Portal 2 Preview

Jeff saw Portal 2 at E3. He expects another triumph.

Portal 2

Portal was as close to a perfect game as I’ve ever played. An inventive mechanic, clever puzzles, a simple story that was neither too ambitious nor pandering, and a modest length that ensured it never outstayed its welcome conspired to make Portal a tour de force of modern game design. It was such a pure, self-contained balancing act that adding anything onto it would threaten to undermine the whole experience. Making a sequel to Portal is a bit like Indiana Jones replacing an idol with a bag of sand. One wrong move and the whole thing comes tumbling down in a cluttered mess. Astoundingly, Valve appears to have managed to add on to Portal without compromising any of what made the original game so great.

Portal’s aesthetic was clean and crisp, full of black and white tile with only a hint of rust in its clandestine innards, exactly what one would expect of a test chamber in a cutting-edge science facility. Portal 2 manages to stay true to the look of Portal without merely rehashing the original. Taking place after the end of the first game, antagonist super computer, GlaDOS, is unsurprisingly still alive and rebuilding the scattered remnants of the Aperture Science testing facility. You play as Chell, the protagonist from the original, who’s brought back under mysterious circumstances. The areas I was shown looked similar to those in the first, only with a lush vegetation poking through the walls and ceilings. Expect to see missing walls and far more glimpses of the outside this time around, making escape seem tantalizingly close throughout.

Portal was a distinctly lonely game starring a silent protagonist and the only speaking role being that of a computer who’s constantly trying to kill you. The third biggest role was an inanimate cube with a heart painted on it, after all. Portal 2 changes this by adding a sidekick to the proceedings, a “personality sphere” named Wheatly. He’s essentially a cowardly floating robotic eyeball with a British accent. Initially I felt two is company, three is a crowd, but my resolve quickly melted away as Wheatly made his introduction by attempting the suicide mission of disconnecting himself from the pipe he was attached to.

All of this is well and good, but wouldn’t be more than a novelty without a total re-haul of game design, and that’s where Portal 2 continues to surprise. Rather than simply rely on the power of portals, Portal 2 adds a plethora of new abilities and obstacles making for some truly mind bending Rube Goldberg-like contraptions.

Excursion Funnels operate like tractor-beams in reverse, propelling items away from their origin point. They can be used for moving obstacles as well as the player from point A to point B, essentially allowing players to create their own moving platforms. Aerial Faith Plates are essentially springboards. These add much to keep some of the more spectacular moves exhilarating. My only concern is that they may require too much precision platforming, though Valve claims that Portal 2 will require no more reflex-based skill than its predecessor. Pneumatic Diversity vents are extraordinarily powerful vacuums that suck up on obstructions in the area. Shooting a portal next to one, then another near a weak wall will result in tiles getting sucked up, clearing the path for further exploration.

While it’s hard to think about now, Portal started out as a graduate project by a small team, before Valve signed them on and made it a full-fledged game. Valve has wisely absorbed the creators of another small indie game, Tag, and incorporated their thesis into Portal 2. Tag was about filling a monochromatic world with paint, each color having its own physical properties on the player. Two of these properties have been ripped wholesale into Portal 2 as blue and orange gels. The blue “repulsion” gels makes surfaces bouncy (I’m sure the folks at Disney are now kicking themselves for not thinking of this earlier and making the ultimate Flubber game). Orange “propulsion” gel creates slick surfaces that propel the player forward, thrusting them through traps and gliding over ramps.

The amazing thing about all these new elements is that none of them feel out of place in the Portal universe. If a research facility is going to develop a portal gun, why wouldn’t they have tractor beams and bouncy gel? It’s like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory only with more fatalities and fewer children. They even both have sweets (nevermind the rumors of the cake being a lie).

One of the problems with making Portal 2 a full-priced release is that if it’s too short people will complain about the asking price, but if it’s too long it will ruin the wonderful flow of its predecessor. While length will range for everyone, I was told it would be “a little more than twice the length of Portal,” which sounds like a nice compromise.

If that wasn’t enough, there’s a new co-op mode that can be played online or in split-screen, but online is recommended. While I wasn’t shown this mode, I was informed that in the online mode GLaDOS would purposely feed each player different information, attempting to coax them into inadvertently setting traps for each other. Mind blown!

A sensible twist on its predecessor’s aesthetic, a whimsical sidekick that’s for once actually funny rather than annoying, and a bevy of new abilities that enhance Portal’s unique blend of mental challenges with twitch-based motor skills and you’ve got a rare sequel that looks fresher than most new IPs. We’ve still got a long way to go until Portal 2 hits stores sometime in 2011, but it doesn’t take a Black Mesa scientist to tell you that GLaDOS’s return is shaping up nicely. Kind of makes you feel bad for killing her before. You monster.

Portal 2 is due out 2011 for the PC, PS3, and Xbox 360.

Author: Jeffrey Matulef