I’m about halfway through Bioshock, and probably within an hour’s play of finishing Mass Effect. But I at least finished one of the three or five big awesome games that have come out this quarter, and I’ll take what I can get. Mind you, I’ll be playing most of the rest of the stuff in the Orange Box before too much longer, but many of those games have been previously reviewed, so I doubt I will again unless some kind of mood really strikes me. (On the other hand, at least there will be no stupid sparkles flaring all over my screen to distract me. Thanks, PC gaming!) The important part for now is that I have finished Portal.
At the risk of over-selling it, Portal is what a video-game would be if someone took pure awesome, distilled it into its Platonic form, and then burned it onto a game disc. Yeah, okay, that’s probably an oversell after all. Anyway, Portal is a game set in the Half-Life universe. You play as a volunteer at a Black Mesa rival company called Aperture Science, testing their Portal Device. The function of the so-called portal gun is to open transdimensional portals between two points in space, effectively joining them into a single point. Aside from this possible violation of the laws of physics, the portals otherwise adhere to natural laws, conserving momentum and gravity in ways that would make Escher smile like the Cheshire Cat. Utilizing the portal gun and the assistance of the Artificial Intelligence in charge of the testing chambers, you make your way through a series of tests designed to confront you with diverse challenges that can only be solved through ingenious use of these portals.
The game has three essential strengths: 1) The puzzle-solving aspect, although sometimes frustrating, is mostly a true delight. In a way that no FPS has ever done before, it lets you come up with novel solutions to otherwise insoluble problems. Every victory, however small, leaves you feeling like a giant among men. 2) As of Half-Life 2, Valve has really captured the urban decay chic, and despite that almost all of the game takes place in sterile white test chambers, there’s a real sense of the same kind of minimal but undeniable wrongness about things that marks their other recent efforts. 3) The dialogue is outstanding, even though there are only two characters with lines in the entire game. It swings between hilarious and chillingly disturbing with, at the risk of repetition, disturbing ease. (Also, the end credits contain a wonderful song to which I wish I had the mp3.) Oh, and 4), the three things I just listed combine to form a very tight and affecting plot.
I like Mass Effect quite a bit. I like Bioshock better than I’ve liked any game since Half-Life 2 came out. That said: if you find time to invest yourself in a game before the year ends, it should be Portal. You’ll thank me later. (Except you mostly won’t, because who hasn’t already played it? Nobody, that’s who! (Dear people who haven’t played it: no offense!))