We take a look back at DICE's divisive first person free running title
XBox 360, PS3, PC
As developers DICE continue to ignore our pleas for a sequel, we thought it was time to take a look back at the strangely divisive, free running action title Mirror’s Edge. Partly because we just picked it up preowned for a fiver! Also, the trailer was just fantastic.
Check out our review which first appeared back in December 2008.
Mirrors Edge can confidently be called the first ever free-running FPS. The setting is a pristine future world of surveillance and secrecy, where the only channels of communication left for the disenfranchised are Runners – people willing to risk the wrath of the Blues (the police) in order to deliver the messages that keep the underground alive. As a Runner called Faith, you become embroiled in a plot to frame an honest Blue for the murder of a high ranking politician. That Blue is your twin sister and you must clear her name before the swift and unforgiving justice system puts her to death.
The story is almost entirely superfluous in Mirrors Edge; a fact only enhanced by the crude, almost flash animated style of the inter-level cutscenes. They are jarring, poorly voiced and unengaging, excelling at only one thing – concealing level loads. Story is unimportant, what matters is the gameplay.
On this note, first impressions of Mirror’s Edge are rather mixed. Graphics and design (including the almost complete omission of a HUD) are immediately impressive but Faiths initial steps are less than assured. Movements are controlled by modifiers and are often context sensitive. One button controls upward movement (normal jumping, vaulting or double jumps) while another is concerned with slides and rolls. The whole system is deceptively complicated and timing is nearly always more important than frantic button mashing. Initially, this means a lot of swift drops and sharp stops – accompanied by Faiths bones splintering on the pavement. It is an unpleasant sound and one which you will hear hundreds of times during your short headlong run through the world of Mirrors Edge.
It is at this point that the hype surrounding the game actually works against it. The aggressive marketing means anyone with half an interest in gaming has seen the excellently produced videos showing Faith effortlessly conquering gravity and body-armoured thugs with grace and verve. When the same levels are presented to you and you miss grabbing that bright-red drainpipe for the eighth time while being shot repeatedly in the back by invincible enemies, the fluidity of those videos almost seems like a big, EA-sanctioned raspberry to the unskilled. In practise, the game also begins to reveal its startlingly linear nature. In the ever present headlong rush and the very obvious herding of the undefeatable enemies, choices are extremely limited in Mirrors Edge.
Once you understand the games limitations and have eased your way into the controls, the experience becomes much more rewarding. When Mirror's Edge gets it right, form and function combine to create something genuinely unique in a gaming landscape defined more by gore than grace.
The red highlighting of the environment in Runner Vision makes it more closely resemble a fast paced puzzle game; where blocks light up and your brain tries to understand how best to use them in as little time as possible. Like Tetris, the experience can be exhilarating but ultimately rather shallow. This is a game that, when it works, makes you feel indescribably cool. Engaging focus time, sliding under a barrier and disarming a foe mid slide, then using his weapon against another enemy before making a breathtaking leap of faith off a building happens quite fluidly in Mirrors Edge and represents a real benchmark in first person action titles.
Graphically, the game is not as pretty as you initially believe but is elevated by the solidity of the design aesthetic. The ever-present white backgrounds of the buildings really makes the red highlights pop and the levels even contain near subconscious cues for the player – for example areas in which you are safe from harm are often coloured green, calming you before the next onslaught of bullets and balletic platforming. Aurally, Mirrors Edge is almost perfect – with the whisper of wind in your ears as your speed increases and the meaty clang as your body makes contact with a drainpipe, fingers grasping for purchase. Voice work and music are a mixed bag, with the former generally serviceable and the latter a little too techno oriented for my liking. There is nothing not to like in the way Mirrors Edge is presented, and its implementation of Faiths body and her interaction with the world represents a real mini-evolution in gaming.
However, the title also shoots itself in the foot with a number of odd design and gameplay choices. For one, the hand to hand combat works quite well – wisely based on contextual actions and some wicked disarms. Unfortunately, gunplay is about as clunky as they come; being sluggish with difficult aiming that feels completely at odds with the fluidity of the free-running sections. This is no doubt partly intended to make you avoid using weapons, forcing you to use your athleticism to evade your pursuers but, when every enemy in the game is armed with a machine gun it makes shooting back sometimes unavoidable. It seems that creating some tougher, unarmed foes and forcing you to use your physical prowess to beat them would have been a more fitting decision for Mirrors Edge.
Pacing is also inconsistent. The sense of speed and weight and the knife-edge conquering of gravity are what set the game apart from its peers and yet you will spend long periods in extremely slow elevators. Often headlong runs will end with two minutes jumping from side to side in a shiny metal box. No doubt these sections conceal level loads but they do nothing for the pacing of a game that has little but pace going for it. Mirrors Edge also sometimes gets bogged down in environmental puzzles which seriously halt your progression. I spent an hour in a room in a half-built skyscraper, trying to make vertical progress with little or no clue as to the direction to take. How people are supposed to complete these sections in time trial mode is beyond me.
Mirrors Edge is a divisive title but this comes from being a genre unto itself. It gets many things wrong and will, for some, be an utterly frustrating experience. Many will be surprised by just how linear it is and that, in reality, it is a series of time trial levels masquerading as a game. The level design and gameplay go against the fundamental tenets of free-running which is concerned with finding the flow in the clutter – seeing the chaos and conquering it through athleticism and grace. This city is too streamlined, its rooftop byways a headlong rat-race from one point to another. But this very linear nature creates a deliberate focus on economy of movement and, above all else, speed. Shaving a few seconds of your latest time or noticing a slightly alternate route is a rewarding experience and figuring out how to get there is curiously exciting. In this limited capacity, Mirrors Edge succeeds admirably and, with its short single player mode, takes its leave long before it ever becomes boring. With some refinement, DICE could have a unique franchise on their hands. For all its foibles, Mirrors Edge is well worth playing.