A couple of days ago we reported on the Portal 2 Summer Mapping Initiative, a competition held in honour of the frankly frightening creativity of the Valve fan base. If you enjoyed Portal 2, and who didn't, you might want to give them a go. The official winners and runners up created a big chunk of content, dumping easily a typical single-player game's campaign worth of playtime into your lap, for no pennies. I've been playing the top-rated co-op maps, because the stark terror of being trapped in a testing facility that mostly wants to kill you is best experienced with company. Let me tell you about it!
The maps we played are MrTwoVideoCards' Redirecting Redirection, Skotty's Fast Bridge and Kosire's Fling Bridge, and it's a breeze to install them and have a go yourself. Both players need to download the .bsp map files, drop them in your Steam/steamapps/common/Portal 2/portal2/maps folder and join a regular Co-operative game. Once you're in the hub, the host needs to bring up the console and enter "changelevel nameoflevel" without the quotation marks, and the server will automatically load the user-made maps for the both of you.
The best of those three by far was Fast Bridge, named after one hilarious section involving an untrustworthy bridge over troubled waters. Hopefully not an example of my stupidity, the whole thing took us much longer than Skotty's stated 25 minutes to complete, and actually feels more like an entire chapter as opposed to a single test chamber many of the other entries resembled. It fits in just about every kind of puzzle mechanic, multiple puzzles based around splitting the two of you up to carry out your own missions and even briefly features a puzzle involving a Pneumatic Diversity Vent, an idea Valve have trailered but never made it into the game.
All three are good if you and your partner enjoy a challenge, expanding your mind once again to think in that peculiar fashion the mechanics exploit. There were plenty of "A-ha!" moments shared by the two of us, and also just enough problems solved by simply bodgeing it to make us feel like we were outsmarting the level designer, which is always nice. The sense of scale seen in the later chapters of the Portal 2 singleplayer campaign also makes a welcome return, with some rooms and set pieces being of dizzying size.
Unfortunately - and this was a problem that many of the competition maps had, including the single player ones - that sense of scale frequently gets in the way of puzzle solving, especially if the challenge relies too heavily on the Thermal Discouragement Beam. Redirecting that sizzling red laser has always been the most tiresome aspect of Portal 2, and it's not especially invigorating to see map makers come up with even more convoluted and painstaking ways to employ them. Valve never really exacerbated the problem by simply having most maps that utilised them putting them all close together. If you don't do that, problems arise, as these user-made maps all-too-often show. The simple act of dropping a Prism Cube can bounce the laser off it's target by a few micrometers. Add in the unpredictable effects of dimensions and angles that Portals have on the beam (again a problem Valve usually fixed by forcing the specific laser puzzle portals to only work in a single placement, which seems like their own admittance that the mechanic is too unwieldy) and it's a recipe for simple irritation.
The main point to take away from the competition, other than just how invigorating an experience Portal 2 really was, is just how damned difficult it is to make a good Portal 2 map. Whenever any of the Valve Commentaries talk about play testing and guiding the player, you could be forgiven for thinking that there are just a couple of simple tricks to employ each time, usually along the lines of lighting up the player's destination to draw the eye. It's only when you load up these maps, even the most highly placed, and you realise just how good Valve are.
However, the levels still had that right feeling. Forcing entrants to only use stock Portal 2 content gives all the maps that same unique atmosphere that Valve's effort has. All the maps felt like that they're connected to the game proper, as if Atlas and P-body had simply taken a brief detour through test chambers in which Glados hadn't yet ironed out the kinks. Now I'm going to put on my soothsayer hat and ponder that the canny way of stipulating in the competition rules that each map must begin and end via the use of one of those Aperture Science Vertical Momentum Induction Devices that bookend the official puzzles is perhaps a not too subtle hint as to the ultimate goal of the competition.
As Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead 2 have shown, Valve have made a big show and tell in the past of including the best user-made content in official updates. I wouldn't be surprised if Valve later releases these competition maps reworked as fully-fledged campaigns, both for single and multiplayer. Goodness knows there's a fan base ready and willing for more time with the Portal Gun. It would be entirely in keeping with Gabe Newell's previously stated desire to develop the so-called Single Player Plus.
How about you, dear readers? How many of you would return to Portal 2 with a friend if new content drops in the future?