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Portal (PC) artwork

Portal (PC) review

"Valve doesnít just do original game-play. The game-play may make a game good, but the experience and overall package make it great. Valve have created a breath of fresh air using many ideas from Half-Life. The protagonist remains quiet and can only be seen through portals, and the ambience of a science facility draws many parallels to Black Mesa. "

Who knew a portal taking you to a different part of the room could create so many possibilities? Although the game is a bit more than that, at heart itís a very simple concept used elegantly by Valve to create one of the most original games of recent times. By packaging it with two highly anticipated sequels, Half Life 2: Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2, it helped promote the game in a risk free manner. If it was poorly received, at least there were the other two titles to fall back on. Successful it was though, and Valve inadvertently reinvented themselves as more than just the founders of Gordon Freeman, the Source engine and Steam. Having taken 2005ís freeware Narbacular Drop as inspiration, Valve hired its development team and threw in some of itís own expertise in first-person experiences to create the yearís most original title.

You could suspect Valve in being modest with their new product. Being a short puzzler in The Orange Box collection didnít stop Valve from giving it the production values seen in Half-Life. Set in Half-Lifeís universe, the game revolves around the silent female protagonist Chell, who is trapped inside the Aperture Science laboratory. Aperture Science is a facility that rivaled Black Mesa for portal research, but a failed experiment by GLaDOS caused the emission of neurotoxin wiping out everyone in the facility. 12 years after Portalís events occur, portraying the facility as a placeless, timeless venue functioning without human activity. No hints are given to how Chell ended up at this facility, but GLaDOS motives become increasingly revealing during the game.

You wouldnít have known the above if you played the game though. Thatís where the magic of Portal lies. You begin oblivious to where you are in a facility with a retro-touch. Repetitive pristine white chambers, a guiding robotic voice, this might just be an innocent puzzle game. All you seem to be doing is jumping through portals, go through one and out of the other one in a different part of the chamber. The function of each entity is overly emphasized, in what you can shoot a portal through and what you canít, what entry thresholds look like and what buttons open doors. All test-chambers look homogenized, akin to old-school puzzler games when the limitations of the graphics led to similar looking objects so the player was still aware of their function. This is surely an innocent puzzle game?

Alas, a masterful juxtaposition ultimately fools you as the player. Behind the walls in the pristine chambers emerge dilapidated areas, some full of graffiti indicating entrapment of other Ďcontendersí in the chambers. Itís a sign of greater things when it emerges the placeless area is a faÁade when you end up in the inner workings that Ďtheyí didnít want you to see. The brash change in tone is one of the games most unique elements when the game appears to be like a theater stage. On stage itís everything looks grand but behind the scenes it was all smoke and mirrors.

Looking into it, Valve havenít really done a lot new. The sudden transition in scenery is reminiscent to when the reactor exploded in the original Half-Life. One moment is another day in the Black Mesa facility. The next, pandemonium breaks loose and Freeman needs get out quickly. Half-life was very puzzle orientated and featured plenty of platform hopping, pushing buttons and levers to activate platforms and chain reaction sequences. Portal heavily builds on this, but with a portal gun instead of pistols. Thereís no betting against Valve to invoke some real atmosphere out of a single-player title and injecting some humour for good measure. The constant whirring of machinery, buttons pressing, the portal gun and GLaDosís voice from God craftfully set the scene. The necessity for a soundtrack is largely negated, only emerging at intervals in tense situations in the story.

For all the subtleties subconsciously affecting the experience, Portalís main strength lies in it being fun, pleasantly challenging and getting the learning curve just right. The game explains the portal concept simply, with a bit of help from GLaDOS when he does start off helpful, and portal generating abilities are accumulated. Initially you have to walk through the right portals at the right time. Eventually youíll gain the gun to shoot one portal, then later on an upgrade to shoot both of them. Pictorial hints are given at the start of each chamber, but like any puzzler, knowledge is not enough to succeed. Timing is crucial, as is a hint of luck. Certain jumps can only be made by gathering momentum falling through a floor and ceiling portal, then shooting a portal onto a high-up wall to cover a large distance. Redirecting an electric projectile into a receiver through more portals will activate certain doors and platforms, and although the portal gun wonít neutralize the pesky turrets, a portal itself might.

Valve doesnít just do original game-play. The game-play may make a game good, but the experience and overall package make it great. Valve have created a breath of fresh air using many ideas from Half-Life. The protagonist remains quiet and can only be seen through portals, and the ambience of a science facility draws many parallels to Black Mesa. This should be played for the experience: a quaint industrial buzz, the suspicious lifelessness of Aperture Science, and of course the deadpan comments from GLaDOS. To even see a different part of the same chamber through a portal made is extremely cool, giving the sensation of a different world although it isnít quite that. This isnít the longest of titles, lasting for three hours or more if you try the fiendish bonus maps, but itís enough. After seeing this it will certainly be interesting to see what new franchises Valve will bring out next. It all takes time though, and Valve know how to use theirs!


bigcj34's avatar
Community review by bigcj34 (July 04, 2011)

Cormac Murray is a freelance contributor for HG and is a fanboy of Sega and older Sony consoles. For modern games though he pledges allegiance to the PC Master Race, by virtue of a MacBook running Windows.

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