Hands-On: Portal 2’s opening sequence

Last night, at a rave nightclub in New York City, I walked up the stairs towards the back of the dance floor — covered with game stations, at the time — to find Portal 2 being demoed on a large television in a back corner. I made my way towards the station intrigued. I didn’t know Portal 2 would be at this EA event, nor did I ever dream it would be hands-on. So hands-on I went — and it was better than cake.

You’re Chell, the protagonist from the first Portal without a personality to speak of. You start the game in what appears to be a hotel room; to your right is a bed, to your left, a small hallway leading to the door. You’re free to walk around the room, look at the painting on the wall, or hit the sack for a quick nap. Sleeping is actually the only way to progress from this point. So you go to sleep. Moments later, you wake up to an accented rambling coming from the other side of the door. Opening it up makes way for Wheatley, a “personality core” robot, to enter the room.

Wheatley, voiced by Stephen Merchant

Wheatley is voiced by Stephen Merchant, known for co-writing and co-directing Britain’s version of the hit TV series, The Office. His role in the game is not only to act as a guide, but to humor and entertain the player. ‘Nod if you understand,’ Wheatley says. An action appears on screen, telling you to click A in order to nod. You click A, but rather than nod, Chell jumps. ‘Uhm, alright… why are you jumping?’ he asks. ‘Okay, say apple.’ Once again, the player is prompted to click A, this time to say the word “apple”. Chell’s going to speak, you think. You’re giddy with excitement at finally hearing Chell’s voice. But she doesn’t speak. No. She jumps. And Wheatley is again confused by your actions; you can clearly tell he thinks you’re nuts.

But he’s come for another purpose. He’s not here only to entertain, but to warn. The room is about to go loco, and you need to hang on tight. The room begins to tremble, then swing. The walls crack and you realize you’re “hotel room” is actually a small cube inside a tremendous room, filled with hundreds of others. Your room begins to swing back and forth, Wheatley telling you to hang on every now and then. The room smashes into a wall towards the far right of the bigger room, and you make your way back into Aperture Labs’ test chambers. You start off by falling in a familiar holding cell — the holding cell where Chell began her escape in the first game. This time, like the rest of Aperture Labs, it’s worn out and torn apart. You can see grass growing through cracks in the walls and floor. The timer on the outside of the room is broken; like a VCR, it blinks 12:00 repeatedly. A portal opens and you advance onward.

Aperture’s Faith Plate sheet

After this point in the demo — in order to keep the mysteries of Portal 2‘s entire opening sequence a secret — we’re skipped ahead a few stages. We’re not told exactly where, but due to the facility of the portal puzzles, we’re guessing it’s still relatively early in the single-player’s 6-8 hour campaign.

Wheatley’s gone in this bit, and GlaDOS, who Chell killed in the first game, is back on the loudspeaker. She’s been busy, while she was gone, and has done wonders to Aperture Labs (sort of). She’s rebuilt the place but, as I mentioned earlier, its flaws are still present. There’s grass growing in the walls and floor, tiles falling from the ceiling, glass shattered on the floor, and an amusingly annoying GlaDOS constantly mocking into your ears.

This bit is all about introducing you to faith plates. They won’t trade food for prayer, but they will propel you high into the air (this rhyme should be trademarked). Walking on the plate in this stage propels you onto another, which will then propel you once more. On the fourth or fifth plate, walls — which you can shoot your orange and blue portals at — are clearly visible ahead. You must act quick or start over, as one portal needs to be shot to propel, and another shot to land. Pulling it off correctly sends you where you need to go. A button is located on this new platform; clicking it sends trash flying your way, using the faith plates and portals you, yourself just used. You must catch a cube, and use it to keep down a button that will open the door to the exit. Progressing through the elevator, the demo ends, leaving me depressed. “Why can’t I take this home with me?” I asked Valve’s DJ Powers. He laughed.

Valve is known for nothing less than triple-A. The company’s not let us down yet; Half-Life, Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress, Counter-Strike are all Valve properties more than positively received by the media and consumers. Portal (the first game) was nothing less. Portal 2, on the other hand, is something more. Something so excitingly well-crafted, as far as I can tell.

Portal 2 is out for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC on April 18, 2011. The PlayStation 3 version of the game includes a free copy of the PC version and Steamworks support.

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