I review a rather old game by EA DICE
On the one hand, Mirror’s Edge is an incredible game. On the other, it is flawed. However, it will definitely find a place in your heart, and you’ll find yourself overlooking its shortcomings towards the end, despite yourself.
Mirror’s Edge is a game about free running, or “Parkour” if you’re french. The idea behind Parkour is that you pick a direction, and you try and overcome any obstacles in you moving in that direction -- you try not to go around objects, rather go over or under them. Ultimately, though, it is about the joy of movement. Mirror’s Edge captures this to a tee.
In Mirror’s Edge, you play Faith, a “runner” whose job it is to deliver packages, but you have to run across rooftops because of the subversive world you live in — the story is just enough glue to hold this thing together, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. What rings true is more the atmosphere, the characters and the sentiment. However, this is where the first flaw hits: You don’t do much of this package delivery. Almost the entire game you’re being chased by cops, or are going after someone; you might deliver one solitary package. On the one hand it’s good that it gets to the point quickly. On the other, just some plain old package delivery to ease the story in a little would’ve gone a long way.
Mirror’s Edge is definitely stylistic, and takes the idea of a runner and exaggerates them to cinematic levels. As Call of Duty is about a soldier, so Mirror’s Edge is about a runner. Perhaps closer to the mark, as Dejobaan Games' “Aaa..., a reckless disregard for Gravity” (hereafter ARDFG) is to base jumping as Mirror’s Edge is to free running.
I want to take a fairly long aside here: Often when people talk about games as “art”, they’ll talk about Journey or Flower or Dear Esther or perhaps Shadow of the Colossus. Many of these are “arty” games or perhaps tackle things with a serious face, but my pick (other than Blueberry Garden, but that’s a topic for another day) would actually be ARDFG, and I’ll tell you why: Because it tells you something about base jumpers. When most people talk about games as “art”, they talk about how a game models a system, and so tells you something about society, or our interactions with one another; the obvious counter being that games don’t tell you about a personal experience. When you think about art as being about “the human condition”, ARDFG is pretty good at giving you an experience from an individual’s perspective.
On the one side is the game itself: exciting and dangerous. The points system encourages risk, but this isn’t a society-level thing. When you see winning as “getting points” (there is nothing else), then it absolutely puts you in the mindset of a risk taker. Add to the fact that you pay for new levels with “teeth”, it has a startling effect on how you measure the value of things in life.
The thing that pushes it over the edge, however, is actually the menu system. Every now and then, a dull, lifeless voice will update you on some arbitrary thing: The laundry is done, some or other thing is out of order, and so on. You can “buy” relaxation sessions, where somewhere in there is a subliminal voice of (what I assume is) your mother being disapproving. The contrast is amazing. It shows the “menus” (the outside world) as being simultaneously boring and stressful — busywork which has no value other than survival. Even the stress relief measures you can take are shown as being ineffective. The only escape is the game proper: Base-jumping, “hugging” and “kissing” the sides of buildings, trying to get faster and get more bonuses. This feels like freedom, and takes “survival” from drudgery to something that feels more like living. If you didn’t understand base-jumping before playing ARDFG, you will after.
And so it is with free running and Mirror’s Edge. You’re almost immediately in far more dangerous territory than any reasonable free runner would ever find themselves, but the experience, freedom, and danger must feel like a free runner feels. The sense of moving in one direction, devouring obstacles, smashing through doors, jumping from rooftop to rooftop. Every now and then you’ll race into an elevator for a moment’s reprieve. I found myself panting along with Faith. Not since I was a child have I actually physically leaned left or right to try and make a particular jump. The sense of encompassing Faith is quite incredible.
This is in no small part due to having the arms and legs displayed. You also near-constantly see Faith’s shadow, and Faith’s bobbing hair. There’s a part where you’re listening to a phone conversation through a grill, and it’s both amazing and subtle that you can see Faith’s face in the shadow she casts over the grill. Despite the fact that Faith “works” similar to Half Life’s Gordon Freeman (always first person, expressionless), you still get a sense of her strength of character. You never forget that you are Faith. I was also impressed with her character — she’s possibly the only strong female lead I’ve seen in a western game or movie who manages to retain her femininity and yet appears strong. Almost all other “strong” females tend to be “men without a penis” or effectively sexless. The only exception I can think of is Sarah Connor from Terminator 2, but even she is introduced doing chin-ups.
The momentum system in Mirror’s Edge is truly magnificent. Faith will speed up as she continues to move in one direction, and will even gain momentum as you go over and under objects deftly. However, it doesn’t feel like Faith is a “physics object”, which is quite an accomplishment. A few subtle flourishes with zoomey lines also make it clear that this is a game mechanic. You get a little “lean” when you turn after you’ve been moving in one direction, and it feels great. You can tell immediately when you’ve “lost” your momentum by changing direction too fast. When you run through doors into a series of indoor corridors and have to look left and right, the “leaning” as you’re looking around really makes it feel like you just ran in there and now are looking around confused for your exit.
The way you dodge objects is also fairly clever: “Jump” to go over something, “Crouch” to go under. This mostly works a charm, and I liked it over using a single button to do “the sensible thing”, which might just mean you hold that “sensible” button for the duration of the game. However, there were a couple of times when I accidentally tapped “crouch” just before grabbing a ledge to let go and fall to my death. The suble timing there was a bit problematic. Speaking of which, the “Jump” is also the button to skip cut-scenes, which “seamlessly” come in first-person view as you’re playing. I accidentally skipped many of those, as I was expecting to jump over some object as the cut scene kicked in.
I loved the weapons and combat in the game, but not because of how effective they are, but because of how keen you are to drop a gun to get your movement back. You can punch people in the game, or if you jump and attack, you can fly kick them. This feels a little like the Matrix mod for Max Payne. Add to the fact that you can leap in all different directions to dodge attacks, and “hand-to-hand” combat may look and feel un-coordinated, but it’s still a lot of fun. Guards are mostly ineffective with guns because you run fast enough that they can’t aim at you very well. However, every now and then you’ll need to disarm a guard, which you do with a simple quick-time event. Doing this will also give you their gun for a single clip. However, you move slower and cannot jump as high. This pretty much converts “Faith: Free runner” to “Faith: Shooter”, but despite the fact that most people are probably far more comfortable behind a gun, I thought it was quite an achievement that you can get gun-play that good in the game, but still feel safer throwing the gun away.
Despite how immersive this game is, there was one area which suffered: falling to your death. This needs explanation. This game is effectively a 3D platformer in the sense that a level must be explicitly designed for the free running. This basically means that there is generally one path through a level (or, more correctly, every path through a level has been specifically designed). Generally, you’ll get subtle hints based on what’s around you, and not so subtle hints through a “free runner vision”. This basically turns objects in the world around you “red”, so you can tell where you’re supposed to be going. In addition there’s a button to point you in the right direction if you get really stuck. However, these “hints” aren’t perfect, and every now and then I’d confidently race to the edge of a building and jump off, fully expecting to find another building waiting for me, only to discover only the ground level a few hundred feet below me.
The first few times I fell to my death, it felt terrifying. However, later in the game, there are sections which are less correctly thought of as “free running” and more correctly thought of as “acrobatics”. Here, you are not thinking on your feet, rather you are trying to find a path through (or more commonly getting to the top of) a course. This breaks up the game but also slows the pace, and most importantly, by necessity, it has you failing by falling to your death. A lot. I think that in order to maintain the impact of falling to your death in free running sections, they should’ve done something like simply cut the game short before you fell down and restarted you at the previous location.
To top it all off, I didn’t even like the “puzzle solving” that much. It isn’t that it’s bad, but it isn’t great. In a game where the running is nearly orgasmic, they really did it a disservice by sticking these slow paced, error prone acrobatic sections in the game. I also didn’t like the crawling through vents sections. Every now and then, inexplicably, you will have to crawl through vents. I don’t even know why they thought this was a good idea. There’s no skill involved: you walk slowly through a drab, narrow passage. And then you get out. Splinter Cell had an excuse to do this, but Mirror’s Edge definitely doesn’t.
The ending also suffers from a slightly too often used (and massively ineffective) trope in games: Throw a ton of enemies at the player. Instead of taking all of the lessons the player has learnt thus far, and combining them into an epic challenge, you instead fight very tough guards who you cannot run around. Literally the only tactic you have at your disposal is to kill one, take their gun, then shoot all the other guards. There was a part earlier in the game where you have to run away through “training grounds” and that is probably the best 30 seconds of the game. It could’ve ended there and the game would’ve been better. Worse than the guard shooting, the “real” ending is basically a cut scene. You don’t save your sister, it all happens in a cut scene. This is also becoming a bit of a trope in games, and it was disappointing to see it here.
I was surprised that they didn’t add a little more to the hand-to-hand combat — perhaps flips or some other way to have a fluid punching and kicking system. I am a little sad that there wasn’t one big level with multiple paths through it. I would love a level where you could basically run at full pace through it and no matter which edge you jumped off you would have a building waiting for you. You would have to play it multiple times to figure out how to conserve your momentum or how to find the optimum path. I also missed a general lack of levels at ground level. There are a few, but they don’t have the kind of pace to them that you might expect from a game like this. Racing through streets being chased by the police, running into and out of buildings, jumping over fruit carts. Why was there no level where you started at ground level and slowly went up levels until you ended up at the top of a very tall building? Why did the ending not have you grab your sister and run, creating new paths for her to travel as you raced through a rapidly changing landscape of cranes, trucks, or crumbling buildings?
In the end, all of these disappointments are basically because the game is so darn good. The game is beautiful, adorable. The characters and setting are pristine, the main mechanic superb. They had so much they can do with this, so many places they can go. I hope there’s a Mirror’s Edge 2, but if you haven’t played the first, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t play it soon.