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Portal (Windows)

88
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100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
4.2
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5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  snuf (2915)
Written on  :  Jun 17, 2011
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  4.71 Stars4.71 Stars4.71 Stars4.71 Stars4.71 Stars

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Summary

An exercise in how to tell a story without cutscenes

The Good

Portal is, at its heart, a puzzle game. You can place one portal here another there and walk through one to get to the other. Although the interface is typical of a first person shooter, there is no shooting of bullets on your behalf, the turrets on the other hand are rather trigger happy.

The FPS style wrapper for the game makes it immediately accessible to fans of that genre, but the game play is all about the puzzles. You proceed through the game completing rooms of increasing difficulty using portals to get around the obstacles. When you figure out the trick to a room there's a rewarding "Ah ha!" moment in your brain.

The story elements emerge out of the frame work of the game seamlessly. We don't need to be told exactly who we are or what we are doing there. We are put in the position of a mouse in a maze. A maze constructed by a sadistic AI personality. That's all there is to the story but how it unfolds is a brilliant example of minimalist writing.

You are never thrown out of the game world by an expository cut scene. The story happens through the dialogue and also later through pieces of the environment which suggest you are far from the first rat to run this maze.

The simple story reminds one of Harlan Ellison's AI gone mad in "I have no mouth but I must scream". And you have no mouth. Your character, though given the name Chell, is as silent as Valve's Gordon Freeman. Your own voice cursing or laughing is Chell's voice.

As simplistic as this may sound, the game is executed to a high level of quality. It's short. There is nothing extraneous present in it. Just very distilled puzzle game play surrounded by a simple plot that carries you along.

The ending, although well known and quoted to death by now, is one of the best I've seen in a video game. The end song flips the feeling of hatred you felt towards the AI in the game on it's head and makes you wish for more.

Should there have been more? Making a game this tight is a balancing act. I feel that if it had been longer perhaps the impact of the first play through would not have been so good. As it stands, they did an amazing job of creating the world of Portal around you as you played through the puzzles.

It does say something to the strength of the game that despite being bundled with an episode of Half Life 2, Portal has seen a sequel well before the next portion of Half Life 2. Talk about stolen thunder.

The Bad

I did feel that the difficulty in the game was a bit weird. Most of the earlier puzzles are easy to figure out. For a game having less than twenty total levels, the majority are easily cruised through.

The last couple of levels do present a challenge but some of this is from pure twitch mechanics not from brain work. For a game that relies so much on puzzle solving, it's odd that the hardest parts are just twitch timing.

The game is very short. An expert player could probably clear it in an hour or hour and a half. I replayed it before the sequel was released and it took me about three hours. I wasn't racing though, I spent time seeing the sights and messing with portals for kicks. For the price, it's not a bad value versus an evening at the movies but compared to the majority of video games it may seem way to brief.

The Bottom Line

Portal is a puzzle game in a FPS wrapper surrounded by dark humor. As Chell, the poor girl stuck like a mouse in a maze, you must use the portal gun to navigate the tests you are put through. The gun is simple to operate, one mouse button shoots the first portal, the other button shoots the second portal. Walk through one of these portals and you pop out where the other portal is located.

A simple concept, but you must use these portals to navigate some devious rooms, defeat or avoid bullet shooting turrets and even figure out how to use them to launch you up to seemingly unreachable locations.

The game runs smooth and using portals to get around is the essence of simplicity. It's almost too simple until you get to the final truly difficult rooms, which require you to generate new portals quickly while you are in motion.

The story comes in the form of dialogue from an insane AI, dedicated to testing the portal device. The humor is enjoyable and the voice acting superlative.

Short and sweet, Portal is a rare example of a game that doesn't overstay its welcome but rather leaves you wanting more.