For my money, The Orange Box is the all time best value in console gaming. For years Valve had been hailed as one of the premiere game developers in the business. I can still recall a college friend who would spend a minimum of two hours a day playing Half-Life 2's multiplayer. Granted, now that we have World of Warcraft two hours seems like a pittance, but at the time it seemed like a massive achievement that any game could draw someone in like that. However, console gamers were being left behind, as Valve didn't develop for the PS2 or Xbox, and the few ports that did pop up were woefully inadequate compared to the PC version. But when the 360 and the PS3 came around, promising computer level performance but with the convenience of a console, the time seemed right to finally get some of these Valve gems out to console players. And Valve delivered, giving us not only Half-Life 2, but a new edition of Team Fortress and a unheard of game called "Portal."
Anyone who has played Half-Life 2 knows the joys of the gravity gun, a gun that could make weapons out of ordinary objects and generally displayed the high level of physics simulation Valve put into their games. Portal was touted as a proof of concept for a gun that would appear in a future installment of Half-Life. Based on the game Narbacular Drop (whose developers all now work for Valve), Portal was a pleasant surprise: Fun, challenging, and often hilarious. While your character was mute, you got to know the game's protagonist, a demented robot named GLaDOS, quite intimately. The game ended with one final gag, a song sung by GLaDOS herself proclaiming that she was "still alive."
Jump forward to 2011, and Valve has finally made good on that promise, releasing Portal 2, this time a full length game with multiplayer co-op included. From the first moments, players of the first Portal will feel right at home. Portal 2 begins before the events of the first game, as you play yet another unnamed mute research subject. You're asked to do a few basic tasks, and even this contains some good jokes. Then you go to sleep. You're woken by an insistent knocking at your door. The room you find yourself in is in tatters, and at the door is a robot named Wheatley (brilliantly voiced by Stephen Merchant of The Office, Extras, and The Tooth Fairy fame). Wheatley informs you that the Aperture Science installation has been ruined (presumably by the events of the first game), and that he will help you escape. But in order to do that, you need a gun. A special gun. A gun that makes portals.
At first, Portal 2 feels a bit like a rehash of the first game, as you have to relearn how to use portals to solve various puzzles, many involving placing a companion cube on a red button to open the exit door. However, it's a joy to be back, especially with Wheatley in tow, as Merchant's dialogue is frequently side-splitting, and they even added lines for when you don't comply with his instructions. Of course, the game would be a bore if it didn't strike out in a new direction, and this one certainly does. The environments are far more varied than they were before, including a trip back into Aperture's past. I don't want to give too much of the plot away, but there are some good twists and turns to keep things fresh.
The game also introduces new mechanics, including fluids that can boost your speed or your jumping ability, or allow you to place portals on surfaces you wouldn't otherwise have access to. Also included are shields and motion tunnels, all of which can be transported through portals. These new mechanics are put to great use with a new set of puzzles that range from satisfingly simple to confoundingly complex, and sometimes both at once. Even while the dialogue makes you laugh, you may end up cursing Valve for some of their puzzle designs.
And speaking of design, the game looks gorgeous. While the same basic pallete is applied as in the last game, the world opens up, offering puzzles that take place in huge rooms, or peeks behind the scenes at Aperture that seem to stretch on into infinity. As befits a brand new game designed for PC's in 2011, Portal 2 looks absolutely gorgeous, and it sounds it, too. Aside from the great dialogue, there are plenty of aural cues that set the mood and help keep your ears as engaged as your eyes.
After you complete the single player (which features one of the best endings for any game I've played in years) you'll want to check out the co-op. Far from being a tacked on mode to entice consumers, the co-op mode is essentially a separate game unto itself. While you can match up with a stranger, it's definitely better to play with someone you know, because the two of you will be smashing your heads together to figure out some of these puzzles. Luckily you're supplied with an in-game communication system so you will know exactly where to go and what to do, instead of relying on your innate ability to describe a particular surface where you want a portal placed. This goes a long way in making the co-op a great experience instead of a frustrating one.
What seemed like a silly one-off intended to lead in to the next Half-Life (whenever that is coming) has turned into a premiere franchise that can stand on its own two legs. Portal 2 is everything a good sequel should be. It continues the story without repeating it, and adds new modes and features without mucking up what worked about the first game. And, most importantly, it still feels fresh. Too often we play sequels simply out of habit, because we liked earlier installments. There's no such sense of weariness about Portal 2, which can proudly stand up to any game, sequel or not. And then drop those other games through a hole in the floor.