Portal 2 was easily one of my favorite games of 2011, and like its predecessor there was only one major complaint that most people lodged with it: “It’s too short!”. Valve already released a free DLC adding new co-op campaign levels, but not content with the extra hour or two of content that added to the game, they’ve followed up with yesterday’s release of a second free DLC, the Perpetual Testing Initiative. The Perpetual Testing Initiative is a combination of an easy-to-use puzzle creator, so that players can create their own Portal 2 test chambers, and a level distribution platform (Steam Workshop), so that players can solve, rate, and comment on other peoples’ test chambers. Add a little extra back story, and more narration by the excellent J.K. Simmons as Aperture Science founder Cave Johnson, and you’ve got a formula for a winning DLC. Does it live up to its promise? To find out I’ll take a look at it in two parts: the puzzle creator first, and the level-sharing experience of Steam Workshop second.
I have to admit that although I was excited about the puzzle creator, I was very sceptical. I’ve attempted to make Portal maps in Valve’s own level editor Hammer before, and it was a slow process. In addition, in-game level editors usually are so complex that I don’t know what to do with them (LittleBigPlanet’s for example). Portal 2’s puzzle builder pleasantly surprised me in that it’s easy to use, but doesn’t restrict you too much in your level creation either. Using your mouse and keyboard you can change the shape of walls and floors, create and link testing elements, and generally make a working puzzle with ease. The editor includes lots of animated flourishes to help you understand what is going on in your puzzle as you build it. For example, when you connect two elements – say, a button and a piston platform – a pink heart appears over the connected item, accompanied by a happy sound effect.
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Between making changes, you can build and run your map, which takes a minute, but then throws you directly into playing your test chamber. This helps you get a sense of the scale of things (my maps were far too large when I started), the lighting level in your test (which is going to be very dark at first), and lets you see if your puzzles actually work (this is pretty important). When you’ve seen enough, you can return to the editor, and I should add that while building and running takes a minute, returning to the editor from play mode is instantaneous. No unnecessary loading screens to be seen. Once you’ve completed a map, you can give it a name and a description, click a Publish button, and it’s available to be played on Steam Workshop! That brings me to the second half of the Perpetual Testing Initiative, which is the Steam Workshop experience.
Steam Workshop is how users will be sharing levels they’ve created, and if you’ve played any other game that allows you to share levels online, you’ll find that this is absolutely nothing like that, in all the wrong ways. Steam Workshop is viewed either through the Steam Client (which is wrapping a web browser), or through a web browser. You explore the workshop, find a level you want to play, and “Subscribe” to it. Upon doing this you receive a message “The content will be downloaded next time you launch the game”. If you are already in the game, there is a button to browse Steam Workshop, which opens it in the Steam Overlay browser. The same message is shown upon selecting a level, and you will actually need to relaunch the game to play the level. This is a minor inconvenience, and it prevents players from trying out each others’ levels on a whim. You have to pre-plan which levels you want to play. In addition, though you can give a level a thumbs-up or thumbs-down from in the game, to leave a comment you are told to go to Steam Workshop in the browser. The experience is frustrating, and I would hope that Valve patches the game to remove the browser-dependance that you see in it today.
Overall, the Perpetual Testing Initiative is an enormous value-add to Portal 2. At exactly zero cost, it adds infinite levels to the game and a level creator that is actually fun to use. Despite the shortcomings of sharing puzzles through Steam Workshop, you’ll still have a lot of fun playing and creating. For now, the DLC is only available on the Mac and Windows versions of the game, and unfortunately Valve hasn’t confirmed whether or not it will be coming to consoles. If you own Portal 2 for the computer though, I would highly recommend you check out the Perpetual Testing Initiative. Portal 2 itself is temporarily on sale for 66% off on Steam. If you want to try the map that I made, which you can see in the screenshots above, it’s available here. Happy testing everyone!