By dankempster 0 Comments
Portal initially comes off as the runt of The Orange Box's litter. Sandwiched between the Half-Life 2 games and Team Fortress 2, both of which are established franchises in their own right, there doesn't seem much to Portal at first glance. Nonetheless, having already played HL2 and not being able to play TF2 (I really need to get my 360 online at some point), I decided to try it out first. What followed this whimsical decision was just over four hours of the most fun I've had with any game in a long while. After starting Portal at around midnight, I finally tore myself away from the screen at 4:15am, and the only reason for that was because the game came to an all-too-abrupt ending. I'd like to clarify something: I have never stayed up til quarter past four in the morning to play a game. It didn't happen with Final Fantasy VII, it didn't happen with The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and it didn't even happen with Grand Theft Auto IV. The fact that it happened with Portal is a testament to just how much fun it is.
Portal is, essentially, a first-person puzzle game. Using the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, you have to create portals to solve puzzles and progress through the game's test chambers. There are nineteen test-chambers and although none of them are particularly long, each one will require a bit of lateral thinking to solve. The puzzles get more complex as you progress, and some of the later chambers are likely to mess with your head a little. There aren't any real enemies to contend with, and certainly no shooting. There's not a huge amount of backstory, nor is there any real aim to work towards (besides the promise of cake, of course). All you know is that you're being asked to move through the game's test chambers by a cynical AI named GLaDOS, and you don't seem to have much choice other than to follow its orders.
This stripped-down premise really works in Portal's favour, because it turns the brilliant gameplay into the main focus. Using portals, you can move cubes from one location to another, re-route energy orbs to open doors and much more. The portal mechanic makes for some truly awesome moments, all of which you'll have to experience to truly appreciate. You won't soon forget the first time you walk through a portal and end up at the other end of the room. It also means you'll really have to think about where you place your portals, which is where a lot of the challenge stems from. The later chambers really do demand some thought, but the answer is never impossible to figure out. It never gets frustrating to the point where it will make you want to smash your controller, simply because the game's fun factor refuses to let that happen. Portal doesn't feature any real combat, but the final boss battle is one of the best in recent times and rivals a lot of Zelda bosses in terms of application of thought.
The other thing that makes Portal so endearing is its brilliant sense of humour, most of which is provided through GLaDOS' announcements. The cynical robotic tone delivers plenty of genuinely funny jokes, particularly during the game's last stages (the test chamber with the Weighted Companion Cube is a great example). There's the ongoing "cake" joke, too, which extends beyond the game's test chambers into the closing scene and even the theme song. Some of the humour is more subtle, and can be found written on walls in the game's final stages. Despite the dark tone presiding over the game's scantily detailed plot, there are a lot of moments that will make you laugh out loud as you play.
Portal doesn't have many shortcomings, and the ones present don't detract from the experience while you're playing. In fact, it's only after you finish the game that you'll realise its biggest flaw; clocking in at around four hours on the first playthrough, Portal is criminally short. This is forgiveable, because what there is of it is fantastic. It also offers some more difficult challenges as an extra incentive to play it again (not that you'll need an incentive). The main problem I have with Portal, and it's not a major one, is that it feels a bit like an experiment; something Valve wanted to put out there and test the water before incorporating the Portal mechanics into something much bigger and even more ambitious. I guess we'll just have to wait for Portal 2 and see what happens.
Given the diverse variety of game genres, as well as people's varying tastes, I don't usually recommend games universally. However, Portal is a game that everybody should try. It's charming, funny, challenging and engaging in equal parts, and stands out from today's sequel-based crowd as something completely unique. I'll certainly be returning to it more than once in the very near future.
Currently playing - The Orange Box (X360)