The developers behind the enduring Battlefield series, DICE, released a game in 2008 that was a little bit different than their usual fare. That game was Mirror’s Edge.
Although it uses a first person perspective with guns, Mirror’s Edge is not a first person shooter. It’s a first person platformer.
Being in first person perspective means that Mirror’s Edge handles things slightly different than Mario or Sonic games. Instead of jumping along floating platforms and Goomba stomping enemies, you perform parkour maneuvers such as wall-running and sprinting along crane arms high above the city.
Sprinting along crane arms is something missing from many games, much to their detriment because it’s pretty damned awesome.
The controls for Mirror’s Edge are relatively simple. The bulk of the action is handled by the up action button (LB on 360 and L1 on PS3) and the down action button (LT on 360 and L2 on PS3), which do actions such as climb up from a ledge or drop down from a ledge based on what obstacle you are currently tackling and how much momentum you have.
That’s the trick with Mirror’s Edge, momentum. By maintaining an uninterrupted flow as you course you way through the obstacles, you will find that things are much easier when you tackle them at pace.
This can be a little finicky, especially if you struggle to master the movement and fail to maintain momentum. The emphasis on momentum and the use of context sensitive controls can sometimes mean that things don’t go as planned. For example: instead of wall-running, you might end up vaulting over a railing. This may then lead to you becoming a smear on the pavement below, something that you should strive to avoid.
This can be the cause of quite a bit of frustration. Frustration that can be made even worse by some unforgiving platforming and the degree of precision required to maintain that precious momentum. There were often times where I found the game a little too difficult because of this.
It is entirely possible to master the movement in Mirror’s Edge and complete some remarkable feats of virtual parkour; you just need to be a better player than I am.
Mirror’s Edge takes place in a fascist future where communication is so tightly controlled that if people want to share information without Big Brother’s watchful eye turning to them, they have to employ the use of some high-risk parkour enthusiasts known as runners. As you can guess, the protagonist Faith just happens to be one of these runners. Her name is also subjected to several puns.
Early into the game, Faith’s sister is framed for the murder of a mayoral candidate. This is the driving force behind the plot and the explanation for why Faith is being chased for the majority of the game.
Many people will just leave the plot at that, I know that when I first played this game I pretty much ignored the plot after that point. After all, you have all the explanation you need for what’s happening; you’re being chased, so run. Run as fast as you can.
There are actually elements here for a really good story; I would even argue that the story in Mirror’s Edge is better than that of most video games these days. At least, the elements are all there for Mirror’s Edge to have one of the best stories in recent memory except that for some reason they aren’t tied together in a way that really works.
Whilst Mirror’s Edge runs on the Unreal Engine that powers many other current generation games, DICE went in a slightly different direction with the art direction. Instead of the more typical landscapes with murky browns and greens, Mirror’s Edge has a refreshing use of clean, bold colours. It almost looks like an IKEA catalogue come to life.
It may not sound like much, but the result is truly breathtaking.
Not only are the visual design decisions in this game simply amazing, but they are tied very neatly into the gameplay. Objects that you can interact with are highlighted in red. This is explained in game as runner vision and serves as a great way to draw the focus of the players to guide them through the levels.
In addition to the use of colours, the use of the first person perspective is handled in a truly fantastic way. Instead of feeling like a disembodied head with a weapon dangling in front of it, Mirror’s Edge makes it feel like you are controlling real person.
This is achieved primarily by manipulating the camera focus. After taking a heavy blow, the screen will be slightly out of focus for a moment to heighten the impact. When running at full speed, the edge of the screen will blur slightly. When you pull yourself up from a ledge, there will be a very brief moment of adjustment where the focus shifts from the wall that was directly in front of you to the cityscape that has now been revealed. These are all very subtle little tricks that really let you feel immersed in the experience.
In addition to the use of camera focus, immersion is heightened by a bevy of small tricks that only become noticeable when they aren’t there. The sound of Faith’s footsteps pounding on the pavement, her heavy breathing as she exhausts herself by sprinting through the city and the slight swaying of the camera all make it feel like you are this parkour master blitzing your way through the city.
This is how first person perspective should be handled.
While there are many visual aspects of Mirror’s Edge that are brilliant, there is one major visual element that was handled extremely poorly. Instead of making use of the impressive images generated by the game’s engine, cutscenes are presented in a very poorly animated Flash cartoon. This really cheapens the feeling of the game by yanking you out of the otherwise immersive experience.
If you needed a reason to ignore the plot, it would be because you can skip these cheap animations and get back to the beauty of the game itself.
During less frantic sections of the game, the music will be quiet and relaxing. A simple, stripped back electronic track that adds a nice sense of atmosphere. Then when the action picks up, so does the music, transforming from calm and relaxing to fast-paced and energetic, in a way that really pushes you to pick up the pace.
One area that I found a little annoying at times was the level design. Although you are often given clear visual cues and the levels themselves are fairly linear with many objects scattered about that offered slightly different paths, there are parts where the goal you are running towards is unclear or the path you must take is simply too difficult.
It wasn’t until near the end of the game when I realised that the levels causing the most frustration were the indoor levels and the more enjoyable levels were out in the open, running across the rooftops.
Suddenly, it made a lot more sense. Faith is a runner. Her place is up on the rooftops, running freely. When she is indoors, the lack of escape routes makes her feel trapped. It’s a claustrophobic sensation that really reinforces who the character is. This realisation made me really appreciate the effort that went into the level design in Mirror’s Edge. Right up until the point where I reached another section that frustrated the hell out of me and realised that even if there is a perfectly rational reason for it, it still made the game less enjoyable.
Another problematic aspect of Mirror’s Edge came from the combat sections of the game. Although the vast majority of the time playing will be spent running, there will be times where you are confronted by armoured foes wielding weapons. At first, this isn’t a problem; you can simply run past them. In fact, running away seems like the best option as Faith is ill-equipped to deal with burly police officers.
When you do come face to face with an enemy, it’s likely that you will have some difficulty. Quite simple because the game is not designed to be combat focused. The end result is that combat is incredibly awkward. You can try and bludgeon the cops with your fists, but that is far worse option than attempting to disarm your opponents.
Disarming can be done by attacking enemies from behind or by counterattacking them when their weapon turns red. This causes an impressive looking animation, the enemy lying prone on the floor and a gun now firmly in Faith’s hands. Taking down enemies is a much simpler task when you’ve got access to a gun. Although many weapons will have an impact on your ability to run, meaning that you will be forced to discard them very quickly.
When I first played this game, I decided to try and get the Test of Faith achievement, which requires that you don’t shoot a single gun throughout the game. That was a mistake on my part. Unless you know exactly where to run to in order to avoid combat the entire game, you will be shot to shreds and will desperately wish for a way to return the favour.
In addition to the campaign, there are also speed run and time trial modes, with online leaderboards. The speed run mode is exactly what it says on the tin, a mode for speed running through the levels.
But it is in the time trial mode where the game truly shines.
In the time trial mode, you run through the levels from the campaign. Instead of getting from point A to point B and dealing with tedious things like being shot at, you have to make your way through a series of checkpoints scattered throughout the level. This means that you get to make use of the many obstacles scattered about the level in quite a few fun and innovative ways in an attempt to beat the clock.
It’s hard and the times required to earn the highest ratings require a frantic pace, but that only makes it more satisfying when you finally pull off the perfect series of maneuvers to reach the goal in record time.
There are downloadable levels available for time trial mode, which look even more visually stunning than the campaign mode. Unfortunately, I have not tried these out yet and I doubt that I will have a chance to any time soon.
The main reason why I won’t be playing the downloadable levels in the near future is because Mirror’s Edge suffers from what I like to call Assassin’s Creed Syndrome. You see, sometimes a game can start out being fantastic, everything is fresh and exciting, the gameplay really grabs your attention and entertains you in ways that you didn’t think were possible. Then as you progress, the polish starts to wear off just a little and the experience is, well, somewhat lacklustre. That’s Assassin’s Creed Syndrome.
This doesn’t mean that Mirror’s Edge is a bad game, in fact it’s a damned good game, but after a certain point it just became less fun to play.
My reasoning for this phenomenon is that when you first play the game, it’s a shiny new toy. The developers really aren’t pulling any punches when it comes to delivering great gaming and you’re experiencing something new and exciting. Then as the game wears on, there’s simply less great material for the developers to deliver and the experience suffers..
You end up judging the later levels by the expectations that were set at the beginning and whilst they are still very good, they feel subpar. It results in a feeling that you’ve just played a game that could have been great but ended up feeling disappointing.
Fortunately, Assassin’s Creed Syndrome is a very subjective experience and it is entirely possible that you won’t encounter it. Meaning that all you will have left is a great, albeit challenging, game that feels like a breath of fresh air after playing yet another first person shooter.
For this review I played the Xbox 360 version of Mirror’s Edge, completing the majority of the campaign on Normal difficulty and several levels of the Time Trial mode. Prior to this, I completed the game on Normal difficulty and earned the Test of Faith achievement (requiring completion of the game without the use of weapons) shortly after the game was released in late 2008.
Special thanks to Adam in the comments for pointing out some much needed revisions to the original version of this review.