Brilliant concept; flawed execution
Conceptually, Mirror’s Edge is brilliant; there is no doubt about it, for me. The idea of a first-person free-running simulator is something I’ve wanted to play having seen The Matrix for the first time. Being able to jump from building to building, across rooftops, pulling out kick-ass moves when needs be, dressing in hot, sexy PVC… Ah, yes, Mirror’s Edge: a great idea, in theory.
It’s in practice, though, where the theory pans out. Sadly, Mirror’s Edge doesn’t get the implementation quite right. There are several small issues which, bundled together, undermine what fun is to be had playing the game. Mirror’s Edge is the very incarnation of the phrase ‘diamond in the rough’, a paradox of being absolutely mind-blowingly awesome at times, while frustrating and infuriating the next.
Mirror’s Edge is set in a dystopian future, where a totalitarian government wields complete control over the speech and actions of its citizens through widespread surveillance. In a nameless city, you take the role of Faith, a ‘Runner’, who lives her life dancing atop the skyscrapers of this towering concrete jungle, carrying messages back and forth to and from various revolutionary groups.
When Faith’s sister, Kate, is framed for the murder of a prominent anti-establishment political figure, Faith – with the help of her handler, the enigmatic ‘Merc’ – goes after whoever’s behind this cover-up, in an attempt to clear her sister’s name and uncover the conspiracy behind it.
The story is not particularly clever or, indeed, original. The setting, however, works fantastically, on both a technical and aesthetic level. The city is almost sterile in its appearance; everything is bleached out, white, clean. Sometimes you see people on the streets but the overall feeling is that of being in an oversized petri dish. It’s cold, and it’s artificial, and it’s really quite eerie. Think the very antithesis of Blade Runner’s crowded, dirty Los Angeles, and with whatever you’ve got in your mind you’re probably halfway there to imagining Mirror’s Edge’s unnamed metropolis.
The game’s presentation, it has to be said, is second to none. Perfectly complimenting the visuals is an ambient, moody electronic soundtrack, which is never overbearing but quietly supports the action on-screen. The game also features anime-inspired cutscenes, which I think you’ll either take to or hate. I, personally, liked the look of these little interludes; I liked the sharp angles the characters are drawn in, and I felt it did well to reinforce the dreamy, expressionistic tone of the game.
Essentially, what the game mostly boils down to is figuring out the best way for getting from point-A to point-B, without dying – either from overexposure to hot lead or a fatal drop face-first onto the pavement below. In this endeavour the game does a fair amount to help you out; Faith has her ‘Runner Vision’ which highlights, in bright red, objects, which act as signposts as to where to go next. Further, pressing a button on the gamepad focuses the camera on the general direction of where Faith should be heading. These are all welcome features which prevent the player from being stuck; although the game still suffers from having objectives which are overly vague.
The controls, while initially overwhelming, are actually quite competent in allowing the player to pull off basic and advanced parkour techniques. In general, the game is quite forgiving with regards to the timing of jumps; most don’t require perfect precision (although it helps), and even if Faith does die, checkpoints are scattered very liberally throughout each level, making lengthy backtracking a non-issue. Sometimes there are instances where a jump or a grab should connect but doesn’t, but apart from these moments the platforming aspect plays out quite nicely.
Where the game stretches itself a little too far is in the combat. Faith can bring the fight home with her hand-to-hand skills, and she has the ability to disarm and utilise the weapons of her downed opponents. From a first-person perspective, combat can start off as rather cumbersome, but with a little practice you’ll be drop-kicking SWAT members in the balls and stealing their guns in no time at all.
The larger issue is with the rather unfair situations Faith is put up against. Faith ain’t no Stallone or Schwarzenegger – she can’t handle that much damage, and she dies quite easily in a hailstorm of bullets. Yet, the game sometimes expects you to defeat multiple enemies in order to progress, and it’s way too difficult, and, frequently, the only way you’ll win is through luck or cheap tactics. Faith is simply too weak to go up against the enemy point-blank; the game actually acknowledges this during one of the loading screens, and yet it forces you to go face-to-face with enemy at certain points. It’s a bizarre design decision that only works in making certain sections of the game more aggravating than needs be.
Part of the frustration is down to obtuse level design, where you can’t find where to go fast enough and die as a result. You then have to resort to mapping out the surrounding area through trial and error, dying several times in the process, until you figure out the ‘right’ path. When a game such as this – a game which is highly reliant on a sense of speed – contrives situations in which you can’t help but die a dozen times over, then it only works against itself. It becomes a game of chance rather than a game of skill, and that’s a problem.
And yet there’s nothing else like it, when you’re being chased over rooftops, through a building, jumping off a ledge onto a platform below, zip-lining down the next, through another building, and then getting into the elevator, the doors shutting just as you see the cops behind you closing in. The thrill of the chase is in this game, and it is unparalleled.
Along with the story mode, the game also includes a series of time trial challenges. These stages, taken from the main game (sans enemies), are races against the clock along a series of checkpoints. There are certain pre-set records to be broken as well as an online leaderboard, which can tell you the number one best time, worldwide, for a level. The time trials provide a little more variety to the proceedings, putting the emphasis back on running and jumping rather than combat, and they add a bit of longevity to the overall package.
I hope they make a sequel, because, as I see it, this game is on the cusp of being great, if only a few improvements were made. As it is now, Mirror’s Edge is good most of the time – sometimes even excellent – but it can also be quite a maddening experience. It’s most certainly worth a rental for a weekend, if only to try something different, but not with a purchase at full price.