Mirror's Edge has great platforming, but other elements fall flat
DICE is primarily known for its popular Battlefield series. Because of that, it's surprising they are behind Mirror's Edge. This game isn't focused on gunplay at all. In fact, the game encourages you to avoid combat situations at all times, and the act of shooting a gun isn't satisfying either, which is weird, since the guns definitely packed a punch in the Battlefield games. Instead of being a shooter, Mirror's Edge is based on Parkour, the sport that sees athletes moving from point A to point B as quickly as possible through the use of climbing, running and jumping.
Mirror's Edge's plot centers around Faith. The city she lives in is a sterile, controlled environment where all forms of communication are being watched, and free speech no longer exists. The only way to say something to others without the corrupt government knowing is through the use of Runners. They are athletes that know the city inside out and are extremely capable at overcoming obstacles, be they fences or armed militia seeking to take them down. Faith is such a Runner, working for a man named Merc. She gets into a lot of trouble when her sister, who is a cop, gets framed for the murder of a politician who wants to overthrow the current political situation. From that point onwards, Faith embarks upon a journey across many a rooftop in an attempt to prove her sister's innocence.
It's a very clichéd story, but Mirror's Edge obviously was not intended to be remembered for its story, and it shows in its execution. The story gets told through animated cutscenes that I felt actually looked worse than what simple, in-engine cutscenes would look like. There is little story progression, and very little cohesion between the levels you traverse, and the bits of story thrown in-between. Mirror's Edge obviously has a story mode, but it might as well have been a simple series of levels without all the story stuff thrown in. For example, you'll play through a dark level because it's nighttime, then see a little story transition, and load up the next level. But even though the cutscene made it appear as though the next level is only moments after, you'll play in broad daylight, and you seem to be miles and miles away from the previous location, as the visual style is completely different. However, all these points aren't all that big of a deal, as the raw gameplay is what Mirror's Edge chose to center on.
Platforming is one of the oldest concepts in gaming. From Mario to Prince of Persia, there have been tonnes and tonnes of platformers out for a whole lot of systems. However, Mirror's Edge is probably the first platformer that's played entirely in first-person. This is both an advantage and disadvantage for the gameplay. The advantage is that you really do feel like you are taking these enormous leaps of faith, running at high speeds along rooftops, jumping over fences, sliding under pipes and so on. The first-person view really immerses you when you're playing. The disadvantage however, is that the actual platforming is less practical. When you are playing as the Prince of Persia, it's incredibly easy to time jumps because you can actually see the Prince running towards the edge. In Mirror's Edge, not so. DICE has done a really good job of fixing that problem though. If you look straight down, you can see about 80 procent of Faith's body. When you are sprinting, her arms will sway in and out of the screen. When you curl up in the air to make it over an obstacle, you can see her feet sticking out in front of you. And so on. These little touches make the way Faith moves much easier to understand and feel, in turn making the Parkour quite awesome.
In fact, if you're looking for a game that emulates Parkour, Mirror's Edge is easily your best bet. Unlike other platformers, like Prince of Persia, Mirror's Edge's fun isn't found in solving the way a room is supposed to be traversed, but rather, doing this as efficiently as possible. Therefore, the first playthrough isn't all that fun. The game is great when Faith is at full speed, taking obstacles with astounding fluidity. However, the way to get where you need to isn't always evident, and your progress will grind to a halt in those moments. These are the least fun points in the game, as they can sometimes require you to run around a small corridor for 5 minutes on end, just to see that one small, obscure ledge you can grab onto in order to move along.
The game knows this, and smartly employs a system called Runner's Vision to get around it. Mirror's Edge has an extremely sober colour palette, always consisting of white and another colour, depending on the environment you're in. That's it. When you're indoors, it's entirely possible to see one colour; green. Or orange or something like that. Now, what Runner's Vision does is mark objects that could and should be used to get further in bright red. This makes seeing where you're supposed to go, and how you need to go about things a whole lot easier, which fortunately eliminates a lot moments where you would get stuck. It doesn't get rid of the problem entirely, but it certainly helps.
However, as mentioned before, such problems are only present on the first playthrough. The second time you play a level, you'll have figured out a proper way to overcome obstacles. This is when the game kicks into high gear. Playing as Faith, and overcoming obstacles at an astounding speed is simply a joy. After you've completed the story mode, you can move on to speedrunning the individual storyline chapters, as well as do Time Trials. And both of these things are hard. The finish times required to get achievements on the storyline speedruns, and golden stars on the races are just about impossible to manage when you follow the Runner's Vision's cues, as it often offers a solution, but only a slow one. If you thought you were able to finish a level quickly, just wait until you see what some of the more dedicated players can do. Instead of simply getting good at overtaking the obstacles in red, they've thought of completely different ways to navigate whatever's in their way. When you see it, you'll realize just how versatile Mirror's Edge's platforming mechanics are.
For example, one of the very first Time Trials starts you off at a set of stairs. Humans designed stairs to easily reach places above or below them, and as such you'd probably just run up the stairs as quickly as possible. However, if you are creative and understand the way the platforming works, you'll figure out ways to overcome that set of stairs so much more efficiently. You run sideways across a wall, leap off and grab onto a railing. You quickly pull up and immediately run up the wall infront of you, turn out halfway and push off. Again, you grab the adjacent railing, and pull up to quickly ram through the target door. Doing this shaves off a clean 10 seconds of your time. It's less complicated than it sounds, but it's still really tough to get right. Mastering the perfect way to overcome a major obstacle takes quite a bit of practice and comes down to insane timing, but when you do reach that level, it's extremely satisfying and fun. Apart from leaderboards, you can actually race your friends' ghosts or even the top time on the leaderboard. This adds a nice sense of competition, and trying to stay ahead of your own ghost, or somebody else's is an experience that really gets the adrenaline flowing. However, there is little to be gained from racing the global top scores, as you're all but guaranteed to lose their ghost after the first obstacle; these guys are just too fast. A breadcrumb trail does indicate where the ghost has gone though, which offers some insight into the insanely convoluted tricks that have been thought up. And that's exactly where Mirror's Edge truly shines; when you are capable of beating a level without ever slowing down, and ending with a great time, the game is absolutely superb.
Unfortunately, Mirror's Edge features another stumbling block: combat. Both the melee combat and the gunplay are in a single word, atrocious. The game wants the player to avoid combat at all times, and that's probably why it sucks so badly. Much like the platforming, there is always a way to overcome combat in a very unconventional way, but that also requires insane timing and a lot of practice to get right. That level of mastery simply isn't plausible for a first timer though, so there will be times where you're pretty much forced to fight. Melee combat has a couple of mechanics. You can simply punch the armed militia that are deadbent on taking you down, but they'll counter you after two or three hits. Another option is to disarm them, which is done by pressing a button when they try to hit you with the butt of their rifle. But the timing on this is very tight, like all aspects of this game. Luckily, Faith can momentarily enter bullet-time, making this quite a bit easier. After you've acquired said weapon, you'll want to get rid of it immediately though, because the act of shooting a gun in Mirror's Edge simply isn't satisfying in any way.
Because the combat is so bad, and running and jumping is so good, you'll likely turn to simply running past guards and soldiers very quickly. Unfortunately, Faith is very fragile, and not only will she die very quickly when she's at the mercy of an assault rifle, but taking hits really slows you down as well. The consequence is that you may need quite a bit of luck in order to make it past a group of guards. If they decide to hit you all at once, you're done for. This turns those situations into pure trial-and-error, which again, can cause the game to grind to a halt. It's a shame the action sequences are so underwhelming, because it pulls the storyline levels in Mirror's Edge down from “fantastic” to “average”. Thankfully, it's nowhere to be found in the exhilirating Time Trials.
Mirror's Edge has an extremely striking visual style that's completely different from what you've seen before. Like I said, the game only uses a couple of colours, that it applies to pretty much every object. Indoor environments always have a single colour assigned to them, while white reigns supreme on the rooftops. It all has a very basic look, but it really works in the context of the game. Thanks to the simplicity, the Runner's Vision is accentuated really well, and the basic design also allows you to focus on the Parkour, rather than on useless window dressing.
The game has a very appropriate techno soundtrack that really helps invigorate you during the levels. Voice acting is nothing special, but the story isn't relevant anyway, so it's all good. Overall, Mirror's Edge chose for seemingly basic presentation, but it's like that for a reason. This way the focus remains platforming at all times, which is smart.
Mirror's Edge is a game that does its platforming really, really well. However, all the other elements in the game pale in comparison. That said, Mirror's Edge is really enjoyable when it's got some momentum going. I'd say it's a game you should look for in the bargain bin.