Portal was a child star. Precocious. Naïve. Too innocent to understand that gamers’ love is often fatuous, that the attention would be dependent upon repeat performances and that the fame would be fleeting and could quickly turn to hate. Portal 2 is that child star grown up. It’s bigger, more self-aware and a bit more polished. It is also still reaching for the innocent laughs although its innocence has long since fled. It is still tap-dancing in its pre-teen tutu, showing too much leg and reminding us simultaneously of how much we loved the innocent it used to be and the fact that it will never be that innocent again.

Portal, the pseudo-indie puzzle game that seemingly came out of nowhere, captured gamers’ imaginations with its revolutionary puzzle action and unpolished indie charm. How to take that indie darling, then, and buff it out, bulk it up and repackage it as a stand-alone AAA retail game would seem to be the real magic trick, and developer Valve, god love them, has put their all into it, with mixed results.

Portal 2 comes with both a single-player campaign (that’s a full three times as long as the original game) and a two-player co-op mode that will let you solve puzzles either online with friends or via splitscreen with good friends. Both modes feature new twists, additional puzzle elements and plenty of the tongue-in-cheek “Science will kill us all” humor that made the original such a gem.

In the single-player campaign, you will play once again as Chell, the mute, orange-jumpsuited lady with bionic feet from the first game. Never mind how that’s possible, considering the end of the first game depicted her escape from the self-destructing Aperture Science lab. (Developer Valve “updated” the game last year, adding a new ending in which Chell is dragged back toward the underground science lab immediately after emerging victorious.) Things, it would appear, change. Portal 2 asks that you roll with it.

You awake, as Chell, after a very, very long time in hibernation and are immediately thrown back into the test chamber in order to find a means of escaping once again. This time, however, GLaDOS, the sinister A.I., is offline and you are guided by both an automated series of announcements explaining how to properly respond to the end of the world, and Wheatley, a helpful – if dumb – robot companion with a chipper English accent.

Although the story is full of the same psychotic charm that made the original so much fun, it suffers from having too much game upon which to spread so little. As you progress from test to test, you will go on a virtual tour of Aperture’s past, traveling through the dark back-corridors of the facility as well as deep into the basement, on a tour of the company’s long history of making people suffer in the name of science. But the interaction (or lack thereof) with a succession of disembodied voices wears out its welcome well before the end, leaving the puzzle platforming gameplay and ingenious new touches to carry the weight on their own.

The good news is that the gameplay does carry its weight. The levels may not seem as devious or as interesting (perhaps owing to familiarity with the underlying portal mechanic), but the puzzles and environments are sufficiently varied and interesting enough to make the trip back down into Aperture’s version of hell seem fun. And with a host of new environmental hazards and helps, Portal 2 definitely delivers on “new and interesting.”

In both single-player and co-op, you will juggle not just the familiar teleporting portals, but hard light bridges, convection funnels, discouragement lasers, faith plates and a variety of new interact-able objects, as well as three troubling flavors of scientific goop, each with unique properties. As in the original games, each puzzle, in addition to being a challenge unto itself, serves also as a tutorial on how to master the game’s physics, with the final exam being a full-on timed boss battle in which practically every learned skill will come into play. And the ending, as hoped, makes some definitive statements. (There is also a new Jonathan Coulton song, although I won’t spoil the title.)

Co-op casts you and a friend as one of two “test robots,” Atlas and Peabody, as you progress through a devilish course of test chambers led on by a sneering GLaDOS. In addition to all of the new features of the single-player game, co-op includes a gesture system (with which you can high-five and roshambo with your partner), as well as a pointer, activated by way of the left bumper button on Xbox, which allows you to literally point to and identify on-screen objects without having to gesticulate wildly or spend an eternity in voice chat saying “No, the one by the other wall.”

Each co-op puzzle requires either team work, or at least two pairs of robot hands, making it a much more engaging two-player experience than over-the-shoulder puzzle solving in the single-player game, and is crazy, addicting fun. The co-op alone would be well worth full retail price, which makes it a double shame the single-player experience is showing the inevitable wear-and-tear from its journey to AAA Town by way of Indie Street.

One negative item worth calling out in particular is the loading times. Valve has long been given a pass on liberally peppering their games with frequent and lengthy loading screens. This reviewer, for one, found the whiplash of stopping and starting and waiting for minutes at a time between nearly each level on the Xbox 360 version of Portal 2 to be a terrible distraction, and worth considerable points off all by itself. It is perhaps a testament to the amount of fun contained in the package that having to sit idly by for such frequent and lengthy stretches didn’t derail the fun anymore than it did. Nevertheless, the frequent interruption could be a large part of the reason the game felt at once too long and too lacking.

Bottom Line: Portal 2 is the best sequel we could have expected. The levels just plain aren’t as challenging, but the new toys and characters manage to distract enough from the cracks in the paint to keep the whole ride breezing along. It astounds in some ways and disappoints in others, which, while not perfect, is good enough for science.

Recommendation: Newcomers to “portal science” will find Portal 2 easy to pick up and perhaps more rewarding than long-time fans. Both, however, will find plenty to love and more than enough to justify the price of purchase.

[rating=4]

This review was based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Game: Portal 2
Genre: Platformer
Developer: Valve
Publisher: Valve
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox360
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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