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Review: Portal 2 is for smarty-pants only

Portal 2's genius is that it makes the player feel like a genius.

Set in the laboratories of Aperture Science, a labyrinthine complex filled with deadly test chambers, the sequel to Valve Corp's wildly popular spatial puzzler puts players in the boots of Chell, a test subject who successfully escaped the facility in the first game only to be dragged back.

Once again her sole tool is a "gun" that can create portals. Just shoot it at two receptive surfaces to create an oval wormhole between them.

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This outwardly simple concept proved extraordinarily engaging in the first game, largely because it forced players to think in strange new ways. For instance, in order to reach a higher platform, players would dive into a portal at the bottom of a hole, using the momentum gained from falling to launch out the other side at high speed.

Portal 2 relies on the same basic place-shifting mechanics, but adds a variety of new environmental elements designed to break our brains in unexpected ways.

For example, in a chamber with turrets and a luminous bridge made of "hard light" I used portals to redirect the bridge, turning it into a bullet-blocking barricade. When confronted with a gaping crevice, I deployed portals to direct the flow of pumped ability gels that grant increased speed and verticality, coating the floor with both to create a runway to leap over the gap.

  • Platforms: Windows PC (reviewed), Mac, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
  • Publisher/Developer: Valve Corp.
  • The good: New environmental elements including hard light bridges and super ability gels create fresh space-time-bending twists. Terrific writing and voice acting adds two new memorable personalities to the Portal cast. Challenging cooperative mode extends the story.
  • The bad: That it eventually comes to an end.
  • The verdict: A strong contender for 2011 game-of-the-year, this spatial puzzler is as instantly addictive and engaging as its predecessor. It’s essential gaming.

Fresh and imaginative ways to play with the space-time continuum come with each new chamber, and I revelled in my cleverness as I completed each test. Solving puzzles of such unusual nature is a boon to one's ego. Never mind that millions of others are playing the same game and coming up with the same solutions; Portal 2 satisfies our desire to feel smart (when it isn't making us bust a gut).

The first Portal introduced players' funny bones to GLaDOS, an artificial intelligence driven by a relentless obsession to test, observe, and perpetually tease subjects with the promise of cake as a reward. Voiced by opera singer Ellen McLain, her cheerfully passive-aggressive resentment of our ability to flummox her most difficult tests made her one of the more memorable characters in modern video games. She was an Auto-Tuned sadist. Happily, her inimitable brand of cruelty is back, and it is as riotously abusive as ever.

But she's not the game's only source of giggles. GLaDOS shares the spotlight with Wheatley, a stuttering, bumbling A.I. enthusiastically voiced by The Office's Stephen Merchant, as well as the facility's founder, played in a brilliant bit of casting by J.K. Simmons, who melds his previous work as Spider-Man's J. Jonah Jameson and Party Down's Leonard Stiltskin into a perfectly pompous and maniacal personality.

And the puzzles and laughs don't end with the 12-hour single-player narrative. A new multiplayer mode that tells the tale of a pair of robots who have become GLaDOS' most recent test subjects pairs players together to take on some frightfully challenging chambers requiring up to four active portals, split second co-operative timing, and loads of lateral thinking.

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It's no piece of cake, but it is the perfect dessert for Portal 2.

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