Teetering on the Mirror's Edge


— 11:43 AM on December 29, 2008

Mirror's Edge was by far one of my most anticipated games of the bumper crop of holiday titles that have sprouted up over the last couple of months. I've long been a fan of free running—otherwise known as parkour—and quite enjoyed its basic implementation in Assassin's Creed. Mirror's Edge promised an entire game build around the concept, and with a unique look and feel, to boot. Be still my beating heart.

I've spent the last few weeks making my way through Mirror's Edge's single-player campaign, and it's been quite a journey. The first thing that grabbed me was the game's distinct sense of style. There's an overexposed starkness to the world, with dramatic splashes of color giving an artsy feel to what otherwise feel like artificially sterile environments. Everything has an air of almost hipster coolness.  Fixed gear bicycles (that you sadly can't ride) dot the outdoor levels; most of the admittedly thin story is told through artsy animated cut scenes; and you play Faith, a female protagonist with edgy hair, tattoos, camel-toed ninja sneakers, and a remarkably uninflated chest.

As a new intellectual property, Mirror's Edge essentially started with a blank slate. The developers certainly took full advantage of the freedom that affords, crafting a beautifully distinctive take on an oppressive near future. You get an unencumbered view of this world, too, through an essentially HUD-less first-person perspective interrupted only by an optional crosshair to prevent dizziness.

DICE's decision to make Mirror's Edge a first-person affair was a controversial one given the game's focus on precise acrobatics and high-speed environmental interaction. However, the speed of the game really does lend itself to the first-person perspective, which becomes all the more immersive as you accelerate. Free running's mantra is to always move forward, and Mirror's Edge rewards those who maintain their momentum. You spend most of your time bounding across rooftops and through open indoor environments littered with opportunities to run across walls, vault over obstacles or slide under them, and even ride the odd zip line. This all feels great at speed, and the game nicely highlights potential routes and launch points when you're moving at full gallop, making it a little easier to keep your flow going from one daring stunt to the next. Building up speed also unlocks bullet time runner vision, which lets you slow the action to plan your next move.

Fluid free-running in Mirror's Edge requires perfectly-timed jumps, slides, and 180° turns, which is a pretty basic set of actions, all things considered. On the Xbox 360, these moves are tied to the triggers and shoulder buttons. Maybe it's because every other game puts jump on the thumbpad, but this shoulder-based control scheme just doesn't work for me. The game does serve up a few alternative configuration options. However, these options simply shuffle the function of the shoulder buttons and triggers without actually moving any of them to the thumbpad.

Fortunately, the upcoming (and PhysX-eye-candy-infused) PC version of Mirror's Edge should provide more flexibility on the key binding front. Hopefully this port dials in the mouse controls properly, too. Mirror's Edge rewards precision and timing, both of which should be easier with a keyboard and mouse.

The penalty for failing to perfectly execute acrobatics varies from a merely inconvenient—but still quite frustrating—loss of speed to a fatal plummet to the pavement with your cargo pants flapping loudly in the wind. It's hard enough to link together acrobatic moves to get you from one end of a level to the next, and then the game throws armed guards, snipers, and hail-of-death-bringing helicopters into the mix. Initially armed only with your fists, you have to rely on melee attacks and carefully-timed disarming moves to subdue those you can't sprint past. The ability to take weapons from your opponents does give you a fighting chance, but the game doesn't play well as a shooter, and you have to drop any acquired weapons to run.

Combat is what really breaks Mirror's Edge for me. I found it quite difficult to switch gears mentally between route finding and dodging bullets, and it doesn't help that melee skirmishes generally feel awkward from the first-person view. A third-person perspective would have made Faith's arsenal of momentum-fueled attacks much easier to use effectively, and it might've made the combat engaging rather than an annoying distraction. One can apparently finish the game without firing a single shot, but more often than not, the only way I could get through combat sequences was to pick off enemies methodically one at a time—a tedious process for a game that otherwise encourages speed.

I'm sure my old-man reflexes and lack of first-person thumbstick mastery made the combat in Mirror's Edge all the more difficult, but there are other areas where the game slows down for no apparent reason. While some indoor environments are open enough to pick up speed, others are almost claustrophobic in comparison and entirely devoid of opportunities to accelerate. What's worse, you're even sent slowly crawling across ducting and through vents; this might work for Splinter Cell, but in a game that doesn't reward stealth, it's hard to see the point.

Mirror's Edge truly shines when you're sprinting across open environments, stringing together daring feats of urban gymnastics. The single-player campaign has entirely too many distractions from the game's otherwise intoxicating free-running mechanics, but once you've cleared levels, you can revisit them in time trial and race modes that drop combat in favor of a purer parkour experience. Routes become much easier to master without bullets flying through the air, and while these modes remain quite challenging, I've yet to find them frustrating.

Based on the reviews and forum chatter I've seen online, most Mirror's Edge players seem to prefer these alternate modes. The game's developers appear to be listening, too. DICE has already released a trailer for an upcoming time trial level pack that takes free-running into an entirely abstract new world rich with acrobatic opportunities.

Part of me worried that free running would be too gimmicky to carry a game, let alone a potential franchise. As it turns out, I think the reverse is true—the best shot Mirror's Edge has at becoming more than a blip on the radar is to focus on its unique parkour perspective and fresh visual style. Mirror's Edge may not be the game I hoped for, but it looks like the franchise is moving in the right direction, and I'm eagerly awaiting the next chapter.

   
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