Set hundreds of years after the original game, and with the devastated Aperture Science Laboratory largely reclaimed by its jungle-like surroundings, Portal 2 finds returning protagonist Chell freed from - what we believe - is a form of stasis captivity by Wheatley, a bumbling and skittish A.I. personality core. Promising to lead Chell to freedom in return for helping them both escape the nefarious clutches of 'still alive' facility warden GLaDOS, Wheatley serves as a convenient facility guide and handy gameplay tool that can be plugged into mainframe ports to help bypass obstacles. Sporting more than a clear resemblance to Halo's A.I. construct Guilty Spark 343 and voiced by British comedy actor Stephen Merchant (The Ricky Gervais Show, Extras), Wheatley has seemingly been designed to support Portal's simple gameplay as it makes the transition from brief test puzzler to free-standing AAA heavyweight.
Portal 2 isn't even due to hit retail until February 9 of 2011 and it's already stacking up critical awards left, right and centre. Specifically, Chell's much anticipated return to the perilous Aperture Science facility has scooped various E3 2010 Game of the Show gongs from the likes of IGN, GameInformer and Gamespy. It's also notched up individual Game Critics: Best of E3 nods for Best PC game and Best Action/Adventure game, and was recently nominated for Best of Show and Best PC game at Gamescom - losing out to Gran Turismo 5 and Crysis 2 respectively.
Beyond being a 'proper' release insofar as it's a full package in its own right, what's so different about Portal 2 that it could warrant such pre-release adoration? The chamber-by-chamber puzzle mechanic is the same. The exquisite physics are the same. The dark-edged humour is the same. The A.I. villainess is the same. The stunning atmospherics are the same. And the core aesthetic design is the same (luscious invading greenery notwithstanding). Granted, improvements and polish are evident across the board, but nothing is truly different. And that's the key. Sticking to the age old adage of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it', Valve has done what it does best by injecting Portal 2 with the kind of jaw-dropping invention that's likely to leave most rival developers sick to their very stomachs.
So, with Wheatley along for the ride and armed with her ever-faithful Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device (a.k.a. the portal gun), what can Chell - and gamers - expect to face while progressing through the latest batch of brain-teasing and life-threatening test chambers?
First up is the Thermal Discouragement Beam, a deadly wall-mounted laser that can be deflected around the environment with the portal gun or by strategically placing beam-channelling companion cubes. Then there are Aerial Faith Plates, which essentially function as super springy directional catapults capable of bouncing Chell and test chamber objects from point-A to point-B... or to point-C or point-D when used in conjunction with the portal gun.
Boasting fabulous liquid physics, Portal 2's blue Repulsion Gel can be used as a transportation aid and a splash-tastic weapon thanks to its ability to bounce Chell to seemingly inaccessible heights and also cause any physical object it touches to hurtle away unpredictably. Adding to the usefulness of in-game gel, orange Propulsion Gel can be painted across environments (using the portal gun, of course) to massively accelerate Chell and help her cross chasms and whip through seemingly impassable traps.
Then there are gravity-defying Excursion Funnels and Pneumatic Diversity Vents, the former of which can transport Chell, objects, and even Gels both vertically and horizontally throughout the environment. An intriguing addition to in-game movement, the wormhole-like vortex funnels can also be extended and shifted via portal gun manipulation. Meanwhile, Pneumatic Diversity Vents are massive transparent vacuum tunnels that suck up anything placed beneath them before spitting them to who knows where.
While an expanded single-player campaign should help the hard-working Aperture Science experience graduate from the school of quick-fix puzzler, the new cooperative mode should see Portal 2 hurling its mortarboard skyward to the sound of rapturous applause. Not merely a two-player retread through the single-player test chambers, Portal 2's coop stars a pair of beeping sentient facility robots (constructed separately from a personality core and a security turret) that must work together to tackle a completely new set of challenges. Each armed with a portal gun of their own, the as-yet unnamed robots have been built by GLaDOS in an attempt to remove humans from the Test Candidate process. The coop campaign represents their chance to prove their worth by collecting human relics from the bowels of the laboratories in order to learn more about those they're meant to replace. According to Valve, more details regarding the coop campaign will be unveiled during September's PAX.
Although these new gameplay elements should provide enough unrivalled genius to sate the hungriest of starving Portal fans craving a more layered and challenging adventure, it's not beyond the realms of belief that Valve isn't quite finished rolling out all of Portal 2's contributing aspects. After all, there are another five months left before GLaDOS and Chell go head-to-head again. That in itself is a delicious prospect.
If there any (minor) reservations about Portal 2, they're solely based around the inclusion of Wheatley, which, we have to admit, caused involuntarily frowns when it debuted during a demo at Germany's recent Gamescom trade fair. While the personality core's addition makes perfect sense in terms of giving the Portal universe further dimension where narrative flow and gameplay depth are concerned, Merchant's breakneck jabbering grates extremely quickly - leading to a very real fear that Wheatley could be to Portal 2 what Jar Jar Binks was to The Phantom Menace. Just how large a part Wheatley's character performance plays throughout the game remains to be seen. If ever-constant alongside Chell, here's hoping Merchant's forced intensity is not quite so incessant.
Some may accuse us of being unprofessional in offering up anything more than a vague impression of Portal 2 considering that it still has several months left in development. But look at it this way: the fully-fledged sequel boasts even more creativity than the original, while maintaining the same genius puzzles, eerie atmosphere and sadistically amusing moments that made Portal a miniature masterpiece. History dictates that Valve simply doesn't know how to make bad games, and if there's one upcoming release that's a nailed-on certainty to be a critical hit and a blanket nominee for Game of the Year, it's Portal 2. If we're wrong, we'll buy you all cake...