Valve offers some mind-bending first-person puzzling.
Preview by Travis Fahs (Email)
July 22nd 2006
The Basics: Valve is using the release of Half Life 2: Episode Two as a testing ground for some new gameplay. While Team Fortress 2 will provide the new multiplayer thrills alongside the new episode, Portal is more of an oddity included to test out some new ideas. Based on the gameplay mechanics of the independent freeware title Narbacular Drop, Portal is a sort of first-person puzzle-platformer centering on the use of a new "portal gun" to help navigate obstacles.
Although superficially set up like a first-person shooter, Portal is a non-violent puzzler with nary a weapon to be found. The "handheld portal device" is better described as a tool, and it's an incredibly useful one at that. The device can be used to plant a target and destination portal on walls, floors or ceilings. These portals work much like those in Prey in that they are seamless. You can see through them, pass back and forth at will, or toss objects through them. By making these portals manipulatable and coupling the mechanic with the Source engine's robust physics simulation, Valve has come up with some intriguing puzzles.
Portal seems to be appropriately story-thin at present. Players assume the role of a test subject being put through a series of trials, presumably as a sort of training exercise. The entire game takes place in a stark monotone lab with a slight P.N.03 vibe to it. This artificial environment gives full license to the level designers to concoct elaborate puzzle scenarios not likely to occur in the field. In fact, from what's been shown, it seems like the entire game is a series of room-based puzzles that simply challenge players to find a way from point A to point B, much in the vein of classic 2D puzzle-platformers.
What we think: There's a lot of promise shown here. Narbacular Drop was an interesting and innovative, if extremely brief game, and it's great to see its creators working with a powerhouse like Valve and some great technology to really see how far this mechanic can be taken. The puzzles shown in the trailer are really showing how much this project has benefited from a solid physics engine. The fact that this is being offered as a pack-in with Valve's already budget-priced Episode Two gives us reason to believe it will likely be a fairly short experiment, and speculation abounds that it may be a testing ground for technology or gameplay to be implemented into future Half-Life outings. Either way, it looks like quite the tasty side dish to Valve's upcoming main course, and one of the more innovative titles I've seen in recent years.