one of the best games of 2011--that's not really the point. It's one of the first games of 2011 I've actually cared about playing. While Portal 2 pulls few surprises in terms of its structure, the concept of FPS-as-puzzle game is so well executed and so well paced that it serves as an example to other game developers of how a game can succeed with less versus more.

Like a skilled director, the pace of Portal 2 knows not to scream at you. The empty rooms and small audiovisual cues are like well-directed moments in a movie: they make you sit up and pay attention. Other more-is-more action games (I can name quite a few in that territory) only achieve a certain numbness after a while. Each level is also perfectly designed in terms of not being too hard or too easy, too short or too long. The bite-size chapters break up the game like a page-turning novel. I haven't seen a game this successful at chapter-based gaming since Heavy Rain.

I haven't even gotten into Portal 2's completely unique co-op puzzle mode, but I don't need to. Portal 2 already hooked me on its single-player game. Slowing down, listening up, paying attention to detail: these are the ways that gaming can avoid falling into the same messes that blockbuster movies--and games--stumble into every year. It's not the premise that wows me about Portal 2, it's the direction. Minimalism has never been more compelling.


Portal 2 does something that no video game has managed to do since probably the original Portal. Its crowning success is creating an experience that is equal parts game mechanic and storytelling, so perfectly balanced that each part cannot stand without the other. Despite whatever shortcomings and flaws we may latch onto, this near-perfect integration is vitally important to the development of interactive entertainment as a medium, and should not be understated.

Most games fall into one of two schools. In the first category are story-driven games--from Grand Theft Auto to Resident Evil to Call of Duty--that could easily be turned into, for example, feature films without losing much of their essence. Similarly, many films can (and are) easily converted into quickie tie-in games.

The second category are games where mechanics trump story--everything from Peggle to Street Fighter to Plants vs. Zombies. No matter what kind of window dressing story is layered over them, these are essentially puzzle or twitch mechanic games that appeal to our medulla oblongata.

By creating a story that ties together so naturally with an only-in-video-games deus ex machina of wormhole-shooting guns, Portal pulls off a seemingly impossible feat of being a legitimate piece of storytelling that could only exist in game form.

As an aside, if Stephen Merchant doesn't win every video game voice actor award (if there are even more than one--we're thinking primarily of the annual Spike TV VGA telecast) for his portrayal of the protagonist's wacky robot sidekick, there is no justice in either this world or any virtual one.