We step into the Enrichment Centre for Aperture Laboratories to aid in the testing of a new experimental device, the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, or as we call it: Portal gun.
The release of indie game Narbacular Drop by a group of students in 2005 caught the attention of Gabe Newell of Valve Corporation, who offered them a job at the company to create a game using their innovative portal concept. It took around twenty-eight months to produce Portal with a team of ten, including video game designer Kim Swift who’s best known for her work on this title and Left 4 Dead (review coming soon).
Any game from Valve is typically of a very high quality and well designed, so once I heard about Portal and viewed some of the early marketing material I knew I would be buying it. The concept behind it was very new; many titles already contained portals that players could use to teleport around a map, but this was the first to allow them to deploy their own wormholes to navigate a puzzle area. This fresh gameplay along with the style and setting within the Half-Life (review coming soon) universe, made buying Portal a no-brainer.
Portal takes place somewhere between the original story and Half-Life 2 (review coming soon), set in the laboratories of Aperture Science Inc. There are only two characters in the game: players take on the role of Chell who is challenged to complete the puzzles in each room using the Portal gun whilst being equipped with mechanical heel springs that prevent her taking damage from falling. The other is GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System), the artificial intelligence that runs the laboratory and gives instructions and warnings about obstacles, promising cake after the tests are complete. Later on in the game it’s obvious that this AI is more sinister than helpful, and it eventually attempts to kill Chell thus turning the experiment into an escape attempt.
You begin after waking up in a stasis chamber and are instantly given control of Chell. The first set of instructions from GLaDOS about the upcoming test experience introduce you to the environment and some early game mechanics are demonstrated in the following test chambers. Nineteen areas require use of objects in the environment and the Portal gun to navigate to the exit game, which leads to the next test chamber.
Chell is controlled by a first-person view and the Portal gun is operated in the same way any other gun would be, except that the first fire mode deploys a blue portal and the secondary fire mode deploys an orange one. You can only deploy one of each at any one time, and deploying both allows you to step through one and exit via the other. This simple yet intuitive mechanic makes up the majority of the game and leaves the player to consider the possibilities this allows while attempting to navigate the test chambers.
The challenge in Portal is not only figuring out how to get to the exit, it’s also in the timing and placement of portals as well as manipulating objects to trigger buttons and avoid gunfire from automated turrets. In some of the later chambers, access to certain areas requires the use of linear momentum to launch Chell through one portal by jumping from a great height and come flying out of the other. Managing to pull this off is very rewarding and looks rather impressive too.
The later chambers require the use of all the skills you’ve learnt so far and the difficulty is ramped up somewhat when automated turrets are introduced. These little robots may seem cute at first with their comments of ‘Where are you?’ when you’ve been spotted and ‘No hard feelings’ when you disable them, but their attacks are deadly. One other mechanic worth mentioning is that of the Weighted Companion Cube, a crate with a pink heart on each side, given to you to complete a chamber in which GLaDOS demands that you ‘euthanize’ an incinerator before you’re allowed to continue. Due to the popularity of the cube, Valve decided to create merchandise based on it and it even won a ‘Best Sidekick’ award from GameSpy in 2007.
Portal has a very clinical style to represent the scientific experiments that take place at Aperture Science Inc. Just like Half-Life 2 and any other game running on Source, an advanced physics engine is present allowing the gameplay to be expanded and giving it a more realistic feel. There isn’t anything to complain about in the graphical department: everything is very clean and the game runs very smoothly. Even today, five years on, Portal still looks great and runs well on each of the supported platforms. The character Chell is modelled after American actress Alesia Glidewell, who can be seen in what could be called a reflection if you stand next to one portal and view her character model from the other. A set of icons that depict the hazards in each cell give the game it’s character, and after escaping the test chambers you find wall drawings from previous test subjects warning ‘The cake is a lie’.
The soundtrack of is mostly made up of mysterious ambient music matching the style of the laboratory and its test chambers, but the most memorable piece is the song from the closing credits. Still Alive is sung by Ellen McLain, the voice of GLaDOS, and the song itself became a hit on the Internet and was released for the music game Rock Band (review coming soon) in 2008.
The main storyline of Portal revolves around the journey of Chell through the nineteen areas, but once completed a set of advanced test chambers are available that are more challenging versions and a lot more difficult to solve. I’ve yet to complete any of these as it can be hard to find the proper solution and requires a lot of trial and error. For those looking for a much bigger challenge, these advanced chambers will definitely provide it. While no multiplayer is available, a developer commentary of the game and achievements are there to help extend your time with the title.
Portal is yet another work of excellence from Valve Corporation. Although it’s short (it took me an hour and a half), it’s definitely a game worth buying: playing with the portals is a lot of fun, the story unique and GLaDOS has plenty of entertaining one-liners worth listening out for. If you haven’t played the game at all yet, then you need to get your hands on a copy straight away. I highly recommend it.
How did we reach these scores? Click here for a guide to our ratings.