Author Topic: Portal 1 mod reviews  (Read 111 times)

Offline Doc_Brown

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Portal 1 mod reviews
« on: March 28, 2022, 04:34:52 PM »
In my efforts to cull my videogame collection down to a more manageable level, one of the areas I'm looking to address is potential redundancies.  In that regard, the original Portal is currently standing on thin ice, as Portal 2 is pretty much everything the first game is and more.  I also just replayed Portal and it only took me a little over an hour, which doesn't seem substantial enough to be worth it...

On its own, that is. 

I had previously propped Portal up by factoring mods into the equation, but it's been a good long while since I played said mods and I find myself wondering if any of them are truly good enough to justify keeping the game on their accord.  As I play through them I'll post my thoughts here, though much like with Thief it seems the bulk of the mods were made for the sequel rather than the original.

P.S.  Incidentally, I should note that I've no plans to review Portal: Prelude, despite the fact that it's probably the first one that comes up in discussions of mods for the original Portal.  They used text-to-speech for their human characters, an inversion of Valve using a voice actress (Ellen McLain) and making her sound digitized, and the end result is so jarring it just pulls me out of the experience.

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Gamma Energy
I saw this mod recommended in the same breath as one of Mevious' (more on those later), but having given it a try I wouldn't say it's on the same level.  The story of the mod is basically the exact same as Portal: you go through some tests without the portal gun, then you gain control over just the blue portals, then you get access to the orange portals, then GLaDOS tries to kill you, you escape her trap, and ultimately flee the facility after a boss fight.  I will say it takes longer to play through than Portal, and it isn't without its charms, but there are enough shortcomings that of the two I'd recommend sticking with the original game over this one.

To be fair, there are a couple of puzzles I found particularly delightful, ones involving five weighted storage cubes and five corresponding buttons that need to be simultaneously pressed to open the exit.  The trick is that the buttons usually activate more than just the exit, so you end up having to shuffle around the cubes in a series of smaller puzzles first, sometimes involving what I'd consider outside-the-box thinking (at least in terms of Portal puzzle logic), or even getting all five of the cubes you need in the first place (as in, you need the first one to get the second, then those two to get the third, etc.).  As far as these puzzles are concerned, I regret passing on this mod.

Unfortunately, there are also several puzzles later on that involve terminal velocity (putting a portal on the ceiling and another on the floor below it).  This isn't that big a deal when you're the one going through the portals, but there are puzzles here where you need to put an object like a cube through them in order to fling it at a breakable window.  It can be maddening trying to get the portals exactly aligned and the object perfectly centered, to the point that there were several moments where I stopped and looked up a walkthrough to make sure I wasn't wasting my time and there was an easier solution I'd overlooked.

Speaking of glass, there are some inconsistencies in its portrayal.  Not all of it is breakable, and when it is the mod doesn't really make it clear what it's going to take.  Sometimes you can just throw an object, sometimes you need to fling it through a portal, and other times you need bullets or explosives.  Frankly, there are just some issues with signposting in general.  There's one scene where a scripted explosion opens a side room for you, but the room you're in goes up in flames, encouraging you to backtrack and not notice the new path.  A later series of 'think fast' puzzles involving a moving platform only gives you a few seconds to solve them, resulting in dying over and over until you figure them out.

Lastly, the final areas of the mod (service areas outside the testing chambers) are somewhat confusingly designed, which also extends to the final boss battle.  You end up at what's basically a power station where sentry and rocket turrets are shooting at you.  It isn't clear what you're supposed to be doing, and periodically GLaDOS attacks you (your screen flashes red) without any explanation as to what she's even doing.  The overall impression I get is that the later stages of the mod received less attention, which ends up souring my initial, more positive impressions of it.  It's the kind of mod I might recommend with the caveat, "Play until you get annoyed enough to quit."

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Blue Portals
Despite the fact that Blue Portals is probably better than Gamma Energy, I'm not sure I like it as much, either.  Let's start with the positives.  The concept (only being able to shoot blue portals) is more unique, and the portals make a pleasant, wind chime-like sound.  The testing chambers look different (more of a yellowish color).  There's a new AI (don't think I ever caught his name), and unlike Portal: Prelude the use of text-to-speech is appropriate and not off-putting.  There's new music rather than the now-overplayed "Still Alive," and even the sentry turrets have all new voicework (actual voice actor, not made to sound robotic).

There's also a surprising amount of new mechanics they've added to the mix.  There are multiple types of cubes (hot cubes that melt things but disintegrate when wet, cold cubes that can't touch hot cubes, emancipation grid-proof cubes, etc.), wind turbines, anti-gravity shafts, magnets (both repulsive and attractive), beams of light, mirrors, waterwheels... hell, just the fact that there are now test chambers involving water you can swim in rather than being instantly killed.  They've even implemented a hint system, though there were times it didn't work for me (not sure if it was just broken or they simply didn't provide hints in those instances).

So what are the negatives?  Well, I'm not quite sure what to make of the story.  You reach the end and who I believe to be a previous test subject shuts down the AI, tells you he can't leave but he'll open an exit for you... and that's it.  No indication the AI was ever actually trying to kill you (outside of the hazards in the test chambers).  No previous interactions with this character, or explanation for why he can't leave.  No real clue what the situation at this facility is (Is it Aperture, and if so then how does this new AI relate to GLaDOS?  If it's not Aperture, why's it run by an AI?  Where are the people?).

My biggest issue with the mod is, I feel, its over reliance on fling puzzles (one portal on the floor, another on a lower section of floor, and you loop through them to build up momentum).  It was never that I didn't know what to do, just that actually doing it was a chore: a combination of disorientation as you repeatedly reorient yourself, losing all momentum because you clipped the edge of a portal (it genuinely felt like the portal funnel aide was disabled), and an at times spotty recognition of what is and is not an acceptable surface for a portal--as in this spot here is okay, but if you fire your portal just a smidge off from that spot it suddenly isn't.

Despite the plethora of new mechanics, it all feels rather scattershot.  They throw them at you one after another, never really giving them a chance to breathe before you're onto the next, and it doesn't really feel like they build on each other.  Worst of all, there weren't any puzzles in this one that impressed me, like the five cube puzzles I mentioned in Gamma Energy.  There was never really a moment I felt like I was particularly enjoying myself, or felt very clever for finally figuring out the solution to a test chamber that was stumping me.  Despite the fact that Gamma Energy essentially brought less to the table, it was able to do more with it.

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Factum Solus
Right off the bat, I should note that there are two episodes of Factum Solus.  Episode 2, however, comes with Episode 1 included, so there's really no point in downloading Episode 1 (the standalone version of which I wasn't able to get working, anyway).  Odder still, when you complete Episode 1 and after the credits roll, you're kicked back to the menu rather than automatically starting Episode 2.  It's also weird how Episode 1 starts with a skippable introduction by the author.  Not only would it have been better served as a simple readme.txt, he mentions at one point favoring circles over squares as a design philosophy--and then proceeds to never feature any of the edgeless safety cubes he's showing.

This all rather encapsulates my experience with Factum Solus: undeniably talented craftsmanship beset with some bizarre decisions.  Par examplĂ©, instead of elevators the test chambers use grav lifts.  When you use them, it cuts to a third-person perspective to show Chell being launched, cuts back to first person once you're in the shaft, loads the next map, then reverts back to third-person to show your arrival.  Not only does it take you out of the experience, he abandons the perspective change come Episode 2 so it's not even consistent.  All of which doesn't even answer the question of why he decided to use grav lifts instead of the standard elevators in the first place.

To keep things from getting too negative, let me expound on the 'talented craftsmanship' part.  The conceit of the mod is that there's another test participant working with you, almost as though you're playing co-op with an NPC partner.  For the most part it works pretty well, though the sound levels for her voice acting can be awfully quiet at times (I should also mention there's a new AI, BEN, who sounds like a real voice actor given a robotic filter).  There's new music as well, though it conversely can be too loud, making it difficult at times to hear.  It's somewhat telling that in his introduction, the author advises turning on captions so you don't miss any of the spoken dialogue.

The mod also features several new mechanics, some familiar from Portal 2 like the aerial faith plates and excursion funnels, and others a bit more unique like turbines and trigger fields.  I particularly enjoyed how the aerial faith plates often had multiple connected buttons, with each one that's pressed increasing how far you'd get flung.  BEN also seems a bit sloppier than GLaDOS when it comes to his test chambers, oftentimes knocking out portions while he makes minor adjustments to them.  There's also a design ethos in play where you'll swap between having both portals for one chamber and then just one for the next, for what it's worth.

It doesn't look like there's going to be an Episode 3 at this point, which leaves the experience ending on a cliffhanger.  Not to spoil anything, but it comes out of left field with no foreshadowing, so without a third part it makes for an unsatisfying conclusion.  Overall, of the three mods I've reviewed so far Factum Solus comes across as the most ambitious of the bunch, and yet I wouldn't say it necessarily stands ahead of the others.  A few fun puzzles, and none that I found aggravating, and yet its incomplete nature (assuming it wasn't meant to end here) and occasionally baffling choices hold it back from being the clear standout.

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Rexaura
Rexaura is the second Portal mod Mevious made, though this time around I chose to play it before his first.  This is because, narratively, it picks up after Portal and ends on a somewhat open-ended note, details that make it feel more suited to an opening entry than a concluding one.  There are two speaking parts, GLaDOS and the Encouragement Core, both voiced by what sounds like text-to-speech engines (in the case of GLaDOS, it's a decent approximation of the real deal).  Thematically, all of the tests focus on high energy pellets, which are later revealed to be slowly powering up a "surprise."

The mod introduces a few new mechanics, such as portals prolonging the lifespan of pellets, green pellets that never expire regardless of portals, stasis fields that hold weighted storage cubes (creating 45 degree surfaces to redirect pellets), tesla coil-like objects that destroy pellets, and trigger fields.  Mevious does a good job of introducing each new element to you before putting you to the test, and he even thought to include a line of dialogue for when a pellet hits the wrong side of a cube suspended in a stasis field, drawing attention to the fact that there are markings on the device showing you the acceptable paths.

Something to understand about Mevious is that he knows exactly what he's doing.  Nothing he does is for show--these test chambers have been designed very deliberately.  Despite how intimidating some of them might appear, the challenge simply comes from figuring out the solution; once you have it, actually performing the solution is relatively easy.  None of them rely on luck or twitch reflexes, though it is possible to solve a couple of them accidentally (pellets bouncing around the room and hitting their receptacles purely by happenstance).  And because of that, solving these puzzles can be enormously satisfying.

But as that line implies, these puzzles can be tough, a lot tougher than the mods above.  There was one I spent about 15 minutes working out, and another where I quit playing, went and sat on my couch, then thought about it for awhile until I was able to figure it out in my head.  There were a couple towards the end that completely stumped me, and I had to reference a walkthrough to see what I was missing (an approach I'd recommend over just noclipping to the exit).  Even after seeing the solutions, it still took me awhile to work out exactly how the solutions were accomplishing the objective.

The biggest challenge these tests provide is above-average spatial awareness.  You have to be able to understand what a pellet is doing in another room you can't see, oftentimes including an element of timing, and I understand how that may not be for everyone.  It's a lot to ask, but if you're willing to tie your brain in knots then Rexaura is one of the best mods for the original Portal I've come across so far.  Hell, I've gone back to earlier puzzles and discovered I'd already forgotten their solutions (because I had to devote that part of my brain to solving later ones), so top marks for replayability, too.

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Portal Pro
As I mentioned previously, Portal Pro is Mevious' first Portal mod but I chose to play it after Rexaura.  GLaDOS is back (with new dialogue using the same close approximation Rexaura later employed), but she's the only character you'll encounter (which actually works, continuity-wise, as the Encouragement Core is shut down at the end of Rexaura).  The story climaxes in a boss fight (something I neglected to mention Rexaura lacks), which leads to a self-destruct sequence and you escaping from the facility.  So you can see why I think it might work better when played after Rexaura instead of before.

On the flip side, the only mechanic you'll see here that's new to Portal is the trigger field, which could be construed as something of a letdown after the multiple new mechanics in Rexaura.  Though in this case, the fields trigger when you pass through them, whereas in Rexaura they were triggered by the high energy pellets.  Unlike Rexaura, the emphasis in Portal Pro is simply on opening/reaching the exit of each test chamber, though it adheres to Mevious' design philosophy of "difficult to figure out but easy to do."  Though you certainly could portal peek, the chambers can be solved without such exploits.

Interestingly, I felt like I got stuck more in Portal Pro than I did in Rexaura, and yet when I turned to walkthroughs for the solutions it often ended up being something I simply overlooked.  It also seems like it's possible to solve some puzzles differently from the intended way (there was one I solved that, upon watching walkthroughs, saw solved not just one but two different ways than I did).  I'm not sure if this is because Portal Pro, being Mevious' first Portal mod, is not as refined as his later work, or if it's actually intentional and meant to be less restrictive than Rexaura turned out to be.

As far as the boss fight is concerned, it's similar to Portal's but amped up in some appropriate ways (multiple rocket turrets, sections of the floor giving way, moving walls that will crush you/sweep you into pits).  It's certainly more clear what you're supposed to be doing than in Gamma Energy's boss fight, though the timed escape that follows could use some better signposting (you end up circling back around to an area outside GLaDOS' chamber, but from there it isn't clear what you're supposed to do next).  It also, oddly, features a troublesome ladder despite none of the previous ones giving me any such problems.

One final thing I want to mention is how, in the later stages of the mod, you escape GLaDOS' clutches and go behind the scenes, revisiting some earlier chambers.  This I feel is particularly well done, as they're from earlier in the mod where you only had access to the blue portals.  As you now have access to the orange portals as well, you end up being able to do more with the chambers than you previously could in a way that feels very organic.  Regardless of the order you play them in, when taken together Mevious' mods are thus far the best Portal mods I've had the chance to play, arguably surpassing Portal itself.  I definitely recommend them.

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Note: Apparently the way Steam handles things has changed somewhat since I last played any mods.  If you find yourself having trouble getting some of these to launch, you may need to update the gameinfo.txt as seen here.  Don't let the mention of Linux fool you, the solution worked for me (though not all of the mods they mention there needed the fix to work).
« Last Edit: April 25, 2022, 12:10:08 AM by Doc_Brown »
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Offline Doc_Brown

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Re: Portal 1 mod reviews
« Reply #1 on: April 25, 2022, 04:23:55 PM »
I think I'm going to call it quits here, unless anyone has any other Portal 1 mods they'd like to recommend.  Going off of ModDB's rankings, the ones I've reviewed so far are the top five story-based mods available.  There are some highly rated maps/map packs available, and lower rated mods with narrative elements, but in terms of 'total package' I'm not seeing much else.  The only other Portal 1 mod aside from Rexaura to get Greenlit on Steam is Portal: Outside Influence, and that still hasn't been released after seven years in development.  Aside from that, I'm not sure there's anything else potentially coming out in the future...
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Offline Silver Sorrow

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Re: Portal 1 mod reviews
« Reply #2 on: April 30, 2022, 09:05:04 AM »
I miss games whose mods consisted of new maps. Maybe I'm just playing the wrong games.
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Offline Starfox

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Re: Portal 1 mod reviews
« Reply #3 on: May 01, 2022, 11:11:10 AM »
I wouldn't say mods are a thing of the past because they are still pretty much alive for most games, however developers make it more and more difficult to develop any mod more complex than cosmetic changes, when they even support mods at all.


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