Portal 2 Impressions - First Look

We take our first look at the sequel to Valve Software's quirky and memorable 2007 action puzzle game.

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Giant booths at the Los Angeles Convention Center? Check. Giant crowds of people aimlessly shuffling through the halls of the LACC? Check. It must be E3 2010. And Portal 2 must be one of the most anticipated PC games of the show. As you probably recall, the original Portal first debuted as part of one of the best deals of 2007 in The Orange Box, a compilation that also included Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2. While those games were great, the all-too-brief Portal (which clocked in at only two to three hours of gameplay) quickly became something of a cult classic, and this was partially because of the mind-bending puzzles built around the game's "portal gun," which opened a two-way gateway through space and time practically anywhere you wanted it to. However, the main reasons so many people remember Portal so fondly are its eccentric sense of humor and its equally charming villain, the coldly robotic but strangely catty artificial intelligence GlaDOS, caretaker of the Aperture Science Facility, which the game's protagonist, the young woman Chell, struggled to escape from. Chell eventually destroyed GlaDOS on her way to freedom, after which the memorable song Still Alive played over the game's ending credits.

In Portal 2, both Chell and GlaDOS return to Aperture after the company was destroyed. For reasons that haven't yet been revealed, Chell apparently returns to the scene of the crime after a brief fly-through video that reveals a handful of the first game's deadly, gun-mounted sentry-bots rusting away and the beloved Companion Cube trapped in a ruined glass cell. Shortly afterward, she meets Wheatley, a new "personality sphere" companion that inhabits a glowing blue sensor eye and has a voice and demeanor that recall Monty Python alumnus Eric Idle's role as the bumbling and cowardly Sir Robin the Chicken-Hearted of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You first meet Wheatley suspended above the wreckage of Aperture blathering on about how he has finally achieved his freedom and can't wait to descend from the guardrail to which he's attached. He asks you to catch him and then reconsiders because he's suspended a few feet too high above Chell, and then he reconsiders again and begs Chell to catch him as he drops, and then he lands flat on his eye sensor, because why would Chell try to catch a giant robot eye sensor, anyway.

Wheatley was then shown lifted by Chell and inserted into a circuit panel to hack open a secret door in the wall, through which the duo pass and ride a conveyor belt past another derelict sentry bot, which, in its typically cutesy falsetto female voice, politely asks for help (which Wheatley stiffly refuses) and which politely thanks you anyway as you ride past. The scene then cut to an outdoor view of the compound in the middle of the jungle, showing the ruins of GlaDOS reassembling itself as Wheatley nonchalantly tries to stop the process by hacking into the nearest terminal, only to find that his supersecret password of "A-A-A-A" doesn't work. As your archenemy once again takes shape, Wheatley curtly advises you that "plan B" is "stay still and don't make eye contact," but the malevolent GlaDOS easily spots the two of you, casually stating that she has been "very busy being dead after you killed [her]" and then uttering the line that got so many laughs at the E3 2010 Sony Press Conference, "I think we can put our differences behind us, for science. You monster."

The hands-off session then cut to several video demonstrations of some of the new gameplay mechanics that are being added to the game to add new variety and, in the words of project manager Erik Johnson, "resurprise people"--that is, to give players the same sensation of fun discovery they first experienced when messing with the first game's portal gun. These include a tractor beam, a glowing blue stream of particles that slowly pulls people and objects in a single direction and flows right through the portals created by your trusty portal gun. The demonstration showed a room full of sentry bots peeking around corners with a continuous tractor beam off to the side. Careful placement of portals redirected the tractor beam next to and below several of the sentries, and then connecting the tractor beam back to the source created an infinite loop that kept the screaming sentries flying from right to left, letting us get to the exit. The next gameplay element is the "aerial faith plate," a hydraulic launch pad that sends anyone, or anything, on it flying. The demonstration video showed skillful use of the plates (on the lowest level of the complex) to get rid of pesky sentry bots--opening portals beneath them to send them tumbling onto the plates, and then opening another portal against the wall toward which they were flying, and then connecting that portal to the edge of a nearby precipice, sending them hurtling to their demise.

We then watched a video of the "thermal discouragement beam," a constantly cutting laser beam that refracts through white plastic cubes (and also travels through portals). By strategically relocating a few cubes and then opening portals through the walls, we were able to kill off the nearby sentry bots and then hop over the beams themselves to get to the exit. This video was followed by a demonstration of the "pneumatic diversification vent," a gigantic version of the plexiglas pneumatic tubes that are occasionally still used to deliver documents inside large office buildings. The tube has a powerful vacuum that, when placed properly, can suck up a handful of sentry bots standing on a level floor. Next up was "repulsion gel," which is blue goop that appears in barrels and can be spilled on the floor to make it extra springy and let Chell jump slightly higher. It can also, in its liquid form, be transported from place to place via portals. The last new gameplay mechanic we were shown was "propulsion gel," an orange goop that makes any surface extremely slippery. We watched a demonstration in a level that had a long corridor between us and the exit, and two rows of spike traps on either side that periodically clamped in and would surely kill us. By knocking over a barrel of propulsion gel on a lower level and creatively shunting the flow of the stuff through several portals, we managed to slick the floor of the long corridor and, after a running start, made a quick slide through both sets of death traps for the exit.

These new gameplay elements all seem like they'll open up lots of possibilities. And considering that the single-player game will be, according to Valve, "significantly longer" than in the first game, and considering also that Portal 2 will have two-player cooperative play, it seems like the sequel will have plenty to keep veterans busy for at least a little while. However, Johnson quickly pointed out that the team's goal is to make sure that none of the new features make the sequel any more difficult than the first game--in fact, development on Portal 2's content and levels is mostly done, and the studio is already conducting rigorous focus testing with a wide variety of different players of varying skill levels to determine which puzzles should be made a bit more lenient or a bit more challenging.

Johnson also explains that in any case, the sequel will also attempt to provide music as catchy and memorable as that in the first game--composer Jonathan Coulton (who wrote Still Alive) has already been tapped for the project, for instance. And when asked about the recently announced functionality of Steamworks in the PS3 version of Portal 2, Johnson suggested only that Steamworks' product update and matchmaking features are currently confirmed--exactly how the platform will be integrated with the PS3's functionality is otherwise still to be determined. Portal 2 will be released next year.

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