Portal 2 Preview
- By: CM Boots-Faubert
- Posted 28th Mar 2011
The original game that established the series -- Portal -- is a single-player puzzle-platformer developed by Valve Corporation that was released as part of The Orange Box bundle for Microsoft Windows and Xbox 360 on October 9, 2007, and eventually becoming so popular that it was released as a standalone retail product on April 9, 2008.
While Portal is an original title developed by Valve, it is in fact the spiritual successor of a freeware game called Narbacular Drop that was created by students at DigiPen Institute of Technology in 2005 as a group project, with its success -- it won numerous awards -- eventually leading to the original Narbacular Drop team being employed by Valve.
The basic premise for the game is a simple one: a series of puzzles must be solved by teleporting the player's character and simple objects using the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device (ASHPD), more commonly known as the "portal gun", a device that creates inter-spatial portals between flat planes.
The player character, Chell, is challenged by an AI named GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) to complete a long series of progressively harder puzzle in the Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center. Using the portal gun and a limited number and variety of environmental objects the player must surmount the barriers and solve the puzzles in order to advance through the testing center, as throughout the process GLaDOS reassures the player that a reward -- the cake -- awaits them if they should succeed.
The problem is that GLaDOS is a slightly psychotic AI whose primary motivation is not to keep the player alive, but to obtain data on the testing process. If the player dies, GLaDOS is just as happy to thaw out a clone and begin again, and the player soon learns that they can neither trust nor believe what GLaDOS says.
At the end of the first game the player learns that the Cake is a lie -- in fact this outcome has become a part of the fabric of gamer culture. Acclaimed as one of the most original games of 2007, despite being a short game, Portal received considerable praise for its darkly humorous story, original characters, and unique gameplay elements, making the likelihood of a sequel almost a certainty.
Portal 2 @ PAX East 2011
The sequel to Portal -- Portal 2 -- was originally supposed to be released in Q4 2010, but delays in the final version caused the release date to be pushed to April 19th, 2011, when it will release on most of the major consoles, including Xbox 360 and PS3, as well as Windows PC, and Mac OSX, in both boxed and digital formats via Steam.
With the release date pushed back Portal 2 was a sure thing for presentation at PAX East 2011, in Boston, Mass., with the Portal 2 exhibit being one of the best attended at the show in spite of the fact that there was no hands-on demo!
The focus of the exhibit at PAX was a theater-style space in which a large group of attendees was given a video presentation on a wide display screen that featured an introduction to the game as well as a demonstration that was partially narrated by the human hosts at the event, and partially narrated by one of the GLaDOS personality cores who is part of the game, making it the funniest presentation at the show.
The Hands-Off Demo
After a very brief introduction given by our host, Erik Wolpaw, who was a writer on both Portal games, the darkened theater lit up by the video projected on the screen, introducing us to the character Wheatley, a nervous personality sphere voiced by Stephen Merchant, who you likely know is one of the co-creators of the TV show The Office, and a very funny bloke.
His distinct voice with its clipped British accent is at once funny and yet scary -- especially when he tries to be reassuring -- and as we watch we see the protagonist -- Chell again -- being revived from a state of suspended animation that it appears lasted several hundred years, which is a lot longer than it was supposed to.
Wheatley is present to help, talking Chell through an abbreviated adjustment period with a monologue that contains contextually hilarious observations that are delivered in Merchant's rapid-fire dry but anxiously concerned voice.
At one point in the monologue -- it is a monologue because for whatever reason Chell does not verbally respond at all throughout -- Wheatley observes that if you are concerned about any brain damage you have suffered as a result of being left in suspended animation for too long, that is a good sign, as being concerned about brain damage would be a normal reaction.
You'll have to take our word that this was a funny bit, as we cannot do it justice by mere description and you have to actually see it to understand. The important image that you should take away from reading this though, is that Wheatley presents both comic relief and the sense of urgency that is present as the game begins -- and that urgency has everything to do with Wheatley's fear of GLaDOS, who has accidentally been awakened, and the fact that the Aperture Labs facility is quite literally falling down around you!
The first half of the presentation is made up of Wheatley's efforts to get you out of the collapsing test subject housing area, which he accomplishes by simply grabbing the section you are in and hoisting it above, over, and sometimes through the other sections that are in the way. After securing relative safety, Wheatley leads you deeper into the facility in the hopes of placing you beyond the reach of GLaDOS -- at least temporarily -- but with only limited success.
The second half of the presentation is an intense demonstration of the new tests, and the vastly expanded world of the game -- presented by the character of Cave Johnson, president of Aperture Science, who guides Chell through training over a public address system.
Johnson is voiced by J.K. Simmons, a character actor whose distinct voice you may well recognize from shows like The Closer (he plays Assistant Police Chief Will Pope), Law & Order, or his role as J. Jonah Jamison in the Spider Man movies.
Simmons is not really known for his comedy skills, and in the presentation the character of Cave Johnson is not intentionally being funny, but the situation and the subject matter takes on an ironic and dry humor all its own.
For example in the process of introducing you to the company and facility you see some of the different tests that were conducted, during which Johnson delivers some of the funniest lines up to that point: "Those of you who volunteered to be injected with praying mantis DNA, I've got some goods news and some bad news. The bad news is we're postponing those tests indefinitely. The good news is we've got a much better test for you: Fighting an army of Mantis Men. You'll know when the testing begins..."
That is delivered in an all too serious and dry tone, which is what makes it funny, and illustrates that the development of the game and especially the character support in it was accomplished with a polished eye for entertainment. We bring this up to illustrate the point that where the original Portal was both too short and brief on characters, Portal 2 more than makes up for that, with a finely honed and entertaining humor that is the glue that binds the game together.
In Portal 2 we get to see and to experience far more than the bland and sterile environments that we saw in the first game -- in fact the brief bits we saw in the twenty minute presentation alone featured ten times the play environment than appeared in the entirety of the first game -- a very encouraging development indeed!
The Presentation Examined
When we were admitted to the theater that had been constructed in the exhibit space on the main floor for the presentation we went in thinking we knew what we were going to see. After all, we had already seen the presentation at E3 last Summer, so it cannot have changed much, right? Ah, no, not right. In fact the presentation we saw at PAX East was, when we compared it to our notes and our memories of that of E3, almost a completely different game!
The differences were startling -- at E3 GLaDOS had a more prominent role, and the footage we saw presented a much darker and more dangerous overgrown and jungle-like world for part of it, and though it did include some of the testing facilities and labs at Aperture, left us with the feeling that Portal 2 would be a much darker game with a decidedly adversarial relationship between Chell and GLaDOS.
For one thing, GLaDOS was upfront about her awareness of just how dirty she did you in the events that took place before you were locked into what was supposed to be a death sentence of permanent suspended animation, saying "I think we can put our differences behind us -- for science -- you monster!"
The message was pretty clear at least from her point of view, with you being the bad guy, and GLaDOS having what we can only kindly consider a selective set of memories.
She knows that we killed her -- though she does not attempt to rationalize why that happened. The end result of that awareness is that her dislike for you -- which was always acute -- is now much stronger. Still, the only way that she knows how to interact with you is through testing, so she sets about rebuilding the Aperture facilities so that she can resume that process in order to relate to you.
Those parts are the same between the two presentations, but the voice and overall impressions of the game as it was presented at E3 and now is markedly different. We hesitate to use terms like "lighter" and more polished, but it is both, though nothing has been lost from the underlying premise and goals as far as we can tell.
Conclusions of a Sort
It would have been great if we could have obtained some bootleg time at the controls, that is not in the cards. Still, after sitting through the presentation at E3 twice and at PAX just the once, our overall impressions of the game are both positive and excited.
After the preview we sat down to chat with Erik Wolpaw, our host at the presentation and the most knowledgeable and experienced bloke we know at least with respect to Portal 2, so that we could obtain some vicarious experience with the bits that were not part of either of the two presentations.
Wolpaw was surprisingly good at avoiding the questions that would have given us more information than Valve is prepared to give at present -- but the flip side of the coin is that he was more than happy to talk about the spirit of the game, where it goes, and a lot of the why and how behind that.
The decision to make Portal 2 available on as many platforms as possible and to release it on all of them simultaneously was not one lightly taken -- and is part of why the release was pushed back to April of this year -- but in the end it comes down to delivering the Portal experience to as many fans as they can, while keeping the experience consistent.
The new world of Portal 2 seems to be overly broad, overly complex, and full of challenges, and when we pointed that out to Wolpaw, adding that at various points in the original game we ran into very complex challenges that required outside help, he was adamant that we would not face anything in the new game that we could not handle.
"We never ask you do something that we haven't prepared you to do in the game," he explained, adding that "we learned after releasing Portal One that those two spots you referred to where you had to have help were presented to the player without the required skills to actually execute the solution being part of the play that lead up to it, and we never do that to you in Two!"
That feeling of comprehension in the game as you work out a puzzle and the solution are part of what Wolpaw calls the "aha moments" in the game, and it is that sudden feeling of understanding and accomplishment that is the focus of play, he admits. "The moment when a player understands the puzzle and discovers its solution is part of the process in every level; it has to be. That is a major part of the fun," he declares.
"Ideally a good game should not require you to have to look up the solution in a guide," he points out. "If we have done our job correctly -- and I believe that we have -- the solution to the puzzles you face should come naturally as you approach and play through them. That is our goal."
The Future of Portal 2
When we sat down with Wolpaw we already had a list of questions that we wanted to ask that we had compiled between E3 and PAX East, but for most of those the answer usually turned out to be "We're not ready to talk about that yet" or some variation of the same.
You can often get a lot of information simply by learning what a studio and developer is not ready -- or willing -- to talk about. For example we now know that there is DLC planned for Portal 2, and though we don't know what or how much, knowing that there is DLC in the works is way more than we knew on that subject before we sat down and saw the preview.
We know that despite the fact that the motion controllers for both the 360 and PS3 came out prior to finalization of the finished version of Portal 2, neither controller scheme factors into the setup for Portal 2!
If Valve makes a motion-control-centric version of Portal it will be a ground-up process and not a port of the existing game, but when we asked outright if such a beast was in the cards, the only answer we could get was "We're not ready to talk about that yet."
Portal 2 is set to release in North America on April 19th, in Australia on April 21st, and worldwide on April 22nd, 2011, and includes versions for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Mac OSX. It will have both the traditional boxed version and a digital version via Steam, and it will have co-op play built-in. There will be DLC. There will be fun. We cannot wait.
Official Title: Portal 2
Developing Studio: Valve
Publisher: Valve & Electronic Arts
Release Date: April 19th / 22ns worldwide
Platforms: Xbox 360 / PS3 / Windows PC / Mac OSX
Genre: First-Person Puzzle / Platformer
Ratings: E10+ (for Everyone 10 and up)