Monday, April 18, 2011

Review: "Portal: Still Alive"

Not Dead Yet
review for Portal: Still Alive (XBLA), 1 player first-person action/puzzle, available on the Xbox Live Arcade

When Portal was initially released, gamers were taken by surprise. Part of this surprise was that such a relatively innovative and staggeringly deep puzzle game was nestled rather harmlessly, without fanfare, between the Half-Life series and Team Fortress 2 in what has been hailed as the "best deal in videogame history," The Orange Box. It was Portal's relative obscurity that helped it gain favourable reception and its cult following, become one of the most well-known Valve titles in the company's impressive back-catalogue, and now, taking the place alongside Half-Life 2 and Left 4 Dead as a franchise of Valve's very own.

Portal, however, has since been available on its own, separate from its Orange Box peers. On the PC it is available as a vanilla, half-priced release, but it is the Xbox Live Arcade that saw the release of Portal: Still Alive, an exclusive title that featured the entirety of Portal from The Orange Box, and, as a bonus, 14 exclusive test chambers, extracted and heavily modified from the free-on-PC Portal: The Flash Version Map-pack by WeCreateStuff. The issue, you might think, is that Still Alive isn't worth the asking price when Portal is best experienced as part of The Orange Box?

Portal: Still Alive's main draw is that it boasts the entirety of the very short yet entirely brilliant Portal, and it is - for lack of better words - as great as it ever has been. It has remained relatively unchanged from its Orange Box release - GLaDOS is still hilariously cold and dispassionate, your player character is still forced to run through a giant rat maze for cheese of questionable existence, and the silent tension between yourself and the homicidal AI GLaDOS slowly builds up all the way through the game until the stunning and fantastic climax pushes you both through the placenta of their own shitty luck. The story is minimalist yet striking, and is one of the many overlooked features of Portal when it really is the thing that props the whole thing up.

You may have realized that I've neglected so far that Portal does, in fact, have portals in it. Two of them, which you shoot out of a gun, and use to solve ingenious physics puzzles. That's because I consider common gamer knowledge that Portal is built around this mechanic. I could say it's a brilliant mechanic well-used and worn with staggering depth and complexity, and that wrapping your head around the sneaky, mind-bending portal physics are as game-changing as the ability to traverse through a 3D plane. But I've already said that a million times before.

As such, there are several things that you need to know when considering picking up Portal: Still Alive - the pricing and the extra content. For example - if you already own Portal in The Orange Box, and you don't have a gaming PC, and you are that desperate for more Portal content, Still Alive will probably seem something of a silly purchase. The fourteen extra test chambers are all as clever and devious as the original test chambers, but not as much as the original advanced chambers, which easily trump the difficulty of the new maps. The maps are, of course, deviations and extracts from Portal: The Flash Version Map-pack, so perhaps you'll be inclined to pay the $10 for Still Alive if only to put money into the pockets of independent modders WeCreateStuff.

Another thing that any Xbox-exclusive downloadable title must boast is achievements, and while not anything to write home about specifically, they are different achievements to those found inThe Orange Box, and getting 100% completion rate on the game will see you jumping through forced, yet enjoyable, gameplay hoops like "only walk through the orange portal," or "complete the game without getting shot," which will see Portal purists (like myself) running through the game with yet another logic train running through the back of your mind. They force you - as Portal ultimately does - to think differently about how you approach a space, though they can get frustrating to achieve without hefty amount of planning; if you plan to get 100% achievement blundering in overnight, think again - it takes equal amounts skill and tact to master the extra layer of (wholly optional) in-game goals.

So, is Portal: Still Alive worth buying? For only 1200MP points, it certainly is tempting, even for those who have already Portal to death, to shell out for the extra content - an extended 100% point and 14 extra and difficult test chambers to prove how intelligent you are. I can't say any of it ruins the game, and it certainly is a blast to return to Portal to find it has gained more. But at the end of the day, it goes down to personal disposition - is that sparse yet polished content worth 1200MP to you? If the answer is "yes," you'll find Portal: Still Alive is all that Portal was and slightly more. If the answer is "no," probably best for you to go and replay Portal with The Orange Box. And PC users, unless you really need that extended 100% achievement rate, download The Flash Version Map-pack from WeCreateStuff's website, and enjoy the same content - albeit with pretentious "smart" story-telling and annoying Prelude style retconning/second guessing at Valve's own Portal lore. And if you just don't have Portal, somehow, it's the most complete way to own the first Portal outside of the magnificent The Orange Box, so why not.

Portal is as perfect and hilarious as it ever has been, and the extra content is definitely worth playing - but depending on how (or if) you own Portal already, this may not be the desired venue for acquiring that bonus content.
All screenshots for PC games are now taken by myself thanks to the recently implementedSteam Screenshots feature! If you want to see more amateur videogame screens, why not check out my Steam Screenshot gallery? There are funny captions, I promise.

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