Portal – PC
Developer: Valve Corporation
Publisher: Valve Corporation
Release Date (WW): October 10th, 2007
Nerd Rating: 7 out of 10
We’ve all been there. The remote’s too far away, you want a drink but don’t feel like getting up, or maybe you’re falling and need a quick save. All these problems and more can be solved with the miraculous aid of portals. While portal science may not be real yet, gaming allows us to explore the wonders of such technology in Valve’s 2007 puzzle game, Portal. Portal was introduced to most players through The Orange Box, a bundle of games that also included now-famous titles Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2.
When you start a new file, your character wakes up in an isolated, very small room with the stasis pod you came out of, a radio, and windows to view the larger room that yours is in. Shortly after waking, a robotic, feminine voice chimes in to welcome you to the Aperture Science computer-aided Enrichment Center and explains that you’re here for testing purposes. She starts a warning, but ominously glitches out before she can tell you what not to do.
This is when you get your first glimpse of… yourself. The player character, Chell, is only visible through portal manipulation, as the entire game is presented in a first person view. Chell also is completely silent, aside from the occasional grunt of pain; her only defining point, as given by definition of being a player character, is her unending determination to succeed.
As Chell, you proceed through some fairly simple tests that get harder as more elements are introduced, or old elements are used in new ways. Going through these tests, you quickly find that not all is as it should be. The robotic voice, known as GLaDOS, starts out fairly clinical but also fairly amusing with her comments or explanations; before long, she grows creepier and more threatening.
In one of the earlier puzzles, you may find a wall panel propped open with cubes, the hydraulic pipes unable to pull it flush with the rest of the wall. Within areas such as this are the small domains of a mysterious character known as the Ratman. For the most part, these rooms are covered in the Ratman’s insane ramblings, but occasionally a secret about the labs or a helpful tip may show up. Be warned, there may be spoilers within.
While the story itself isn’t long, nor its characters exceedingly complex, the game does present a fair bit of humor and some exceptionally iconic lines, some of which endured for years. One such line became so widespread across the gaming community that the development team of Portal grew sick of hearing about it and refused to include any reference to it in the sequel.
The core of Portal‘s gameplay is the eponymous portals. At the start of the game, puzzles are designed to teach you the basics of how portal mechanics work. Before you ever gain the ability to set portals upon the walls of the lab, you already have a functional understanding of how to use them.
Portals are launched by the portal gun, which gives you a dual-crescent design around the aiming reticule. These crescents, orange and blue in coloration, are empty if the surface you’re aiming at can’t support a portal; they fill in if the target works. Mostly, you can only shoot portals on the white paneled walls of the labs. A circle will appear next to one crescent or the other to show which portal you fired last. You get two portals, one orange and one blue; fire another of either color and the first will disappear as the new one forms.
More elements are introduced to the game as it goes on, but everything revolves around expertly using the portal gun to get things in place and make it to the end. It’s a simple concept that gets twisted and turned in fun and interesting ways, letting you explore the potential of portal technology to the fullest.
Just because it’s a puzzle game doesn’t mean there isn’t combat, however. In some rooms there are adorable little turrets; adorable because of their voices and lines. These talking turrets chime out with almost child-like tones if they spot you. There are a number of ways to defeat turrets, but the first rule is never to be in their line of sight; Chell can only survive a second or two of concentrated fire before dying.
Controlling Chell is very easy and pretty basic in implementation. The game doesn’t support controllers natively, but the keyboard controls work well and the mouse allows for more precise aiming than a joystick would. The button inputs are easily remembered, as there’s only the directional inputs, interact, jump and crouch to worry about. As simple as it is, it just works. Chell can’t jump very high, nor can she run quickly; I actually used short hops to get around more quickly than running. That said, she doesn’t need to run fast or jump high when she has the portal gun anyway.
The game is very short, perhaps only a handful of hours long, but those few hours are spent in an engaging and laughter-filled experience that will leave you wanting more. Since it’s a puzzle game, replayability is low outside of wanting to relive that experience, though. There are hard mode versions of many puzzles, but this won’t appeal to everyone and most of the difficulty comes from making every mistake far more likely to kill Chell. The puzzles are genuinely made harder to figure out, but the murderous difficulty method leaves much to be desired.
The graphics of Portal still look pretty good today. While they’re not mind-blowing, nor were they at the time of Portal‘s creation, they manage to avoid looking bad, for the most part. The exceptions are few, but notably bad when placed alongside the otherwise pleasant textures and models. The biggest of these exceptions are the pipes, which are increasingly common as the game approaches the end. Aside from that complaint, the aesthetic of the game’s levels go very well with the feel of the game itself.
Most of Portal‘s soundtrack is designed to add to the atmospheric intent of the game rather than creating something to groove to while you solve puzzles. There are a few exceptions, primarily the credits song, “Still Alive.” This song is almost as loved as the game’s jokes, if not more so, and you can quote just one or two lines from it and expect fans of the series to recognize it instantly; they may even follow up with the next part of the song.
Since most of that music is going into building the atmosphere, what sort of feeling does Portal want to deliver? Primarily, one of isolation. Portal is a very lonely game, with the few characters and one notable object becoming more endearing because of it. When all you have for company is the cold voice of a machine, some turrets that want to shoot you to death, and a cube with a heart painted on each side, that cube is going to become your best friend fairly fast.
Portal could be described as less a game and more an experience, but it’s an experience you won’t regret. Aperture Science sets up an interesting setting that would be fully expanded in the sequel, and the game’s presence within the gaming community has endured the test of time, proving nearly unforgettable. If you haven’t been exposed to the spoilers yet, as widespread as they are, please play the game before you are.
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