Director: Kim Swift
Console(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Rated: T for Teen
Cakes. Cubes. Computers. The legend of Portal has spread like wildfire across the Internet, as gamers experienced its memorable "characters" and situations simultaneously during its much-anticipated release week. But beyond the inside jokes, the memes, and the hype, there lies a game as stunning in its simple fun as it is unique in its approach to game design.
You wake up in a mysterious glass-walled chamber, with a bed, a toilet, and a radio on a table. Above you is a timer, and as it counts down, a computerized voice begins to speak. Identifying itself as GLaDOS, this computer will guide you through the testing facilities of Aperture Science Labs. To get past your obstacles, you are given a state-of-the-art "Portal gun" that can shoot two linked "portals" at almost any surface. Once the portals are placed, anything that goes through one (boxes, energy balls, or even you) will come out of the other one. It is a game of mind-bending puzzles, as you navigate 19 testing chambers under the close supervision of the enigmatic and increasingly twisted GLaDOS.
Clocking in at only four hours long, Portal is nevertheless an experience that cannot be ignored. Its combination of stunningly unique gameplay and surprisingly witty writing make for an incredibly fun piece of game design. When you first walk into a portal, the concept of these scientific marvels will blow you away. But don't get excited yet! The game takes portals beyond the simple mechanic of walking through them, as you are challenged to use the portals in increasingly brilliant ways.
In one level, you must place a portal above you on a wall, and another far below you on the floor. By jumping down into the floor-bound portal, you utilize your downward momentum to "fling" yourself across the room and onto a new platform. Sometimes you are even forced to use a portal to jump into the air, and then shoot another portal before hitting the ground in order to fling yourself to a new location.
All of this sounds great in theory, but it all comes together when you finally get your hands on the game. Similarly to games like Super Mario Galaxy or Echochrome, Portal forces you to completely shift your preconceived notions about how you world works, and subject yourself to its world. And this may be Portal's greatest strength, for a truly great game immerses you so well that you forget the world around you, and your mind falls into a new realm.
As you find your way through Aperture Science's testing chambers, you will constantly be congratulated and encouraged by GLaDOS, who keeps a close eye on you using cameras scattered across the facility. But as you will soon find, GLaDOS is not all that she seems. The often-twisted jokes and remarks of this passive-aggressive computer are so full of character and quotability that she easily makes the top spot in gaming's best characters of the year. Spoiling any of her brilliant lines would ruin their incredibly funny impact, so let me just say that this is the funniest writing I have ever heard in a game. Don't let the Internet ruin it for you.
The end of the game combines everything that made the previous three and a half hours so much fun, and creates something that is definitely the best gaming ending of the year. The boss "fight" is action-packed (while still playing like one big puzzle), and GLaDOS's continued remarks are so funny that you may want to risk getting killed just to hear her next scathing comment. Finally, when you complete the game, you'll be treated to a memorable credits screen that will surely leave you touched (and uncontrollably laughing). I will not spoil the brilliant ending, because experiencing it for the first time will create such a powerful impression in the player.
Valve's Steam engine is put to good use in Portal, rendering some pretty—if a tad simple—visuals. The whitewashed walls, gun turrets, and other objects of Aperture's Labs have a polished cleanness, but the engine really shines when it handles the portals. Objects move through the portals with near-realistic physics (though sometimes they seem a little weightless), and the particle and flame effects are beautiful as always.
Once you are finished with the short, four-hour Portal game, there is sadly little else to do. But this is the strength of Portal! Since there is no filler or extra time added, you will never become bored with the game. Even so, you can choose the option of playing the game over again either on a harder difficultly, or while listening to scattered developer commentary tracks. These additions are enlightening looks at the design process of the game, and should be listened to by anyone desiring to get into game design or anyone even remotely interested in the topic. I wish that more developers added these commentary tracks, as it would really be a great way to replay your favorite game.
Portal is a wonderful example of the potential of small-scale, unique games. Not all games nowadays have to be first-person shooters. There is still room for a brilliant little first-person puzzle. Portal is a game, nay a collaborative work of art and storytelling, which defies all expectations set for it. It delivers the most satisfying, memorable video game experience in many, many years, and I expect that none will top it for years to come.