Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: November 11, 2008
One of the more popular "obscure" activities to arise in the public eye in recent years is parkour, which is the art of getting from one place to another as efficiently and quickly as possible by using only the human body. It's somewhere between a martial art and an extreme sport, encouraging the practitioners to learn the best way to get from point A to point B, and to learn the limits of their bodies and minds. The concept of parkour is difficult to translate into a game, since the human body is capable of enough wild things that trying to replicate it in a game would be a daunting task; it's even tougher to do so without making the title feel like a Prince of Persia clone. D.I.C.E.'s Mirror's Edge is one of the first real attempts at translating parkour into a video game by using a unique first-person view in order to give the title an unprecedented sense of motion and speed, and while it doesn't quite succeed, it provides an experience unlike any other game on the market.
Mirror's Edge is set in the not-so-distant future in a pseudo-utopian city. It is a beautiful glistening mirror of a city, but only kept so by the fascist police-state government that rules it. All communications and electronics are tapped, and the few who rebel against the state must rely on Runners to pass messages to one another. Runners are the best of the best, skilled human beings who can traverse the city's landscape using parkour and deliver the goods right under the nose of the police. Mirror's Edge puts you in the role of Faith Conner, a top-notch Runner who has just gotten back into the game after a nasty fall. Unfortunately for her, as soon as she gets back in, she discovers that her sister, a police officer, has been framed for the murder of a mayoral candidate. Now she has to try to clear her sister's name while trying to discover the secret of Project Icarus, a strange organization that threatens Runners everywhere.
Mirror's Edge, as with so many new games nowadays, is clearly designed as a franchise, and unfortunately, the plot follows that. The game begins strong, with an interesting setup and a solid plot hook, but the plot stops roughly about there. You get a few hints as to what Project Icarus might be, a few dropped hints toward who might be behind it and why, but few questions are answered. Instead, the plot simply… ends. There is no satisfying climax or even something that remotely resembles an ending. It just cuts off with what might as well be a giant neon sign saying to buy the sequel. While this has become a rather frustratingly common thing with recent games, few do it as badly as Mirror's Edge, which doesn't even bother to provide any sort of satisfaction to your quest at that point, let alone the overarching story.
Mirror's Edge is built around a three-button setup. Your left and right analog sticks perform the usual moving-and-looking controls that every FPS uses, but performing Faith's acrobatic maneuvers is something unique. Your buttons are context-sensitive, so when and where you press them causes different effects. Your left bumper performs upwards movements, such as climbing, jumping and wall-running, while your left trigger is for "downward" movements. Press this to duck, slide under obstacles, or to roll when you're about to hit the ground. Finally, the right bumper causes you to perform a 180-degree turn, no matter where you are. You can string together all of these abilities to perform rather impressive parkour moves. You can wall-run across a wall, press the right bumper to turn and face the opposite direction, quickly jump across before Faith falls, or bound over a low-hanging pipe and then slide under another, allowing you to quickly traverse obstacles. The only sad part is that there really isn't much variety to your moves. What I've listed above is basically the extent of it. You can string them together in interesting ways, but you're going to see basically everything you can do in the game's first level.
Beyond her acrobatic abilities, Faith also can fight. It should be noted that the game doesn't encourage fighting, but it's unavoidable sometimes. Faith can only sustain two or three hits and usually doesn't carry weapons. Combat is done entirely using the left trigger. You press it to punch, and you can press it in conjunction with your movement buttons to do various other attacks, such as a sliding kick or a jump kick. The combat is rather awkward and twitchy, and hit detection is spotty at best. It certainly encourages you not to fight enemies, but when you actually must, it gets tiresome. The game's only boss battle, which occurs midway through, is a hand-to-hand fight against another Runner, and despite being what should be an interesting and epic fight, it becomes a tedious and uninteresting back-and-forth instead.
The "good" news is that except for the aforementioned boss fight, you'll never have to use the hand-to-hand fighting anyway due to the rather silly Disarm system. You can disarm an enemy by taking his weapon and instantly killing him by moving close and pressing Y when his weapon flashes red. It turns all fights into a one-hit joke. There were multiple hilarious occasions where I would just move from enemy to enemy, disarming them in rapid succession with the exact same animation time after time after time, simply because it was so quick and easy to do. Once you disarm an enemy, you get his gun.
Gunplay in Mirror's Edge is lackluster at best. You aim and fire as you would in any first-person shooter, with the "punch" button turning into a "shoot" button any time you have a gun. Faith is slow and inaccurate, and most of the time, I found it more efficient to simply toss the gun aside and disarm another enemy instead. Unfortunately, the last part of the game all but turns it into an FPS, throwing weapons at you and requiring you to either fight with the weak melee controls or the weak gun controls. It's a lose-lose situation, but at least the gun is faster.
You must get Faith to her destination by taking whatever routes the world provides you and going with the flow of the rooftops. You'll jump from building to building, shimmy along pipes, and slide down ziplines. The game provides a "Runner's Vision" effect that can guide you, but it isn't very helpful. The way "Runner's Vision" works is that something that can lead you to the next area will glow bright red in Faith's vision, standing out harshly against the backdrop. Not all objects glow, but they're almost the most obvious and evident of the things you need to get past. It doesn't really help to make pipes or vents glow, since the gamers will quickly figure out that those are their goals, and the areas that actually require some thought provide few hints as to where to go.
The first level in Mirror's Edge is pretty darn fun. You're running over rooftops, leaping from building to building and following the flow of the architecture to keep ahead of the police. Then comes the second level, and the first thing you'll notice is that things suddenly feel very familiar. The sense of déjà vu only continues in the third level because each level in Mirror's Edge is basically identical to the last. Sure, Faith is living in a neo-fascist state that hates expression, but the result is that every single area is a uniform design and shape. It gets boring really quickly, especially once you end up going inside and the major difference between building A and building B is that has green lighting and one has yellow lighting. To makes matters worse, as the game progresses, you go inside more and more often, and that results in far less running over rooftops and far more crawling through vents. This problem plagues the entire game, and while Faith's acrobatics are fun, your playground feels quite limited. There are a few areas that really shine, but they're few and far between, which makes the uninteresting areas all the more frustrating.
For a game about parkour, there certainly isn't much freedom of movement involved with Mirror's Edge. Each of the game's levels has a fairly straightforward and linear path that you must follow in order to get to where you're going. The end result is that despite it being a game about seeing the "flow" and going with the movement of the city, there are a lot of situations where you feel shoehorned in to the developer's path. It still feels that way even if you turn off the Runner's Vision, and the opportunities for branching out are few. There are a few occasions where I was able to use a particularly lucky jump to skip past an obstacle, but more often than not, it felt like I was glitching through instead of coming up with a clever parkour movement.
There are a few branching areas in the game, but they mostly involve deciding between climbing one object or another. Another frustration is that the title's "grabbing" system doesn't always work correctly. Sometimes, for no clear reason, Faith will decide not to grab onto an object that is well within her reach. At best, this means a few seconds of fighting with the controls, and at worst, it means she falls to her death and you restart from the last checkpoint. This occurs just often enough to be annoying, although once you get the hang of things, you can work around the situations where it would be common, but that further limits your freedom.
The level design gets worse as Mirror's Edge goes on, with the later levels having only a few bright moments to make up for their unbelievably short length and huge overemphasis on combat. You go from traveling across rooftops and scaling buildings to crawling through vents and, in one particularly egregious moment, sniping a convoy from a rooftop. The parkour moments become fewer and fewer, replaced with awkward combat against repetitive enemies. The entire last stage felt more like a bad first-person shooter with better-than-average jumping puzzles, instead of a first-person running title. It isn't fun or exciting, and the peak of the game comes a few levels before it ends, forcing players to grind through a few more tedious stages to see the atrociously bad ending. Considering the game is only about five to six hours long, it's particularly stressing that it manages to outstay its welcome in that brief period of time. Also especially annoying is how the game handles particularly long load areas. Like Mass Effect, Mirror's Edge takes care of a lot of loading by placing your character in an extremely slow elevators. So despite being a game about fast-running and getting to amazing highs quickly, sometimes you get stuck in a boring small box for upwards of 30 to 40 seconds.
After you've finished the game, you'll be able to undergo Speedruns and Time Trials, which are where the bulk of your playtime will be spent, assuming you're the kind of gamer who enjoys perfecting his or her times. These modes challenge you to defeat various levels in a certain period of time, encouraging you to beat developers' challenges or even ghost times imported from Xbox Live. Doing well will allow you to post you own online time for others to challenge, and it occasionally unlocks new Time Trial areas for you to race in. Unfortunately, most of these areas are simply rehashes of the same areas that you ran through in single-player mode. While it's a great way to perfect your gameplay, there isn't really anything here for gamers who are not interested in getting fast times. The game does offer a hard mode, but the primary difference there is more challenging combat; taking the game's least fun attribute and making it more difficult is not exactly something that is going to bring gamers rushing back for a second playthrough.
Mirror's Edge is a visually striking game. The contrast of the dull white environment with the few bits of color really makes it stand out, especially among the dull browns and grays that tend to populate games nowadays. Unfortunately, this same visually striking look doesn't carry over to the game's cut scenes, which, some bizarre reason, is told through third-person cut scenes that look like rejected Esurence commercials. They are ugly Flash-style cinematics with terrible frame rates and awkward lip-synching; they feel more like placeholders for cut scenes that should have existed. What is even odder is that the game features some in-engine first-person cut scenes, and these are significantly more effective and visually interesting than the awful cinematics, yet for some reason, they decided to go with the Flash animations.
Mirror's Edge is a shining example of when a game concept idea doesn't live up to its idea. The movement controls are solid and the graphics top-notch, but everything else just doesn't work. The level design begins excellent and grows progressively worse. The combat is awkward and tedious, and even as the levels grow less fun, the game throws more and more combat at you, as if hoping to distract you. To top it off, the title is remarkably short and the plot deeply unsatisfying. Mirror's Edge is a game brimming with potential that realizes little of it, and one can only hope that D.I.C.E. provides more polish for their all-but-inevitable sequel, but for this game, a rental should suffice.
More articles about Mirror's Edge