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Vic’s Thoughts On: The Portal 2′s Perpetual Testing Initiative DLC; Or Why Portal 2′s Future Is Looking Very Bright

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As you may or may not know, I wasn’t exactly pleased with Portal 2′s first DLC outing – “Peer Review“. While the Challenge Mode added much-needed replay value to the game, it really should have been in the game from launch. The only other bit of content in there, the new ”Art Therapy” co-op course, was rather disappointing, with poor writing and plot, as well as some meager and poorly balanced gameplay offerings.

I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that all free DLC is automatically good – you have to draw the line somewhere. And solid feedback will help make future releases better. For instance, the poor reactions to L4D1′s underwhelming ”Crash Course” almost certainly helped Valve build better L4D DLC in the form of L4D2′s “The Passing” (although later on they did let us down again with “The Sacrifice“). So we needn’t be afraid to voice our opinions.

But enough about all that. Here we are, with Portal 2′s second, and perhaps final DLC release almost upon us. The Perpetual Testing Initiative promises to turn Portal 2 into a never-ending house of pure science, providing it with enough replayability and content to feed 5 full-priced Call of Duty games. But does it fulfill that promise?

Vic’s Thoughts On: The Portal 2′s Perpetual Testing Initiative DLC; Or Why Portal 2′s Future Is Looking Very Bright

Courtesy of Valve, I got to try out the PeTI DLC a week early, as part of its beta. Unlike Art Therapy, which was so needlessly hidden and difficult to access, the PeTI gets its own main menu option, in the form of “Community Test Chambers”. Click that, and you are in! No red carpet ceremony, no complicated registration or installation process – it simply takes an extra moment to load up the new sub-menu, and that’s it.

From there, you are free to choose what you want to tackle first: the new Puzzle Maker, or the actual community-made test chambers themselves. We’ll be taking a look at the Puzzle Maker up first; and yet again, it’s quick, easy, and relatively painless… for Aperture technology. Observe!

Whenever you start creating a new map, the Puzzle Maker provides you with a basic test chamber to build upon, with most of the necessary elements already in place (the entrance and exit, plus an observation room for lighting). The main controls are very simple: the left mouse button is the main action button, used for highlighting wall panels or testing elements; holding the middle mouse button allows you to steer the camera by moving the mouse; the mouse wheel zooms in and out; while the right mouse button allows you to move the camera around independent of overall orientation (and, when released while on top of a wall panel or test element, will open up the pop-up shortcut menu). There’s also a bunch of hotkey shortcuts that can be very handy.

Shaping the chamber and modifying its layout couldn’t be any easier. Simply highlight the wall panels on top of the area you want to alter, and then move the mouse in whatever direction you want them to go. You can also highlight things as a box, and set them apart from the rest to craft entire new rooms. Otherwise, terrain modification is very simple and very user-friendly. So is lighting – you can use observation rooms or neon lights to brighten up your test chamber, and everything in-between is entirely handled by the Puzzle Maker itself. While it only takes a few seconds to build/compile the map and take a look at it from the in-game view, the actual editor can be a bit deceptive at times when it comes to lighting – everything looks perfectly lit, with no distinction at all, which can be pretty misleading at times.

But it only takes you a few moments to return to the in-game view, rebuild the map, and see for yourself what you’ve created. Even a weaker computer can build any given level in just a couple of seconds. Perhaps rebuilding could be automatic upon hitting the game view; or perhaps an option enabling this could be added to the Puzzle Maker’s settings, allowing impatient players to toggle it on and get a quicker look at their test chamber. Still, everything is done extremely fast and extremely well.

Installing testing elements is also extremely easy, as is configuring them. There’s no math or number-crunching involved, and all it takes is a couple of mouse clicks. In addition, things like entrance and exit elevators are automatically placed in your map, which is also splendid. In addition, the Puzzle Maker sets you up with a musical soundtrack automatically. This is really great, but I do wish Valve would allow us to select the soundtrack ourselves. And perhaps we could also be allowed to create dynamic music by setting certain testing elements to play musical soundbites taken straight from the game, when they are approached or triggered. It’d be in line with what Valve did in P2 themselves, and surely it can’t be too difficult to implement. And, of course, co-op support for mapmaking has yet to be added, but hopefully that’s on the agenda as well.

Rejoice, my friends – the days of Portal modding being more like Portal programming are long gone. Really, aside from a few issues with figuring out scale (there’s no real units of measurement, and the doors and panels’ sizes can be a bit deceiving at times) and the aforementioned lack of a more reliable method of showing you the chamber’s lighting, the Puzzle Maker is just terrific. Even better: Puzzle Maker maps can be then exported for use in the Hammer Editor, where you’ll be able to add design touches and modify the maps in ways you can’t in the Puzzle Maker. And you can upload Hammer-made maps to the Steam Workshop. The possibilities are limitless!

Let’s move away from the Puzzle Maker and towards the actual Initiative itself. By clicking “Play Community Test Chambers” in the PeTI’s menu, you are then taken to “My Queue”, which is a staging area for newly-downloaded test chambers that you’ve subscribed to from the Portal 2 Steam Workshop. It’s an unbelievably simple process that only takes about 15 seconds until your map is ready to be played. I say “subscribe” because the map author can release updates to the test chamber as they please, and your game will automatically install these map updates in a very discreet way.

Certain maps feature integration with Cave Johnson’s Multiverse side-story, including brand new voice lines that feature some terrific writing. The narrative itself, however, is pretty schizophrenic, as Valve desperately tries to cram the Multiverse thing into the narrative. It likely remains non-canon, don’t get me wrong, but it’s still pretty awkward and a tad confusing.

Still, the comedy is as great as ever. In fact, it might just be the best material in Portal yet – a lovely blend of subtle, dark comedy with some more overt and goofy humor. Unfortunately, figuring out which of the Workshop puzzles do include Cave’s new voicework is… well, very tricky to say the least, and I don’t know if there’s any specific criteria. Mostly, you’ll be going blind until you actually hear Cave open his mouth. Hopefully Valve will be working on making that a bit more transparent.

Even if the PeTI is currently in beta status, there were plenty of lovely maps to try out – not just from community mapmakers, but from Valve developers as well. The amount of great puzzles available is a testament to just how awesome the Puzzle Maker and Workshop integration really are, and just how easy they make Portal mapmaking and distribution.

Once a test chamber has been solved, you are then prompted to give it a rating (either a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down), and you can then return to its Steam Workshop page to add it to your favorites, and perhaps comment on it. Once that’s done, you are returned to the PeTI’s main menu, and the test chamber you just finished is added to “My History”, never removed or hidden in any way.

In conclusion, the Perpetual Testing Initiative is… well, a huge success. The versatile Puzzle Maker makes mapmaking easier than ever before, while Steam Workshop integration for community test chambers makes for a clever, easy-to-use and robust distribution platform. Even after release, Valve will still be working on it, as they aim to add co-op support for the PeTI further down the line.

Targeted for release on the 8th of May, the PeTI will provide Portal 2 with a whole suite of new features, increasing replay value and longevity. It might ultimately turn it into Valve’s perfect vision of video gaming – not just “entertainment as a service”, but entertainment as a community system, allowing the fans to build their own experiences and share them with others. And best of all? It’s completely free. Cave Johnson must be turning and twisting in his grave by now.

27 Comments

  1. I’m just hoping Valve doesn’t integrate the multiverse stuff into HL3. Overall, sounds like a great bang for your lack of buck, and I’m looking forward to Tuesday.

    • I don’t think they’ll be integrating it in the main Portal storyline in any way, let alone the HL universe.
      That said, that whole side-story is pretty crazy overall – it’s simultaneously hilarious, extremely intriguing, and unbelievably convoluted, all at the same time. It does start to make sense once you begin hearing more of the lines, but it’s still pretty awkward.

  2. Interesting article, albeit with some less than necessary COD-jokes (it’s starting to get old, people!). I can’t wait to try out the new editor myself.

  3. Spot-on preview, Vic, well done.
    I didn’t catch any news regarding “Perpetual Testing Initiative” being the final Portal 2 DLC, though. Where did you hear that? If it’s true, I’ll be dissapointed.

    But then again, when you go to the “secret” room from the Co-op hub (you know, the room where you play the DLC coop maps), a message pops up saying that “Extra COURSE*S* take place after the original co-op maps” (or something like that).

    Course*s*. That means we have to wait for new co-op content, correct?

    • You make a good point regarding the Extra Course room; and no, Valve has never stated that the PeTI DLC will be Portal 2′s last DLC release. But the way I see the PeTI, it’s almost as if Valve is giving the game directly to the fans, and leaving post-release content entirely in their hands. Obviously, there’s nothing really wrong with that – but that is the way I see it. I really hope I’m mistaken!

      • I sure hope you are mistaken, as well! :P

        Seriously, though, I can’t see why VALVe would just drop the ball and abandon Portal 2 altogether, leaving its fate to its fans.

        Unless, of course, they want to focus on HL3!

        • While HL3 isn’t that close, I do think that the one-year mark represents the moment a developer needs to start solidly laying down a post-release support plan.

          Moreover, a busy company like Valve, that only has 325 employees and 24 hours a day at their disposal might not be able to afford providing fresh, brand new original content for every one of their games… all the time.

  4. Awesome job, Valve. And thanks for sharing your thoughts, Vic.

  5. I gotta say i do like the way the map editor works, the whole style they used for their inforgraphics just seem to blem perfect with the portal universe.
    I am however a bit dissappointet over the fact that you cant create additional Co-Op chambers, but i guess this is a good base that can be expanded upon at later times.
    Nice article Vic :D

  6. Commenter AvatarHamilton GraybeardMay 3rd 2012 at 11:55am

    >(although later on they did let us down again with “The Sacrifice“)

    Why do you keep spouting your opinion as objectively correct even though it contradicts the general consensus?

    I’m just curious, I mean, you want to be taken serious as a journalist right?

  7. If you are an experienced user of source SDK and Portal 2 authoring tools; they are very hard and time consuming to use, esp. with custom models and textures; and the devolper wiki kind-of died, people just started giving up using it, the ease was slightly alivated with greater intergration of better instances with portal 2 AT; which this seems to be; just an simple brush map filled with instances; which is what it needs to be, mod support would be nice though; and if you can export into hammer, perfect; they just need to do this for HL2 games; because modding those are really hard to do right.

  8. That was very informative, Vic! And I’m with you for your views of Peer to Peer. I mean, I was with you, if you know what I mean. ;)

    • Yeah, I was really hoping we could make it past those last puzzles. Few of my friends have actually played it, let alone finished it, however.

  9. Nice article Vic.

    Is there anyway for users to download the content and then distribute them?

    As you may remember, my fear about this system is that it will cut off the websites that revolve around community content.

    • Thanks Phillip. I know for certain that maps created in the Puzzle Maker are saved within the game’s folder, and can then be retrieved for use outside of P2 – but I am not entirely sure if this is also the case for Workshop maps. I will get back to you on that, later today.

  10. I’ve been waiting for a more user friendly level editor for Source games for a long time. I know that something as simplified as this probably wouldn’t work with games like Half Life 2 or Left 4 Dead, but something that moves as smoothly as this would be super amazing for future titles. Hammer is just far to sluggish and troublesome.

    Come on Valve, you can do it! I believe in you! *avoids awkward stares*

  11. Thumbs-up or thumbs-down?
    I guess stars would work better.

    • Well, I suppose Favorites count as stars in some way, though you can’t add a map to your Favorites directly from the final rating screen.

  12. FUCK YES I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR THIS FOR LIKE… EVER!

  13. This puzzle maker must be great for sketching a level. I hope it’s just a start of reinventing the map creation process for all source games (at least the future ones). Gabe once mentioned that Valve should take their creation tools to the next level and this puzzle maker looks like a step in that direction.

    • Agreed – Now you have to spend very little time to make sure the puzzle you’re working on is interesting or if it is even worth making, then you can re-create it in Hammer with all the decoration you want.

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