Portal has been applauded time and time again for its innovative approach to puzzle solving. At the time of its release in 2007, there wasn’t anything that was quite like it. The mind-boggling technology of the portal gun, the head-scratching test chambers that accompanied it, and game’s writing had players talking about Portal for years after its release.
How does the game hold up? Is it still worthy of praise as one of the best games of a generation? Or has time sunk its claws too deep into this Orange Box surprise? That is exactly what I aimed to answer for myself in my most recent play-through of Portal.
I have a lot of great memories with both Portal and its sequel and nothing can take away from the impact it had when it was released. My goal is simply to see how the game has aged. I hope to keep this review as objective as I possibly can, so I have created a rough rubric to get the job done.
I will look at the following categories Sound, Gameplay, Writing, and Graphics. Each category can receive up to a “2” in a single score and a maximum total of 8/8 with a “2” in every category. To earn a “2” in a category, the game must show little to no signs of aging. Whether this take the form of dated jokes, game technology not holding up, or any other interface choice made by developers that were good at the time but not so much in the current era. A “1” is meant to represent that the game is chugging along in that particular category fairly well with only a few hiccups. A “0”, of course, means it does not hold up to modern standards.
The famous Valve logo and theme rattle off as Portal loads up. My computer screen opens up to a cake resting on a table. A promise unfulfilled from long ago. The radio’s brass and acoustic instruments fill my ears and as I press “New Game” the song follows me as I wake up in Aperture Science.
All of these sounds scream in my ear equal sweet nostalgia. The sound effects are familiar to anyone who has played a valve game and they still sound terrific. Some of the interaction noises seem a little muddled compared to future iterations but I see this in no way as an issue.
What really stands out in the sound department is the portal gun itself. The bloop of placing a portal on the floor below you, jump toward it, and hear the whoosh of air fly by you is still exhilarating.
The music is, for the most part, ominous industrial noises that fill the chambers and back hallways of Aperture. The radio is the only time in the game that a player can expect to hear anything upbeat until the credits roll. A tiny light that reminds of the something straight out of 1984 with its Big Brother approved joviality. All in all, I believe that Valve would be hard pressed to make the sound accompaniment to this game much better.
Gameplay is where Portal becomes a little more complicated. Portal is a puzzle game and one that feels infinitely satisfying to solve. However, having completed this game before, I flew through the game with no effort at all. I was disappointed in this because it took a large portion of the core enjoyment of the game from me. Of course, there are challenge maps but the campaign with Glados is where the game originally shined. For a new player just strapping on a portal gun, it would be a blast to figure out and learn to understand the portal game mechanic.
Speaking to this point, for new players, the intro to the game is near perfection. The game does a great job of introducing the player to how portals work. The first instance a portal is used, the player has no control over the placement of it. What this does is twofold: it allows the player to understand that portals can be walked through and the placement of the portals allow the player to understand it isn’t just an opening in the wall. The player is actually able to see themselves, through the exit portal, leaving the bed chamber. The player thus understands that portals allow them to bend space.
This slow portal lecture is given for about the first half of the game and then the game begins to add additional elements/obstacles for the player to work around. The pacing is well done and I have to applaud the team for crafting an experience that not only challenges the player but continues to teaches them, too.
My only complaint is that it does not hold up game play wise for a returning player. I knew how to navigate test chambers with little thought since I have beaten them before. If you are a returning player, there are other reasons to return to the game but challenge and thrill are not a part of that appeal.
This is the crowning achievement of Portal, in my opinion. The writing is charming, witty, and, at times, very dark. Everything you could possibly ask for. Even if you have not played through Portal before some lines from the game surely stick out to you because they have been referenced to death over the years.
Whether Glados is congratulating you like a government official, threatening your life, or trying to reminisce on good times (that may or may not have happened), she is always in your ear. As much as she is your nemesis, she is also your only friend during the game. I have played through this game numerous times since it has come out but each time I thoroughly enjoy listening to all the dialogue.
Graphics are a touchy subject for many people. Some people believe that graphics should not affect the experience of games, while others believe that it can be a large part of the experience. I like to think that I fall somewhere in the middle of these ideologies. I do have to admit that games as they age do become less enticing to me if they do not look pleasing. Halo 1, for instance, before the remaster, I could not go back and play because it felt gross to play. Even though it has zero impact on the gameplay, it has an impact on my brain’s interpretation of the game.
Portal has not aged that poorly and this may be due to the style the developers chose, like the whitewashed test chamber walls. There are some rough textures during the game and the particle effects are not fantastic, but generally the game looks okay. The only glaring section for me during my play-through was the final fight with Glados. In Glados’s chamber everything seemed stale and old. The cores appeared to be lifeless and the missile particle effects all appeared cheap. Glados even seemed rigid and lifeless. Now, I fully admit a part of this is that I have played Portal 2, but I do not think that it makes what I feel when I see these things any less valid.
Portal is a near perfect game for anyone who has never experienced it. It will challenge your brain and make you laugh throughout. Returning players, you will enjoy it for the writing and feel like a genius for solving the test chambers without any issue at all. If you are looking for a challenge as a returner, you are better off exploring the challenge maps. Now go out there and show Glados what the “pride of ‘subject hometown here'” can do.