Freerunning and parkour have been all the rage in recent memory. Runners take to the city, using it as their playground. Each pole, table, wall, and rain gutter acts as a springboard for their high velocity scramble over the rooftops. If you’ve never seen it in action, you owe it to yourself to check out some dubbed Jackie Chan movies, the first 20 minutes of Casino Royale, or the movie Ong Bak. It’s amazing to see people bounce off of surfaces, slide under pipes, curl into impossibly small vents, and seem to hang in the air for an impossible amount of time, all without missing a single step. Mirror’s Edge attempts to capture this world and wrap it into a murder mystery. You play Faith – a runner in a dystopian future where a Big Brother style organization has suppressed the people so much that even the passage of information requires couriers that can outrun the long arm of the law. Faith works with a small group – a fellow runner named Celeste, and their handler named Mercury, or “Merc” for short. As Faith earns a bit of scratch by acting as an information runner she finds out that her sister Kate has been framed for the murder of a prominent political candidate. Grabbing a scrap of evidence, Faith will have to run, jump, and slide her way through the city to uncover who was behind the frame job, and just how high the conspiracy goes.
When I tossed in the game my wife asked who made it. I was surprised to say that it was DICE – the makers of the Battlefield series that brings us this new intellectual property. Since the Battlefield games (other than Bad Company) have not had a single-player component, and have all been free-roaming, it was interesting to see a semi-linear story-focused game from that same crew. Throw on top of that a first-person perspective and DICE has their hands full with Mirror’s Edge. Will it come off as a polished game with a shiny surface, or will Mirror’s Edge come away with fingerprint smudges?
Mirror’s Edge uses the very popular Unreal 3 engine. Rather than using the internally-developed Frostbite engine that they had used in the Battlefield series, DICE went with Epic’s engine to get a head start. They made several changes to the engine to distinguish themselves from the 100+ (literally) games currently licensed to use Unreal 3 tech. The results are stunning. The art direction is unique, bathing players in an overbright world either flush with color or washed out with a stark lack of it. One available route is typically highlighted in red, but it isn’t necessarily the best or fastest path.
The world is filled with sharp edges and sharp angles, giving players every opportunity to latch onto the corners and ledges. It creates a very boxy world that reflects the influence of the totalitarian government – tightly controlled and inflexible. Each pipe, vent, register, and ramp serves as your escape from that heavily-monitored world.
Faith has martial arts training, and you can use it to disarm your opponents. Faith is not bulletproof, so combat isn’t something you want to engage in directly for very long. The animations of the weapon stripping techniques are a little odd as Faith’s arms occasionally seem too long for her body, but it is really a small quibble. What does work really well is a sense of speed.
Since Mirror’s Edge is told from a first person perspective, the visual representation of speed is most important. Most of the time the game rewards you for your frantic pace by throwing in motion blur and upping the sound effects. Occasionally you feel a bit like you are sliding on ice, but for the most part it works.
The cutscenes in Mirror’s Edge have an anime style to them. When the first cutscene rolled I was immediately reminded of the E-Surance Insurance commercials. I have to admit that I wasn’t a fan, and every time these cutscenes rolled I was pulled out of the moment. The Unreal 3 engine looks so good that being thrown into the equivalent of paper mache’ cutouts was jarring.
There are few games that warrant their own soundtrack, but Mirror’s Edge is one of them. From the song “Still Alive” by Swedish pop star Lisa Miskovsky to the remixes by such mixers as Benny Benassi, Junkie XL, Paul van Dyk, Teddybears, and Armand Van Helden, the soundtrack in Mirror’s Edge is fantastic.
Faith, Celeste, Merc, and the other various players in the story are all well acted for the most part. Their lines are mostly believable, and the generic police that follow you are relatively well voiced. You’ll get the bulk of the story via Merc and his voiceovers, as well as the previously mentioned cutscenes. It isn’t the voice or the music that’ll get on your nerves.
With a first person parkour title, you’ll have to expect a few grunts and groans as you bounce off walls and make crazy leaps across impossible chasms. The hitch is that it all gets old, even as short as Mirror’s Edge is. You’ll hear Faith bounce off of poles and walls with the same grunt that she makes when you fall hard or botch a wall run. Given the trial and error gameplay, that means that you’ll hear Faith grunting quite often.
The backing music does stay with the mood of the game and the voice acting is well done, though within the gameplay, Faith
Do you hold your index and middle finger over your trigger and bumper buttons? If so, this game will be perfect for you. If you hold a controller like I do, with only your index finger over the triggers, you’ll find that Mirror’s Edge takes a little getting used to. Like most titles in the first person perspective, the left analog handles movement and the right analog handles the camera, but the similarities end there. The left bumper causes you to jump or perform a wallrun, the left trigger crouches, slides, rolls, coils, and dismounts. The right bumper does a quick 180 degree turn, and the right trigger attacks via melee or a stripped weapon. The face buttons engage the always-present bullet-time (they call it ‘reaction time’), and the oft-used hint button. I’d personally like to be able to remap the bumpers to the face buttons, but this option isn’t available. I do have to give DICE credit for including subtitle options – they are greatly appreciated.
My complaint with the controls is that they simply don’t work some of the time. Occasionally, Faith will simply not latch onto a nearby ledge, or will let go inexplicably. It doesn’t happen often, but in a game where there is already a great deal of trial and error gameplay, it makes for a painful cherry on top.
As I mentioned, Mirror’s Edge was made by the same folks who brought you the open world of the multiplayer-focused Battlefield series. Amazingly, they’ve taken what they learned about giving players unlimited options and applied it to a more linear and focused single player game. Faith will run, jump, slide, and otherwise clamber through the city to help clear the family name. Since Faith is squaring off against the government, her enemies are well funded, numerous, and often flanked by helicopters with large machine guns. When she is being chased by enemies and the player is forced to quickly choose their path without thought or planning, the game is one of the most unique and exciting games you’ll play this year. The first few levels have you dodging bullets, scrambling over electrified fences, ducking under vent tubes, and smashing through doors. If you are well practiced, you can complete the first few levels almost without stopping your feet. It’s actually the later levels that suffer, but we’ll get back to that later.
At its heart, Mirror’s Edge is a platformer. Despite the first person perspective, it is not a shooter, per se. Faith is more than capable of stripping a weapon out of the hands of enemies, but it is not the focus of the game. Using ‘runner view’ (which can be toggled off completely), Faith’s primary mode is the full-out run, leaping from building to building via their rooftops, utilizing red-highlighted paths to illuminate her way. These runner paths are not necessarily the best way, or the quickest way, but are often the safest way to navigate a puzzle. There are often several other ways to solve a particular puzzle or move from A to B. While this doesn’t sound particularly exciting on the surface, it becomes very exciting when a group of enemies are pressing you forward while a helicopter drops a stream of bullets at your heels. It is frantic, it is hectic, and it is where Mirror’s Edge shines best.
The area where Mirror’s Edge doesn’t shine is the combat and the slower points – one is by design and one is not. Faith is in no way ready for heavy hand-to-hand combat, but she can take a single enemy out relatively easy. When enemies are within melee range you can use timing and speed to grasp a weapon away from an enemy (it’ll turn red when the time is right), incapacitating them and allowing you to use or discard the gun as you see fit. Since the run and gun gameplay is relatively dull when compared to a dedicated shooter, you’ll find that you’ll likely ditch your weapons butt-first in favor of running far more often. Unfortunately, as the game presses on you’ll be pushed into more and more situations where gunplay is clearly the intended solution. Since most weapons usually have less than half a clip, you’ll have to re-engage enemies at close range to strip a new weapon almost immediately. It breaks the running strength of the game. The last level is almost entirely combat, breaking the formula completely. Tack on the fact that the story twist can be seen almost from the initial credits and the final scene of the game is relatively unsatisfying, and you have the perfect setup for two more titles (The game has been recently confirmed as the first of a trio).
One of the things that make platformers painful is trial and error gameplay. Mirror’s Edge does a fantastic job of pushing players to the brink of disaster, asking them to make snap decisions in the heat of the chase. It’s the moments after these chases where the game settles down and asks players to stop running and start solving puzzles that ramps the trial and error aspect. I found that I died far more when the bullets weren’t flying than I did while being chased, the last level notwithstanding. It’s almost as if DICE felt that they couldn’t sell Mirror’s Edge on the strength of the parkour roof running gameplay alone and felt the need to throw a dash of gunplay and puzzles in to spice it up. No need to ruin the soup DICE, it tasted fine as it was.
There are a total of 9 levels to play in Mirror’s Edge, as well as a handful of difficulty modes to extend the gameplay. There is one other aspect that extends the gameplay – clearly the contractors purchased their elevators from the same place that the folks from Mass Effect got theirs. Even when the game is installed to the hard drive, elevator rides take longer than the real thing to reach their destination. Sometimes it serves as the silence in a heavy conversation, granting players a break from the tense action. Other times it serves as a break to an already slow scene, making it even slower. The pacing could use some work, but it is hard to fault DICE as they’ve created something new and exciting. While the execution wasn’t perfect, it is something different from anything else on the shelf this year.
Likely after you’ve completed the game your attention will turn back to the time trials. Removing the enemies doesn’t remove the pressure as you can now play against your friends (they can upload a ‘ghost mode’ similar to a racing title) to determine who can solve a particular stage in the fastest time possible. It is interesting not only to try to fly through the challenges, but also to see how your friends have solved it. There is a button for downloadable content, which I’ll assume will be more awesome time trials, but nothing has been confirmed at this point.