Review: Portal

I saw the trailer for Portal last summer and was instantly in love — this game blew my mind. I’ve always been a big fan of puzzle games of various types, spending an inordinate amount of time on’s puzzle section in my youth (Lasertank, I’m looking at you). In fact, most of my largest programming projects have been various puzzle games of my design.

After so many years, though, it’s hard to find fresh and innovative puzzle games, and I’d pretty much stopped trying until I saw the aforementioned Portal trailer. The entire premise of the game (which really is far better explained by watching the, again, aforementioned trailer) is that you are a test subject armed with an awesome device that can instantly create a blue and an orange portal on any flat concrete surface you can point and shoot at. The moment you walk out one, you walk out the other. Momentum is conserved in the transfer, so if you fall into a portal in the floor fast, you can come flying horizontally out a portal in the wall, a maneuver they call the “fling,” though I prefer the much more kinetic “catapult.” The goal is very simply to proceed to the exit.

Insofar as I’ve explained to this point, the game is identical to a DigiPen student project called Narbacular Drop. The game is incredibly short, and pretty buggy at points, but it is still great fun, and was clearly good enough to be picked up by Valve to be developed into Portal. However, crazy physics with yourself will only get you so far in creating puzzle games, so there are a couple of new mechanics, such as moving platforms and a neat energy ball launcher/reciever combination, which require you to redirect the energy ball to its reciever to activate various mechanisms in a level. In addition, there are single-direction turrets, which themselves are very amusing because they each have their own unique personality, and say the darndest things when you do things such as pick them up from behind.

Also, there is cake when you get to the end of the game.

Thus ends the description of Portal and begins the review. Portal’s strongest points are in its innovative gameplay and its incredibly dry humor. Each level has had immense care put into it, which you can determine for yourself by listening to the excellent developer’s commentary, and most feature fresh and interesting takes on the limits of Portal physics with each turn. While playing the game, there wasn’t a single person who dropped by my room who wasn’t completely mesmerized and amazed by what was going on. By the time I beat the game, I had a semi-substantial audience of onlookers cheering me on, set against the incredibly hilarious GLaDOS, whose dry humor carries all the way through to the amazing credits song (which alone is worth the price of admission). However, therein lies the rub.

At first glance, portal is incredibly short. An average player can probably bust through the game in about 3 to 3.5 hours. As a seasoned Narbacular Drop player, I finished the game in just about 2 hours of play. Part of this is due to the fact that a large majority of the levels are of trivial difficulty. However, this short length is a complete lie; the true game exists in the bonus maps. Not only is Valve releasing a new version of Hammer that will be able to create Portal maps soon, there is a collection of built-in bonus levels: these consist of six modified versions of the built-in levels which range from slightly to insanely harder, as well as a series of “challenges” which require you to finish six levels with either the lowest number of portals used, steps taken, or time elapsed. Of these, the least portal challenge is the most interesting to play through.

All in all the only thing that strongly detracts from Portal is the lack of challenge, which in turn leads to a pretty short gameplay run. However, you’ll be having such a blast playing it for that short run that you won’t even mind. Go buy it now.

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