Once upon a time, Portal 2 was being developed as a game without portals. We all know how that worked out, but I’ve always been intrigued with that idea. The entirely new category of first person puzzler requires more than just portals after all, it needs some variety. The makers of Aperture Tag share my sentiments, and have lovingly crafted a Portal 2 mod campaign using only a paint gun and its gel mechanics. Portals are used sparingly as testing elements, but 90% of this run through Aperture’s test chambers will be spent bouncing across gaps and speeding around sharp banks, waiting for just the right moment to paint a surface or move a cube remotely. It brings a satisfying and quick new dimension to Portal levels, and even includes Workshop support for endless replayability after the main campaign is finished. Some may be put off by the idea of paying money for a mod, but anyone who takes the plunge will be pleasantly surprised by just how well this unofficial DLC stands up to the original’s sterling reputation.
You play as a nameless Aperture test subject, awoken much like Chell in Portal 2 in a fake hotel room by a new AI companion. In this case, its Nigel, the game’s sole voiced character. He drops a few hints about Aperture’s new ventures into orange juice and then whisks you away into the first set of puzzles. You eventually discover that this is Aperture after Chell has already escaped, as they are recreating test chambers that Chell discovered underground in the original game. The story isn’t actually that deep, but there are some secrets scattered around if you care to find them. The voice acting isn’t what you’d expect from an AI, but it’s fine for what it is, and there are a few chuckles to be had from his commentary. I could never really get into playing through user made Portal chambers without the voice acting surrounding every chamber, so even something amateur like this fits in better than the generic Cave Johnson lines they recorded for the main game.
Aperture Tag: The Paint Gun Testing Initiative (PC [Reviewed], Mac, Linux)
Developer/Publisher: Aperture Tag Team
Release Date: July 15th 2014
MSRP: $7 (Also Requires a Steam Copy of Portal 2)
Of course, no one expects a mod to have an amazing story campaign. What’s important are the puzzles and that’s where Aperture Tag really delivers. Having unlimited access to both gels open things up in weird and exciting ways. The blue gel allows you to bounce across the room with just a bit of momentum, and the orange gel gets you moving at almost uncontrollable speeds. You can even paint a road for yourself and zoom along surfaces. My favorite levels were ones which tested flow, or keeping your speed and momentum between bounces and across platforms. That little section ended with a race against time that was challenging like the best Super Meat Boy levels and chaotic like a game ending Halo Warthog run. After learning to think with portals all those years ago, its refreshing to have to maneuver with a whole new tool set, and each new unlocked exit is just as satisfying as I remember.
No Portal experience would be complete without your other testing elements, but nearly all of them change functions due to Aperture Tag‘s unique gameplay. Turrets are more comic relief than obstacle now that you can force them to bounce around wildly at the press of a button. Light bridges pointed straight up go from shields to just another platform to traverse while using Mario-style triangle jumping. Excursion funnels (AKA the tractor beams from Portal 2) shift from a way to get around to a way to move gels into otherwise inaccessible areas. Cubes go from a static brick to a silent co-op partner, jumping at your command with the help of blue gel. It’s all a really clever use of previously existing tech, and makes the game fit right into the franchise.
Aperture Tag does suffer somewhat from its status as a mod. Its checkpoint system is unruly, and its easy to accidentally trigger one right before killing yourself or dropping a cube, making a puzzle much harder to solve than it should of been. On top of that, due to Portal 2’s code, the developer could only add in starting points at 25% intervals of the game rather than a full chapter select, which may force some players to go through previously solved puzzle rooms in order to progress. It’s also ridiculously easy to get to places where the level designer didn’t intend for you to go due to the nature of the blue and orange gel working together. For some of the harder puzzles, this was a bit of a relief, but some might prefer a clean playthrough rather than bungling your way to a solution. Just note that, much like the other Portal games, it’s sometimes advantageous to get off the beaten path and explore the hidden hallways of the Aperture facility.
After the release of the original Half Life, Gearbox cut their teeth on a series of expansion packs like Blue Shift and Opposing Force. While not being entirely different from their game of origin, each one provided a unique experience that ventured into Valve’s expertly crafted universe. While not at official as those expansions, I would list Aperture Tag right alongside them, as it provides that same function. For diehard fans of Portal, this is a must play, especially considering how preoccupied Valve seems to be with Dota 2 nowadays. For everyone else, I’d still recommend taking a look at it. It’s a fully featured campaign that is unique, self-aware, and forces you to think on your feet. Unless you happen to be flying through the air, in which case you’re thinking with your paint gun. That happens a lot.