Thursday, August 25, 2011

Portal: Sweet "short"cake

The Author is proud to present his first video game review ever.

Portal presents some of the best 4-5 hours you’ll ever spend playing a video game; and along with Bungie’s Halo 3: ODST and Halo Reach, it is one of the most cinematic video games ever created.  As you progress through the game, and the Aperture Science testing environment twists from playful into perilous, you begin to feel like you’re watching a high-quality movie, a driving science-fiction thriller complete with elements from Kubrick’s 2001.  I dare say, Valve’s Portal is the finest and most original puzzle game of all, even surpassing the Myst series and original Angry Birds (OK, pleasant as the handheld game is, it can’t compare to Myst).  My dad, although he hasn’t yet tried Portal, would probably argue its standing to Myst with me, but I believe that Portal has a better-paced story than all the computer games and is less demanding on the brain.  It all depends on whether you’re a casual or hardcore puzzle-solver; if backtracking, note-taking, and long, laborious experimentation is to your liking, then you’ll enjoy Myst more.  Portal is short, sweet, accessible to most gamers, and doesn’t take a whole lot of toll on the mind.

When you begin the game’s story, your player awakes in a bright room with glass walls.  You have no idea how you got where you are, or why you’re there, but a loud, computerized voice shortly informs you that you are a test subject for a company called Aperture Science, and that the “Enrichment Center” will have you undergoing several tests involving portals.  “These inter-dimensional gates have proven to be completely safe.”  At most there will be two portals opened in any room of the game environment, colored blue and orange.  The idea is simple: enter one glowing oval doorway and you exit the other.  Anyway, you decide to cooperate with the A.I., called GLaDOS, and you gradually advance through the different test chambers of Aperture Science Laboratories. Eventually you acquire your own Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device (or ASHPD for short), with which you can create your own portals in order to solve puzzles and progress through levels.  GLaDOS, who speaks most of the time in an emotionally washed feminine voice, at first seems helpful and friendly to you, but as the game progresses, she takes on a more sinister and hostile disposure.  She says thus much about the murky green water filling many of the test chambers: “Please note that any appearance of danger is only a means to enhance your testing experience.”  The first time you really become aware that you’re fighting for survival is when GLaDOS inconveniently replaces a test chamber with “a live fire course designed for military androids”, a room packed with destructive but oddly polite turret-bots, who apologize after firing on you: “No hard feelings.”  At this point, the game is remarkably reminiscent of the second half of 2001: A Space Odyssey, wherein the humans’ greatest robotic ally is corrupted and viciously turns on its makers.  But Portal is honestly many times better than that bore of a film.

Wikipedia has described in great depth the gameplay and tricks of Portal, so that site or the downloadable demo are the best places to learn more about the fictional science of Portals.  I’ll briefly describe one stunt that is very cool to execute with Portals.  First you fire a portal to the bottom of a cliff somewhere.  Then find any spot on a wall, or possibly the floor, that suits your fancy, and shoot another portal there.  By jumping off the cliff and entering the first portal you placed, you’ll come hurdling out of the second, either flying out of the floor and into the air, or leaping across a chasm through the wall.  Clearly it’s all about how “portals affect forward momentum.”  Awesome, huh?  The same move can be done with inanimate objects like weighted storage cubes or GLaDOS’ ever watching cameras scattered throughout the laboratory (yes, she has eyes everywhere just like Hal).

The writing of the game is very witty, and while I wouldn’t it call it hilarious or laugh-inducing like some other fans of the game, it’ll definitely smack a few smiles on your face.  There are only two characters in the story, yourself and GLaDOS, and the A.I.’s character is extremely well developed.  She is sarcastic, deceiving, tyrannical, flattering, and rather immature, despite having a ridiculously large vocabulary.  “Despite what we said earlier, our statement that we would not be monitoring this test chamber was an outright fabrication.  As part of required test protocol, we will stop enhancing the truth in 3...2…buzzzzz.”  “Very impressive.  You remain resolute and resourceful in an atmosphere of extreme pessimism.”  Your player, a woman named Chell (although her name isn’t mentioned in the game), never speaks, a wise decision which has worked massively in other games like the aforementioned Myst games and ODST.

Portal is a near perfect game, but if I can find something to complain about, it’s the length.  If you play through Portal quickly and don’t take too much time to lovingly experience the atmosphere (like I did), you can complete it in about 4 hours.  It took me around 300 minutes to complete the game the first time through, and I didn’t rush.  Because of this, Portal is closer to a long movie that you play than a normal video game.  Another beef I had with the game was the overuse of repeated graffiti.  The first time you find the sentence, “The cake is a lie,” scribbled on an otherwise clean concrete wall, you are pleasantly surprised, and that gets you thinking about the reward GLaDOS continually promises you to motivate your progression through the test chambers.  But after a dozen more times of viewing the same phrase, it begins to lose its charm.  Also, there’s the obvious fact that Portal has little to no replay value, depending on how much you love the game, because once you’ve solved the puzzles, it’s not that difficult to complete them again.

Luckily, Valve released a special edition of sorts for Portal to remedy the problem involving replay value.  Portal: Still Alive has 14 extra test chambers to traverse, which are still fun and challenging although they lack dialogue and don’t tie into the main story of the game.  The Still Alive version, which is downloadable as an “arcade” game from Xbox Live and the Playstation Network (boo!), also includes interesting commentary from the developers and voice actress Ellen McLain which can be accessed while playing the campaign.

So, if you’ve mastered the Halo series and want to try a different kind of first-person game with unique gameplay, witty writing, and intriguing graphics (I regret squeezing this into my epilogue paragraph, but I have to say: the environments of both Portal games are awesome and sometimes unnerving), take Portal for a spin.  It truly is a masterpiece.


Update: I got Portal 2 just a few weeks ago and it's my opinion that it's the best game ever made.  I've actually laughed out loud a couple times during this one.  Here are two of the better quotes from the game:
Glados: This next test involves turrets.  You remember them; they're those white, spherical things that are full of bullets - oh, wait - that's you in 5 seconds.
Same: Look, we've both said some things that you'll regret, but I think we can put our differences behind us - for science, you monster.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo! Now figure out how I can get the GladOS voice to give me GPS directions on my phone!


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