Pentium M 2GHz CPU
2GB DDR2 RAM
GeForce Go 7800GTX
Out this week is The Orange Box, a new package of games from Valve Software that includes the classic first person shooter Half-Life 2, its two "episodic" mini-sequels, a long-awaited multiplayer shooter called Team Fortress 2, and finally, the focus of this review, Portal. While many have been looking forward mostly to the other games in this excellent package, I highly recommend that all FPS fans give Portal a shot. The puzzles are challenging but not incredibly difficult, and players will find an actual story here with emotion, wit, and some real humor. Portal - a first-person puzzle game - has the innovation and charm that games with ten times the budget usually lack.
It starts out simple enough. You wake up crawling out of some kind of futuristic sleeping chamber and only have a few seconds to look around before a voice, which is the second most compelling part of this game aside from the actual portals, starts to speak to you. This oddly-spoken, robotic female voice starts explaining that your slumber is complete and that you are in a test chamber for an experiment. There isn't much beyond that, but it's only a few minutes before you start to figure out that this is a slightly fiendish game with a wicked sense of humor - mostly coming through the voice you're hearing, who will actually tell jokes, encourage you, and eventually start to dislike you - and that's when the game gets really good.
But that happens much later; at the beginning, your first test is easy enough. Pick up a box and drop it on a pressure plate to hold a door open for you. But it's not long before the game introduces your "gun", the only item you'll be carrying with you all the way to the end: the Portal Gun. How it works is this: at first, there'll be an orange portal somewhere on the map. Your gun will fire out a portal onto any, well, "compatible" surface like the wall or floor, and it creates an actual gateway between the two. Yes, you can see right through it, and yes, it gets really trippy when you put one close to the other. It's not long before you'll see that your character is female, because you'll see your own body through a portal. In a game where you'll have just gotten used to the idea of probably not having to see another person, it's kind of stunning the first time you see yourself in an infinite loop of portal gateways.
When you get your bearings, though, you'll start to wonder - will I ever be able to control the orange portal? And in a short time, yes, your Portal Gun will be able to fire out each portal, and that's when the real puzzles start. You'll see the introduction of walls that you can't project a portal onto, so you'll need to start looking around at things like ceilings for your solutions. You'll also have to start considering momentum. If you put an orange portal on a surface that's at a 45-degree upturned angle and put a blue one at the bottom of a 30-foot fall and jump in, you've now created a slingshot that will send you shooting upwards out of that orange portal. Eventually you will realize you can even create a double-loop of speed by placing a portal where you'd land if you dropped out of the higher one. None of this might make any sense now, but it will before you're done with this game.
And that's what really makes the difference here. I'm no puzzle game aficionado, but aside from the previous game by these DigiPen developers who now work at Valve Software, there's just nothing quite like Portal out there. And it's not just the innovative gameplay, either. You see, the story starts getting interesting when partway through the game you notice that other people have been through this "test chamber" before and have left their mark. A few choice words from that strange AI speaking above you, and you start to realize that something very sinister is happening. Portal is made to be a part of the whole Half-Life 2 world, but as you might expect from Valve, the connection is not clearly defined and many questions are left unanswered. Still, if you look closely, you'll find references to things like the Black Mesa complex and some really strange stuff that will start to tie together if you think about it.
While Portal includes a very cool ending sequence that you will probably want to experience more than once, the whole game doesn't last more than a few hours - as long as you don't get stumped on a puzzle for more than a few minutes, that is. That's why Valve has made sure to include extra features, like developer commentary which offers insight into the creation of Portal as you're playing it, enhanced versions of some of the levels (they unlock once you've beaten the game) that are definitely a lot harder than before, and a time attack mode that can measure you based on how quickly you finish the level or how few portals you made to beat it. And the best part is that industrious folks will be able to make all kinds of new levels for Portal to extend its longevity and really crank up the difficulty.
If I had to complain about something in Portal, it's that this is a crossover between a puzzle game and a first-person action game that won't necessarily satisfy fans of only one of the two genres. Serious puzzle fanatics are likely going to be unfamiliar with the pace and perspective of Portal, and for them, the bigger challenge will lie in executing their solution rather than finding it. The idea of putting portals up to move things around a level is not really that difficult to grasp, but when you become the thing that has to actually hop through the portal, it can cause an intense vertigo or sickness in some - especially when the gravity starts flipping you around all over the place. For those who think this might be a problem, I recommend you watch some trailers or gameplay videos to find out. Either way, this crossing of genres certainly works for those who enjoy both, but there are no guarantees that dedicated fans of one genre or the other would be actually willing to play Portal to its conclusion.
Putting Portal into the Orange Box package was a great idea on Valve's part. It might not seem like it at first, as the only things that really solidly link the Half-Life 2 collection with Team Fortress 2 and Portal are the similar controls, first-person perspective, and Steam and game interfaces, but Valve has confidence that if you like any one of the three games, you'll probably like the other two if you give them a shot. I think that in this case, Valve's probably right. You can buy Portal over Steam for $19.95 (it won't be in stores on its own), or get it as part of the Orange Box package that includes the incredible HL2 and TF2 games for $50, either over Steam or in stores. I highly recommend the latter, but even if you decide not to, $20 for Portal is still money well spent - even if you find the puzzles to be a bit easy, the bonus levels, time attack features, and future mod capabilities are sure to keep you coming back to this one.