As we march inexorably on the road to my pick for the best game of all time, we begin to reach games that mean so very much to me that I find it difficult to fully describe what I love about them. The original Portal was one of those games that I had heard absurd levels of praise for, and had to try for myself. Of course, when I did, all of that praise was immediately justified, but prior to playing it I was concerned that no game could live up to the levels of hype surrounding it. So when a sequel to the game was announced, I knew I was going to be in for a letdown on some scale. To follow up the minimalist masterpiece that was Portal – a brilliantly simple puzzle game with an exquisite script – was damn near impossible.
But, here we are, with Portal 2 sitting at number 3 on a list of the best games of all time. Valve managed to conjure a second act that far outstripped its first, if in a different way. Portal 2 managed to be more deceptive, more amusing, and just all over more fun than the original. It’s a testament to how meticulously crafted this game is that it has made it this high up on the list through sheer fun alone. Every other game this high up has some grand artistic statement being made; this game is just fun.
I could end this review there, but let’s talk instead about how expertly Valve tuned this game. It’s a puzzle game with so many disparate elements: the titular portal gun mechanic is paired with cube and button puzzles, laser directing puzzles, hard light bridges, three different types of gel that have different effects on the environment, and of course platforming staples like moving platforms and launch pads that send you soaring across the stage. All of these elements, if tossed in together, would be overwhelming. But Valve smartly finds ways to gradually introduce them, one at a time, without overwhelming the player.
But all of these pieces working together in tandem is what makes this game so sublimely fun. The puzzle solutions are elegant, but obfuscated by so many moving parts. It’s difficult to see the solution, but once you piece it together you feel like a genius. No matter how long you’re stumped on something, you never feel stupid – always smart. That’s a tough balancing act, and Valve pulls it off exceptionally well.
Nowhere does this delicate balancing act reveal itself more clearly than in the co-op campaign, which is no less than a thing of absolute beauty. I’ve played it numerous times with several friends, and despite working my way through the puzzles several times I manage to get stumped by them each and every time, so well have Valve crafted these puzzles. That moment when you and your partner suddenly figure out the solution together at the same instant is immensely gratifying, and should be immediately followed by a high five, bro.
The writing in this game is pretty spectacular as well, to the point that you find yourself standing around making sure that Wheatley, Cave, and GLaDOS don’t have anything else to add before you move on. It’s an unrelenting onslaught of well pitched humor that keeps you playing through the game as much for the puzzles as for the next string of jokes. That the humor eventually gives way to a surprisingly human connection between Chell and GLaDOS is just icing on the cake.
Seriously, there’s not much more I can say. This game is fun. Fun as hell. And for that reason it makes its way near the top of the list.