"The game does a lot of things right, things that every bone in my gamer body tells me shouldn't work. The first-person perspective, for instance, works better than it has any right to, taking a basic platformer/action title and making it truly immersive. It is easily the game's claim to fame. There's nothing quite like jumping from the roof of a skyscraper to a tiny ledge, thinking you've missed only to see your arm dart up and grab hold at the last minute."
In the past few years of gaming I've tried to become used to disappointment. We live in an era where every game is so hyped up that we expect more from our consoles than we do from our government, job, and sex life combined. I've tried to adjust, I really have. I ignore developers and avoid their featured articles like the plague, I stay away from fan forums, and I don't glance at reviews until after the fact. Yet despite all this precaution I was excited for Mirror's Edge, the latest game from Swedish developers Digital illusions. What can I say? I love a good platformer, and frankly the market's been starved. Granted, DI doesn't have the best track record. Their biggest hit to date is the Battlefield series and hiding behind that are a series of less muscular titles, including Secret Agent Barbie: Royal Jewels Mission and Diva Starz: Mall Mania.
Fortunately, Mirror's Edge is somewhat of a departure from Barbie: Make Up Time. The game takes place in a dystopian future where society's every move is watched by an overbearing government. To get around this, insurgents use human "runners" to physically carry messages and sensitive material anonymously across the city. These human carrier pigeons get around by leaping over rooftops and clambering up buildings with matrix-style grace and dexterity. You play as Faith, one of these runners. The setting borders on cliche, but then someone had the idea to set the entire game in first-person. This sounds like a terrible plan, but in insanity often times lies genius. The table was set, the gauntlet had been thrown: could DI deliver a viable action platformer, with all the normal difficulties that entails, while adding in the clincher that it had to be all easily playable from a first-person view?
The game does a lot of things right, things that every bone in my gamer body tells me shouldn't work. The first-person perspective, for instance, works better than it has any right to, taking a basic platformer/action title and making it truly immersive. It is easily the game's claim to fame. There's nothing quite like jumping from the roof of a skyscraper to a tiny ledge, thinking you've missed only to see your arm dart up and grab hold at the last minute. Combat consists of a series of judo-style disarms and quick attacks, and the camera bobs and weaves appropriately as you pull them off. Also, they finally put in your lower torso, so you're not just a free floating head with arms.
The game controls great, even though it uses a control scheme that I've NEVER seen any game employ ever before. Also keep in mind that you have to control, from a first-person perspective, a character who can literally run up a wall, turn around mid run, and leap for a distant ledge. Imagine trying to play Devil May Cry from a first person persepctive, or Ninja Gaiden. That Mirror's Edge isn't a complete disaster is amazing. That it manages to be an intuitive and easy to play experience is an accomplishment of gameplay that deserves applause.
The game looks great, too, though if you think about it, here's another area where it really shouldn't work. The developers choose to make their city the blandest city ever. Everything is bright and saturated. Most of the environments are white, with little detail. The only people you interact with are enemies. This is the epitome of sterile. And yet it works. Rather than be boring, it adds a surreal element to the game, and really brings home the feeling of dystopia. It serves to mark the runners as unique in the city, and showcases the wonderful design of the characters. It also helps out with the gameplay, as less obvious ledges and things you can climb on are coloured bright red (called "runner's vision"), helping to keep you focused on the platforming.
I am so impressed by all the impossible things the game got right that I remain dazed and confused at all the generic easy things it got wrong.
First of all, the story. Remember that scenario I mentioned, what with the runners and those insurgents? You're introduced to that in the first mission, and it's a good idea, and it works as a perfect excuse to present a player with missions. Then, in mission two, the game takes a sudden turn and the insurgents are never mentioned again. Instead you're thrust into a cliched story (I mean, I knew who was going to betray who just from playing the demo) involving characters you've had no chance to get acquainted with. You never get this chance, because half of them are killed off before the end of the game, which is about ten hours long. The story is rushed, told so quickly and carelessly that you'll wonder whether you're playing an unfinished demo. I know the game is supposed to be fast, but here's one area they should've slowed down for.
Oh, and the shitty cutscenes. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm no graphics whore. I still play on an old SDTV, and I'm far more interested in good gameplay than great graphics. Despite its bland environments and simple cell shaded style, Mirror's Edge looks beautiful. It runs a pretty high frame rate, too. My SDTV was plagued with nearly constant screen tears. With all this, I'd like to know who decided that the best way to do cutscenes was to hire the worst rejects off of Cartoon Network and have them draw flash animated graphics in a completely different style from the rest of the game? I'm not kidding. The cutscenes are the most disgusting thing I've seen in a game since XIII, all the more evident because everything else is so damn pretty. The developers so much as admit they could do better. The last cutscene is FMV, and while not the best thing on the market, it fits perfectly with the rest of the graphics and, most importantly, it doesn't make you feel like spraying lime in your eyes. Ambience was given such attention here, with the music (especially the credit song "Still Alive" by Lisa Miskovsky) being brilliant and evocative, the sound being realistic and enveloping, and the character designs being absolutely genius... why they decided to use such crap for their cutscenes is beyond me. Were they dealing with deadlines, or does genius have its repercussions?
In gameplay, as well, the game throws some strange barriers in your way. The level design is bizarre in its pacing. Just as you'll be getting orgasmic from soaring over rooftops and performing death-defying stunts a million feet above street level, you'll go inside a building and have to run down corridors and stairwells for a half hour, broken up by the occasional vent crawl. These segments are drastically out of place. In a game where the draw is soaring through the open air, there seems to be little to gain from clipping the player's wings. Even worse, many of these segments involve long rides in elevators, making the player feel even more caged. In fact, I think you spend more time inside than outside, a bad move all around. The outside levels are so much more interesting that this just serves to point out the poor design of the interior areas.
Each mission is also very formulaic. You'll start outside, quickly end up inside, get spotted by guards, run from them until a forced showdown, and then make your way outside to escape from the reinforcements. By the end of mission 2 or 3 you'll have seen everything Faith can do. After that it's just repeating the same moves over and over. They never cease to be cool moves (the first person view keeps things consistently exciting), but the formulaic design spills over into the platforming so that you can almost predict what each room will look like based off of the previous mission.
As I said earlier, I love a good platformer. The best platformers are a mixture of puzzle and action, requiring the player to plot a careful course through the stage and then execute that plan with precision timing. Mirror's Edge approaches both these elements with a fresh view, but then trips over itself in the execution. The biggest problem again comes from level design. While a good platformer would give a player a clear destination but no clear path, Mirror's Edge gives the player clear paths with no destination. Oh, sure, you have a button which points you in the direction of your goal, but this often just results in you spinning to stare into a wall or (outside) into a horizon filled with buildings (it seems to orient itself to more long term goals). By the time this is actually useful, your destination is usually staring you in the face. You never really know where you're going, so the game becomes more one of trial and error, where you run up walls and try out different moves until you end up somewhere new. As a result, the puzzle element is lost, as no actual logic is involved. Action also takes a hit, because you'll spend a lot of time retrying things in a single room, rather than actually progressing.
Much more fun than the main game are the included time trials. In these you race across maps from the game on pre set courses, trying to make through checkpoints to the end in very quick time. Here the platformer is done perfectly. Plotting the best way through the open environments is fun, and making it through the race with precision timing is exhilarating. Yet more proof that the developers knew what they were doing, and yet somehow steered away from doing it in the main game.
Ultimately, Mirror's Edge left me with a somewhat sour taste in my mouth. I can't write it off as a bad game. It's too innovative and does too many things right that some of the best games lack. And yet it is filled with amateur marks at every turn that keeps the player from really falling in love with it, and keeps me from feeling comfortable recommending it. It really is worth being in my collection, because it is a very unique game, but I'll never be able to play it without feeling like something's missing. Of course, as a final irony, the t-shirt that came with the pre-order is one of the best t-shirts I've ever had the privilege of wearing.
Freelance review by Jonathan Stark (November 15, 2008)
Zipp has spent most of his life standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox there. Sometimes he writes reviews and puts them in the mailbox.
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