Who'd Have Thought that the runt of The Orange Box litter, having been pecked half to death by it's more established and anticipated franchise siblings, would have fallen from the nest not into the waiting jaws of a metaphor, but into a glowing hole in the ground, popping out of a nearby wall, and into our hearts. Portal is anything but just a pleasing bonus for The Orange Box, and is instead the most intriguing, original, and surprisingly brilliant part of the triptych.
The game is made up of a series of unexplained tests through the clinical confines of the Aperture Science Enrichment Centre, each one a puzzle to be solved using the eponymous portals. Throughout, the sarcastic, disembodied voice of GLaDOS - an experiment controlling Al routine - guides you methodically from test to test, with promises of eventual cake should you be victorious.
Is this cake a devious and imaginary incentive? Is it chocolate? These are just two of the questions you'll no doubt be asking. 1 already know the answers, and as silly as it sounds, Portal is a game just as much about its story and narrative structure as its puzzle aspects. It's far more interesting than Episode Two, and as it all sits in one easily digestible four-hour long lump of gaming, you'll beat it in one gloriously fun sitting.
The portals work thusly. You can have two open at any given time, one blue and one red. These portals are fired from your portal gun using either the left or right-mouse button, and are placed against walls, floors and ceilings. As you enter one, you exit the other, if you fall through one, you'll fly out the other with the same momentum. If you slap a portal high up on a wall, leap into a deep pit, and place one underneath your feet just before you hit the ground, you'll come screaming out of the wall at high speed, propelling yourself across the room. That, as you might have guessed, is the solution to one of the tests. One of the simpler tests.
The genius of Portals level design means that every test serves a function, educating you about the initially non-intuitive portals. It's like learning to juggle. The first tests are short and don't allow you access to the portal gun at all (in essence having you tossing a ball between your hands) and only when you've got a basic understanding of the concepts of portals will it let you go on. Later, this is helped by the obscurity of some of the puzzles - they'll keep you on the brink of realising the solution for just long enough. You're never frustrated by a test, and equally you're never immediately aware of what you should be doing - a brilliant piece of design work.
Beating the game gives you access to the deeply insightful developer's commentary -easily the best and most enjoyable implementation of Valve's dev-com tech so far - along with a timed Challenge mode, and six Advanced tests (which are re-jigged versions of previous tests, somewhat disappointingly). Having just spent four hours in Portal heaven, this extra content feels somewhat lacking. You'll work your way through the Advanced levels, but there's an overbearing feeling that there should be a massive series of extra puzzles to play about with. Narbacular Drop, the developer's previous title, was fed a constant stream of extra content by modders, and we can only hope that Portal generates the same.
And it's hilarious. Perhaps the funniest and most well-written (and well-voiced) dialogue you'll come across in a game. You wouldn't think to look at it, with its sobering minimalist design and cold, almost medical atmosphere, but it has more laugh-out-loud moments than anything else I've played. GLaDOS's sassy personality makes every line a delight, and the brief appearance of a silent, yet reassuringly weighty companion halfway through (no, not Gordon Freeman) provides just a touch of emotional drama.
Once you reach the game's inarguably joyous ending, Portafs tagline suddenly rings true. It might be short, but it's a wonderful learning experience, forcing you to rethink rather base concepts of the first-person genre. Also, it makes Prey's static wormholes look really shit. Now, it seems, we're thinking with portals.
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
It Starts With you waking up in a plastic prison, staring at your hands and watching a clock slowly ticking down - while an odd computerised voice chirps in the background. It's instantly compelling and, interestingly enough, instantly reminiscent of the Half-Life of old.
Portal begins, and continues, with an air of the HEV training sections and monotone computer announcements of Black Mesa - then propels what's possible in a first-person shooter/puzzler into more dimensions than you're used to.
When the timer ticks down a portal appears, through which I can see myself staring into the portal - a balding man clad in a Guantanamo-orange jumpsuit. From here I move on into the madness.
When the tinier ticks down a portal appears, through 9SV which I can see myself staring into the portal - a balding man clad in a Guantanamo-orange K jumpsuit. From here I move on w into the madness.
An hour previous to this, K in the real world, I'd met the designers of Portal. Six recent graduates from DigiPen university (there's normally seven of them, but one of them was skiving in Vegas), all in possession of toothy grins and remarkably cheery demeanours. An outlook that could perhaps have been expected after being given offices in Valve towers after head-honcho Gabe Newell had seen their final project of their uni courses - the beautifully conceived and designed Narbacular Drop - and set a remarkable precedent by hiring the entire team with a Sourced-up version on his mind.
Even more amazingly, two of the Portal development gang are women -a concept that I, after four years of solid games journalism without having to confront such a terrifying prospect, single-mindedly failed to cope with.
I Close My Eyes...
Back to the game though, and ten minutes into the game I was standing 50ft above the cold, hospital-white tones of a far distant floor, deep within the research centre in which I was trapped. Over this pit was the exit, its ledge far further away than 1 could jump. With a left-click I fired a blue portal onto the cold white floor below me, before turning 180-degrees and with a deft right-click, planted a red portal on an intriguingly jutted out panel far above my ahead. Then, reader, I jumped.
Tumbling through the blue portal vertically, I emerged through the red portal travelling horizontally and at the same speed that gravity had previously granted. Flying over the chasm of the pit and skidding through the exit, a computerised voice applauded me, before informing me that both cake and grievance counselling would be available at the end of the test should it be desired.
Portal takes Prey's scripted portal dynamic and shoves it so far, far up its arse. I mean, in Prey could you magic up two portals on the floor then push a box into one and watch gravity bob it up and down in each of them? Has any game given such backhanded witty praise as an unseen Al chirruping "Unbelievable! You
With Valve writers and musicians onboard to supply a true lonesome feeling of being locked away with only an increasingly deranged computer for company, and some brilliant puzzles covering cubes, abysses, deflected energy balls and physics bent every which way and loose - I can assure you it's set to be an hour or two of joy that justifies any lingering Steam grievances with its presence alone.
An Update To Portal arrived recently, the patch notes of which read: "Changed radio transmission frequency to comply with federal and state spectrum management regulations."
The jargon-heavy sentence was easily overlooked, just another note atop a list of previous updates whose changes are too banal to even register: "Updated the particle rendering code and particle data files to make them compatible with the particle editor included in the Source SDK", says one, "Updated the engine to report SteamIDs using the Steam_0 format instead of Steam 1," another.
You'd be forgiven for not noticing that Valve had just added a string of 26 new puzzles to their space-bending cult classic, kick-starting a breadcrumbchasing mystery hunt leading straight to the doorstep of a sequel announcement. The Steam forums noticed, obviously, and set about dissecting every new audio file, dialling into BBS boards and phoning up Gabe Newell's mum. They'd pretty much cracked it within 24 hours.
Hole In The Sky
Watching that mystery unfold was entertaining enough, but what of Portal itself? Is the update - an achievement requiring you to find 26 radios dotted about the levels, and bring them to a location, guided only by static audio, to tune into some morse code - an interesting addition in itself? Or is it essentially just a carrier for an interesting press release? Should you actually bother going back to do all this stuff, now that the enigma's been drained away?
Well, this is no lazy update. Each radio is very deliberately placed, either in plain sight or obscured by test chamber furniture. In the latter case, you'll have to listen out for the jazzy reprise of Still Alive, tracking it carefully in stereo as you gently spin around the test chamber like an echolocating dolphin or personsized bat. GlaDOS does not afford you the simple luxury of an ear-trumpet.
Once you've found the radio you need to take it to an unmarked location inside (or later on, often outside) the chamber. This is the most difficult part of the job, as your aural compass - a static noise as you approach the required location - only comes into effect once you're relatively close to your goal.
This is also the time when you'll appreciate just how finely honed Valve's otherwise meticulous design process is, by virtue of this achievement not having had the typical Valve sheen applied to it. Signal locations are often cruelly placed in odd locations, serving only to frustrate as you blunder backwards through levels in search of that static buzz.
What's far more important than a few errant hotspots is the broader nature of this update, a sequel announcement delivered via the original game. Seeing all of Valve's systems come together to serve as an announcement vehicle shows a frightening degree of co-ordination, and hints at a fascinating new means of interacting with a captive audience.
At no other time could this have been done: it needed a single platform to which Valve could deliver an update that would be applied simultaneously to all of the game's users, it needed an achievement engine to drive players towards solving the riddle, and it needed a forum to allow a thousand people to write a million words about exactly what the hell was going on. Two days later, another update: "Added valuable asset retrieval." With this Valve change the game's epilogue, effectively placing a question mark-after "The End".
With that, Valve have announced Portal 2, stoked their gaming community into a state of hysteria, and they've got everybody chasing stale cake again. Genius.
Portal Is The first Steam-powered game to grace my system in four years. Until very recently Steam had been completely banished from my computer - cast out as annoying, intrusive and a liability.
A couple of weeks ago, when I purchased Portal (for the princely sum of $10), I knew I had to bite the bullet and re-install Steam to get the thing working. I needn't have worried. As I discovered: Steam has come on a long way since I last used it. And Portal turned out to be one of those games that re-affirmed my love of gaming: a beautifully simple idea, given absolute credence with a great script and an interesting backstory.
I took no more than half a day to complete the game, but the ending alone made me want to play the game through immediately once again. I'm humming Still Alive in my head right now. It won't go away. It's so infectious.
I've been permanently permeated by Portal, but I'm happy. I'm now in on the cake jokes, and know what all the fuss is about. Steve was right. It gets in your head. Portal sticks like shit to a blanket And I love it for that reason.