Review: Mirror’s Edge (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Mirror’s Edge
Genre: First-Person Free-Running
Developer: EA DICE
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 11/11/08


Ever since someone figured out that sticking a game into the first-person made the experience “more immersive”, developers have been trying to cram EVERYTHING into the first-person, largely because they figure that by making a game with a little cluttered HUD’s and as much immersion as possible, the focus on this sort of concept will in turn make said game good, perhaps not realizing that immersion and streamlining don’t go hand-in-hand with playability. Regardless, lots of good games have come from this sort of concept (Portal, for instance), as have lots of great, if flawed, ideas for games (Breakdown), so it’s unsurprising to see Electronic Arts give it a go with Mirror’s Edge in an attempt to take the Prince of Persia/Tomb Raider game concept into a first-person perspective. Now, in all honestly, this is frankly the absolute worst idea ever, as anyone will tell you who’s ever had to deal with a jumping puzzle in an FPS, but to its credit, Mirror’s Edge takes the concept and does with it nearly everything one could possibly expect, and in the grand scheme of admirable attempts, it’s not bad, though in the grand scheme of enjoyable games, it’s not good, either.

The story of Mirror’s Edge revolves around Faith, a Runner (a free-running delivery person) who does odd jobs for clients while generally skirting the outside edge of the law. This isn’t a particularly important point of the story, of course, as after the first chapter, your mission is less about running and more about figuring who set your sister up as a murderer, as she’s been implicated as the murderer of family friend and mayoral candidate Robert Pope, and it’s up to Faith to figure out who set her up and why. There’s a whole bunch of political subplots going on throughout the story of the game, most of which involve Project Icarus, a shadowy project that essentially is meant to further restrict the already tightly monitored communications of the city, by any means necessary, and as you’d expect, the story is mostly meant to be one of those stories that cheers on those who value freedom while chastising those who sacrifice that freedom, even if it means saving their lives. The actual telling of the story isn’t bad, all in all, and the various characters are written well enough to be interesting in context, but the story is meant to be part of something greater, and as such, the ending is fairly flat and doesn’t really “end” the game, and further, the actual story is fairly by the numbers; your character works for an underground “free voice” in a repressed city run by a totalitarian dictatorship, her sister is a good cop in a city of corruption, friends become enemies and enemies become friends, the whole song and dance is exactly as you would expect it to be, and while it’s told competently, it’s utterly devoid of shock and surprise of any sort.

Also, as a note to any other writers in the world who might be penning a game script/screenplay/novel/whatever, when you feel the need to drop the titular line fifteen seconds into the product, that is an urge you should seek to repress, by any means necessary, ESPECIALLY when it’s delivered in the ham-fisted way Mirror’s Edge does it. “We exist on the edge, between the gloss and the reality… the Mirror’s Edge”? That was the best someone could come up with? And someone PAID THEM to write that? If you ever wonder why movie critics marginalize video gaming as an art form, read that line aloud as many times as you have to until it makes sense.

Visually, Mirror’s Edge is artistically interesting, largely because it focuses heavily on style over substance, to surprisingly solid effect. The world visuals are represented in bright, vibrant whites, oranges and blues, mostly, with splashes of red as needed, that all come together in a way that’s very artistic, almost as if the world were drawn in some sort of shiny comic panel style that’s surprisingly compelling. The various character models that pop up here and there are well animated and lifelike, but the city Faith runs through is the biggest visual star of the game, so its fitting that it looks as good as it does. The cutscenes aren’t AS good as the game graphics; they’re more akin to something from Liquid Television than anything gamers would normally expect, though they, too, are not without their artistic style, as the characters are generally animated well and the color contrast from the game world is applied to the cutscenes nicely. The audio is also well done; the game music is a mix of hard driving rock and techno tunes that manage to be ambient and/or pulse-pounding as needed, and fit the tone of the game nicely, and the various sound effects sound exactly as they should throughout the game. The voice acting is also well done, with a minor exception or two (Celeste, Faith’s friend, doesn’t sound like she’s all that into her role at times), and it sells the experience well. If the presentation of the game were the only thing to judge it on, Mirror’s Edge would be a far better experience than it is; sadly, such is not the case.

The gameplay of Mirror’s Edge can be summed up neatly in ten words and four punctuation marks: It’s Prince of Persia, in first person, with less combat. The primary gameplay element of Mirror’s Edge is running around the city, however and wherever you can, doing the most insane and unrealistic stuff imaginable, to get from place to place. The controls are a little odd to understand at first; the left and right stick look and move as you’d expect, but the two most useful buttons are the high and low actions, which are mapped to the left bumper and trigger, respectively. High actions involved jumping, running along walls, and climbing things, and low actions involve ducking, sliding, rolling, and dropping off of things, and you’ll be doing a ton of both as you run through the city from place to place. The whole purpose of the game amounts to doing tons of acrobatics as you run from place to place, and the world is set up well for this, as you’ll often find yourself running up walls and bounding from said walls to nearby ledges, or swinging from pipes to ledges, or (in one case) jumping between trains moving down the tracks, among other interesting things. The world, simply speaking, is designed in an interesting way, and offers a lot of interesting missions and actions to perform as you progress through the game.

Of course, Mirror’s Edge also has a few of its own tricks to keep it from becoming just another game in the genre. The biggest one is “Runner Vision”, which essentially highlights areas of the world in bright red; these areas are highlighted to tell you, the player, where you should be going to next, which is both an interesting visual trick and a useful tool for new players to see where they need to go to get from one place to the next. Runner Vision isn’t a constant, of course, and some areas leave it to you to figure out the puzzles contained therein, so it also helps that by holding down B, you can also have Faith look towards the next objective, which also gives you a decent idea of where you need to go and how you need to get there. The game also offers a bullet-time mechanic that charges as you play that, when full, allows you to slow down your perception of the world around you, which is convenient both in combat and for timing precise jumps, making it absolutely invaluable in later sections of the game. And yes, there is combat, though how you engage in it depends on what you want to do with the game. Faith has a few basic attacks at her disposal, between regular high and low punches, slide kicks, and jump kicks, but her most useful ability is her ability to disarm foes; sneaking up on enemies or goading them into striking her allows the player to press Y, which prompts her to grab the weapon, knock out the foe, and in many cases, take the weapon for her own use. Whether or not you then use said weapon is up to you; many of the guns the enemies drop are certainly useful, but they cramp your running and jumping abilities significantly, and as there’s almost never a NEED to shoot enemies, whether or not you choose to do so will depend entirely upon your personal preferences.

The core game will take about six to seven hours to complete, depending on how quickly you learn the basics of your agility maneuvers, but the game is hardly over once you complete it the first time. There are multiple difficulty levels through the game (though the difficulty only really affects combat, and in one case, disables Runner Vision), and throughout the game there are various satchels you can collect to unlock concept art and such. Further, once you’ve completed the game, there are various Time Trials to complete, each of which allows you the ability to race through the game world as fast as possible to score better than others on XBL, which can also unlock neat stuff to play around with. You can also go back to your favorite stages after the fact and play through them again as you wish, which allows you to simply play around in your favorite sections of the game whenever and however you want. If you’re a fan of what Mirror’s Edge does, you’ll find the various unlockables and extras worth your time, especially since the time trials are all about learning and perfecting the jumping puzzles first, and ignore the “dodge hails of gunfire” mentality of the story mode altogether, making them ideal for those who want to perfect their timing with the controls over dodging gunfire and fighting enemies.

Unfortunately, Mirror’s Edge suffers from a series of significant, potentially off-putting flaws that can neatly be categorized as the sorts of things that would give David Wong an aneurysm. For one thing, first person agility-based platformers are often a bad idea, largely because, simply speaking, there is no way to adequately replicate the sensations one would experience doing such things in real life, meaning that attempting simple jumping sequences becomes a lot harder than it would be in a third-person game. In real life, your feet are attached to your body, and you know WHERE they are relative to where everything else is and can time real jumps accordingly. In third-person games, you can SEE your feet, and can therefore determine the appropriate launching point visually by looking at where your feet are relative to your jumping point. In first person games, you either need to stare down at your feet to see your appropriate launching point (which often makes your landing off-target) or you need to simply leap blindly (which often results in misjudging the jump distance), both of which will often result in a lot of trial-and-error gameplay. This, in turn, robs the game of its cinematic feel by way of forcing the player to repeat the same sections multiple times; watching an experienced player run through a section that they’ve completed countless times would, no doubt, be cinematically invigorating, but playing through the same situation yourself for the first time when you’ve got no clue what you’re doing often ends up with you dying, badly, leaving the immersion of the experience lacking in key areas.

This is further compounded by the fact that, bluntly, dodging hails of gunfire while trying to make precise jumps when your character is not a meat shield feel like a perverse form of psychological torture. Look, wanting to put complex jumping puzzles and not-immediately obvious pathways into a game? That makes sense. You want to do that during quiet sections of the game, knock yourself out, that’s part of the wonder of being a gamer. Gamers love figuring things out on their own, and making a game that allows them that option is an easy way to make money. But when there is a team of heavily armed, dangerous, combat-trained police officers on the player’s ass, it is not productive to make the escape route obtuse or difficult to do on the first try, since this often means that the player will have to do the same section five, ten, or twenty times to complete it, which robs the experience of its cinematic presence and charm. There’s a difference between “tension” and “frustration”, okay? Tension is “running from the bad guy fast and dodging all obstacles in my way”, frustration is “having five seconds to figure out that there’s a very tiny vent in the ceiling that I have to escape through that will require a wall-running jumping sequence to access when I have about five seconds to figure this all out before death comes ripping its way through the wall to end my existence”. Mirror’s Edge mistakes the latter for the former FAR too often to be considered a “good” experience, and the fact that the only thing the difficulty impacts, in most cases, is your ability to withstand bullets and your ability to actually know where you’re going seems as if it were designed to appeal only to the most masochistic and self-loathing of players.

Assuming you can look beyond the trial-and-error gameplay, a lot of the other elements of the experience don’t hold up as well as one might hope, either. Combat is limited in its variety and, in many respects, not terribly useful; dodging your way in close to disarm a foe (and why are the foes all too willing to strike you when they know you might disarm them, anyway) is often your best choice for any encounter, and while that makes sense in context, it’s not an excuse for a boring mechanic. Gunplay is serviceable, but seems like it was included in the game mostly to appease the sort of gamer who would be attracted to a first-person game in the first place; logically, it makes no sense for the character to kill people when she’s trying to CLEAR her name as a killer, and functionally, you end up dropping any gun you acquire five seconds later since Faith can’t carry a gun and do acrobatics at the same time, so there doesn’t seem to be any reason for the gunplay except to say “Hey, we know you like guns so HERE YOU GO,” except in a few later sections where holding a gun seems almost required. Also, aside from playing the game over again or playing the Time Trials over and over again, there’s no real reason to play the game after you’ve completed it, and unless you’re looking to actively improve your scores to hit that elusive three-star mark on every course in the game, you won’t find much reason to play the game after you’ve completed the story (and for some of you, long before that).

In the end, Mirror’s Edge is a lot like first-person brawler Breakdown; an interesting idea based on taking a third-person style of game and converting it into a first-person experience that is ultimately flawed too much to be enjoyable as anything other than a curiosity. Those who love games like Prince of Persia and Tomb Raider will most likely get some significant joy from this game; the controls are solid and reasonable, and thanks to the open environments and the ability to run through preferred stages, either normally or in an enemy-free Time Attack, there’s lots of fun to be had memorizing the stages and timing your stylish techniques to perfection for those who love it. That said, this sort of experience doesn’t translate as well as one might hope to the first-person style of play, and between the trial-and-error gameplay, the all too frequent “figure this out before you’re shot to death” sections, and the general break in immersion because of the frequent stop-and-start death and reload segments, this may be enough to put off even the most interested player. Worse, once you’re finished with the game, the only reason to go back to it is to perfect your runs through the environment, and while that may appeal to some, others will find this to be an unappealing way to spend their time. As a rental or a budget title, Mirror’s Edge is worth checking out, if only to see what was done with the experience artistically and what could have been done better mechanically, but only the most devoted fan of the genre will really get enough from the game to merit a full-priced purchase, as casual fans will find it short and frustrating, and non-fans will find even LESS to like about the genre with the perspective change, leaving this as a novelty for serious fans… and little else.

The Scores:
Story: ABOVE AVERAGE
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: POOR
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: MEDIOCRE
Appeal: POOR
Miscellaneous: POOR
Final Score: DECENT GAME

Short Attention Span Summary:
Mirror’s Edge is ultimately a game that promises more than the final product is capable of delivering. The presentation of the product is artistically interesting, and the game looks and sounds pretty good across the board, and while the story isn’t anything special, it carries the game well enough to be acceptable. Players who enjoy what the game does or is trying to do will also find the ability to return to levels whenever they want or to jump into Time Attacks of specific sections welcome and enjoyable, and will enjoy being able to unlock content by searching everywhere for hidden goodies. The flaws of the game will prove too overbearing for some, however, due to the awkward trial-and-error gameplay, the frequent deaths, the frustratingly bad attempts at creating tension by killing the player a lot, and the general break in atmosphere by constantly reloading to try again. Even if one can get beyond those complaints, however, the core game is fairly short, and the ability to take on levels over and over to improve your score, though amusing, wears out its welcome quickly, leaving little reason to play the game upon completion, if even that far. Mirror’s Edge isn’t so much bad as it is unfulfilling; it does enough that it’s worth PLAYING, if not OWNING, and it’s an interesting experience if only to see what was and was not done correctly, but many people won’t be able to get enough from the game to justify the full price, and will be best served renting or acquiring it when it becomes cheaper.

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