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Portal (2007)» Forums » Reviews

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Duncan
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Note: before beginning, please be aware that I am reviewing the Windows version of Portal as distributed on Steam – I cannot guarantee my specific examples are accurate for other versions of the game

Portal – the innovative collision of FPS and puzzle games which has become highly regarded in many quarters over the past couple of years, as evidenced by its high rating here, on VGG. Portal is, to me, a striking example of how to make a truly good video game in many regards – its use of its theme/flavour, original style of play and the challenge of each successive level come together and gel extremely well.

For those as yet unfamiliar with the essentials of the game, I’ll give a brief summary. Portal involves the player taking on a series of levels as part of a testing scheme in a scientific research facility. Each level requires you to use and avoid various features to make your way to the exit point of that level. In this pursuit, your primary tools are ”portals” , one blue and one orange, which can be projected onto most surfaces. Stepping through a portal takes the player through the other.

Enter one portal...exit throught the other

This allows plenty of room to mess with physics – stepping into the floor to fall from a high point and using the velocity granted by gravity to assist in travelling great distances or over obstacles.

Throw yourself from a high point with acceleration from dropping

Impeding the player are intricate puzzles require both intellect and dexterity –these consist of locked doors requiring a weight on a pressure pad to open, special mechanisms needing activation to allow access to new areas and other such features.

The door is held open while the button is pressed

Generally there is some challenge in first figuring out what you need to do and then in executing it as timing is often tight.

Originality is the foundation of my appreciation for Portal: the combination of an FPS-style interface with puzzles makes for enjoyable, unusual gameplay. When combined with Portal’s setting the result is praiseworthy.
Setting is very important and is an integral aspect of the game. Firstly, the indication that you are in a highly controlled, almost ‘lab-rat’ role allows the complete suspension of disbelief that can mar a game; it becomes quite plausible to be continuously resurrected whenever you make a little mistake when the game is set in a futuristic scientific facility (although, without introducing any spoilers this does get stretched somewhat later in the game). The setting also neatly makes solving the successive puzzles of each level feel like something you might actually be doing – you are like a rat in a maze, being observed by unseen watchers which you have no influence over. Dystopian, certainly, but it gives the game distinct flavour and undeniable adds greatly to the game’s merits. The minimalistic decoration of the levels actually works in the game’s favour; I don’t have to wish the walls looked more interesting or realistic because they are supposed to be bare and uniform.


It also improves the impact of the occasional odd corner that has fallen into disrepair with walls embellished with graffiti which suggests emphatically that some very disturbed minds have been this way before you (or maybe it was you but you can’t remember it…).


To top it off, the only communication or interaction with another character involved in the game is with the facility super-computer the commentary of which really crystalizes the dystopian flavour:
Quote:
Keep doing whatever it is you think you're doing. Killing you and giving you good advice aren't mutually exclusive. The rocket really is the way to go.


Setting and flavour aside, the more basic “game” aspects of Portal are also great in and of their own. It really is important that each level requires some brain work and also some dexterity to actually do what you’ve figured out. Messing around with physics through interesting portal placement is an extraordinary mechanic to base a game around – quite simply, it’s fun to experiment with actions such as falling from a great height, into a portal in the floor and out the other portal in another piece of floor propelled upwards by the acceleration of gravity gained during the fall. Getting the timing right whilst performing such maneuverers is not always easy and thus the game’s challenge is produced. In my opinion, a good puzzle game should bring me to the point of frustration, and Portal achieved this; more than once it took me quite some time to get something just right or alternately, persisting in trying something under the impression I just need to get it perfect when in fact it was never going to work.

Portal, in its main “game” mode consists of approximately 20 levels which is (somewhat) disappointingly few; especially when you consider the first few are very trivial as they constitute the game’s tutorial. On top of these levels are the challenge levels: six of the regular levels are available to be played in three special ways – with successively lower times, fewer steps made or fewer portals placed to complete the level.


Trying to complete a level with particular attention played to the number of portals placed is somewhat interesting and is something I actually value from this game. The speed challenge in particular lacks appeal to me – once it gets to a point you are simply going to be trying to repeat the same set of actions over and over trying to get faster. One point in favour of these challenges in general is that the designers haven’t been afraid to impose some very difficult (I assume they are possible) targets for the various degrees of each challenge mode. Having made a quick YouTube search, I can see how some ridiculous degrees of achievement have been reached in some of these challenges and I will admit, it is rather impressive but I don’t think that spending huge amounts of time getting to this point is an appealing activity for most. Actual unique levels would add far more to the game than even the most extensive set of challenges imposed on top of the same six levels.
Also included are the much more interesting “advanced levels” which use the same levels from the regular game as the other challenge modes but with some significant modification –variations on the theme of “do this level again, but you can’t touch the floor in the process this time”. This is almost as being given more levels to play.

To me it seems that having excellent gameplay of Portal has the rather significant drawback that it could quite easily be overused and spread too thin – part of the reason there is an almost unsatisfying number of levels is that if making heaps of levels would stretch the innovative excellence of the game and make it more lack-lustre. That’s purely my opinion, Portal just doesn’t have the scope to make a really big game with many, many levels like puzzle games such as Angry Birds or my favourite Lemmingshave. While a definitely puzzle game, Portal has the frustrating drawback of not being able to sustain the replayability or length that make my ideal puzzle game an ideal time-sink (if, like me, you don’t find the challenge modes appealing).

So, there is much I like about Portal, but it only seems to work as a unit. I’d like to be able to pay the game the high compliment of stating parts of the game I’d like to see more of elsewhere but it’s hard to pin any one component down. As a result I have to settle for wanting more Portal. Obviously there’s Portal 2(something for another day), but I really think, given the nature of the game, there can’t and shouldn’t be too much more. If there is one thing I would like to see learnt from Portal it is the way it uses a setting to develop an enjoyable underlying flavour to the game without using much in the way a full-blown explicit narrative – too many games try to follow along a narrative which isn’t all that great and leads to what is basically a movie with a few bits you push some buttons. Portal may prove to have been one prominent step on the way to better presentation of these elements in games going into the future.
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Scott Anderson
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Excellent review! I especially appreciate the many screenshots!
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M
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I enjoyed the review too.

Regarding the length of Portal; it was partially dictated by the fact Portal was part of the Orange Box package when it was initially released. They basically took a tech demo/unworkable HL2 gun design and made a standalone game out of it. The combination of Half Life Ep2, Team Fortress 2 and Portal in the one package help add to the value and love of each title.
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Duncan
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Speedracer513 wrote:
Excellent review! I especially appreciate the many screenshots!


Glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for the tip

SilentHitz2 wrote:
Regarding the length of Portal; it was partially dictated by the fact Portal was part of the Orange Box package when it was initially released. They basically took a tech demo/unworkable HL2 gun design and made a standalone game out of it. The combination of Half Life Ep2, Team Fortress 2 and Portal in the one package help add to the value and love of each title.


I knew in the back of my mind that the game had some background behind it along those lines - I couldn't word it such that I liked it but it definitely feels like an "exercise in game design" rather than a "game" (hopefully people can see the distinction I am making)
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Is it "smart" to play this before tackling Portal 2? Or should one leap straight into the sequel?
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Luke Stirling
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I would suggest playing Portal before playing Portal 2. Here are my reasons:

- Writing. Both games have great writing, and the second game does make significant references to the first.

- Length. Portal is not a long game, and is not a huge investment in time to play.

- Cost. At least on Steam it's pretty cheap. And if you send me a geekmail I have a couple of spare copies in my inventory that I am more than happy to give away.
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I just bought the pair and I am glados that I played Portal before Portal 2. And I did get it done (the main story at least) in a very insignificant amount of time. Portal 2 is longer but I appreciate all the references back to Portal in it.
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