Woah, it’s been a while, and there are a few releases in the world of modding for me to catch up on! While I may be a little late to the party, where better to start than by taking a trip into the darkest depths of everyone’s favourite scientific research establishment (sorry Black Mesa) in Portal Stories: Mel?
After four years in development by a reasonably large team, Mel is by far the most ambitious Portal mod ever released, and in terms of production values probably among the most polished Source mods. We begin in the 1950s, as one of Cave Johnson’s new Olympian test subjects steps off a tram into Aperture Science Innovators. Unfortunately things don’t go entirely to plan; the test of a short-term relaxation chamber leaves us frozen in time until sometime after the events of the original Portal. The subsequent journey takes us through every era of Aperture’s history in environments which are always richly detailed and sometimes breathtakingly expansive.
How long that journey will take you depends largely on your puzzle solving expertise. This mod goes far beyond the difficulty level seen in Portal 2 and will likely take several hours to get through, but thankfully the challenge comes from lateral thinking rather than any sneaky or contrived solutions. Test chambers are varied in size and approach but will never require speedy manoeuvring; it’s usually clear what you’re trying to achieve, although on some occasions it may take you a long time to figure out how.
There is far more on show here than just sterile testing environments though, and a couple of new characters help to move the story forward. The main plot is relatively straight-forward but conveyed well through the use of a lot of competent voice acting, and aided by a new soundtrack from Portal film-maker Harry101UK. To be commended is the mod’s ability to create atmospheric moments and set-pieces, managing to be mysterious, scary or exciting on many occasions. It rarely moves into the overtly comedic territory that Portal 2 tended to, which in my opinion is a plus.
It is difficult to criticise a mod which is not only lengthy and ambitious, but also so much fun and well executed overall. It should be mentioned that the scale of levels can have its drawbacks, as players with low-end hardware will experience performance issues in some places. I also had a couple of strange glitches and even hard crashes, but it’s hard to lay too much blame on the developers for this.
Portal Stories: Mel feels less like a mod than an expansion pack; it is to Portal 2 a lot like Opposing Force is to Half-Life. And when it does some things better than Valve themselves, that is an achievement to be commended.