A lot of time has passed since the events of the first Portal, in and out of the game’s universe. Outside, the title that was fairly experimental and never meant for glory blossomed and acquired a fanbase far outstripping the most optimistic projections Valve could have come up with.
Inside, Aperture Science has crumbled around your stasis-held avatar, the whole place wrecked by age and neglect. The only thing that seems to be working is a robot, Wheatley, voiced by Stephen Marchant, who (even if you’re not a fan) works well as the neurotic, nervous personality core that will act as both guide through the game and little orb chum.
As the world seemingly crumbles visibly around you, Wheatley explains (a little) what’s been going on and how you and he both have the same goal - getting the hell outta Dodge. A series of gentle puzzle rooms in the traditional Portal vein present themselves and you’re soon reacquainted with the gun itself.
GLaDOS is naturally still around, but there won’t be any spoilers about her situation or how you end up meeting her. In any case, the hands-on ended very soon after she became involved in the storyline. There will be 10 chapters in the game, making it around two and a half times longer than the original game. That figure also doesn’t take into account the co-operative multiplayer, which brings the total estimated gameplay time to around 5 times more than you’d have got from the first.
Puzzles are how you’d expect them to be. At first, it’s just a case of putting one on a wall and walking through it, but after a little while they start getting a touch more fiendish. With the still unseen addition of fluids and the other new puzzle elements, there’s staggering potential for some truly mind-bending conundrums.
Portal’s strength wasn’t just in its puzzles, it was the quality of the writing and the world created around you by Valve. A sterile, tedious world would have seen the game shrugged off, consigned to the history books. It was in creating a unique, interesting universe, full of little references and things like the infamous ‘cake is a lie’ thing, that Valve succeeded. Portal 2 is this and more, it seems from even just a quick go of the first chapter.
For a start, there are plenty of wall scribblings and art to catch your eye, including a series of drawings illustrating the story of the first game. Who drew them? Perhaps you’ll find out later on, but these and other elements of the environment encourage exploration and, usefully, get you to pay attention to the layout of the rooms you are in. Which is useful, because if you don’t pay attention, the puzzles won’t be solvable.
One of the great things about a hands-on like this is that a press colleague was sitting next to me while I beavered away at the game. In the end, we swapped the controller over for each puzzle, taking it in turns to try them out and to sit back and advise. It’s a credit to Portal 2’s design that doing this, and it’s acknowledged by Valve, is such a joy.
One of the unexpected side effects of Portal’s puzzles was the way it brought people together to try to solve them together, producing a kind of single player co-op style of play. This will be magnified tenfold in the actual multiplayer, though at this time I’ve not had the opportunity to play that section of the game.
It seems clear that the quality of the writing, the level of detail and the love that’s gone into creating the game world will make Portal 2 as beloved a classic first-person puzzler as one might have expected. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to say that, even after only having played a mere tenth of the thing.
Has it done enough to avoid accusations of just being the same as the first one? Essentially no, but it’s not an issue here. Portal’s concept had only been superficially explored, so to move that on with a much stronger story, stronger puzzle design and a grander overall vision will by necessity involve keeping things similar.
And the old “if it ain’t broke” saying applies completely here. Portal was a small game that had plenty of scope for expansion and even just in the small excerpt played so far, it’s obvious Valve haven’t forgotten what made the original so popular. It’s still Portal, it’s still just as we know and love it, but this time it’s almost certain to be bigger and better. Now, maybe Valve can finally get working on the next Half-Life game...