Review: Portal

10 10 2007

Midnight last night was very exciting. Like many others who had waited so many needless months, I had my Half-Life 2: Orange Box preloaded and readily awaiting the clock to strike midnight. I promised myself that I wouldn’t touch Portal before playing through Episode 2. Quite in spite of myself, I couldn’t resist what I feared would essentially be Half-Life 2: Narbacular Drop. I was partly right in my assumption, but also very, very wrong.

At first glance there isn’t much going on here. You play a nameless test subject who is given an “Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device”, which can open both entrance (left mouse button) and exit (right mouse button) portals on certain surfaces. With it you are expected to run through a series of test chambers solving puzzles. The first few brain-teasers are fairly obvious—drop a crate onto a large red button, drop a crate onto a turret, drop a turret onto a large red button. As you move from one Skinner Box to the next, he challenges do get harder—involving horizontally moving platforms, multiple turrets/crates, and believe it or not, Newtonian physics—but none of them are all that bull-busting. The game doesn’t really feel challenging until the 15th chamber, and since there are only 19, you get the feeling the broke a nail scratching the surface.

The game is polished, graphically, even if there isn’t much to look at. There’s no HDR lighting here—which is kind of surprising since Valve has made that its baby since Episode One—but Portal does have a very deliberate style. The walls of these seemingly antiseptic test chambers are all a shade of sterile grey, as if to be completely uninteresting, numbing any ounce of curiosity. Also, while the tests may not be difficult, that’s not to say they aren’t excellently designed. Completing them gives that immediate sense of satisfaction that every puzzle game needs, and messing with portals has an inherently enjoyable quality. In fact it’s even encouraged by to the “achievements” that are now unlockable within the Steam Community.

While immediate gratification is enough to pull most people from chamber to chamber, it’s the game’s sound design and sense of humor that will keep you here long after you’ve warn your welcome. To put it simply, this game is hilarious. The only voice you hear throughout your challenges is the malevolent humming of a monotone robotic female—the kind of thing that would make HAL never want to love again. While I try to resist revealing all of the laugh-out-loud funny things that spew from this voice of guidance, just know that humor is what makes the whole game worth it. There is more personality in this one automaton than some of Bioshock’s human characters. The turrets also have their own voices, softer and higher-pitched, whispering “i don’t hate you” as they fall over and die.

The first run-through will last about 3-4 hours, with another hour’s worth of bonus challenges. While it’s a piddley morsel, the game’s humor and undeniable polish make it fun, and I really hope Valve releases some more test chambers in the months to come.

kefka.gifPersepolian

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