Review: Portal

Part of The Orange Box review.

Portal being listed didn't remotely affect my decision to buy The Orange Box. I'd never heard of it, and the screenshoots looked drab. Only when I saw video footage of the game did I suddenly think that it might be worth a look. So I left it until last, completing Episode Two and spending a few hours on Team Fortress 2 before I installed Portal.

Portal is easily worthy of the same attention as the other games in The Orange Box. It's not a long game, but what there is of it is excellent. Your character wakes up in a glass chamber in what looks like a sterile environment, concrete and metal walls and a security camera. A computerised voice informs you that you are a test subject and tells you to leave the chamber via the portal that has just been opened for you. That's when the strangeness begins. Staring out of the portal, you can see yourself from a different angle, and you can see the ouside of the chamber that you're still stood inside.

screenshot: Stood between to portals, you can see your own back.
Hey, I can see my ass from here!

You then move on to the first test chamber, being urged by the computerised voice to solve the simple puzzle in the chamber. As you progress through the chambers, the puzzles and challenges become more advanced, and the computerised voice becomes more menacing. The faceless voice speaks with a cold, corporate, cynical tone, and the instructions and disclaimers are darkly humorous. It reminded me of the commercials in Robocop.

After a few tests, you are equipped with the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, allowing you to create your own portals. You can fire a blue portal and an orange portal, and these attach to walls, ceilings and floors. You can see and walk into the blue portal and out of the orange portal and vice versa. This allows you to walk through a wall next to you and fall out of the ceiling on the other side of an acid-filled pit. This bending of spacetime allows for the creation of some ingenious puzzles. You need to use your portals to cross obstacles, ascend platforms, fling yourself across gaps using the momentum of a high fall, and out-manoeuvre sentry guns.

On the subject of sentry guns, Portal features possibly the cutest killing machines ever made. The sentry guns beckon to you with the voice of a children's toy, and even absolve you of guilt when you defeat them.

Most of the test chambers are easy to complete with a bit of experimenting, but test chamber 18 did cause me trouble for a while. I could have done with a handy relevant-skills icon on the floor in the right place when trying to get to the Weighted Cube. For anyone who wants to be even more challenged, completing the main game unlocks Advanced Chambers, which are selected chambers redesigned to be even tougher to complete. There are also Challenges, which require you to complete the test chambers in a certain amount of time, certain number of footsteps, or certain number of portals. Portal also features Achievements, and many of these require skilled performances in the Challenges and the Advanced Chambers.

But the main game itself offers a few surprises beyond the test chambers. I thought that the ending of Portal was one of the best that I've played in recent years, and the music that accompanies the end credits is hilarious. Portal is definitely worth playing, and its inclusion makes The Orange Box even better value.


2010-09-01: See my review of the Novint Falcon game controller. Using the Falcon you can feel sensations like the weight of the Aperture Science Weighted Companion Cube and the gentle recoil caused by firing the Handheld Portal Device.