In 2005, a group of students from the DigiPen Institute of Technology, under the name of Nuclear Monkey Software, released a freeware game called Narbacular Drop. It was an innovative puzzle game in full 3D, involving the ability to place two portals on different surfaces, linking them together so that you can see and walk through one and out of the other. It wasn’t perfect. The graphics were dated and it was fairly easy to break it and get stuck between portals. But it was a great, original idea, and the game was designed more as a proof of concept than anything.
It clearly worked. Valve were so impressed by it that they hired the whole team and set them loose with Half-Life 2’s Source engine to create a new game based around the portal mechanic. Portal takes all the great ideas from Narbacular Drop, expands on them to make them even better, and eliminates all the flaws, creating one of the best, most imaginative games of 2007. Added to that, it has a genuine storyline that loosely ties in with the Half-Life world, one of the best villains in any game ever, and, completely unexpectedly, manages to be hilarious.
The actual mechanics are actually fairly simple, in a brain twisting sort of way. The controls are the standard FPS system, but you only have one gun, the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device. The left mouse button places a blue portal on the surface you’re pointing at, the right mouse button places an orange portal. Looking into the blue portal lets you see out of the orange portal, and vice versa, and you can step through one to exit from the other. That’s the mechanic that the entire game is based on, and it works brilliantly.
There’s a surprising variety of things that can be done with the portals other than just transporting yourself past obstacles. The portals can be placed practically anywhere, whether it’s on a wall, floor or ceiling. For instance, placing a portal on the floor and another one on a wall and jumping into the first from a great height will propel you from the wall at high speed. There’s several different tricks like this you can do with the portals, and by the time you reach the more complicated puzzles towards the end of the game, you’ll have them all mastered and be warping space intuitively, all thanks to the brilliantly designed levels. Every gameplay mechanic is introduced one at a time in simple levels at the start of the game, making sure you’re familiar with them thoroughly before you’re ever required to use them in any of the more complex situations. It leads to one of the most frustration free puzzle games ever made.
The most surprising element of the game is the fact that it actually has a story and is one of the funniest games to be released in years. I was expecting an interesting series of puzzle chambers with no storyline at all. In reality, the former part was true, but not the latter. Most of the humour comes from GLaDOS, the computer AI that guides you around the levels. It starts off as a fairly normal sounding computer training voice, but it soon becomes apparent that, in the best tradition of 2001’s HAL and System Shock’s SHODAN, the AI is ever so slightly unstable. But where the other mad AIs were terrifyingly sinister, GLaDOS just gets more and more deranged the further you get into the game. It’s not long before she’s telling you things like: “Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an unsatisfactory mark on your official testing record, followed by death.” As GLaDOS gets more and more insane, her comments get funnier and by the end of the game had become capable of making me laugh regularly. And the final credits sequence is one of the best of any game ever.
If there’s one flaw, it’s that the game is extremely short. The main game isn’t likely to take more than 4 hours, and that’s if you really take your time and experiment with things. But then, it isn’t being sold as a full priced game. It’s in the Half-Life 2 Orange Box with four other games, all for the price of one normal game, and at that price it’s an absolute bargain. And if you don’t want to buy the other games, then it costs the equivalent of under £10 on Steam. And the fact that the main game is over in such a short time doesn’t mean there’s nothing to come back to. After it’s completed, you can complete the game again with a commentary turned on, which offers some interesting insights into the designing of the game. Then there are various extra modes, with six Advanced maps, which are the harder maps from the game with extra obstacles to work your way around. There are also six Challenge maps, which are also six maps from the game with the options of trying for the fewest portals, fewest footsteps or fastest time. For the fewest portals in particular, you really have to find new ways to get round obstacles in the most efficient way, and these can keep you going for much longer than the short length of the main game might at first suggest.
Portal came out of nowhere and became one of the best games of 2007. It might have been Half-Life 2 Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2 that people were waiting for the most, but Portal is the most original and innovative game in the pack. There’s so little to fault in the game, and I didn’t encounter a single bug while playing. It’s a game that comes highly recommended to everybody. And remember, at the end there will be cake!
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