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.
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