Bending Physics And Breaking Hearts – Portal Review

PORTAL (2007) – VALVE

To quote Micheal Sheen in Tron Legacy - 'This is going to be quite the ride...'

When The Orange Box was released in 2007, no-one expected that a small puzzle game bundled into the mixture would become the standout package. And yet that is what Portal has managed to achieve, winning gamers over with outstanding use of physics, clever puzzles, and a highly popular villain. Recently, GamesRadar placed Portal as the #1 game on their Top 100 Games Of All Time List, and this review is written as a response to this decision, to see if the choice is justified.

Storywise, Portal optimises the phrase ‘short and sweet’. There are only two characters in the game; the silent protagonist that you control and an artificial intelligence called GLaDOS which challenges you to complete test chambers in the Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center, with the promise of cake at the end if all the challenges are completed. The process starts out quite simple with some easy challenges, but over time you notice that the tasks are becoming more dangerous, and GLaDOS is taking a strange turn. Also, why is the facility abandoned, apart from some machine gun turrets? Eventually, you realise that GLaDOS has undergone a personality shift and has malfunctioned, and that ‘the cake is a lie’, meaning that the protagonist must confront GLaDOS, and escape the facility. It must be said that the joy of the story in Portal is all directed around the persona of GLaDOS, who must surely rank as one of the great villains of gaming. The dialogue is perfect throughout the game (seriously, its funny as hell and yet manages to be dark and atmospheric at the same time), and working your way towards the final confrontation is a great experience, even if it does mean facing a brutal choice about your one true friend, an inanimate cube, along the way.

A contender for best game buddy ever?

And of course, on the way to the confrontation, there is the small issue of puzzles to deal with. Portal broke the boundaries of what was possible in puzzle games by using the Source engine (the basis of Half Life 2, renowned for its use of realistic physics) to its absolute maximum with the use of the Portal gun. The game plays from a first person perspective, and the protagonist can use the gun for two purposes; to fire an orange portal and a blue portal. Upon setting these portals up, the player can move through one and out the other. Using this dynamic, Valve opened up the possibility for all sorts of puzzles, including the more simple tasks of opening access to a blocked room and transportation of objects from one area to another, to the more dynamic momentum puzzles (for example, if you are standing on a ledge, fire a blue portal on the ground and an orange portal on the wall behind you. Jumping off the ledge into the blue portal fires you out of the orange portal, allowing travel over great distances, or as GLaDOS handily summarises “In layman’s terms: speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.”). There are several test chambers which are never the same, and all of them present the player with a unique challenge. Later on when energy balls and pits of acid get involved, it can become quite tough and require some thought before action. In a sense then, Portal is a pure game: offering gamers the chance to use their brains without distractions. To add to the fun, when you complete the game you unlock Challenge and Advanced Chambers, offering a few more difficult puzzles and an alternative way to go about the original chambers.

So the story and gameplay are absolutely stellar. The trend continues on the sound front. There isn’t any background music as such, just dark ambient music to help set the scene that you are all alone in this strange environment. Apart from the fact that GLaDOS is there (wonderfully voiced by Ellen McLain), constantly reminding the player what will happen if they deviate from the task at hand and providing ‘encouragement’ when things are going well. It is all backed up by a fantastic little ending tune ‘Still Alive’, which has become so popular that you can play along to it in Rock Band (I have done this. Reading the lyrics makes it all the more hilarious).

In my opinion however, the graphics do not match the high standard achieved by the rest of the game. I know that Valve have been incredibly successful with the Source Engine (later utilised in the Left 4 Dead franchise) and that it was necessary in order to create the gameplay, but in this situation it really does put a limit on how the game looks. The test chambers are bathed in shades of white and grey and…well, that’s it really. The main character looks really inflexible when viewed through portals, the baths of acid look poor to be honest, and there are some pretty damn bad loading times spread throughout the game (which seemed more noticeable on the Xbox 360 than the PC version it must be said). It is a shame, because it detracts from the overall experience.

THE CAKE IS A LIE

Portal is indeed a fantastic puzzle game, and I regard the fact that I managed to obtain it from Steam for free during a promotion period as a bonus. To come out of nowhere, and have such an impact on the gaming community is a very rare achievement these days. However, to bring this review back to the original point of discussion; is it worthy of being named the greatest game of all time as GamesRadar have declared?

In my personal opinion, the answer is no.

My one main problem with Portal is something that has caused much debate – the length of playtime. This is a game that can be completed in well under 2 hours, and on a speed-run, it can be done it under 30 minutes by the pros. Gamers have argued this both ways: the argument for, which is that it should just be a short, well refined experience rather than something that drags on forever and becomes less enchanting and revolutionary as time goes on, and the argument against, which is that a modern game should simply not be that short, whether it is a puzzle game or not.

I can see the value of both opinions, but my problem isn’t so much the fact that it is short, but the fact that there is little sense of replayablity, and this is an argument that rather ironically is well held up by the game that was beaten by Portal into second place on the GamesRadar list: the mighty Tetris. I can happily play a game like Tetris forever; you finish one game (which could well take forever if you are that good at it) and then the next game will offer a completely new challenge using the same basic design. Portal is not a never-ending process; even with the additional chambers, there is only a finite amount of ways to go about completing the puzzles, meaning that once you have completed it once, there is not much else to see. On this basis, it just falls short of being the absolute pure essence of what a puzzle game should be: a game that encourages just ‘one more go’.

So, its not the greatest game ever. However, if you have an hour or two spare, you owe it to yourself to play Portal. For the small amount of time that you play it, it offers a rich blend of gameplay and plot that few other games will ever hope to reach. And who knows, you may even get the cake one day…


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