Much has been made about the value of The Orange Box, the new Half-Life 2 compilation, and to be honest it’s beyond dispute. This is one of the best first-person shooters ever made (I still think it’s a bit overrated, but that’s another post) in its first decent console excursion, with two expansions (one of which is brand new), and then two whole new games thrown in on top. And all for the price of one game. Considering the stuff that gets away with a £50 sticker nowadays, Orange Box is a steal.
But anyway, what I really want to talk about is Portal. The real unknown quantity here, what with Half-Life and Team Fortress both coming from established series, it’s almost the first really next-gen puzzle game; one that doesn’t work solely on the principles of Tetris or Bejeweled with some particle effects on top.
Back in 2003 Half-Life 2 taught us that as graphics begin to plateau it was physics that were the next big thing, and so I find it odd that this is the first mainstream title to really exploit it purely for puzzles. The early hours of Half-Life 2 were filled with so many moments that utilised the flashy new Havok engine that even today, when it’s almost ubiquitous, we’ve rarely seen it used for more than making barrels fall convincingly. Such an engine coupled with mind-bending portals – about the only memorable thing in the otherwise wholly forgettable Prey – gives two new ideas, united in their ability to distract from the task at hand, a whole game in which to shine.
Far from being a simple skeleton on which to hang a couple of neat ideas, however, Portal fits into the Half-Life universe as a side story. There’s not a mention of Gordon Freeman and only hints at the Combine invasion (the disembodied voice of GLaDOS, the computer, makes references to ‘them’, and the hastily-abandoned facility speaks volumes), but the unsettling sense of there being more to what you’re seeing than you’re allowed to know remains, particularly in later levels.
I was also surprised by the quality of the writing, being that your character is the only human in the game. GLaDOS is an omnipresent observer who never quite seems to be on the level with you and whose mechanical detachment makes for amusement, and the turrets talk like small children as they try to find and shoot you. They’re like virtual embodiments of the way that violence is sanitised, using phrases like “dispensing product” as a euphemism for attempting to kill you that fits well with the sterile environment. I recommend looking at the script to see what you missed when you finish it.
And the song that plays over the credits is just wonderful. So good that it deserves its own paragraph, see?
Portal takes only 2-3 hours to finish and as such would probably flounder outside of a bundled game or a cheap download, and I think even the $19.95 for the solus download on Steam is pushing it. But as it is a bundled game in a package that would be exceptional value even without Portal, what we have is a proof of concept that has the potential to be the next big puzzler. It’s a wonderfully realised game and quite possibly the best thing in that pack. I’ll regret saying this, but bring on the downloadable content.