Portal 2 Impressions [PAX 2011]

(WARNING: This Preview Contains SPOILERS)

Storytelling, not gameplay, is what set the original Portal apart from other puzzle games. Yes, the portal gun is a versatile mechanic and is the center of the game, but the game’s humor, particularly the ever-present electronic frenemy GLaADOS, was the undeniable stars of the game. Portal 2, looking to expand the series in every sense of the word, is raising the bar by adding new characters to support the rapidly expanding world. Valve’s screening of the game at PAX gave us a first look at two of those new characters.


The first part of the screening showed the very beginning of the game. The game begins as Chell wakes up from stasis, apparently many years after the events of the first game, in a dilapidated hotel room, greeted by a chipper new robot companion with a British accent. Wheatley (voiced by The Office co-creator Stephen Merchant) is Chell’s tour guide and keeper at the beginning of her new journey. Wheatley brings a new element to the Portal cast because he engages with the world around him.

When you first meet Wheatley, he asks you to perform a set of mundane tests to make sure you don’t have brain damage – walk to the door and back, look up, look down, etc. If you’re in a hurry or something, you can just go ahead and do what he says and get on with the game, but when players don’t respond to Wheatley’s prompts, he responds with a funny comments about your potential brain damage.

After that segment, our preview cut ahead to a puzzle where Chell supposedly meets Cave Johnson (voiced by J.K. Simmons), the head of Aperture Science.  Since we’re hundreds of years in the future, there is clearly more to the “man” then he’s letting on.  Johnson sounds like an unintentional GLaADOS. He leads Chell around the now-ruined Aperture labs like Walt Disney in some of his Disney World rides. As he speaks, he alludes to a certain brand of moral ambiguity that Portal fans will definitely be familiar with.

As Cave Johnson leads Chell through the factory, he takes the time to explain to talk about a couple of Aperture’s other new technologies, which make for two of Portal 2’s new game mechanics.  First, Cave describes how to use Repulsion Gel, a blue liquid that, when squirted on any surface – floor, wall, etc – turns it into a trampoline.  Chell can Repulsion gel to bounce up to hard-to-reach places, or launch herself or objects (cubes) in the air, giving her the time and the reach to set up a portal.  The second new feature Cave shows off in the demo is also a gel.  The orange Propulsion gel essentially makes whatever surface it touches super-slippery. Chell can set a path of propulsion gel as a speed boost to jump across long gaps or hit portals at high speed if necessary.

Valve clearly feels that the story of Portal 2 is as important a component as gameplay. They spared no expense on great voice-actors, and it seems to have paid off. Both Simmons and Merchant do an amazing job of bringing their characters and the world of Portal to life.  What’s more, based on what I saw the game is laugh-out-loud funny!  Portal had a well-defined sense of humor and it’s great to see that Valve is working to keep that in tact for the sequel.

Portal 2 hits PS3, Xbox 360, PC and Mac on April 21st.