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......Break on through to the other side
There's a tenderness to the first time your partner breaks through the barrier between you. They gingerly hold out a weighted storage cube, and as you receive it - for a brief moment - you're connected. Placing the cube on the pressure pad in front of you, you watch as they walk through the door that's opened up on their side of the chamber. You continue through the level on parallel tracks - separate but together - placing portals through gaps in the clear glass between you. In the end, only your partner can help you past that last wall, creating a portal to the bridge that finally unites you both.
Dodgy relationship metaphors aside, Portal 2 is one of the few games that can claim to have a genuinely co-operative mode. Your partner isn't just a second gun for hire, but an intellectual ally and indispensable puzzle-solving companion. After crossing the bridge at the end of the first level, the two of you are transported to an open chamber bisected by a river of green liquid. Portals can only be placed on white sections of wall and there are none on the other side. Thankfully two horizontal parallel plates nearby provide a convenient solution: by placing portals between the two surfaces your partner creates an infinite drop, so that you can fall through the bottom and reappear through the top plate in an endless loop. As you cycle through, approaching terminal velocity, your partner shoots one of the portals onto a wall that's angled up facing the river: you fly out of the new portal with your momentum intact, and sail over the gloop to the other side.
Valve has carefully designed every puzzle in the co-op mode with 2 players in mind; this isn't just some simple rehashing of the single-player campaign, but an entirely separate set of levels specifically created for two pairs of portals. Indeed, every puzzle has been rigorously play-tested to ensure that it requires two players to solve it - so it's not even possible for a lone player to breeze through the levels alone.
The third level introduces the Thermal Discouragement Beam: a laser that can be manipulated by redirecting it through prism cubes. Two nodes must be lit up by the beam, on the far side of a pair of obstructing walls. By using both pairs of portals at your disposal, you can clear a path through the walls, and use a prism cube to direct the laser at the nodes. You can also turn the beam towards a couple of anthropomorphic turret bots, which fall to the ground spitting out bullets with a satisfying whine, fizz, whirr. It's not particularly taxing stuff at this point; Valve has designed the preliminary stages of the co-op campaign as training for individual game elements, combining them more deviously in later levels.
The final puzzle involves passing the beam through a series of walls in a roundabout circuit to hit another node. It requires all four of your collective portals and it's here that the 'Ping' tool comes into its own as a communication device; by depressing the stick you can mark a specific spot anywhere in the room for your partner to focus on - a feature that will prove particularly handy for those playing together online. Even side by side in split-screen play it's often simpler to ping a spot on the map than attempt to fumble with prepositions while pointing awkwardly at the TV.
The entire co-op campaign is around twice the length of the original Portal, and together with the single-player content, should make for a sequel that's about four times as long in total. The co-op characters are a pair of bipedal robots tasked by GLaDOS (the sentient sociopathic AI from the previous game) with completing a series of tests. The story is set after the events of the single-player portion of Portal 2, in which Chell (the silent protagonist of the first game) happens to accidentally reawaken GlaDOS following her release from cryogenic stasis. Valve retro-actively patched Portal's ending to make way for the sequel, which now has Chell dragged off by a mysterious male robot following the destruction of the Aperture Science laboratories.
In addition to the variety of puzzles displayed in the introductory three-level demo, the co-op campaign will feature many of the new elements already unveiled for the single-player game. These include the Light Bridge and Excursion Funnel, which can extend through portals to create new walkways and passages through the air; the Aerial Faith Plate, which launches players and objects high above the ground; and the Pneumatic Diversity Vent: a vacuum that can suck obstacles through portals and into oblivion. Also new to the game are Gels, which can be painted onto surfaces to change their properties, allowing you to run faster or jump further on affected areas.
Exclusive to the PS3 edition of Portal 2 is full Steamworks support, facilitating cross-platform play and voice-chat with Mac and PC owners. Those buying the game for Sony's console will also be able to download it free of charge on their Mac/PC, allowing them to take full advantage of Steam's cloud-based save game support.
Valve has pumped considerable resources into creating a full-length title, with the core team of seven or eight people that worked on the original expanding to over thirty for the sequel. Part of Portal's success was clearly its originality but also arguably its brevity: each game design concept was fully explored without overstaying its welcome, and such a substantially expanded sequel might potentially lose some of the crystal clarity of its forbear. Nevertheless, what we've seen of the game so far is accomplished and characterful, with script and voice-over work which oozes mischievous charm. While it would be almost impossible for Valve to replicate the revolutionary impact of the original, an extended host of clever new concepts look set to make Portal 2 a sequel of the highest possible calibre.
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