Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Review: Portal

If I do many more reviews, you'll probably notice that I am unlikely to be particularly negative about the title being reviewed. This is mainly because I can't really justify spending much money on entertainment, what with a family and a mortgage, and I don't have a whole lot of time to spend on them, anyway. So I tend to be pretty selective in the entertainment titles I do pick up; I want to be pretty sure that I'll like it.

I received several items this Christmas that I'll review here and there. First up is Portal. Portal was initially only available as part of a pack called The Orange Box, which I was not interested in because it involved paying a bunch more money for titles I had no desire to own, namely the first-person shooters Half Life 2 and Team Fortress 2. Fortunately, Portal is now available as a very inexpensive standalone title.

An aside about first-person shooters: In general, they don't particularly appeal to me because they are typically full of gore and more interested in tossing in the latest eye candy fad (Let's see, we had specular highlights, then bullet time, light bloom, ragdoll physics, parallax mapping...) instead of focusing effort on, say, the story and gameplay. I also enjoy playing games that involve some actual thinking instead of just twitching one's trigger finger at anything that moves. If a game is going to be played more with the brain stem than the cerebral cortex, I might as well be watching TV.

Granted, Portal sports a fair amount of graphics eye candy (inherited from Valve's Source engine) and can be loosely categorized as a first-person shooter, in that your viewpoint in the game is first-person and you shoot (although you're shooting portals rather than bullets), but the similarity ends there. The fun of Portal is from the clever story and the even cleverer gameplay. Not that the story is particularly original; it's your standard “artificial intelligence becomes sentient and kills everyone” plot. And it's not that the portal concept is particularly new to gaming, either; the previous year saw a game titled Prey that also featured portals (though the player could not create them for themselves). It's the way these things came together into a memorable gameplay experience that is the attraction.

A basic overview of the plot is in order: You wake up in a futuristic cell as a computerized voice informs you that it is time for testing to begin. A portal opens up in the wall, through which you can see yourself from outside the cell through the translucent wall. You quickly discover that the portal is connected to another portal outside the cell, and that passing through it causes you to emerge from the other side, allowing you to escape the cell. The computerized voice guides you through a series of tests in which you must use the portals to navigate various test chambers. Soon, you acquire a portal gun which allows you to place one side of the portal on most flat surfaces; later, it's upgraded to allow you to place both ends at will. As you proceed through the facility, it becomes clear that something isn't right. The test chambers become more dangerous, and you begin to see evidence that the testing is not as controlled as you might have thought.

Perhaps most memorable is the antagonist, GLaDOS, the artificial intelligence who speaks to the player over a P.A. system for almost the entire game. While her voice is coldly electronic and she at first serves as a helpful guide through the facility, there are hints of an actual personality that become more apparent as time goes on, and that personality is decidedly unbalanced. From her casual attitude about the possibility of injury to her test subjects, to her disjointed and sometimes manipulative comments about your progress, to her odd sense of humor and obsession with cake, GLaDOS is a really interesting character. Her complete control over the player's circumstances and her callous disregard for the player's well-being causes your progress to feel less like beating test chambers and more like beating GLaDOS at her own game. Thus, it's very rewarding to hear her dismay when you seize the opportunity near the end of the game to break out of her carefully controlled environment.

The game's effectiveness at “sucking you in” is illustrated well by an event that occurs in the latter part of the game. Throughout the game, the player can pick up futuristic-looking crates (referred to as cubes) and use them to form steps or to hold down large buttons to operate devices. Late in the game, GLaDOS gives you what she calls a “Weighted Companion Cube,” which is identical to the normal cubes except for the cheery pink heart painted on each side. GLaDOS instructs you to “take care of it,” and throughout the test chamber alternates between anthropomorphizing it and emphasizing its inanimate nature. At the end of the chamber, GLaDOS requires you to toss the companion cube into an incinerator in order to proceed, and upon compliance, praises you for “euthanizing” it faster than than any previous test subject on record. Many players, despite the undeniable fact that the companion cube is an inanimate object, felt emotional at being forced to destroy it and even more determined to defeat GLaDOS.

The voice acting is top notch. There are really only two voices in the entire game, that of GLaDOS herself, and that of the automated turrets you encounter late in the game. Yes, talking turrets. Amusingly, the turrets have rather childlike voices that chirp “Hello!” before opening fire, call out “Where are you?” or “Come over here,” if you take cover, and cry “Why?” or “I don't blame you,” if you disable them. Both voices are performed by Ellen McLain, who does a terrific job of balancing GLaDOS's synthetic timbre with hints of emotion and nuance.

The other delightful aspect to the game was the sheer enjoyment of figuring out how to use portals and the devices found in the test chambers to proceed. The levels are very well-designed in order to teach you the concepts you'll need to understand in order to make progress, usually without explicitly being told how it works by GLaDOS. The puzzles are clever, and sufficiently challenging without causing you to tear your hair out. If you prefer hair loss, there are “advanced” versions of some levels which have been made more difficult, and “challenge” levels where you try to minimize the time, number of portals, or number of footsteps used to complete the level. The game also tracks achievements you fulfill in the course of gameplay, to satisfy the completionists.

I only had a couple of minor gripes about the game. One was that you couldn't shoot your portal gun through a portal. This is understandable, as it opens up way too many complications in designing puzzles, but it was a tiny disappointment. The other nitpick was that it was short. This is not a bad thing, really. For one thing, the game is inexpensive. For another, the designers could easily have made it drag on far too long, allowing the novelty and enjoyment to wear off and turning it into a chore rather than fun. (A few games have somehow managed to convince some players that turning a game into a second job is somehow fun. I'm looking at you, RPGs.) So they leave you wanting more, which is a good thing, but on the other hand, well, you're left wanting more.

The big problem I have with the entertainment industry today is that too many in it are afraid to try something different that isn't proven to make money. Portal is an example where they took a chance and it worked. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good single-player puzzler with an intriguing story.

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