It gets better after the first time: Mirror's Edge impressions


— 1:32 PM on February 4, 2009

If you were reading this blog last year, you'll know I was pretty excited about early glimpses of Mirror's Edge. When reviews of the full game started cropping up, however, my enthusiasm subsided. People booed the title for being too difficult, too confusing, too short, and too frustrating. Geoff echoed some of those criticisms after playing the console version last year, and I ended up buying the PC version some time after its release, largely because I was getting bored with Left 4 Dead.

As I finally started playing earlier this month, I could definitely relate to some popular complaints: certain parts of the game felt needlessly frustrating, requiring perfectly timed acrobatics in the midst of enemy fire. I found combat awkward, and I could never get the hang of some moves, like disarming bad guys. The PC controls did feel right, like this was an original PC game and not a console port, but that didn't make it any less difficult. (Disclaimer: I've never played the console version.)

Still, something about the art direction and the overall feel of the game enthralled me, because I felt compelled to start a new game almost immediately after blowing through the main campaign. Suddenly, everything seemed to feel right. It's like the first playthrough was a sort of practice run, and I was finally experiencing what the developers intended. I could effortlessly disable armed foes and lunge my way across rooftops, timing jumps perfectly and chaining wall-runs with lethal kicks.

I'll be the first to admit that Mirror's Edge is difficult and unforgiving no matter how much you play. The story feels convoluted and cliched, the voice acting is awful, and the whole thing could be a bit longer. However, whereas my first playthrough was a mix of fun, awe, and frustration, my second one was pure enjoyment. Almost to an intoxicating degree.

In fact, I started a third game on the highest difficulty setting last night after completing my second playthrough. With the exception of some racing titles and Lucas Arts adventure games, I've almost never picked up a game again after completing it. I often mean to—like with Fallout 3 and Portal—but I either don't follow through or get bored a couple of hours in. And generally, the more frustrating a game is, the less likely I am to play it more than once. What makes Mirror's Edge different, then? Why am I still looking forward to beating it a third time?

Somehow, I think there's something uniquely satisfying about leaping across rooftops in first-person perspective in a brightly lit proto-utopia. Maybe it's my body telling me to get more sunlight and exercise, but the visceral feeling of speed and motion, the beautiful art direction, the sound effects, and the music all add up to create something really special. Some folks criticize Mirror's Edge for not being a third-person game, but I think that misses the point—if it were a third-person title, it'd just be yet another Tomb Raider clone (albeit a very pretty one). In first-person mode, this game really makes the player feel like an integral part of the running, leaping, close combat, and fleeing.

Even aside from the well-implemented free-running and art direction, there's just something unique about Mirror's Edge. How many games encourage running over combat? How many games penalize players for carrying weapons? For once, you're not a walking gun shop wrapped in a hundred layers of Kevlar. You can still take a beating, but forget about trying to take on multiple armed enemies at once—you'll get shot or pistol-whipped before you can say "how do you do." Tackling the touchy subjects of civilian surveillance and the surrender of civil liberties is unusual for a video game, too, even if the story is clumsy at best and cringe-inducing at worst.

With all that said, I think my failure to enjoy the game fully the first time highlights a real problem. Mirror's Edge has a somewhat uncommon control scheme, and it requires very precise interaction with the environment. Why couldn't DICE make the training a little longer, or better yet, integrate it into the early levels like an increasing number of titles do nowadays? I expect many players don't even feel like playing a second time, and they retain a negative impression of the game as a result. That's a shame.

Before I sign off, I'd like to say a word about PhysX. Nvidia showcases Mirror's Edge like an example of PhysX integration done right, but it didn't take me long to turn that feature off. Simply put, it induces a significant frame rate hit, and most of the PhysX additions are barely noticeable—more realistic broken glass after shattering a window, fancier smoke effects, random debris, etc. DICE also added destructible pieces of cloth, tarp, and translucent plastic sheeting throughout the game, but those often look out of place. In one instance, I found a small crawlspace where a pristine plastic sheet was separating a ventilation fan and the switch controlling it. Is that really the best PhysX has to offer?

   
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