We’ve looked at the first five minutes of Heavy Rain (not good), Uncharted 3 (very good) and God of War III (yummy), but let’s now take a diversion from the PS3, and have a quick five minute look at our first multi-format title: the wonderfully evergreen first person puzzle-em-up, Portal. How does the opening section of one of videogaming’s true classics hold up?
It’s not immediately obvious, but every single footstep in Portal is designed to guide you into the game: right up until the closing credits you’re constantly learning, improving, and getting better. Not once is something introduced that spoils this most perfect of difficulty curves, every signpost there for a reason, every cue carefully placed, every puzzle building on the last.
The first thing you see when you start the game is a timer, counting down from a minute, and a computerised voice greeting you with a cheery message. “Hello and again welcome to the Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center. We hope your brief detention in the relaxation vault has been a pleasant one. Your specimen has been processed and we are now ready to begin the test proper.”[drop]You can’t escape the first room until the timer clicks to zero, but you can interact with the contents a little. Flushing the toilet and throwing the radio does little in a practical sense, but it does immediately give the player a chance to become familiar with the controls. And naturally, once the portal opens there’s an excitement that you wouldn’t have gained by immediately giving the player freedom.
Your first sight of a portal is an interesting one. Looking through it you can see your own character (for the first time) and, because of the way the exit portal is positioned, you can see another side of you if you turn. It’s a clever way of explaining how the portals work without baffling you with text – it’s the quintessential opening room, and once out of the portal, you crave for more.
The surroundings are sterile yet aged, the observation room above and the camera nearby suggesting you’re not alone. There’s no immediate claustrophobia – that comes later – but it’s clear you’re a test subject and it’s clear you’re also not the first. The big red trigger around the corner and the connecting room exhibit an instant Pavlovian response too, despite you having encountered both for the first time.
Level design is supremely important to something like Portal, with much of the game made up of the same sort of environment. Valve, though, are masters of this, and five minutes gives you enough time to start to appreciate what the game might offer down the line: Test Chamber 1’s rotating portal confuses at first, but it’s meant to, showing you how Portals work by only changing one of them – and once you’re into the second things really start to pick up.
Another smart device – waiting. You’re looking through a glass window at the Portal Gun doing its thing, but the game wants you to pause, and listen to the voice. It serves to build anticipation at getting your hands on the thing, but also illustrating that this voice – GlaDOS – is in control of everything in this establishment.
When you finally get the Portal Gun, you’re limited to only firing blue portals, the orange ones placed by the game. Again, this limits any initial confusion, allowing the developers to illustrate how the player (and cubes) fall through portals without losing the sense of orientation. When the first five minutes are up you’ll have gotten through 3 or 4 chambers, and be ready to start experimenting with physics.
And that’s when the fun really begins.
Watching someone play Portal for the first time (at least, someone who can wield the – let’s face it – terriblly unfriendly dual analog stick control method employed by all first person shooters) is a deliciously entertaining thing to do. Of course, once you’ve played it you never get that sense of adventure back, but you can recreate on some level it by at least spectating.
If you’re still yet to play it, mind, then you’re in for a treat.