Preview: Portal 2 (Hands-On)

By Matthew Jay

February 17, 2011

While many impressive titles were shown off yesterday at EA’s Swing Into Spring event, one of them definitely stood out above the rest. I got to sit down with Valve and EA’s Portal 2 for some one-on-one time as well as speak to a representative from Valve about the game. Look for a full video interview and off-camera footage of the demo I got to play, which I’ll tell you about after the jump, later on.

Mechanically what I got to see was pretty much what I expected. I had a portal gun, I jumped on things, and I put cubes on buttons. The only ‘new’ gameplay element shown were the “aerial faith plates.” Strategically placed on the floor in some puzzles, these plates will fling players across the room a great distance. I don’t think they’ll replace the slingshot trick from Portal, but they essentially serve the same purpose. The faith plates just make leaping less complicated so some puzzles could focus on other elements like catching objects in mid air, or tossing cubes that hit them.

So gameplay-wise, it’s your standard Portal fare. At least what I saw was. This is not a bad thing by any stretch. Portal‘s game mechanics and puzzles opened plenty of doors for gameplay possibilities, but everyone seemed to have the same problem with the first game. It was too dang short. Luckily Portal 2 is a full-length retail title. Portal was a certain length for a reason, it was a tech demo made to display the portal gun’s mechanics. Something had to be added to Portal 2 to sustain the players’ attention for a much longer title and it’s the thing that I wanted more than anything. Portal 2 has a story.

Portal has a great story, but it only gives the player glimpses into what’s really going on, rather than letting us be an active part in the narrative. The writing has been praised ever since its release as some of the best we’d ever seen in gaming. While it was fantastic and witty, all the dialogue in Portal consisted of snappy one-liners or exposition sprinkled with pithy pot-shots at Chell, who returns as the protagonist of Portal 2. The sequel actually has cutscenes.

As the demo opened Chell awakens in what looks like a cheap motel room. This is a “relaxation chamber” built by Aperture Science to mollify Chell, and the other unseen Aperture test subjects from Portal, after the events of the previous game. Continuing the theme from Portal of scientists having no idea how people really work or think, the room is built to sedate people and turn their mind to mush. An alarm goes off to wake you up, then another alarm sounds and a voice comes over the intercom telling the player it’s time for calisthenics.  This is the game’s movement tutorial explaining how to control the camera. After exercise I was shuffled over to a painting on the wall. The kind of sterile, boring thing you’d see in a mall, I was instructed to stare at the painting to calm me down. After that I was treated to some classical music for about five seconds. The music is followed by a knock on the door.

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A small robot, who somewhat resembles GLaDOS, enters hanging from a track on the ceiling. Each room is supplied with one of these monitor robots, but mine is special because he’s voiced by Stephen Merchant, c0-creator of The Office! He’s just as hilarious and charming as you’d expect a well-known British comedian appearing in a Valve game to be. His name is Wheatley and serves as your guide throughout the game. It’s unclear how long after Portal this takes place and it’s further muddled by what happens next.

Chell goes back to sleep, but by the time she awakens everything has gone to hell. The room is dirty, the plant’s dead, and the painting is crooked. The room looks like an absolute mess telling me it’s been a very long time before Chell went to bed and that she’s been in some kind of stasis. Obviously something is wrong. Another knock is head at the door and Wheatley comes bursting through. He’s obviously as worried as I am about the situation, and acts like he knows more than I do. Wheatley disappears into the ceiling and starts to control the room. Until now it seemed like the room was part of a building, but it’s something more complicated and science-y. The relaxation chamber starts to shake as it becomes unhinged from where it sat. As the room moves, pieces of the walls and ceiling crumble off, revealing an endless facility containing thousands of these rooms along giant structures.

The chamber flies through the building in a scene reminiscent of the part in the later half of Half-Life 2 where Gordon is trapped and being carried through the Combine facility. The track meets a wall and Wheatley smashes the room through into a very familiar environment. While it’s covered in vines and moss, it’s obvious where I am. Chell is dropped into the room from the opening of Portal. Wheatley instructs me to run ahead and find the portal gun. He doesn’t specifically call it that, but he tells me there is a “tool” that I should know how to use.

There’s a quick puzzle before I find the gun that was featured in the beginning of Portal. It’s the one with three rooms separated by glass walls. A button stands in front of each room that opens a portal into it. The correct combination of button presses allows you access to the next area. After completing this the demo takes a little time jump to later in the game. This puzzle features the faith plates I mentioned and was very engaging. I was flung across a room and had to catch cubes in the air to set them on the correct buttons. I enjoyed it, but the real important part about this segment is the return of GLaDOS. Yes, she’s “still alive.” I tried to get the Valve representative to say that, but he wouldn’t.

While the demo only lasts about ten minutes, it was a FANTASTIC taste of the full title, and has totally whet my appetite for the game. Expect Portal 2 to drop April 18th. I’m definitely picking this up day one and I’ll be getting the PS3 version, which comes with a Steam code, allowing me to download the game to my Mac for some PC/Mac/PS3 cross-platform play.

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Matthew Jay

Contributing writer for DualShockers, Matthew Jay is a comedy writer involved with the Philadelphia comedy scene. When he's not on stage trying to convince a room full of strangers to like him in under 3 minutes he likes to play and write about video games. Especially weird ones.

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