The three games that Valve Software offers in The Orange Box might just be one the best values around right now. Today I'm going to talk about one of the three high quality games and it's the most unique of the three. Portal is the name and getting to the cake is what you want to do in the game.
You start out waking up in a very odd room whereby a toilet, radio, and a sleeping chamber is all that encompass the space. Not long after, a mysterious computer voice, GLaDOS, comes on to give you some simple instructions. The computer presides over the complex called Apeture Science. Thus begins your experience as a lab rat trapped in a unique puzzle ladened environment. Your job is to use the portal gun to navigate through a series of rooms. Starting out very simple, the game gets progressively more difficult as the complexity of the rooms increase through 19 levels of pure fun.
As Chell, the female protagonist of the game, you proceed through the level at a walking pace. There's no running involved here but you can jump and crouch. A pair of leg springs are attached to you so that you can fall long distances without taking any damage. You'll definitely experience a few levels later in the game where you will fall from a great distance and the designers of the game put the leg springs on your character to explain why you won't die when you fall. Perhaps the leg springs prohibit Chell from running but there were a few times I wish I could pull a Forrest Gump and run from one part of the level to another as pieces of the leg springs fly off in slow motion.
As for GLaDOS, the voice actress who portrays her is absolutely perfect. Ellen McLain does a superb job exhibiting such an incredible personality backed by great dialog. The way she talks to you and the computerized effects used to achieve this makes GLaDOS one of the best computer voice companions since SHODAN from System Shock 2. While GLaDOS starts out pretty reasonable, you'll enjoy her transformation into something a little more vindictive. There's some great black humor exhibited by GLaDOS and you'll both laugh and be haunted by what she says to you as you progress through the game.
You won't get to use the full power of the portal gun at first as you'll only be able to create one portal at a time but that's in part to teach you how to use the gun. Portal gives you various visual clues on how to accomplish your tasks and it's these simple little cues and the vocal instructions you receive that lets you learn how the gun will benefit you. Create two portals, walk into one, and walk out from the other side. It's a pretty simple concept. Speed is preserved between portals so if you fall from a good distance into a portal, you'll emerge at the same speed from the other portal. You'll use this strategy to build up enough speed to launch yourself over certain obstacles by using gravity to increase your speed. You can also create portals for objects to fall through. Overall it's not a complicated concept and you'll get the basics down pretty quickly through trial and error from the first few levels.
Each level consists of trying to get to the elevator to the next area by navigating through various obstacles mostly using your portals. Not all walls or floors can have portals created on them and you can see which ones are this way by the different texture appearing on them. Some levels contain energy spheres that you need to redirect to the destination to power up a platform or enables a shift in a level's wall. Others contain a life threatening substance so when you fall in you die and have to start the level again at a saved point. You'll also run into lethal turrets that have a personality of their own. You can knock these turrets over to render them harmless by dropping an object on top of them, pushing them over yourself, using a portal to drop it in another area. It's pretty funny to hear some of the comments the turrets shout out when they are disabled such as "I don't blame you." I wish these turrets where in Half-Life 2 as they have great personality and it would've been fun to carry these things around in a level hearing them talk.The level progression and what you learn from each one is paced exceedingly well. If you were to be dropped in a later level without the previous level's experience you'd probably be a little lost on how to complete it. But the level design in Portal lets you utilize what you learned on the previous level giving you just enough knowledge to complete what's presented to you. There's no big explanation on what you need to do or how to do it. All the clues you need are right there in front of your eyes and it's the simple yet effective setup that really lets you discover what needs to be done without being frustrating. I only got stuck in one area but it didn't take me too long to figure out what to do.
I do like that a few areas allow for multiple ways for you to succeed. In talking to one of my friends playing the game, there's one scenario where I was stuck in and used a different method them he did to get through. In fact, the more effective solution was something I never even thought of but I was able to advance through the level nevertheless. There aren't many areas where this does take place but it's nice to see that there's some alternatives to how you can succeed in moving onto the next level rather having one set solution.
Being alone in an environment like the one presented to you in Portal can be a little creepy at times. You can't see if there figures behind the various glass windows and cameras littered around the levels that are there to observe you and you only hear the haunting female voice of the computer leading you through the levels. There were times I just got involuntary chills as I walked through each level alone. I had no idea why I was asked to go through these tests but I was anxious to see what the next level held. It's this feeling of being alone, being watched, and going through these tests against your will that can give you some sense of dread and feelings that all is not as they seem to be. One thing about Valve games is that they do a great job at for shadowing events and giving you glimpses of the overall picture before you are given the entire story at the end. They achieved this through cryptic messages in the levels, hidden areas with pictures tacked on the walls, and even a small glimpse of the final level in a level before. Valve's writers and designers really know how to be patient and give you little morsels for you to chew on while keeping you wanting more.
Using the Source engine, the style of Portal should be pretty familiar to those that are Half-Life 2 veterans. The game's style are for the most part simplistic giving it a more laboratory feel with a lot of greys and whites. What's funny is that the Combine Elite soldiers design look strikingly familiar to the turrets in the game. I wonder if we'll see some tie-in with Half-Life 2 some way in Episode 3 withApeture Science. The energy balls that are littered through some levels are exactly the same as the ones in Half-Life 2. They also have similar results if you touch them so it's best if you try not to have on get in contact with you.
The physics effect are a little more subtle here as you won't get any big rag doll effects but you do get to drop objects on others and see them react. One of the ways to disable a turret is to drop an object on it to topple the gun and you'll see the physics engine at work as the object tips the turret over and it fires widely in the air.
The game's rather short and I completed it about 2 hours. It can be argued it's just a little too short as I definitely wanted more. Luckily there's some bonus levels attached to the game and an option seems to be available to import new levels so I expect more to come from the offices of Valve. I will say the last level is a blast to play and the ending is really worth the 2+ hours of playing you'll do to finish the game. What I really want to see is the folks at Valve release a level editor for us to play with. I'd love to see what the community can come up with if they had the tools to create some puzzles. Yes you'll get the massive amounts of levels that won't be worth 2 seconds of your time butthere will be a few that will be great fun to play with coming from the imagination of Portal fans.
It may be the least hyped part of the Orange Box but Portal is a strong addition to the lineup and really stands out on its own. The unique concept, interesting environment, and great voice acting leads to one fine experience that I hope we see more of in the future. The game's getting a lot of press and I for one think it deserves all the kudos it can get. Portal was a great experience and I look forward to more from the team. I definitely want cake after finishing this game and you'll know why once you do.
I really, really enjoyed Portal and found the 2 hour experience to be one of the best of the year so far.
Rating: 9.1 Excellent
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.