Portal is a fantastic little game that really compliments Valve’s Orange Box compilation. If it were just a Half-Life collection with Team Fortress thrown in (as it pretty much always was with the PC versions of the franchise) then the Orange Box would still be a steal at $60, but Portal adds some great new game play and some interesting story elements to the Half-Life universe. The only problem I have with the game is that it’s too short, which isn’t the worst problem you could have.
Starting with a tech demo called Narbacular Drop, the student developers at DigiPen caught the attention of the Valve team and it’s easy to see why. I haven’t played an FPS or adventure game in a long time that had me scratching my head like some of the puzzles Portal throws at you. Giving your player the ability to alter almost every surface of a level seems like a programming nightmare, but they pulled it off and it’s a blast to play.
The plot is entertaining but brief, almost like you came in on the middle of what could be an interesting sci-fi story, and just as you’re thinking things are going along smoothly they pull the rug out and the game takes a dark turn … but I won’t say more than that because it’s better left to be experienced first-hand.
The main draw to Portal will be the unique “weapon” you’re given and its effect on how you view every level thereafter. Early on in the game I found myself walking and jumping over obstacles like a chump when I could have easily just shot a portal on the wall next to me and crossed the platforming section in seconds. I think the developers put those moments in there purposely to emphasize how accustomed to that sort of game players have become. But once I got the hang of it I was zipping through walls and flinging myself hundreds of feet without hesitation.
The physics of the portals adds another layer to the intricate strategy you need to defeat some of the harder levels. For example, if you have a vertically oriented portal on a wall and another aligned horizontally on a floor far below you, jumping down and falling through the floor portal will cause you to come flying out of the wall portal with the same speed and force as when you went through. Or as the computer voice-over in the game puts it, “Fast thing goes in, fast thing comes out.” This technique allows you to cross chasms easily, and throwing a portal at your feet right before you land allows for some even more spectacular leaps and tricks.
I also enjoyed aligning portals on differently facing surfaces and experiencing the gravity re-alignment once you passed through. You can shoot a portal on the wall and then one below your feet and your character is flipped over as they exit a wall feet first. You can even create endless corridors and chase yourself through walls. It’s hard to explain but really fun to mess around with … that pretty much sums up the entire game.
The deadpan and dark humor is also a nice touch, and probably the result of the pairing with the Valve team. The whole thing gave me sort of a Brazil vibe (the Terry Gilliam movie, not the country) with its vaguely futuristic, corporation-fueled world. It is enjoyable background entertainment but it actually made me want to find out more about the world the game is set in. It’s not until the later levels that you learn Aperture Science (the company that runs the testing facility you wake up in) is a direct competitor with Black Mesa for military contracts. It wasn’t a big part of the plot at all, but might lead to some interesting crossovers with future Half-Life installments.
Once you beat the game you are allowed to replay a chunk of the later levels with added difficulty and challenges, such as completing the level under a certain time limit, or using only a certain number of portals, which adds some good replayability. I’ve had the game for about two weeks and have already played through it three times and now I’m working on getting some of the more difficult achievements.
Overall Portal is a great game that reminds me how fun a solid puzzle game can be. On my first play through it only took me about three hours to beat, shrinking to under two hours for subsequent play throughs, but I would still recommend it as a stand-alone product (I think it’s $20 for the PC through Steam). Now to get that portal gun into Gordon Freeman’s hands…