Sunday, January 20, 2008
PORTAL (PC / XBOX 360)
I knew about Portal for the first time through videogame websites. The whole concept of a puzzle game based on the possibility of opening and closing portals in every scenario wall seemed promising, although a little ‘hardcore’.
The development team are a bunch of guys who made a prototype which eventually pleased Valve so much that they offered them a job. One of my workmates downloaded the demo they presented (Narbacular drop), and it’s quite promising.
The game was finally released in the Orange Box pack (although you can buy it separately), and these are my impressions after completing it:
First of all, Portal is a first person puzzle game. The player uses a Portal gun to open up to 2 portals (in & out) in all those scenario elements that allow it, in order to get his final objective: Escape from the level. You can move your character into the ‘in’ portal, and you’ll automatically appear in the ‘out’ portal. It may sound complex, but after some practice it’s not.
The game offers up to 18 levels, and after its completion you gain access to some additional levels and challenges. If you’re a skilled puzzle gamer it should not take you more than 6-8 hours to complete it. It took up around 10 to me anyway.
So the first doubt is: Does the main (and almost only) game mechanic work: The Portal gun? Well, of course. The tutorial is quite good, escaling its use through simple puzzles. Along the game you forget about ‘how to use it’ to concentrate over ‘where to use it’. I suspect that those gamers with a poor 3D conception (probably more than you may imagine) can have huge problems with the game. I’m wondering if the game wouldn’t have been more accessible with a Third person view.
And the second doubt: Is it fun to play with that gun? The answer should be common to any other puzzle game: The fun is based on finding the proper solution to every challenge, and execute it properly. The game doesn’t allow several solutions to the same problem, which means that you need to find the right one or you won’t be able to progress. A classic puzzle proposal, so players are supposed to invest as much time as needed thinking about the problem until they find the solution. If you’re impacient or you prefer direct action, this is not your game.
However, they game could have suffered of the same problem than most puzzle games: They lack story. Unlocking level after level is only challenging if you really love the game, but without a link between them games falls into repetition (I’m thinking of Lemmings, for instance. I loved that game, but I got tired too fast).
And (in my opinion) there is the truly greatness of the game: Where most puzzle games fail, Portal excels in making his small story the real ‘pusher’ for the player. The player is supposed to be a woman with artificial legs (no explanation why) treated as a Guinea pig by an artificial intelligence only audible: Glados. There is something twisted with it, and you know it: It’s not only its voice (sounds like those parser systems that recognizes text and pronounce each word with a different entonation), Glados is constantly promising you a cake party when you finish all levels, and talks to you like a sociopath will do, like a semi-intelligent animal, until it eventually tries to kill you (last level). Then you look and find it, and face it in a final ‘boss fight’.
So there is a real link along all the puzzles. Glados’ comments become the real reward for you, and its lack of any human feelings towards you increase your will to finally kick its ass. There are also small scenario hints that support the story: Eventhough there is no other human being in the game but you, you can see the traces of others who managed to escape from the testing levels and lived in small hidden rooms, filled with bean cans and painting graffitis such as ‘the cake is a lie’.
The final boss fight is the only one with a timer, which can be quite stressing, but the credits are really rewarding. Glados sings a nice song to you while the development team is listed. I really loved that song, it could become one of those internet sensations between gamers (Still Alive).
Apparently Valve wanted to keep some connections with the Half Life series in case they eventually use the Portal gun in future games. So from time to time you can see presentation rooms with Powerpoints mentioning Black Mesa (the scenario of Half Life 1). Who knows? Half Life 3 using portals? Sounds promising to me.
Oh, by the way: I played the PC version. I tried to play the Xbox version when they were showcasing it in the Game Convention, and it was almost unplayable because of the fast 3D view movements you’re supposed to do. Console controller pads doesn’t excel at that as as the mouse does, you know.
Conclussion: I’d rate it with an 8. Highly recommendable for puzzle gamers. The graphic style is just too similar to Half Life (they re-used much of the graphic assets) but you forget about that soon and concentrate in fighting Glados and its insane levels.