Monday, December 8, 2008

Review: The Precarious Mirror's Edge

This week I review Mirror's Edge, a game that has already received a great deal of attention, with mixed opinions, and created a stir surrounding the process of reviewing innovative games. Also, a recent issue of contention is how to properly criticize a game that is clearly unique and innovative. The discussion has been vigorous and fascinating, with differing opinion all around. Now that the dust is beginning to settle, I hope to contribute my own thoughts, again, on DICE's parkour platformer. Also, I am lucky enough to be free of review score limitations. My thanks to all those who have already contributed their thoughts on the subject.

I played and finished Mirror's Edge on the Xbox 360. I have only played a small amount of time trial mode.

Last week I wrote an article discussing the directional guidance system available in Mirror's Edge, hoping to offer a less
prevalent criticism than most readers have come across. There seems to be a general consensus among those who have played the game, and I agree: Mirror's Edge is absolutely thrilling when moving fluidly through the environment, but frequent obstructions slow the pace, activated triggers, soldiers that need to be disposed of and inelegant combat create frustrating obstacles. Most interesting, however, is exploring why this is the case and if this could have been avoided.

At the core of Mirror's Edge is a superb free running experience. There are few games that simulate movement in such an exhilarating and teeth-clenching way. Only racing games hold a candle to the sense of speed and maneuverability you feel when traversing the ledges and overhangs of Faith's dystopian city. All other game elements are inessential to this source of entertainment. That which is most fun about the game owes nothing to, and is only hindered by, the secondary game elements.

Along with many others, I also have my moments of frustration. An only slightly misplaced leap will send me sinking to a splattering death again and again, though I know where I need to go. Or, after disabling four well armored guards, a quick gun butt to the head will send me reeling with little hope of recovery. Or, after expert maneuvering, I will get shot just before escaping a mob of troops. Sadly, these "almost got away" moments are the outliers. Far more frequently, a guard will incapacitate me before I can even get any sense of direction. The moments of speed are just too few to satisfy.

Dice built Mirror's Edge on the precarious foundation of the first-person shooter genre, although it was marketed as the first of its kind break out of the existing FPS mold by discouraging gunplay. If we wanted, Mirror's Edge could be a non-violent counterpart to traditional shooters. Why, then, does the game rely so heavily on FPS conventions? There are buttons to press, valves to turn and rooms of gunmen blocking your path. These shooter elements of Mirror's Edge, including the combat, impede fluid movement and do nothing to improve the story, which is riddled with cliches that fit naturally in any shooter title.

Mirror's Edge is very much like its protagonist. I'm sorry, but the analogy between Faith and the game is just too good to pass up. Dice took a daring innovative leap forward with Mirror's Edge, but misjudged how much distance they needed to cover between a new genre of their making and classic shooter environment. The game is burdened with needless level obstacles, activated checkpoints and cumbersome combat, left overs from its FPS origins, and falls to the ground.

Despite trying my hardest not to harm anyone, I repeatedly found myself in situations where killing was the best available option. Dice could have fit the first-person platforming into another environment and done away with this problem altogether. The worlds of Uncharted, Tomb Raider, and Prince of Persia could all have accommodated free running beautifully. Even a parkour racing game could be feasible and very engaging.

Again, when Mirror's Edge is "on" it is a unique, amazing, and beautiful adventure. Had this game been an early release on any of the next gen consoles, I think it would have been better received simply to see it stretch the boundaries of videogame movement. Mirror's Edge, as is, will leave many disappointed.

Yet this creation deserves a large heaping of praise. The movement mechanics are flawless and make this game well worth playing. But more importantly, I feel a responsibility to give Dice credit for their bravery. Developers and gamers should take note of innovation where innovation succeeds, even when the game does not. The inevitable Mirror's Edge sequel will be great if Dice is willing to brave the unconventional and leap farther into an unknown genre.


  1. @ Shalkis

    I am not surprised the time trial mode is their DLC of choice. It is largely free of the limitations I was talking about and is closest to a free running racing game. It would have been interesting to see a racing game like that actually be multiplayer instead of racing against mirrors. Also, I very much doubt Dice would put out campaign DLC.

  2. I haven't had a chance to play the game, but after watching a preview of the time trial levels I feel like I wouldn't enjoy it as much as being in the cityscape. I think a big part of the fun for me would be going around a city and re-training my eyes to see paths, instead of just hopping and swinging on ad hoc structures.

  3. @ Devon

    I like to entertain the idea of traversing a cityscape as well. Personally, I didn't find the city they offered in Mirror's Edge all that intriguing. Of course the style was a narrative choice, but maneuvering through a city that feels alive is much more tantalizing for me.

    Oddly enough, the additional DLC levels look more like an Escher drawing than a city.

  4. I wish that the city was more inhabited. A city without people is just an obstacle course.

    Think of it: using people as vaulting objects!

  5. Mirror's Edge is a game fighting against a dichotomy at its very core: break with the traditions of the FPS and risk failing for being too different, or embrace some of those traditions and full short of fulfilling its full potential.

    I agree that it would have been better served by removing the majority of the hold-over FPS elements, but at the same time I’ve found my best experiences of the game were not those when I was trying to make a particularly tricky jump, or remember some movement ability I don’t think I ever had explained to me. No, Mirror’s Edge was at its best when I was under duress, chased, hounded, bullets hitting everywhere, my feet pounding as I sprinted across rooftops.

    Moving out of the city, or removing too many of the pursuers would have greatly damaged this core appeal of the game, the sensation of being chase. What the game should have focused more on is enemies behind you and only a few ahead of you, almost all fights in the game can actually be avoided but the game goes out of its way to encourage you to engage in combat that is often unnecessary if you are smart and fast enough. The direction I hope DICE go in would be to reinforce that sense of being chased and put only a few enemies ahead of the player, the skill should come from out manoeuvring and out thinking your opponents rather than beating them to a pulp.

    That said, there’s something fundamentally fun about disarming a SWAT trooper.