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Portal (PC) artwork

Portal (PC) review

"So get this: I’ve got a friend who has never played Portal yet can still recite the game’s maddeningly catchy end credits song, word for word, along with his two nerdy buddies – I might be one of them – who like to sing the tune in public places just to freak people out. He’s cited the mechanical GLaDOS, the closest thing Portal has to a main character, as one of his all-time favorite villains, and has even brought up HK-47 (of the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic seri..."

So get this: I’ve got a friend who has never played Portal yet can still recite the game’s maddeningly catchy end credits song, word for word, along with his two nerdy buddies – I might be one of them – who like to sing the tune in public places just to freak people out. He’s cited the mechanical GLaDOS, the closest thing Portal has to a main character, as one of his all-time favorite villains, and has even brought up HK-47 (of the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic series) as a opponent in a friendly debate over Who’s the Better Psychotic Comedy Robot. I suspect there are other people like him, and it just comes to show how contagious the game’s popularity has become: Even if you’ve never played it, by golly, you’ll still be consumed by it. At this point, everyone among the online gaming community either loves Portal or is sick of hearing about it.

It is impossible, then, to fully emulate the experience of truly DISCOVERING Portal for the first time without knowing anything about it, without having exaggerated expectations of the game that will likely lead to more disappointed reactions than Portal deserves. Most will play it as part of the five-game bundle The Orange Box, where it was eclipsed by (at the time) more prolific titles. That the cake is a lie is now widespread knowledge, so allow me to backtrack to a time in which Portal’s awesomeness actually came as a warm surprise.

The adventure is only two or three hours long, and it spends most of that time “training” the player in its unexpectedly complicated mechanics. Literally: The player, a nameless female android, wakes up in an Aperture Science test chamber – the kind where everything is white, and where there are video cameras and opaque observation windows around every corner – and is guided through a series of increasingly intense navigational challenges via the creepy (and uproariously funny) voice of Aperture’s robotic overlord, GLaDOS. Your only aid in clearing each puzzle is a “portal gun” that, in its fully upgraded form, can fire two different portals – blue and orange – which can then be used to get to otherwise unreachable locations.

It’s a first-person shooter only in the lightest sense of the term, as you’re only shooting portals, and they’re almost never used for combat purposes. Instead, the focus is merely on puzzle-solving: With two portals active, you can enter one and walk out of the other. This mechanic alone is simple enough to grasp, and of course there are the rather easy challenges early on that have you traveling across gaps by placing one portal near you, and another on the other end of the pit. More time spent with the device leads to an array of amusing tricks. Place a portal on the ceiling and another on the floor below it, and you can theoretically fall forever! Which serves no purpose, of course, but is still fun in its own retarded way. On a more practical note, if you place one portal on a wall and another at the bottom of a long drop, the momentum from your fall transfers, and you’ll find yourself soaring out of the second portal, often to ledges you couldn’t get to before. (GLaDOS’s explanation for this phenomenon: “Speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.”)

This “weapon” is the kind of innovation that could make ANY game better by default; mod this baby into Half-Life 2 and I’ll never finish the game again, as I’ll get sidetracked dicking around and portal jumping to those long-sought-after locations where G-man thought he was safe. Portal would likely still be a success even if the design had bombed, but thankfully, that’s not the case. It’s only in the final moments of this all-too-short adventure that the puzzles accelerate to anything truly mind-bending (or, on occasion, not necessarily difficult to figure out but nonetheless requiring a metric assload of skill); all of the test chambers up until this point are pretty damn easy and are only meant to prepare the player for the almost devastating final act. Recent replays revealed the unmistakably simplistic (I won’t say “dull”) nature of these earlier moments, but it’s hard to deny that this rate of progression works on your first run.

Just in case, though, the clever folks at Valve have added GLaDOS, whose commentary throughout these events would make even the worst titles bearable, and in this case turns a good game into a great one. She speaks with alarming bluntness, at one point mentioning that if you are feeling dehydrated, you should “feel free to pass out.” Shortly before that, she’ll inform you that the test chamber you’ve reached has been officially designated as impossible to solve, urging you to make no attempt to solve it. It can be solved, of course – she was merely testing how well you performed under an atmosphere of extreme pessimism.

No attempt is made to flesh out the protagonist, or to even give her a name. GLaDOS is the center of attention here, and rightly so, with her consistently clever one-liners made even more laugh-out-loud funny by her intentionally poor inflection. GLaDOS will often blatantly lie, and even when this is supposedly part of the testing procedure, it’s evident that there’s more to her intentions than what’s on the surface. (This is most obvious when she “accidentally” drops you into a military chamber guarded by turrets that speak with GLaDOS’s voice, only an octave higher. You deactivate them by tipping them over, which is infinitely more hilarious than outright destroying them.) There’s a point when GLaDOS’s treachery takes an unexpected turn that propels the game into its epic and wholly unforgettable finale, one that, somehow, is alternately uplifting and heartbreaking. Needless to say, GLaDOS isn’t a villain you “love to hate.” She’s a villain you love to love.

Oh, and if you think it’s impossible to construct an entertaining boss battle out of a puzzle game mechanic, well, have fun being proven wrong. This leads to a poignantly effective closing scene, and the end-credits song, which, just to clarify, is about as infectious as the common cold.

All of this information is probably old news to you even if you’ve never played Portal, and that’s a shame – those people will probably never hold Portal as dearly to their hearts as those who discovered it long before it was “cool.” But even if you’re sick of hearing about the game… well, then just play it already, and then maybe you’ll fully understand why the rest of us can’t shut up about it.

Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (September 22, 2008)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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If you enjoyed this Portal review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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espiga posted September 23, 2008:

This review was a triumph.
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Suskie posted September 23, 2008:

Should I note that it's a HUGE SUCCESS?
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Lewis posted September 23, 2008:

Congratulations for completing this review, even in a situation of extreme pessimism.
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dragoon_of_infinity posted September 23, 2008:

It's hard to overstate my satisfaction after reading this review.
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bluberry posted September 23, 2008:

all your base are belong to us
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Suskie posted September 23, 2008:

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WilltheGreat posted September 23, 2008:

I commend you on doing what you must, because you can, for the good of all of us.
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Suskie posted September 23, 2008:

Now that we've gotten all of this out of our system, does anyone have anything to say about this review? There are people who are obviously tired of hearing about the Portal, and I tried to play off that in my review though I think the point comes across as a little too obvious. Thoughts on how I could fix this? Or is it okay the way it is? I live and breathe off your advice, my friends!
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Lewis posted September 24, 2008:

I really like it. It falls more into the category of what I'd consider a 'retrospective' rather than a review per se, as you acknowledge early on that everyone knows all about Portal now anyway, so it's better to analyse what made it quite so magical when it was released last year. And it was magical. I think it took a while for it to dawn on me just how brilliant it is. I remember playing it for the first time and thinking, yeah, this is a solid, inventive puzzle game with a brilliant, kooky script. Then I tried to think of things that had done it anywhere near as well... and there's nothing. Nothing's come close. Nothing's even tried.

It's short but engrossing. It's silly but all the more wonderful for it. It has the most incredible villain in a game since Shock 2, yet it's absolutely hilarious throughout. The ending is still one of my favourite gaming moments, ever, and it's a credits sequence.

Good work. You do it some lovely justice.
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arkrex posted September 24, 2008:

You can't spell ignorant without IGN
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dagoss posted September 24, 2008:

I think the stance you took is a good one, and one I probably wouldn't have considered. It's hard to review something that has such an overpowering status in Internet culture, but I think this was a good way to approach it. If I was to write a Portal review, it would probably be nothing but GLaDOS quotes haphazardly strung together.
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Suskie posted September 24, 2008:

Yeah, the tough part about writing a Portal review is that you can't treat it like some "new" game that no one's played, even though the game's only about a year old now. It's so over-covered and over-quoted on so many levels that you have to take a different approach. Glad to hear that this one seems to have worked.
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Halon posted September 24, 2008:

Sorry if my response is slow, I haven't been around the site much in the past few days. I prefer your Half Life 2 reviews primarily because of the reason you just said but thought this one was very good as well. There wasn't much to work with that already hasn't been said but this is one of the better reviews for the game that I've read. I would've been a bit harder on the game but this is done way better than my half-written review that is not likely to ever be finished could possibly turn out.
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disco1960 posted September 24, 2008:

Apparently, I'm one of the few who didn't know anything about Portal; I thought the cake thing was from Bioshock for some reason.

The review is still very easy to understand, although that introduction was an odd surprise--I don't think you need to stress the "yeah, yeah, everyone already heard of it" point as much, but that could be just me.

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Lewis posted March 26, 2009:

Reading this again now, this is what I wish I'd written about Portal. 8/10? What the hell was I thinking?
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Suskie posted March 26, 2009:

Good question. Did you notice I changed my own rating? (This was originally a 9/10 review.)
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Masters posted March 26, 2009:

Brilliant review, Mike.

One catch:

"Which serves no useless purpose, of course, but is still fun in its own retarded way."

"Useful," probably. Though probably, the word could be omitted altogether?

Metric assload, ha nice.
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Suskie posted March 26, 2009:

Ah, thanks for that. See, I make mistakes that Microsoft Word doesn't catch.

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