Still Alive, the Portal project headed for Xbox Live Arcade, was shrouded in secrecy for a long time. Apart from the title and the intended download outlet, little more was known. Was it a sequel to Valve's surprise reality-warping first-person puzzler? A spin-off? An expansion pack?
Well, it's certainly not a sequel. If anything it's a compilation, a hefty 631MB download which contains the original and much praised Portal game, along with a chunk of new material. Fourteen additional Challenge Maps, based on the 2D maps from the Flash version and accessed via a separate menu option, are included under the Still Alive banner and good performance in these unlocks a further six Testchambers, which in turn have six advanced alternate layouts. That's twenty-six new Portal maps to explore in total, with a small but robust reward system built in for superlative play.
Speaking of rewards, there's a new range of Achievements to aim for, offering virtual pats on the back for such feats as tricking a rocket sentry into "destroying its own rocket when the rocket has been redirected back towards it". There's also one worth 25 Gamerpoints for only ever entering the orange portal in the main game, which I can see becoming an obsessive test of concentration and planning to rival The Orange Box's space-bound garden gnome. There's also the lure of leaderboards, given that the game was clearly designed to attract the speedrun crowd. As always, your success is measured not only in terms of how quickly you solve a puzzle, but in how many footsteps and portals you had to use.
The additional fourteen maps aren't going to trouble experienced Portal fans for very long though. They feature a few new obstacles, in the shape of red barriers that kill you on contact, and blue plasma barriers which can provide a solid surface to walk on - or form an impassable barrier. Where they differ from the transparent windows and shimmering blue barriers of the original game is that portals can be fired through both red and blue, while Companion Cubes can be dropped through red barriers without being destroyed.
Other than that, the puzzles rely on techniques already perfected in the original game. Using momentum through portals to reach higher areas, or to catapult yourself across wide gaps. Setting up a blue-to-orange-to-blue relay of linked portals to manoeuvre a vital cube out of a tight spot. And, of course, avoiding those gun turrets with their sing-song voices reassuring you that they don't mind that you've had to disable them.
It's the chatty turrets that provide the character in the Still Alive section of the package, since there's no GLaDOS to guide and torment you. Aficionados will probably spend a lot of time figuring out where in the Portal timeline these levels are set, since despite the absence of GLaDOS you are still controlling Chell, the heroine of the original game.
This is both reassuring and slightly disappointing. Obviously the thick seam of dark humour was one of the elements that made Portal so memorable, along with the final act break from convention. Trying to repeat that formula, or resurrect GLaDOS would therefore be a big mistake - the worst kind of sequelitis - and it's encouraging that Valve has avoided such corny fan service.
On the other hand, it does leave these levels feeling a little dry. The puzzles are still clever, though rarely ingenious, and there are a few hints scattered around that life behind the scenes of the Enrichment Center is not all it should be. Scrawled arrows suggest the way ahead, and an occasional scribbled cry for help can be found. Only one of the fourteen new maps requires you to go beyond the white and grey sterility of the test chambers though, in a challenge that requires you to find a way up into a chute to free some jammed cubes.
I should point out that it's entirely possible that the additional six test chambers and their advanced counterparts could contain more development in this area. Unfortunately time, and my own exhausted brain, meant that I wasn't able to complete all of those before putting fingers to keyboard.
Still, it's out on 22nd October, so you won't have to wait long to find out what we make of it. The big question, we suspect, will be how you feel about the price-tag. After all, a lot of people will already have half of this package, and unless the new content will be available as a cheaper standalone download for those who already own The Orange Box, it may be hard to justify the over-the-odds expense. We shall see.
Portal: Still Alive is due out through Xbox Live Arcade on 22nd October, and will cost 1200 Microsoft Points (GBP 10.20 / EUR 14.40).