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Portal 2 Hands-On Preview
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 01:42pm 09/03/11 | Comments
AusGamers was out at Valve recently and had a chance to get hands-on with the latest build of Portal 2, read on for our full thoughts...

“Stare at art, reflect briefly at classical music,” exclaims a voice from an overhead as I wonder about my room at the beginning of Portal 2 after doing mandatory “callisthenics” (to find my axis of look choice) - I actually look at a painting hanging on my wall while classical music plays for no more than about five seconds before being told to go back to sleep. Soon after, as Chell, the same voiceless protagonist from the first game, I’ve woken up for the second time since the game started proper, only this time I’m informed I’ve been asleep for “9,9999” years. A personality Sphere by the name of Wheatley has stirred me from my hefty slumber, and is eager to get me out of my room - the place, you see, is falling apart.

Of course the “place” I’m talking about is Aperture Laboratories, and your first goal is to get your hands on a Portal Gun.

Alarmingly, closer inspection of your surroundings reveals a very familiar place. Your first few minutes of the game outside of your room actually take place in the first testing rooms of the original Portal, only here they’ve been attacked and overrun by nature; creating a visual juxtaposition that practically screams the physical antithesis to the sterile aesthetic of the first game.

Once you’ve picked up your Portal Gun, familiar gameplay follows, and Wheatley guides you through the dilapidated labs. Apparently he’s as stumped as you as to why the place is falling apart, and cryptically talks about a “man” who did all of this (rumours abound said man may in fact be Gordon Freeman, but we’ll touch on that another time). He also refers to “her” in the form of GLaDOS, who you’ll reawaken very early in the game. She’s obviously pissed, because in the last game you killed her at the end (though not for her lack of trying to do the same to you), but is happy to see you again because now testing can begin anew.

The overall narrative from the outset is much deeper, and the scripting and voice-acting is as tight as anything I’ve experienced, across all forms of media. Numerous laugh out loud moments occurred as I played through, and the humour pacing and story delivery were top-notch. Merchant was a perfect choice as Wheatley, while GLaDOS is, typically, as dour as she was in the first game.

“I might take up a hobby,” she says just after being revived. “Reanimating the dead, perhaps.”

We were privelaged enough to play three sections of the single-player outing. The first was essentially what I described above, and didn’t offer anything completely new in the way of gameplay; it was more of a narrative primer for what was to come a bit later, however, I’m reticent to reveal the contextual nature of the following two sections we played, because they were freaking awesome (especially the latter, which was much later in the game), and AusGamers is not a spoiler site.

What I will tell you is there’s a very subtle introduction throughout to new mechanics, such as the gels, transporter beams etc. You’ll get help this time from more than simple drawings in Rat Man’s hideaways, and GLaDOS is a much colder, more calculating entity. Puzzles are still linear in completion through lateral thinking, and I didn’t really experience too much in the way of multiple path solutions, but we didn’t play for much more than about 90 minutes, so it’s hard to say how expansive the puzzles will become.

There’s a greater emphasis on varied art-direction in Portal 2 as well. I mentioned the ruined, filthy remains of Aperture labs at the beginning, but the game takes you even further down the rabbit hole, so to speak. And the lighting is fantastic. There are massive underground caverns you’ll come across, for example, that silhouette everything around you due to a lack of a direct light source. This makes finding portal surfaces difficult and encourages exploration and environments are more functional now in both narrative context (a picture is worth a thousand words, after all) and sheer challenge as a result.

On top of the single-player hands-on, we also had a chance to check out co-op, though unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to test the cross-platform play the team are touting (you can play on PS3 against Mac or PC owners, in case you weren’t aware). I teamed up with our very own Nathan Lawrence (aka NachosJustice), and we found a very different game to that of the single-player. The co-op experience creates a different kind of thinking, and the roles you both play shift based on a sense of hierarchy, competition and revered subjection. There’s also a lot of trial and error in involved, and GLaDOS actually does all she can to undermine your companionship, which, when you’re playing with an actual human player, could create some interesting chatter and dimension between the two of you (this is dynamic, also).

This companionship is also where the gesture system comes into play, which Valve’s Jeep Barnett talks about in our video interview with him, but the basic idea is, apart from being able to physically communicate with players from around the world who may not be of the English-speaking kind, to create a physical relationship in the game and with the game. Valve still haven’t gone into copious amounts of depth about it, but given the co-op portion carries with it the same gameplay length as the single-player, there’s definitely going to be a lot to explore.

From a puzzle-solving perspective, co-op allows you to explore more dynamic levels in that with two sets of eyes, so to speak, the team have been able to fully let their challenge-inducing hair down for a much more visceral experience. Moreover, with two people challenging a level’s puzzles, and the aforementioned roles within the partnership, the whole experience is just more engaging and more rewarding at the end of the day.

In the state we saw the game, Portal 2 was coming along brilliantly. There’s a much deeper and more personal narrative here, with a bigger cast of characters and a lot more story to tell. The game-world has been expanded beyond that of the original, while the new puzzle elements and tools craft a much deeper gameplay experience (at least so far, based on what we’ve played). the great thing I took from all this expansion though is Portal 2 has not forgotten its roots, and in fact you still feel like you’re in the same universe and that this is actually a true sequel to the original, and not just a ‘beefed up’ expansion of what they played with first time around.

Currently the game is due to hit PC, PS3, Mac and Xbox 360, with the latter being the only insular experience for co-op (in that you’ll only be able to play with other 360 players), everyone else, meet everyone else - and have fun in the first true step to knocking down the Berlin Wall in gaming that is locked platform multiplayer. Well done Valve, well done.

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