The original Portal is rightfully hailed as being one of the finest games ever made, and a follow-up was inevitable. Portal 2 is one of the most anticipated titles of 2011, and we were delighted to play through its opening levels at a recent EA showcase in order to test out its new setting and tweaked mechanics in action. For the record, I tested it on a PS3 - which Valve promises will be the superior version.
Before we continue, dear reader, be aware that I'll be essentially recounting the first twenty minutes of Portal 2. Consider this a major spoiler alert, and purists might be better off reading Dave's less obtrusive look at Valve's emergent masterpiece that focuses on analysis rather than description.
Chell, the spring-legged protagonist of the first game, awakes in a locked relaxation centre that's decorated like a cheap hotel room. An automated sequence has clearly brought her out of a chemically-induced slumber to get some exercise and receive some much-needed mental stimulation, and to do so, a sarcastic automated announcement commands players to look up and down to fulfil a "gymnastic" regimen. After this hilariously brief and perfunctory exercise, players are then commanded to approach a picture on the wall and hold L2 to "appreciate" it. A few seconds of classical music then plays follows by a loud and obtrusive buzzer... and then it's back to bed to get some rest after these grueling exertions.
When Chell resurfaces, however, the room has completely changed. Many years have clearly passed and the ravages of time have turned the chamber into a decaying, dilapidated husk. Something is clearly amiss, and on cue, the spherical Wheatley (impeccably voiced by Steven Merchant) trundles in on a rail to inform you that you're probably suffering from a "minor case of major brain damage." To test your drug-addled mind, Wheatley earnestly asks you to say "apple" by pressing X... which of course causes you to jump instead of talking. Concerned yet clearly patronising you for the sake of keeping up apperances, Wheatley then proceeds to warn you that the reactor is about to explode - and that it's probably his fault.
The room starts to crumble and disintegrate, revealing that it's essentially a shipping container attached to a rollercoaster rail. Wheatley guides the errant chamber through the crumbling, exploding facility, allowing you to see the hundreds of identical rooms that once housed other test subjects. After crashing through a wall, the adventure begins.
Valve's writing has always been top-notch, but it seems that they've managed to raise the bar with Portal 2. The constant sound of laughter constantly echoed around the testing paddock from us journalists, bystanders and even the EA reps (who've doubtlessly witnessed this sequence countless times before), and I have no doubt that Portal 2 will be one of the most deeply humorous games to have ever released. The puzzles are all business, but it's got real personality.
Ah, right. The puzzles.
Once you've got hold of the Portal Gun (which is limited to blue portals only), Portal 2 proceeds to teach you every skill you required in the original game... in about 7 minutes. Perfectly designed puzzle chambers challenge players to get to grips with conserving momentum, weight-triggered buttons, carrying items and raising barriers to deflect flying objects. Valve promised us that Portal 2 would empower players with the knowledge to succeed, and I firmly believe that even newcomers will pick up the basics within minutes.
Valve have also made the mechanics more forgiving this time around... and I can personally attest to it thanks to my own ineptitude. I mistimed a jump when leaping down into a pit with a weighted cube, causing the all-important important box to clatter against the side of the target portal. In the original game, this would have separated me from my charge, but I was delighted that the cube passed through regardless and saved me the humiliation from having to backtrack under the burning gaze of my fellow journalists. You can also see portal positions through walls, which will help with the more labyrinthine chambers.
Eventually you'll rendevous with Wheatley, who needs to be carried around and plugged into various terminals to grant you access through the testing facility (teaching you a few more mechanics along the way and bumping into a hilarious self-aware turret who just wants someone to talk to). Unfortunately his good-natured helpfulness lands him in hot water upon reaching the breaker room... where he accidentally reactivates GLaDOS and is propelled up to the ancient overgrown chamber in which you originally fought her. The insane computer reassembles her shattered body, crushes Wheatley and then decides to put you back into the bowels of the Aperture testing facility. Apparently there's more "testing" to be done... and possibly a use for you beyond arbitrary torture. You monster.
In terms of graphics, Portal 2 looks excellent thanks to yet another upgrade to the venerable Source engine. Textures are pleasingly high resolution even when zoomed in, and though the seams between destructible wall elements was clearly visible in the relaxation room, I was assured that this was due to the immense heat and punishment that the dev console was subject to after a whole day on the job. Performance and frame-rate was also fast and stable, so don't worry PS3 owners. The bad old Orange Box port days are far behind us. The Xbox 360 version also looks great from what I could make out.
My one worry - which will almost certainly be proven wrong by Valve's unerring ability to create truly great games - is that they might have trouble maintaining the intensity and interest over a much longer singleplayer campaign. The original Portal was appropriately short and left no time for boredom or malaise to set in, but hopefully Portal 2's gels, aerial faith plates and other imaginative gameplay elements will keep the experience feeling fresh after several hours. And even if they don't, I bet my bottom dollar that the writing will.
Stay tuned for our interview with Valve writer Chet Faliszek later today!