Review: Mirror's Edge
Platform(s):PS3, Xbox 360, PC
I'm pleased to report that Mirror's Edge did not make me vomit. Queasiness was a big concern after watching trailers of this first-person platformer in action. There was plenty of excitement, frustration, disappointment, and surprise - but no indigestion. So that was a plus.
There's a fundamental difference between Mirror's Edge and every other platforming game ever. I hate the phrase "it makes you feel like you're really _____ " when describing games but the level of immersion in this game is incredible. It's not just the fact that it's in first-person perspective. Developer DICE has poured a lot of effort into making your movements feel physical. Doors usually just swing open with a press of a button in most games but in Mirror's Edge you slam into them, forearm first. The camera sways along with your character's head, whether you're running, climbing, or jumping. This is a perfect game for controller vibration and there's a steady hum when you're going down a zipline and sudden jolts if you land awkwardly after a big jump. Pulling off stunts in this game thrills you in a way third-person perspective games are simply unable to.
It's a good thing physical movement is done so well in this game because the vast majority is spent crawling, climbing, and jumping from one end of the map to the other. You play Faith, a runner in a futuristic dystopia whose job is to deliver packages across the city while evading the authorities. Instead of keeping to the shadows of dark alleyways, though, runners navigate the rooftops and cut through buildings when necessary. Unlike pretty much every other futuristic dystopia portrayed in video games, the city of Mirror's Edge doesn't look like the urban sprawl from Blade Runner. Instead of being gloomy and drab, it's brightly lit and beautiful. The city is filled with tall, white skyscrapers bathed in primary colors. It gives the world a slightly comic-y feeling which is mirrored by the animated cut scenes between each of the game's chapters.
The clean, polished look of the game's environments comes in handy when navigating your way through levels. The game highlights objects you need to head toward in red - this "runner's vision" can be turned off if you want but it's less obnoxious than you'd expect. I expected the correct path through levels to be completely slathered in red but it's generally just a few ladders, poles, ramps, etc. - some of which you don't have to use to advance. With a press of a button, the camera will turn to point you in the right direction (something that comes in handy during chases). Some will gripe about how linear the game is and how there's really only one pathway to proceed through levels. To be fair to DICE, I don't remember them promising an open world in the first place. Though everyone's ga-ga over sandbox environments and choice these days, there's nothing inherently wrong with a game being linear. Linearity has its advantages, principally that it allows the designer to deliver a tighter, more "cinematic" experience. The problem is never that the game only gives you one pathway; the problem is the pathway itself.
The sequences where you're frantically running and climbing to escape authorities are the high-point of the game - simply put, the game is at its best when it's moving fast. However, the chases would lose their charm if the entire game was like that so there are also puzzle and fight sequences mixed in to keep the gameplay diverse. The puzzle sequences are slower-paced segments where no enemies are present and the focus is on well-executed jumping. I'm not sure what it is, maybe the variety of textures in the game, but I was always kept guessing whether or not I'd be able to make a certain jump. Narrowly making a leap across a chasm and pulling myself up was always a thrill but that's the only really positive thing I can say about the puzzle portions of levels. It seems odd to say this, considering how many times I fell to my death while playing this game, but the puzzle platforming feels too easy. I mean it's just basically a matter of staring at the pipes and ladders and walls in front of you and figuring out which of your small number of moves you need to do in order to advance. There's certainly a learning curve to the game (you definitely want to do the tutorial in the beginning) but after you learn how to do wall run and jump in sequence, nothing the game throws at you will be all that baffling. Portal, the only other first-person puzzle game I can think of at the moment, introduced new elements (turrets, companion cubes, moving platforms) throughout the game to force you to adapt. Throughout the puzzle segments of Mirror's Edge, though, it's just you and the ledges. There's no additional objects to hinder/help you and the result is that the platforming never really evolves.
Periodically Faith will have to fight her way through some of the armed police officers chasing her and I have some mixed feelings about these sequences too. Faith apparently can't carry a weapon while jumping rooftops so she relies on her martial arts to take down opponents. Melee combat with first-person perspective games is usually clunky and results in button-mashing but the physicality of Mirror's Edge makes it decent. You'll be stagger or be thrown backward when hit. Our little runner has a few different moves to pummel her opponents with, such as a drop-kicking, sliding kick, or straight old punch to the face. The strength of her blows seems tied to her momentum and your opponents generally have firearms so you're forced to be mobile in order to survive - until you take your opponent's gun away, anyway.
When an opponent's weapon flashes red and you're in melee range, a simple press of a button will allow Faith to pull off an acrobatic disarming and knockout on them. These take-downs are a lot of fun to watch and aren't the issue. The issue is how the game changes when you have a gun. Granted, it's satisfying to finally gun down the enemies that have been taking potshots at your poor unarmed self for fun but the game loses its momentum in these moments. Faith is slower while carrying a weapon and her jumping ability is significantly curtailed. I understand why this is the case; it's a trade-off for carrying a gun and ensures that you don't end up carrying a gun through the entire map. Still, Faith's clumsiness with a weapon (she can't zoom in for aiming unless it's a sniper rifle) and the guns' limited ammunition (she discards them once their clip is empty) are adequate enough trade-offs. What I was hoping for was some sort of acrobatic, Matrix-y gunfighting sequences - the game even gives you the ability to periodically go into "slow motion". You'll never wall-jump and fire off a clip at an enemy in mid-air, though. When you have a gun, the game really turns into a very straightforward FPS for those brief moments. Your enemies aren't particularly smart; they'll just stand their ground and open fire at you. It would have been nice if the speediness or athleticism didn't completely vanish from Faith when he had a weapon and the platforming was better incorporated into the combat.
The combat sequences share the biggest fault of the puzzle sequences: a lack of evolution. The goons you pummel in the first chapter are the same as the ones you pummel in the last, give or take some additional armor or larger guns. You don't really need to learn new tactics. Toward the end of the game you encounter elite, cattle prod-wielding troops who are as agile as you. They could've been an interesting opponents in a melee but the game throws several at you at a time so you're always forced to run. The game has three "boss" encounters and you'd expect these encounters, like the fight with GLaDOS at the end of Portal, to be a culmination of the skills you used up to that point. One of the fights is a full-fledged fist fight and takes a decent amount of coordination but the other two are basically glorified Quick Time Events that just require a well-timed button push. One of these QTE's is the last encounter of the game and the words "missed opportunity" don't begin to describe it.
It feels like a mandatory requirement in a Mirror's Edge review to commend DICE for taking a risk and trying something innovative. So yes, I commend DICE for taking a risk and trying something innovative. My review does come off as very negative but it's not that I dislike the game so much as it let me down. It's a good game and has the raw elements to be an incredible game but doesn't make the most of its considerable promise. The game offers a very breezy, entertaining 6-7 hour single-player campaign (and however much time you spend racing and re-racing through the levels on Time Trial mode) and shows enough spark for me to await the upcoming DLC and eventual sequels with great interest.
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