Initially released last fall, The Orange Box was a smorgasbord of delight for gamers seeking to gorge on a medley of exciting first person titles wrapped in a neat little package. Those still considering whether or not to get their hands on the whole shebang should absolutely lay out the dough for this hot collection, but PC gamers have the opportunity to pick and choose among some of the package’s tastier morsels.
Aside from a well-rounded selection of strong FPS games, the collection contains one title in particular that is perhaps one of the most intriguing and refreshing takes on the first-person genre to crop up in years. Portal is a short offering, but the sheer amount of fun, humor, and unique FPS puzzle gameplay crammed into the few hours of solid entertainment it provides is absolutely worth every cent.
Portal is sort of the odd-man-out of the collection, but it’s easily one of the coolest concepts we’ve seen for some time and a strong title on its own. Technically, it’s not a first-person shooter but rather an unexpectedly deep puzzle game built on the Half-Life 2 source engine that just so happens to use a first-person perspective; therein lays its genius. It looks like a shooter; it controls like a shooter; but it’s definitely not a shooter.
Players awaken in an enclosed sleeping chamber at the Aperture Science Enrichment Center: a sterile research facility environment that serves as the sole environment for the game. Following brief instruction and commentary by a sing-song computerized voice, you’ll proceed through different areas of the facility by solving increasingly difficult challenges. The main portion of the game consists of 19 levels each comprised of either a single room or a series of rooms. The objective is simple: complete the puzzle sequences in the current room to unlock the door to the next. It’s like a first-person puzzle obstacle course only you’ll be spending lots of time flitting around through portals to accomplish your goal.
Though you’ll interact with many different elements, you’re given a single crucial piece of equipment to use throughout the experiment: a portal gun that can separately shoot a blue portal and an orange portal onto a variety of specific surfaces. The portals create a visual and physical connection between the two locations where they’re shot. You can pass through one portal to come out the other side, carry or throw objects through the portal, use them to get a better view of a far away area, or jump off a cliff into a portal to launch yourself great distances out the other end, among other interesting uses. Portals also won’t work on certain surfaces, which makes for some tricky situations later on in the game.
The teleportation mechanic is extremely well implemented, and it’s the crux of the entire game (if you hadn’t already guessed from the game’s name). Much of your time will be spent jumping through portals which in and of itself equates to some serious fun, and playing around with the mechanic can lead to some entertaining distractions on certain levels. Diving through the floor to come out of a wall across the way is oddly amusing, and using a combination of speed and gravity to yo-yo between two portals is both disorienting and a blast. It’s even possible to get temporarily caught in a bizarre cycle – with the help of appropriately placed portals – where you’ll drop from the ceiling into the floor over and over again in a visually dizzying loop that keeps you falling endlessly into infinity. Simple controls let players focus on the puzzles at hand. The WASD keys handle movement, and players can also jump and crouch. Mouse aiming allows you to pull off some frantic portal firing on the fly since the blue and orange portals are fired separately by the left and right mouse buttons respectively.
Early stages gradually help players wrap their brains around the portal concept and acquaint them with the different puzzle mechanics while the final areas can be quite complex. The puzzles themselves are quite varied throughout the course. Each area challenges players to find new and innovative ways to manipulate the portals in order to progress while also interacting with other obstacles. Some courses require weighing down pressure switches with blocks, redirecting laser orbs to power-on devices, knocking over automated robot turrets, crossing pits of poisonous goo, and scaling great heights to name a few elements. There are no visual health indicators in the game, but you’re far from invulnerable. Being hit by enough gunfire from turrets in a short time-span will kill you as will numerous instant-death situations (such as being crushed, falling into poison goo, etc.), but in most cases dying only brings you back to about the last place you were still alive.
The black sense of humor that permeates Portal substantially dresses up the game’s otherwise sterile atmosphere. The robotic intercom voice is an ever-constant companion throughout the game, and it serves as one of the primary characters. Aside from giving you some direction on the next task at hand, it also cracks abundant jokes in a cold, deadpan style that makes the comments even funnier. The humor ramps up as the game progress as well; the computer jokes become more brazen, and by the end of the game there are moments where you may not be able to contain your mirth. Other elements in the game also provide a few odd laughs. The automated robotic turrets are given musical, kid-like voices and say cutesy phrases while scanning the room with a laser sight to target and destroy you. In one level (and one level only) players are introduced to the “weighted companion cube,” which is basically the same as any other block in the game except for a cute pink heart painted on each of its sides. It’s used throughout the entire level before you’re instructed to “euthanize” the poor thing in the Aperture Science Emergency Intelligence Incinerator.
Portal looks good, and though the visuals from one area to the next could be more varied, the game shows a lot of polish. The level environments through most of the game are cold, drab, and sterile looking. This works well for the overall vibe, but if the game wasn’t so short it might require greater variety in the visual level design to hold players’ interests for extended periods of time. The last stretch of the game does change things up a bit, which was a nice touch.
The main portion of Portal will last you a few hours at best, and unlockable challenge maps will further extend the gameplay. When all is said and done, Portal will leave you wanting more, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s a hilarious game that offers a completely unique first-person experience and forces players to use their brains rather than their blasters. Those who missed it the first time around in the Orange Box can pick up a retail PC version of Portal on its own this month. The $20 price tag may seem a lot when $30 more will buy you the whole deal, but it’s a great sleeper hit that every serious PC gamer should own.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.9 Graphics
A polished game that looks great, but lacks variety in the scenery. 4.5 Control
PC controls are simple and tight. Mouse-look and portal firing allows for quick maneuvers that are harder to pull off in the console version. 4.3 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Sparse atmospheric music, but truly hilarious computerized dialogue that really builds the atmosphere and brief story expertly. 4.0 Play Value
A short but extremely fun game. Bonus maps and challenges extend play slightly beyond the several hours in the main game. 4.5 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.