Barmy computers with a penchant for destruction are not an original concept in video games. Many gamers will fondly remember taking on the psychopathic and sadistic SHODAN in System Shock and its excellent sequel. Older gamers may even recall Durandal from the first-person shooter Marathon, who harboured a rather deep grudge towards humans, branding them 'slow, stupid and irritating'. But never has a piece of bonkers software had quite as much personality as GlaDOS, the antagonist in Valve's Portal. She's not adverse to cracking a joke or two, right before she smashes your brains in with a metal cube. Still, at least you'll die with a smile on your face.
You play a character called Chell who wakes in a cell hidden deep inside a mysterious research centre, with no explanation as to how you got there. Fortunately, GlaDOS is on hand to describe your circumstances. Chell must make it through a number of test chambers, completing various tasks in each in order to reach the exit. These tasks mainly involve activating switches to open doors and negotiating various jumps and obstacles. Nothing particularly exciting on paper. But this game adds a whole new element to a classic design with the introduction of the portal gun.
Portal is played entirely from a first-person perspective, using the Half Life 2 engine, and the realistic physics of that engine are really shown off in this game. When you eventually obtain the portal gun, you will be able to fire two types of portal (blue and orange) into the walls, floors and ceilings of the game environment. Jump into an orange portal and you'll appear out of the blue one, and vice versa. You can only create one of each portal type at a time, leading to some complex strategy on how best to progress to the next test chamber. Be warned, some quick reactions and an adequate grasp of physics are required to make it to the end, although a little trial and error often goes a long way.
The challenges become more dangerous as you progress, with the likes of toxic pits and automated gun turrets making an appearance. There is no on-screen health indicator, but if Chell takes too much damage at once, she's a goner. Think Call Of Duty 4 and you'll get the picture. Even though death in a puzzle game is often frowned upon, you can save any time you want so it isn't really an issue.
Portal is a very short game - you'll probably be able to count the number of hours to completion on one hand - but it is also one of the most rewarding and just plain fun games I've played in a long time. The entertainment value is helped a great deal by GlaDOS and her rather peculiar personality. She starts the game innocently enough, promising Chell cake and psychotherapy when she finally makes it to the end. She'll even cheer you on and provide helpful information such as, “any contact with the (toxified) chamber floor will result in an unsatisfactory mark on your official testing record, followed by death”. However, things gradually take a more sinister turn, until she's finally screaming abuse and threats at every available opportunity. The personality in the game even extends to the likes of the gun turrets, which assure you there are no hard feelings as you send them plummeting to their doom down a toxic pit.
If you have even a passing interest in games that involve using your brain, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Portal. I've completed it twice so far, a rare occurrence for me, and have to admit I've developed a slight crush on GlaDOS after all the time we've spent together. Is it wrong to have a thing for an insane fictional computer who wants nothing more than to roast the flesh off your bones? When she eventually serenades you over the closing credits, I bet you'll feel the same.
The game can be purchased on its own on the PC, or as part of the superb Orange Box compilation on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3.