Game Pile: Mirror’s Edge

With the announcement at E3 that EA, seemingly running out of things to keep people from just outright hating them, are planning on releasing Mirror’s Edge 2, I felt it appropriate to go back and look at Mirror’s Edge, the original flawed gem. A four year old game, Mirror’s Edge has benefited in parts from the lowered expectations and price point it now enjoys. The game had to break ground, to declare itself new and innovative, and to stand up in an environment of an increasingly stagnant industry and do something that was not about guns, was not about dudebros, was not about fighting, but was about moving and surviving. Four years on, we know that the work Mirror’s Edge started would be harder still to do now. What did I say, years ago, when I played Mirror’s Edge?

Mirror’s Edge is a… god, I hate this part of summarising a game’s existence, but here we go anyway… platform game that synthesises together the French art of Parkour with a first-person perspective. That perspective, a long-standing utility of the action/shooter genre, has become so fundamentally tied to the idea of run-and-gun combat that very few game designers have attempted to use it for anything else. There’ve been a few first-person adventure games (and indeed, in the early days of first-person engines, it was one of the best ways for adventure games to use limited graphical resources), but for the most part, there’s a native ‘S’ that follows ‘FP.’ When you take First-Person games into the action genre, there are things that are just expected.

This expectation – and defying it – makes Mirror’s Edge a breathtaking, refreshing take on its genre, even if that genre is perhaps small by definition. If one were to consider Mirror’s Edge to be a first-person game that involves a lot of action, reaction-time based stuff and, by necessity, guns, and therefore in the same genre as Halo and Quake (which, by the way, aren’t the same type of game), then it’s a very new take on the genre.

If you consider it to be a platform game, pursuing various death courses in one’s escape from a variety of threats, then it’s a unique way of looking at those, too – no longer are you somehow distant from these events, prescient of the guards behind you, giving you an opportunity to duck conspicuously large bullets, estimating distances from a perspective that grants a sort of omniscience. Nope, you’re in the experience, the distances are things you must gauge as your character gauges them, and your awareness of your environment is as hers is. She lends you insight – key details of her environment are highlighted well in red, meaning that, hypothetically, as you immerse yourself in the experience, you can make extensive sequences of improbable movements without needing to stop and assess your environment, internalising that flow. This creates in the player a real high, the sort of thing you get when you win a dangerous fight in other games, and the game is well-equipped to deliver this experience in almost all its forums – it is designed with this sense of flow in mind, replacing combat without attempting to replace victory.

No matter how you slice it, Mirror’s Edge is something new. That is, in my opinion, a good thing, a very good thing, something worth celebrating. Yet, while the principle is worth noting, the newness is well-worn off a game four years old. When one sets aside the novelty of what it tries to do, we are left with an unfortunate example of a decent game which had all the potential to be great. It is a game which is crafted of equal parts of glorious splendour and colosally frustrating failure.

Given that it’s a game of ups and downs, I figure it’s best to try and split the discussion in half, with two simple directions. What’s good about it?

The Highs…

By what I understand of the principles that underscore parkour, Mirror’s Edge is the purer parkour game that exists. While it’s part of a rising trend right now to include parkour’s realistic-but-seemingly-not physical acrobatics in video games, the other games that share this trend – Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia being mainstream examples – Mirror’s Edge is the first one to not glorify it. That might seem momentarily counterproductive, but one of Parkour’s principles is to be as efficient as possible, not to do anything for display. It’s not like sticking close to the philosophical principles of a French martial art gets the game any points, and numerous players have bemoaned to me how a game with such rich aesthetic potential lost much of it by hiding the most beautiful performance.

Playing Mirror’s Edge, the visuals are going to just pop out at you. It’s bright, there are primary colours, they contrast distinctly with the commonly-used base of white, and a bright blue sky. Even the inner workings of places like sewers and ship engine rooms are brightly painted with distinctive tones of green (which really, is a bit weird, but hey), red, yellow and brighter greys. After being told by the Playstation game catalogue for the past ten years that ‘good’ graphics come in the three-tone catalogue of mud, blood, and muzzle-flare, Mirror’s Edge defies a status quo that four years on has only calcified, and dives full-bodied into bright and bold colours. Rather than going for pure visual spectacle in its setpieces, like Uncharted and its ilk, with context-sensitive platforming where you wiggled near spots and pressed buttons until you hopefully found the ‘advance game’ option, Mirror’s Edge sought to make its landscape a place people might live and work while simultaneously creating pathways for the player to pursue that formed out of organic components.

The characters also look good! Faith has a character design that defies a lot of common wisdom. She looks good – not my flavour, but she looks good – she’s dressed sensibly as a traceusse, and she’s shown that she distinguishes herself from a fairly uniform, predictable social environment with individual expression like her tattoos. She hasn’t got the same sense of overdesigned unnecessaryness that you see in characters like War and their ilk; she’s got a very practical, sensible design that further emphasises the ‘realness’ of the setting.

The game does a lot with its architecture – you’re always moving around, and as a platforming game, there’s a large amount of ‘space’ spent by the level design. You’re always interacting with things much bigger than yourself – climbing a skyscraper from the inside, running around inside a mall’s inners, and even a massive storm drain. The finest work of the game, however, is when it puts you out under a wide-open sky, and lets you feel the wind in your hair, as it were. The rooftop climbing, teetering-falling-oh-shit-here-comes-the-ground feel of the early game is stifled, however, as the last part of the game focuses on enclosed spaces. Spaces that aren’t claustrophobic, but after the wide open spaces with many different paths that the first half of the game showed you, those small, confined spaces feel positively cruel.

… And the Lows

The game, lacking combat’s simple visceral pattern and action-movie aesthetic to create a plot for you, has to work its own story, told between missions through cutscenes, segregating the narrative and the game experience in a way that some hate and is to me merely unfortunate. You’re rarely pulled out of the action and put into cut scenes – though those cut scenes, in a different style, tend to be jarring. The story is not particularly immersive nor particularly well made, which is unfortunate compared to how immersive the parkour can be. This is particularly sad to me, because I’ve since heard from the writer – Rhianna Pratchett, who’s more or less responsible for the whole character dynamic of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – that most of what she wrote had to be cut. I know she can write, I’m confident that she can write well, but the story she had room to create in this game, after all the cuts, is not very well-reinforced by the game, nor is it a particularly good story. It’s a simple story, with essentially, three characters; An Enemy, a Rescue, and A Protaganist. If you watch the game with an eye to its story, you will see routinely the rough edges that suggest something had to be shorn away. Hell – I rewatched the original trailer presented on Steam today, and only then found that cops pursuing Runners is odd.

On a more mechanical note, guns and their presence in combat is interesting, but ultimately frustrating. You can steal guns from opponents – and that’s very cool and fun. I tried to play the game like Elliot from Leverage for a good while there, taking guns away from people, beating them senseless, and tossing the gun over my shoulder. Unfortunately, this method becomes incredibly hard, and the gun combat you have to deal with is even harder. Guns aren’t very accurate, your enemies are all heavily armoured, and while your opponents have large ammo clips, you can maybe milk two or three defeated enemies out of any gun you get. I still love the takedown-and-disarm style of combat, and the cinematics for it are very satisfying, but trying to execute them regularly sits on the ‘frustrating’ side of difficulty.

That frustration carries through to some of the worst parkour, too. It’s ultimately a game about being very fragile and also very threatened, either by gravity or by guns. You can just die in this game, and the result is a reload. This is one area where game designers need to grab their programmers and shake them by the collar; when failure is common, and repetition is the result, you have to make iteration fast. In Super Meat Boy, you are generally only ever 5-10 seconds away from where you were when you died, and a reload is almost instant. The same is true of Hotline Miami, where you are one button press and an instant flick from where you wish to be. Mirror’s Edge has longer reloads, which can exacerbate frustration.

Remember that brilliant aesthetic I advocated earlier? The way the whole city looks different to the normal, trudging city crud that we’re a little too used to, thanks to a thousand other FPS games? It’s still true, but after taking that wonderful step away from the norm, it then creates a new norm. The inside of a ship’s engine room looks almost the same as a rooftop air conditioning system, which looks more or less the same as the inside of an office building or a mall. That’s not to say all the rooms are the same, but given how different a number of the locations are, they are not different enough from one another.

One final note, it’s a small one, but it’s meaningful. Years ago, I heard from, of all things, the Robocop TV series, the line Don’t Ever Forget What You Already Know. With that in mind, I want to draw to your attention, all of you making first-person platformers? When a person jumps, their eyes naturally move to look where they’re going to land. They look DOWNWARD. There were video games that did this – that did a first-person jump where your point-of-view dipped downwards – in the nineteen eighties. And you can’t even take the excuse that nobody’s done it lately, because the Metroid Prime and Metroid Hunter games did it! Graarrgh, such a simple thing, done so badly.

Verdict

Mirror’s Edge is a bargain-bin buy at ten dollars, and I would personally recommend it worth a try at that rate. That said, if you’re a little thin on money and want a game you can play again and again for as much as a month or more for that money, then I’m reluctant to recommend it the same way. Some people will thrive in it, with its time trial levels and its challenge modes – if you find the experience fun, if you find excellent execution fun, then this game will definitely reward you. Also, it’ll give you context for what’s changed in the upcoming sequel, which I imagine will be someone’s exclusive title.

Buy it if:

  • You want to sample a different approach to the FPS genre.
  • You like bright, colourful environment design.
  • You want a short experience with replayability with a robust difficulty curve.

Avoid it if:

  • You have motion sickness problems with head-bob in videogames.
  • You are easily frustrated by re-attempting levels.
  • You need a very strong, well-enforced plot to build immersion.

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