Sunday, November 3, 2013

Portal - A (very) late review of a still relevant game

Sometimes, life gets in the way. Sometimes it gets in the way of gaming bandwagons you would happily ride into the sunset.

Such is the case with the Portal franchise (Valve). The original Portal marked a fresh take on 1st-person puzzle solving and "platforming" - placing the player in what most screenshots imply is a FPS, but in reality is an immersive vehicle for creative spatial puzzle solving.

Why bother writing a review at this late stage (literally years after initial release)? Well, because I finally got around to playing it, and loved it. I know that the demands of my life are not unique, so if I just got around to playing Portal, I am sure there are others out there considering giving it a try for the first time as well. The graphics are simple and clean enough that they barely show age, and the gameplay is still pretty unique and enjoyable. If you don't know enough about Portal yet to buy it, read on...

Here's the quick and dirty overview of the game:
You are a young woman with cybernetic attachments going through, for whatever reason, a training/obstacle course at a testing facility. The facility is run by a terrifyingly comforting sounding computer ("I can't do that, Dave") that watches you at every step.

Every stage of the game involves creative use of the portal-creating device you have been given to... well... get out of the level. The gameplay mechanics are simple. Let's say that you come up against a really deep pit with toxic sludge at the bottom. You aren't Lara Croft and you don't have Boba Fett jetpacks, so how do you get across? In Portal, the solution might be to shoot a portal into the wall at the far side of the pit, and shoot one into the wall on your side of the pit. These portals are connected - creating a wormhole that allows you to step directly out on the other side of the pit.

In the example depicted here, if you walk into the blue portal you will step right back into the same room (out of the orange portal). Hm, now what if you placed that orange portal above a moving platform you wanted to drop down on...?

And that's it. That's the game. You can jump a small, pathetically human amount. You can crouch. And you can walk forward, backward, left, and right. But you have no guns, and no grappling hooks. It's a puzzle game. Sound boring? Well... go away. It's grand fun.

This game gets YOU hooked with the creative ways in which you need to use the portals to get around (see how I followed up on the "grappling hook" thing?). And it keeps you playing by appealing to a) your curiosity about what comes next, and b) feeling smart when you figured out an elegant way through a level.

The game starts you off easy, as in the pit example described above. But as the levels progress, more and more obstacles arise while the number of floors and walls that portals are able to stick to become fewer and farther between. And as dangerous moving features of the environment and hostile robots begin to appear, time constraints on your decision-making process tighten as well. Don't want to get crushed by the pistons closing in? Better think fast about where to shoot some portals and wriggle your way out of this one!

Combat does enter the game (via the aforementioned hostile robots), but the focus remains consistently on "the thrill of the puzzle". The game never enters Rambo territory (again, you never get a gun). Yes, the robots can be killed, but you do it WITH YOUR MIND (ok - with clever use of portals).

Given the age of the game, you've probably heard most of what can be said.
It is not without its flaws. For example, it's pretty short (although not in a way that you feel ripped off, especially since you can buy it for a song these days on Steam).
There are also only a couple of ways to use the portals effectively against enemies. Because of this, the "combat" form of puzzle solving doesn't really evolve as the game progresses to the extent that the level maneuvering does. But even though "combat" is easy once you figure out the couple of tricks needed clear the room, it is still pleasurable - always a "HA, I'm smarter than you, pathetic drones!" experience.

And that is what really captures the joy of the game for me - its simplicity.

You don't need to remember 10 hot-keys while keeping track of your health bar, magic level, ammo stock, squad members, etc etc etc (my brain gets tired just thinking about the effort!); this game only involves a couple of buttons, and for better or worse there are only a few ways to use the portals to navigate the levels and thwart the hostiles.

So when you win the game (and you will), it's not because you solved a puzzle of Riven-level proportions, having sat there with a pen and paper for hours while your now-ex-girlfriend walked unnoticed out the door shouting about what a complete nerd you are.

And it's not because you tore your way through hordes of enemies with your rocket launcher. Portal has an almost laid back creative bent. At times the platforming is reminiscent of the spatial imagery evoked by descriptions of the training space in Ender's Game. You need to keep your head on a swivel when entering a room and really THINK about the space - be it to devise a way to "slingshot" yourself tremendous distances, leapfrog through portals while airborn over pit of fire, or turn enemy attacks back against the nefarious automatons.

So... if you get horribly turned around just looking up at the sky for a moment in Skyrim, then this game is probably not for you. It takes the kind of 3D navigation skills you honed in low-grav space levels of Unreal Tournament back in 1999 and deploys them effectively in a puzzle-oriented setting, and pads the visuospatial puzzle fun with subtle-but-delightfully-quirky humor. And at the end of the day, if you're a good little gamer, you just might get some tea and cake (no death).

Short, only so many ways to use your portals to get things done.
But it is light-hearted, at times exciting, and always rewarding.
A must buy, especially given the relatively minimal time commitment of the game and low price point.