Mirror’s Edge is one of the most difficult, controversial titles to talk about this year. And I don’t mean controversial in a GTA/Saint’s Row/Manhunt “Oh my god what are our children playing?!” sort of way. I mean in a way that divides people and brings up certain aspects of game design and game criticism that are becoming hard to ignore for anyone that takes these sorts of things seriously. Has Mirror’s Edge come to pit father against son?
Well, let’s start with what Mirror’s Edge is, instead of what it isn’t. It’s a first-person platformer starring the character Faith, a quasi-Asian denizen of a near-future world where Big Brother meets IKEA. The city she lives in has been polished so clean that all that’s left is the color white and various primary colors. And this PISSES HER OFF!! The city’s white-washed oppressiveness chaffes her propensity for freedom, so she turns outlaw. She becomes a Runner, a sort of badass courier that takes contraband (I guess?! It’s never satisfactorily elaborated) from point A to point B. And I guess this pays well since she has a pretty swank pad that she shares with her handler. One night, though, while listening in on the police radio, she finds out there’s been a murder of a high-profile politician in the same vicinity as her little sister’s beat. Oh yeah, her sister is a police officer. WACKY FATE. She gets there, her sister’s all flustered because it’s a set-up and Faith firmly resolves that she will find out what’s going on with all of this and clear her sister’s name.
Now if you were like me when I first saw footage of this game, you’re probably still reeling from the description of the gameplay. First-person platformer? Isn’t platforming the WORST part about first-person POV games?! Normally I’d agree, but the developer, DICE, did something really brilliant when coming up with Mirror’s Edge‘s concept: they made a parkour game. Y’know, that sport where people climb all over stuff like in the beginning chase in Casino Royale? In Mirror’s Edge, everything is based off of momentum and searching for the proper paths to take in order to do things as quickly and efficiently as possible. And you’re given a rather impressive array of athletic moves right off the bat. No having to unlock running on walls or whatever. You start off as a total wall-climbing badass. Your only limits are your dexterity and your imagination.
I imagine that this is what it felt like to play Prince of Persia for the first time way back on the PC. It puts you so fully into your character in a way that other first-person games have trouble doing. First of all, the camera’s POV is at the level of Faith’s head, instead of in the middle of her chest like FPS games. You can see her arms (and legs, if you look down) flailing around as she scurries from place to place. And something about the realistic perspective (that bobs up and down with her gait!) makes it a lot less migraine-inducing for me than other first-person games I’ve played of late, such as Half-Life 2, which I can’t play for more than half an hour without getting urpy.
And my god, the grace of your movements. When you nail a particularly challenging section without making a mistake you feel like people should be coming out of the woodwork, throwing confetti, handing you a trophy and some cold milk. :3 Running along a wall, doing a 180 turn and leaping off of it to grab onto a bar which you use to swing to a higher ledge all in one take is a particular thrill that I don’t think I’ve ever gotten from another game. Hell, even nailing a safety roll after a particularly hairy jump is uniquely satisfying. Mirror’s Edge shines when it focuses on moments like these, letting you feel like the world’s greatest athlete and daredevil.
But what could possibly ruin the fun of moving along seamlessly with a thrilling momentum? How about continually getting stopped by obstacles? Now, as thrilling as all these parkour acrobatics are, I guess DICE didn’t think they were enough to sell a game with, because they devised another way to put challenge into the game. Basically most of the levels are designed in a way where unless you know exactly how they are built ahead of the time, barreling forward and making leaps of faith (goddamn you, pun) will usually result in your (surprisingly visceral) death. So most levels become a series of trial and error obstacle courses where you die a few times just to figure out the way the designers intended for you to navigate the environment and then following suit. The game’s attempt at lessening this confusion is the inclusion of a feature called Runner’s Vision. It basically dynamically changes the colors of objects in the environment so that the next object along your path is always colored in red. Except this feature can be misleading when it triggers only when you’re a few feet away from the object or when it skips over a few obstacles you have to traverse in order to reach that particular objective. There’s sometimes (cleverly integrated) alternate paths that aren’t outlined with the Runner’s Vision feature, which is a neat addition for people that think telling you where to go like that is for babies.
But even when tricky, finicky level design isn’t stopping you in your tracks, Mirror’s Edge makes a critical mistake in halting your momentum. Since your character is running against the law in the story, you’ll often find yourself being hounded by the police. This wouldn’t be a huge concern if you could cleverly outmaneuver them, and early on in the game it’s entirely possible to do this. But entering into the game’s second half, it becomes clear that DICE lost focus on the spirit of the game because you keep having to come up against entire SQUADS of SWAT team members with flak jackets and uzis. Keep in mind that Faith is supposed to be completely unarmed for the entire game. It makes sense since lugging around a pistol in one hand would make many of Faith’s maneuvers difficult, if not impossible. But when faced with a whole team of (let’s face it) soldiers ready to gun you down, what the hell are you supposed to do about it when you’re unarmed? The developers thought they gave ample options for the player in these circumstances, but every single one of them is flawed in some fundamental way. Let’s take this one at a time.
It’s possible to disarm enemies in Mirror’s Edge by pressing a button during a certain moment of the enemy’s animation. You can tell when this is because the weapon flashes red during the window of opportunity that you have. So you can just go around neutralizing enemies, right? Wrong. The moment where you have to press the button is so brief and unforgiving that once you register that you’re seeing the weapon flash red, it’s too late to take the weapon and you’re most likely going to be smacked in the face by the enemy with it. Which puts you off your balance, making you unlikely to grab the weapon the second time which means you get smacked a second time which means you die. Yup, two hits. And if you do happen to disarm the enemy, hope you didn’t do that with any other enemies in sight since they are more than happy to shoot you full of holes during the disarming animation.
And then there’s the less-than-passive approach. Faith wouldn’t be an Asian in a video game if she didn’t come complete with badass martial arts moves. But the first-person POV makes judging distance between you and your foe a sometimes difficult proposition. Expect your standing punches and kicks to whiff a lot of the time. And then there’s the downright clunky controls. Mirror’s Edge‘s melee attacks make MGS1‘s seem graceful and intuitive by comparison. And then there’s the issue of how much these moves actually damage the enemy. Near the end of the game where you’re facing hordes of heavily-armed security guards, a devastating jumping attack or slide kick felt like throwing a pillow at a brick wall. Enemy didn’t even register I’d done anything. Assuming you do get a weapon (through disarming, there’s few portions of the game where a weapon is just handed to you), you can use it against others. Good luck, though, because aiming’s a bitch. And the game’s idea of damage detection is spotty at best. Thought you had a head shot? Merely a flesh wound!
These encounters become horribly aggravating. I tried about 50 times in one particular section, searching for some goddamn strategy that would suddenly make the whole sequence click and then I’d be able to go, “Oh, I just didn’t understand what DICE was trying to do, but now that I do, it’s obvious I was trying to do this the wrong way!” Didn’t happen. I eventually learned the ins and outs of the entire map, where enemies were placed, where I’d get a pretty-much-guaranteed one-hit kill if I dared try that path, etc. Still I couldn’t break through. I’d find all these different ways of navigating the level and each time I thought I’d be rewarded for my exploration and ingenuity by the game by giving me a simple, easy, effective way to overcome the enemies, but every time it disappointed me by remaining steadfast in its dedication to punishing the player. Eventually I just got lucky in disarming an enemy and skedaddling before I got too damaged, but sheesh. That was where I really started to resent the designers for not sticking with what the game does best.
This game is a first-person platformer. It is not a FPS. There are many other FPS games. Hell, DICE’s background is IN FPS games, which makes the iffy shooting and combat a bit unforgivable. In a game like this, where the thrill comes in discovering effective makeshift paths through an environment and navigating them as flawlessly as possible, where does plopping you into a room with a half-dozen heavily-armed guards enter into the equation? I don’t even comprehend how people go through the whole game not having to resort to weapons. There’s a part of the game near the end where you’re just confronted with a positively huge room and pressing the button that tells you where your ultimate destination is only points the camera up to somewhere near the top of the room that you can’t see. Nothing is labeled in Runner’s Vision to tell you how to get there; the game just leaves you to your task of finding the way up. And it’s a brilliant section. I was initially frustrated with not being able to see where I was going next and spent about five minutes circling around analyzing every nook and cranny. Then I began to see the pattern to it all and I felt like a genius. I’m not the first person to say it, but I’ll say it anyways: This game should’ve been like Portal. Having several set-pieces like this where it’s just a puzzle I have to use my parkour skills to solve would’ve been infinitely more rewarding (and a lot less aggravating) than punctuating moments like that with tacked-on action elements. I’d want a lot more than 19 levels to justify a $60 price tag, but that game I just described would’ve been brilliant.
Oh yeah, and I guess Mirror’s Edge was supposed to have some kind of story, too. I wouldn’t know, since it’s so gossamer-thin as to almost be invisible. The writing is extremely weak, leaning on typical tough-guy noir dialogue with nary a hint of real character to any of it. The whole thing ends up being a sort of government conspiracy, and the fact that I could (if I wanted to spoil it for anyone who cares, that is) summarize the plot in one sentence should speak volumes on how rudimentary it all is. And it was all written by Rhianna Pratchett, Terry Pratchett’s daughter? Is that supposed to be impressive? Is she a good author apart from this? Judging her on this alone, she needs to start having original, interesting ideas if she wants to keep on writing. It also doesn’t help that if you hit a mid-level checkpoint right before a cutscene and exit the game and reload from the checkpoint, it starts you just after the cutscene, meaning you never get to watch it. Happened to me a few times.
Faith as an idea for a protagonist, though, is really cool. She’s definitely one of the only women in video games that isn’t being pushed for her figure or any sort of lascivious behavior. She’s imbued with strong, individualistic character traits that are very appealing and aren’t muddied by DD cup breasts, thong underwear or cutesy moe characteristics. Some people don’t think it’s a particularly good direction for female characters to go in, however, and have shared with the Internet their own convictions in how female protagonists should be designed. I’ll leave it to each player to decide on his or her own which philosophy is best.
Honestly, I love Mirror’s Edge‘s art direction through and through. It’s probably one of the most striking games of the generation due to the vivid colors and overall brightness of the game. It’s a point that’s been driven into the ground by now, but please no more brown poo-poo-filtered games, developers. You don’t need to smear everything in excrement in order to portray realism. Anyone who’s seen the Mirror’s Edge commercial on TV can also attest to just how effective the art direction is in capturing the attention and making you want to play the game. I suppose the only caveat I have with the game’s art is the choice to portray cutscenes in a sort of 3D-ish Flash-esque type animation that resembles the eSurance commercials more than anything else. Was real-time game engine storytelling so difficult to deliver on, DICE? And one other thing from a design standpoint irked me… Where is everyone? This world seems to be comprised solely of Faith and the billions of policemen out to kill her. Every location you happen to run through, even public spaces in urban areas, is deserted. There’s a whole sequence where you go to a mall during the middle of the day and it’s a ghost town. I understand that bumping into people every few feet would make parkour next-to-impossible, but does everywhere need to look like someone just called in a bomb scare? I’d REALLY love for there to be at least ONE part in the sequel that has people milling about, just to show that, yes, people exist.
The music’s gotten some attention, too, mostly for the curiously-titled theme song, “Still Alive.” It’s a memorable little piece of Swedish pop that apparently is eminantly remixable, since it’s on a full-length album full of nothing BUT remixes from big name DJs. Is it as good as the other “Still Alive?” I wouldn’t want to rile up those particular fans, let’s just say that.
So herein lies the trap: how do you JUDGE Mirror’s Edge? Do you give it latitude for bringing so many fresh, new ideas to the table even if they didn’t all end up being successful? Or do you judge it compared to the conventions of the genre and how well it meets those expectations? There are two minds of this in the gaming criticism community, which constantly seems to believe they’re at a crossroads when it comes to how to properly critique the budding form of entertainment. I wouldn’t say they’re wrong, either, since in the past ten years there’s been a huge jump in the level of professionalism and depth of critique expected by the hardcore gaming community. Mirror’s Edge has been likened to an art-house movie, which I can sort of see, but with the level of advertising muscle put behind it, I find a little bit hard to justify. And it can frequently get a bit touchy comparing things from two different mediums of entertainment. N’Gai Croal, noted gaming PUNDIT, has a pretty fascinating article on this debate on his blog, which I encourage everyone with an interest in such things to read.
So do we love Mirror’s Edge in spite of its flaws because it dared to dream, or do we just spite it for failing to live up to its full promise? That’s a toughie. I can definitely forgive a game for its massive flaws if I see kernels of something really amazing in it. I left Xenogears, Killer7 and Shenmue with fond remembrances even though all are somewhat crippled by flaws in concept, design or execution. I suppose at the end of the day that’s where I leave Mirror’s Edge. Might it have a sequel that corrects the flaws I described above? Undoubtedly. DICE called Mirror’s Edge a trilogy, for god’s sake. But I don’t think that people should be lauding it left and right using that as an excuse to justify the high praise. I definitely want more games in the spirit of Mirror’s Edge to be produced; games that eschew traditional genre expectations and concepts and attempt to carve a new niche. In this era of remakes and sequels, I say bring on the new IPs. I definitely want to see Faith brought to her full potential as a character, too. Is it too much to ask for that we be allowed to praise and curse Mirror’s Edge in the same breath?