Ever since Valve Software unexpectedly unveiled Portal as a pack-in bonus for its upcoming cavalcade of Half-Life 2 products--including the Episode Two expansion and Team Fortress 2 multiplayer component--we've been captivated by the game's unique brand of brain-bending puzzles and quirky, stylized visuals and presentation. So we were tickled to finally get a chance to play the game for ourselves at an EA event being held just in time for the Game Developers Conference. What better place to showcase an offbeat first-person game that features no shooting whatsoever?
To set the record straight, Portal's gameplay looks just like that initial trailer Valve released upon the game's announcement, the visual authenticity of which was questioned by more than one industry pundit at the time. The trailer did have a full-scene motion blur added as a postprocessing effect, but otherwise the game we played on the Xbox 360 looked pretty much identical to that original clip. Even the slightly stuffy announcer and minimalist stick-figure iconography heard and seen in the trailer will be in the game. These will act as guides that will give you hints about what you need to do next to get through a given scenario. Then again, some of those stick-figure signs will advise you what not to do, such as one that we merrily ignored before getting embarrassingly vaporized by an energy beam in the demo's first tutorial room.
Portal doesn't overload you with too many gameplay mechanics; instead, the focus seems to be on making you use the few abilities you do have to get through the obstacles between you and each level's exit. You have a gravity gun, a la Half-Life 2. You can duck. And you've two portals to work with that you can slap onto most flat surfaces from afar. One is orange and one is blue, but there's no functional difference between the two; enter one portal and you'll exit the other. For the most part, you'll use the portals for traveling from one place to another, but you can also look through one to see out of the other one, which will come in handy when you need to check out an area that's being covered by sentry guns, for example.
Most of the puzzles in the brief demo we played involved placing one portal on a high wall near a ledge we needed to reach and then dropping the other one on the floor several feet below us. We then jumped into the lower portal and used our falling momentum to propel us flying out of the upper one. Another puzzle had us slapping a portal onto a moving platform, though this platform stopped when it moved into position. Other puzzles will apparently require more precise timing, however.
Alas, Valve is candid about the fact that Portal won't be a deeply involved or lengthy experience. The game will consist of 19 levels that will amount to about four hours of gameplay for an average player, with the most complex levels purportedly taking about half an hour to figure out. Of course, since Portal is only one piece of a considerably value-packed box of games, you can't complain if it seems a little short. Valve hasn't committed to providing any further levels for Portal via download after release, but they may not have to. The PC version of the game will see a level editor not long after it becomes available at retail, so we imagine there will be no shortage of user-created levels to keep you portal hopping for quite a while. (Valve hasn't determined how, or even if, these levels will be available to the console versions of Portal, however.)
From the few minutes we got to play with Portal, we'd say the game is shaping up to be exactly what we expected from that first trailer. The game's lasting appeal will depend on how devilish the later puzzles are and how widespread the user-created content is--but we have to applaud Valve not only for putting so much extra content in with the Episode Two expansion, but also for just trying something unusual in the first place.