A developer’s video at E3 2007, and a two-stage gameplay demo released at the end of October 2008, worked me into a geek frenzy over Mirror’s Edge. The setting, a totalitarian society where packages and information you don’t want tracked are delivered by couriers called Runners, was intriguing. The graphic style, full of stark cityscapes and rooftops, was fresh. Best of all, the gameplay perspective was first person, but the focus was to be on running, climbing and traversing the city, rather than shooting. A fresh, innovative game coming out of the monolithic EA? Yeah, this had promise.
I picked up my copy shortly after the game released in early November. Did it live up to expectations? Well, sort of. Mirror’s Edge gets a lot right. The free-running areas, based on the martial art of Parkour, is exhilarating when you’re in a groove, and “Runner’s Vision,” a system that colors red specific objects that can help you find your way, is effective and unobtrusive. The combat, though, is an altogether different beast, the story is largely forgettable and the controls can be a bit fiddly. In the long run, your enjoyment of the game may come down to how well you deal with frustration.
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. The combat can be extremely frustrating. Your base set of weapons are your fists and your feet, and you can grab guns from officers and get three or four shots off before running out of ammo. The problem is, disarming officers leaves you exposed and vulnerable if others are around, getting close enough for melee combat can be unreasonably difficult in several sections, and simply running away can be just as deadly as the combat.
There are sections of the levels that might as well have “Designated Combat Arena” floating in the air, because running away simply means upwards of ten cops with a clear shot at your back. The enemies do seem set up so that you can grab a gun right at the start, and shoot your way through the rest. If you want to keep your hands blood-free, though, expect a rough road.
The story and the controls aren’t bad so much as they’re mediocre. The story revolves around Faith trying to exonerate her sister, who’s been framed for the murder of a popular, antiestablishment politician. There’s a big oppressive government out there, and some sort of massive conspiracy, but these are all, largely, secondary. The story is a lot like Portal’s, where you’re trying to infer what’s going on, but, unlike Portal, there’s not enough meat to be satisfying.
I mentioned, too, that the controls can be a bit fiddly. This comes from the combination of a control scheme that takes a while to wrap your head around, and a context-sensitive system that falls a bit short of being prescient. Jumping and crouching are controlled by the left bumper and trigger, buttons that don’t tend to see a lot of use in games. Also, it’s more “Up movement actions” and “Down movement actions” than “jump” and “crouch.” You’ll jump when running in open space, wall run if you’re approaching a wall at an angle, or try to scale the wall if you’re headed at it straight on.
This all works fairly well when you’re just running around exploring. Add in a few cops, the 180° turn button and a bit of adrenaline, though, and things can get hectic, even embarrassing. There’s nothing like hurtling towards a cop full speed, leaping in the air for a drop kick, and then accidentally hitting the turn button and thumping on your back at his feet, red-faced and ready to be shot. I’m sure that, with more dedication than I have, a player could turn crossing a level into an art form.
I wanted to get the negative out of the way, because I think this game is worth supporting and playing. Why? The free-running, Parkour aspects of the game are fantastic. The sense of speed and freedom as you race across the rooftops of the city are unlike anything I’ve experienced in a first-person game before. Imagine playing the recent Prince of Persia series from inside the Prince’s head.
In addition, I felt like I was controlling an actual person as I played Mirror’s Edge. Most first person shooters I play feel less like I’m in control of a soldier, and more like I’m a camera and a gun floating over the battlefield. Samus Aran from the Metroid Prime series stands out as a “real” character, but she never moved like Faith does.
There’s a lot of replayability in the game, as well. Time trials and speed runs add depth for those that don’t care about the multiple difficulty levels. I especially like the downloadable “ghosts,” avatars of other people’s runs that help show new routes through stages.
In the end, Mirror’s Edge is a flawed game that can be a lot of fun with the right mindset. More than that, I feel like it’s a game that needs more support than it has received. DICE and EA stepped out on a ledge with a game that’s not quite like anything we’ve seen before, rather than Battlefield 2242 or another Need For Speed game. With any luck, and a bit of support, they’ll see fit to fix the flaws in the inevitable sequel, and take a chance on other innovative titles.