Review: Portal

“If you don’t love Portal, then you have a serious problem enjoying life.”

“As part of an optional test protocol, we are pleased to present an amusing fact: The Device is now more valuable than the organs and combined incomes of everyone in <louder>[subject hometown here]</louder>.”

It’s generic and cheesy and cliche to call a game a sublime, timeless classic. Yet every single adjective synonymous with “OH MY GOD HOW IS THIS SO AWESOME” applies to Portal and then some. Portal was a little pack-in at the end of The Orange Box, meant to be a little tech demo for Half-Life 2’s physics engine in preparation for you to play… Half-Life 2. Instead, we’re handed one of gaming’s all-time classics practically for free. If you’ve been on the internet at all since 2007, you’ve heard all the one-liners and jokes and praise by now. And Portal deserves it. All of it. Every single last bit of fanboy drool is 100% applicable.

Portal is a first person shooter (FPS) in the pure vision sense, but in reality it’s a first person puzzle game. The only gun you get is the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device. It creates portals on walls, orange or blue. If anything enters the orange portal, it pops out of the blue one and vice versa. You don’t start the game with the ASHPD, but you’ll get to it after a few simple puzzles.

“You’re not a good person. You know that, right? Good people don’t end up here.”

Consequently, you begin the game in cryostasis in the Aperture Science laboratory. You play the role of some part-time employee chick named Chell, but she’s just a name plastered onto the first person’s role as an excuse. When you first wake up, you’re greeted by an overlord female voice called the Genetic Lifeform and Disc Operating System, or GLaDOS.

In the beginning of the game, life is good. You stroll along through some simple puzzles, GLaDOS cracks a few jokes and you move on. It’s all playing out like you just woke up from a long nap to help Aperture Science test out some new gadgets and a fancy little gun that shoots portals. Even when you’re introduced to death as a consequence for failure, it still feels like you’re in a simple little test to see the measurements of reactions. Eventually you’re ended handed a pull-fledged ASHPD and you’re able to fire both portal colors yourself. Even when GLaDOS calls the gun more important than your very life, it’s all in good fun. She doesn’t actually mean it, right? I mean after all, she promised you a cake at the end of the test.

But as you keep going, GLaDOS — and most notably, the puzzles you solve — grow slightly more sinister even though they retain the appearance of “fun”. Is this actually a test? Are you ever going to get to leave this place? You’ll go into Portal expecting a fun little two hour puzzle game. You’ll come out wondering where all the random dark humor came from, assuming you come out at all.

“Momentum, a function of mass and velocity, is conserved between portals. In layman’s terms, speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.”

While you’ll be pleasantly surprised at Portal’s story being good, you’ll likely go into this game expecting good, simple gameplay. And you’ll get it. You only get the one gun, and it’s not really used to kill things. You slap portals and travel through them either yourself or with a couple of random toys to solve some puzzles. You’ll also have a few other things, like extending energy ball shots to targets at other parts of a level and things of that nature.

But beyond this are some unbelievably creative puzzles that Valve really needs to be commended for nonstop. The momentum jumps in particular are a stroke of genius, in which you slap one portal high up on a wall, and another way down on some floor. Jump to the one on the floor, and you fly out of the high exit like a bullet and hop over a seemingly impossible wall. There is a ton of stuff like this you can do, and when you get good at it you can add in some crazy nonsense — crazy nonsense you’ll actually have to pull off if you plan on beating the bonus maps. Good lord. If you’ve ever wanted to portal-hop over disappearing floors while flying through the air, all while having to fire perfect shots upside-down at things the size of pie plates in the first attempt to keep yourself from dying, then the bonus maps are for you. This is to say nothing of attempting least step or least portal challenges, which you will of course attempt for the hell of it. Portal’s main game isn’t all that difficult, but that’s what bonus challenges are meant for.

Rather than spoiling it all, just go play and see for yourself. It’s not like the game is long or anything. The main game is 2 or 3 hours, 4 if you go really slow. This is another part of why Portal owns. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, much like a perfect appetizer — whets the palette, keeps you hungry for dinner. That’s Portal in a nutshell.

“Cake, followed by grief counseling, will be available at the end of the testing period.”

Graphically and especially musically, Portal is fine. But Valve is a modern game developer with common sense, so they actually build their games around gameplay with additives used as…. additives. The graphics are good enough. Some good things, a couple of weird things, and it doesn’t get in its own way. Most importantly, it isn’t 30 shades of brown. The music is also very notable here, especially the final theme. You’ve probably heard Still Alive thousands of times by now, but the rest of the soundtrack is just as, if not equally good.

But again, Valve builds their games around gameplay, not graphics and music. And surprise surprise, their games all end up good because of it. You’d think all these generic dime-a-dozen graphics-obsessed failures of game companies would learn from the best once in awhile.

“This was a triumph.”

With Portal being multi-platform, the only thing left is a system recommendation. Without getting involved in pointless console wars, a good PC is the best bet to play Portal on, especially if you’ve mastered the use of a trackball mouse. It’s the easiest aiming and smoothest control, it’s the best with the auto-saving and it’s the easiest to do crazy endgame stuff with. There’s also the added bonus of superior PC versions of Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life 2 if you go the route of The Orange Box.

But if you don’t have the best PC and end up having to play this on a different console, it’s not a giant loss. You can still do everything the game has to offer with only the tiniest issue of control problems, and most versions of the game are dirt cheap.

So get to it. If you haven’t played Portal yet, your life is probably a mathematical error that needs correcting. Or in less extreme terms, you’re missing out on an instant classic that everyone needs to play at least once.

Score: 10 out of 10


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