Review: Portal (~4 hours)

This is a game, as I understand it, that was a concept created by students at DigiPen (a college for game development), and Valve Software was so impressed that they hired the team to make this game at Valve. It’s a fun concept, but I think it’s a little thin to be a full game. Of course, as a single game in the five-game collection known as “The Orange Box,” it’s hard to complain. But I think it’s overly simple until the final moments.

The game takes place in Aperture Laboratories, which competes with Black Mesa from the Half-Life series, for government contracts. The gun, “the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device,” is the game’s hook. I’ll try to describe it succinctly: you fire two portals against open walls, an orange and a blue. If you fire one on a faraway, hard-to-reach area, and fire the other on the wall right next to you, then you walk through the nearby portal and arrive through the far away one.

The game does a lot of hand-holding. Put simply, there are nineteen puzzles, and the game never once becomes difficult until the second-to-last one. It goes out of its way to congratulate you for simple puzzles. The game is also a bit too reliant on what I like to call “ball and catcher’s mitt” puzzles. An orb bounces back and forth between a wall and a launching pad for the orb. With your portal gun, you can redirect the ball to a different launching pad which will receive the ball, and this does things like unlock doors. These puzzles are everywhere, and get boring.

There’s also a bit with using cubes to press down on buttons, and sentry guns, that fail if you sneak up from behind and knock them over. The game is being narrated by GLaDOS, who is artificial intelligence guiding you through the puzzles, perhaps a bit prophetic because I talk to my phone’s artificial intelligence, which is called “Google Assistant,” and it gives me a response. The big difference is GLaDOS is a bit snarky and condescending, adding to the fun of the game. She’s also phoning it in a bit, like she’s witnessed the test a thousand times. For example, “Unbelievable. You, [subject name here], must be the pride of [subject hometown here]!”

Again, the second-to-last puzzle (18/19) proved to be a challenge that I really enjoyed. But the real joy of the game is slipping through a protruding wall toward the end, and seeing the seedy underbelly of the otherwise sterile, shiny white walls of Aperture Laboratories. Here is where you use portals the most creatively. You also run through duct-work, wander into offices, and shoot lasers at glass, making it shatter. GlaDOS goes on a tirade. I wish the whole game was like this.

Instead, Portal is kind of sterile and boring. Because it was a free pack-in, I never complained The game did receive a sequel, but if memory serves, it’s more of the same, though notably harder. Stay for the brilliant end-credits song, and be grateful that sometimes talent gets hired right out of college.



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