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SummaryFun but extremely overrated casual-type puzzle game
The GoodI got Portal through a free download promotional offer on Steam, so I really can't complain about value for money. I didn't really know anything about it except that I was aware of its positive reception back when it was released. Since I'm almost exclusively a retro gamer, I also took this as an opportunity to try out one of the very high-tech recent games to take advantage of my GeForce 9600, which has not seen any real load for the past two years since I bought it.
As it quickly turned out, this is actually a pure logic puzzle game. Your task is essentially to find your way through a three-dimensional level from the single entry point to the single exit point. The tricky part of this is to move between platforms that you can see but which are either vertically on a different level than you are or which are on the same level but horizontally removed from where you are standing (so there is a chasm between the two platforms). Unlike other platform puzzle games, you can neither jump nor climb ladders or ropes to reach a different platform. Sometimes you can use an elevator, but mostly your only way is either to fall on the platform you want to get to (which obviously only works downward) or to open a 'portal' between one of the walls of your current platform and a wall of the platform you want to reach by pointing the device you are carrying (the 'portal gun') to the the positions where you want the two openings of the two-way portal to appear and pushing the fire button. Or you can also create one end of your portal on the ceiling above the platform where you want to go and you can fall through that ceiling if you walk through the other end. Simple as that.
There are very few other elements in the game: Walls that you can't open a portal on (which are clearly distinguished from those that can be used for portal). Buttons you have to push to get sliding platforms moving. Stationary things that fire various (slow or fast) missiles that you have to avoid or that you have to use cleverly to destroy obstacles in your way. Floor switches that you have to put boxes on to open doors you couldn't get through otherwise. Deadly floors that you must not fall on. And finally the very clever use of gravity as a game mechanic in the maneuver called 'flinging' which is the only way to (sort of) jump in this game higher or longer than a foot or so.
There really isn't much in this game that we haven't seen before. Portal is basically like any other puzzle platformer (think Rick Dangerous, Lost Vikings, and so on), the main difference being the fact that it's a 3D world, which is of course by no means a trivial thing. Nor is the fact that this isn't such a revolutionary game (contrary what most reviews want you to believe) a bad thing as long as it's fun.
Getting into the game was very straightforward. The learning curve was VERY nicely balanced, new concepts (like how to move boxes on floor switches) are introduced step by step and are very easy to grasp this way About a quarter into the game you have learned everything needed to solve the later puzzles. The difficulty of the puzzles then steadily increases until you reach about half of the game (the 19th 'test level') and remains about constant from that point on. Difficulty is very manageable throughout the main game. There are a few tricky stages that you have to try over and over again until you solve them, but it never really becomes frustrating.
The story as such isn't really integral to the game, but it's entertaining nevertheless. Your aim in solving the puzzles is to defeat the rogue AI that tries to kill you. This AI called GLaDOS keeps talking to you throughout the game - think System Shock. But unlike System Shock, Portal isn't scary at all but funny. Many of the AI's lines, as well as the song she sings for the player during the end credits, are hilarious, and her voice acting is also extremely good. These two things (in addition to some other jokes you come across) are easily the two most memorable aspects of Portal, rather than the gameplay itself.
This is a short game. Some reviewers claim that they finished it in 2 to 4 hours. For me it took somewhere between 7 and 8 hours, although I didn't feel like I was being particularly lame. This is actually a good thing, since it's fun while it lasts but I wouldn't have wanted to spend like 30+ hours playing this.
One reason why the game can be finished so quickly is that you can save anywhere. This is something definitely to be applauded. Other studios/publishers would probably have introduced fixed saving locations to force the player to replay larger parts of levels and thereby artificially extend the game time.
The BadThe same thing I've always hated about 1st person platformers. You aren't aware of the body of your player character since the only thing you see is your gun. You can't even see your feet when you look straight down. But the point of a platformer is exactly to guide you player character precisely. If you don't know where the body of your player character exactly is, it's basically impossible to fall through portals to fling to difficult-to-reach platforms exactly like you would like this to happen. What's going on instead is that you try the same flings over and over and over again (quick-loading all the time), hoping that you'll accidentally get the trajectory right this time. This mostly works out eventually, but it's still extremely annoying. And there were in fact several situations in the game where I was simply unable to use a combination of portals to get to a platform that looked reachable that way. I always failed to reach the edge of the platform, but I never knew whether this was just because I wasn't falling through the portal the right way or whether it was physically impossible to reach that platform that way. I didn't even have an idea whether I was missing the platform just barely or I wasn't near its edge at all.
The graphics aren't particularly impressive, though that's of course not really relevant for puzzle games. They are functional and get the job done, so there's no real reason to complain. I just add this as a negative point because most players probably expect current FPS games to be chock full of eye candy. Portal isn't.
The presentation (the humor, the introduction of the game mechanics, the balanced learning curve etc.) is excellent, this is clearly a very solid game in this respect and up to Valve's standard, but what about the gameplay as such? This is obviously a very subjective question, but personally, I found Portal's gameplay just dull. I do like puzzle and other strategy games in general, and I've played several addictive games in this genre, but Portal definitely isn't one of them. In the second half of the game, especially, after you leave the test levels, there isn't really anything new or interesting going on in the game. It's just the same puzzles, or combinations of puzzles, over and over again, in just slightly different rooms.
Finally, though this is just an odd technical issue, I don't understand how on earth this game can occupy 5 GB of disk space. The whole environment is extremely 'sterile', as one of the developers put it in the audio commentary, so as not to distract the players from the puzzles. No fancy textures, no enemy models, no objects or decorations, no movies, not even cutscenes, just walls, platforms, and sometimes the odd fan, turret, piston or staircase you come across. Still, downloading the game from Steam took about as long as playing it through.
The Bottom LineContrary to what its MobyGames category says, this is no action game. It's a traditional platform puzzle game, just in 3D from a first person perspective. There is very little violence involved, which is a good thing, although blood splatters appear on the walls when you are hit by the guard robots' machine guns - I found this both out of place in this game and distasteful. There is very little time pressure in the game, and very few situations where proper timing or 'manual skill' plays any role at all. Portal is mostly about figuring out where to place your portals and in what order to move through the levels.
Overall both the gameplay and the tone of the game felt slightly similar to the classic Shiny games MDK and Messiah, both of which involve a lot of similar puzzle elements, gliding around on 3D levels, and humor. But contrary to Portal these are actually exciting and action-packed games that offer a lot of fun and never get dull (though they sometimes get extremely hard).
To sum it up, Portal is a fun and rather easy puzzle game that you can quickly get into and play through over one or two afternoons, much like the 2D level-based Flash puzzle games you can play for free on the internet. It's definitely worth playing for the jokes and a few memorable moments. But I'm glad I got it for free. I would be quite disappointed if I had paid $25 for it. The game isn't that good, it's very short, and there is very little reason to replay it.