PC, Xbox 360, PS3

As the year winds down and people begin to explore their shiny new 360s or PS3s, one of the most common questions I’m asked other than, “have you gained weight,” (even you, grandma) is “what game should I buy?”

Recommending games can be a difficult task, especially to people that aren’t full-time (I’m over “hardcore”) gamers, because their interests tend to be more narrow (Oblivion might be great for the all-night sort of gamer, but is a complete waste on the vast majority). This year, however, I recommended two products more than the rest combined: Bioshock (the best game of the year) and The Orange Box (the best buy of the year).

While the Half-Life games are plain awesome and Team Fortress 2 has the heart of a lion and the execution of a stutterer named Ken, the standout game is Portal.

The Pitch

There is no pitch, only cake.

The Play

Portal begins with Chell (that’s you and yes, you play a woman) waking up to the voice of an unseen computer, GLaDOS, your guide in an unknown facility.  The game includes 19 levels of puzzles for Chell to navigate, with 1 of the 19 approximately as long as the other 18 combined (but I’m not telling which one). 

Set in the first-person, Chell is only armed (eventually) with a gun that creates two inter-dimensional portals (one “in” and one “out”). As you can guess, the opening, closing and transportation through these portals are necessary to solve the puzzles and progress to the next level. But where does it all lead, who knows, but GLaDOS does promise cake at the end.

The gameplay is refreshingly tight, and for a first-person puzzler, it’s downright inspirational. The game allows Chell to run, jump and pick up items using the Portal Gun. I’ve learned, however, that my gaming depth perception absolutely sucks. I wasted too much time trying to line-up portals, sometimes with hilarious results. Aside from the basics, the most interesting gameplay feature is the portal physics.

The simple explanation of the unique physics of the portals is that the speed of an object entering a portal comes out of the other portal at the same speed. While at first, it seems logical, in practice, however, it takes some time to become accustomed. This especially rings true when it comes to “sling-shotting,” an essential part of the gameplay. Sling-shotting is when Chell falls into a portal on the floor (by either dropping off a ledge or another portal) and comes out of a portal placed on an adjacent wall, thus using gravity to leap over some wide chasm. Once I became comfortable with sling-shotting, I had mastered the gameplay.

But beyond the gameplay, Portal is a landmark game.  While games in the past have explored morality, these other games made the issue a side-dish to the game’s main storyline.

Portal, however, addresses issues of morality (and even faith) head-on. What is right, what is wrong? Is it right to destroy the Companion Cube? (Spoiler!) Is this process for the greater good? Portal shoves these philosophical issues to the forefront, which is something, unheard of in a mainstream console title. While Portal doesn’t allow the player to make firm decisions as to these issues (to advance, you only have one choice), it is inevitable that Portal has already inspired some young designer to create the game that will allow the choice.

But the greatness does not end there. What pushes Portal from philosophical puzzler to stunning masterpiece is the game’s incredibly dark sense of humor. From the very early stages it appears that your computer guide, GLaDOS, could be a female Hal 9000 mixed with just a dash of Sander Cohen or just a computer guide. As the game progresses, the humor grows, culminating with some of gaming’s great one-liners (I won’t spoil them, but everyone has their own favorite) and concludes with a song which makes me wish I could go back in time and make it my wedding song.

In terms of negatives, there really are none. It’s short, but with the extras, it’s perfect.

Graphics and Sound

Overall the graphics are fine, the sound is very nice, but the concepts at play would work as a 8 bit game.

One thing to point out is that the designers did a great job at recreating the scenery when looking through the portals. Must have been a pain in the ass. At a very early stage of the game, like probably everyone else, I created portals to cause a mirror effect to check Chell out. The silly things gamers do.


After completing the game, I sat back and reflected for a couple minutes at the game’s mastery. An amazing puzzle game, with a core that is rarely ever seen in gaming. While it’s fun to revisit the story and take a closer look at the character development, for the puzzle fan, the game allows for the player to redo Levels 13 – 18 at a more advanced difficulty.


Before I get to the conclusion, I’ve noticed people calling this a first-person shooter. Portal is not a FPS. This game offers so much more, to put it in the same genre as Halo is insulting. It’s like the famous South ParkFamily Guy comparison. Yes, both are cartoons that can have twisted forms of humor, but at their foundation they are entirely two different animals.

Portal is one of the great games of the past five years. If you don’t like Half Life or Team Fortress 2 (why?), you still need to play this game. It just that great.

Gamers have been lucky this year. Receiving Bioshock and Portal, two potentially revolutionary games, within months of each other, will undoubtely spoil us. Maybe that’s a worthwhile evolution, demanding higher standards might actually result in higher quality games. Most likely though, we’ll just get crap, but I don’t care, because I feel fantastic and I am still alive.

10 out of 10