The regular gaming press went absolutely drippy when Portal came out. To a large extent, this exuberance is bandwagon-jumping me-too-ism -- everybody's trying to be more excited about it than everybody else.
Hey, I understand why. It's a fun little game with a cute, offbeat central mechanic -- creating portals to warp yourself (or objects) from one place to another. The core gimmick is fun, and it's nice to see a phsycal manipulation puzzler that isn't just the gravity gun again, but the real star of the show is the computer, GLaDOS, and the excellent script written for her.
Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszek are the masterminds behind the writing, and it shows. The dialogue has the exact same feel of sarcastic wackiness that made Old Man Murray great, and frequently skewers gaming tropes just like they used to do on OMM.
Crates, for example. Crates in Portal are not just crates -- they're "Aperture Science Weighted Storage Cubes." I have to say, there isn't much that livens up the tired old video game experience of "put the crate on the button" like the phrase "please place the Weighted Storage Cube on the 1500 megawatt Aperture Science Heavy Duty Super-colliding Super-button."
Aperture Science is built up in the game as a competitor to Half-life's Black Mesa, though the game's promotional material paints a slightly different picture, of a shower-curtain manufacturer with several odd side-projects. These projects include the Heimlich Counter-Maneouvre, which is an old OMM joke that it's amusing to see resurrected. But apparently two of Aperture Science's major products were wacky obstacle courses and highly entertaining talking gun turrets, since that's what you find yourself dealing with.
Killing turrets is an interesting process; unlike in Half-life, there are no grenades or high-powered guns to knock them over with, so you're basically reduced to portaling your way behind them so you can kick them over, portaling a heavy object over the turret to knock it over, or portaling the turret itself off somewhere else. There are no other enemies in the game, so once you have the hang of turrets, you're pretty much good to go with combat.
Entertaining as it can be to portal around and outsmart gun turrets, it doesn't last long -- the game is only three hours start to finish, and a fair portion of that time will be spent standing around and listening to GLaDOS talk or re-aiming (and re-aiming and re-aiming) some of the more difficult "double flings." Still, one comes out of it with the sense that it's about the right length; even at three hours, the game begins to feel repetitive by the time it's over. It doesn't help that it's not very hard -- I get that the game was intentionally pitched low, and the advanced bonus levels are certainly more challenging, but it would be nice to have a few puzzles that take more than a minute of thinking and bouncing around to solve.
In terms of graphics and sound, you're getting exactly what you expect; the game looks and sounds like a well-made Half-life 2 mod, which is exactly what it is (you can even spawn all the HL2 characters, mobs, and weapons from the console if you want to). If you liked the look of the later Half-life 2 series games -- and you probably did, since they looked fantastic -- then you'll like the visuals in Portal. The sound effects and music are different, but fall into the same pattern of "thumps and zaps" when you interact with the environment, and the same type of driving techno that starts up whenever a sequence gets especially intense.
Speech is where the game really shines. Both of the speaking characters -- GLaDOS and the gun turrets -- are voiced by the same actress, and she does an excellent job. Of course, she's given excellent material to work with, which brings us full-circle back to the beginning of the review -- what really makes Portal the game it is is the brilliant writing. If the game had to stand on the merits of its play it still would have been well-received but probably more obvious what it was: a professionally-produced tech demo and proof-of-concept.
All those media sites that gushed over Portal seemed to overlook its fundamental weaknesses; it's short, it's easy, and it's rather lacking in replay value given that it has no difficulty settings and no real action -- once you've solved a puzzle once, you can solve it again much more easily. The bonus levels are nice to have, certainly, but in a lot of ways made me wish the "meat" of the game had been more like them, since I'd have appreciated the extra challenge.
Length is not the most important thing about a game by any means, but three hours and no replay value is pretty extreme. Perhaps there's value in it for one replay, at least, if you're in to the commentary mode; Portal, like all of Valve's recent releases, does contain a commentary track. I personally loved this feature when it was debuted in Lost Coast, and I still do -- those who are less interested in game design might find it a lot less compelling, though.
In the end, what we have here is a clever, interesting little game with a lot of potential, but one that could definitely stand to be expanded on -- I'm hoping that Portal 2 takes the concept but builds something a bit more involved out of it. Not that it's a bad game, by any means; it's definitely worth your time and money, but be aware of what you're getting, and don't expect something more. I think I've done a good job of dodging spoilers in this review, so you can't blame me if any of the plot twists or puzzles got ruined for you!
Even if I did put a spoiler in the review, I'd probably encode it in some clever way. You know, just sayin'.
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