It's no exaggeration to say that no-one really expected Portal to be this good. Go back a few months and the buzz was all about Team Fortress 2 and Episode 2, with Portal not seen as much more that a little throwaway treat that Valve were stuffing into a spare corner of The Orange Box. A few of us might have dabbled with Narbacular Drop (the student project that eventually became Portal) and been impressed with the game's neat ideas but not all that engaged by the experience. It's fascinating, then, to see what a year or two spent in the Valve machine can do. The basic portal mechanism of Narbacular Drop is obviously still there but Valve have taken it to such unexpected heights that it is figuratively and at times literally, dizzying.
The basic concept sees you carrying around a gun that is able to create portals on most (but not all) surfaces. The left button creates a blue portal, the right button an orange one. Step through one portal and you'll immediately emerge from the other. At its simplest, this means you can, for example, get to a unreachable platform by placing one portal in the wall behind the platform, another in the wall right in front of you and then just step through. Needless to say, it doesn't remain this basic for long and you'll soon find yourself having to twist your brain in various, pretzel-shaped ways to make progress.
The game casts you as a nameless subject caught in a testing facility run by the shady Aperture Science Laboratories. You are confronted with 19 different levels, each of which takes the portal concept to increasingly mind-bending places. Accompanying you though every level is the synthesised computer voice of GLaDOS, the AI monitoring your progress. GLaDOS, in the first of many strokes of Valve-related genius, is brilliantly funny as she offers encouragement while apologising for the frequently lethal nature of the tests you face. Some people have reported that the voice of GLaDOS was missing from their initial Steam installation of Portal, but this has apparently been fixed with the latest Steam update. So if you don't hear GLaDOS right from the start, restart Steam and it should sort itself out. You really don't want to play the game without GLaDOS.
Graphically, the game is clean and clear. There's a very strong Half-Life 2 feel to it all, which is not the least bit surprising seeing as it uses the Source engine and is set in the Half-Life universe. The testing facility, with its pristine white walls and rippled glass, looks very much like something Gordon and Alyx could have ripped through. While it's not built on the flashiest engine around, Portal presents an immersive and detailed world without obscuring vital puzzle-solving information with useless whizz-bangery.
The game does a great job of easing you into the intricacies of portal placement. It takes a few levels until you get your hands on a fully operational Portal Gun, so you're not just chucked in at the deep end. The difficulty curve is gently challenging, with each new level building on what's gone before. There are plenty of deeply satisfying Eureka! moments on making the required leaps in logic that will get you past seemingly impossible obstacles. The puzzles are never unfair or needlessly frustrating - the solution is always right there in front of you. A few instances require immediate problem solving in the face of sudden death and can seem absolutely insurmountable until the solution becomes apparent. Despite the FPS nature of the game, the answers are generally not twitch-based, so you'll have time to catch your breath and think of the next step. This is not to say that you won't be pulling off some truly spectacular stunts, or having to think on your feet from time to time. Bad decision making often results in death but the game's autosave usually brings you back very close to where you were before making the wrong move. Experimentation is encouraged rather than punished.
It'll take the average person roughly three hours to play through Portal - rumours that it took us six and half hours will be vigorously denied - which might seem a little short, but then this is not a game that could realistically stretch much longer, at least not without a lot of filler. As it is, Portal is the very definition of 'small but perfectly formed'. The inclusion of a number of advanced levels outside of the main campaign, and associated achievements, significantly extends the gameplay. There's also an option to import more levels as either the community or Valve release them. With a bit of luck, Portal will be a game to drop into for an hour or two for months to come. Considering that Portal can be picked up via Steam for just over AU$20, there's no question you'll be getting your money's worth. Odd as it may seem for a puzzle game, it's advisable to avoid all spoilers for the the game until you've finished it. There's a lot of neat stuff packed into the game and you'll be robbing yourself of some very special gaming moments if you know what's coming.
Portal is a compact game that manages to punch well above its weight. We're inclined to think that on some level, Portal might actually be good for you - anything that makes you think around corners like this must be exercising a few dormant mental muscles. Above all, though, it's way more fun than you might expect and at such a bargain price, Portal is a game you'd be mad to miss.