Mirror’s Edge: Successes and Failures

Kicking Face in Mirrors Edge

Kicking Face in Mirror's Edge

I recently had the opportunity to play though Mirror’s Edge for the first time — it’s a game I’d had my eye on for a while. After playing it to the end and playing around with it a little, I had mixed feelings of the whole product. Rather than review the game, however, I’d rather just go over what I felt really worked and really didn’t.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, Mirror’s Edge is a First Person Action game that is based heavily across the ideas of Parkour. Players control Faith, a ‘runner’ (someone who transports items under the radar of the Big-Brother society in the game) who ends up in the midst of a murder-conspiracy which is fingering her sister Kate. Players use Faith’s skills of martial arts and parkour to try and uncover the truth and save Kate.

First, The Good. Mirror’s Edge is actually a huge step forward, and there’s a lot to praise. Foremost: It’s the first game I’ve seen that’s finally implemented a more realistic body/camera system for a First Person game (though I’m not sure it’s the first game to do it). Players can look down and see their feet. When you move around quickly, your arms and feet regularly enter you field of vision as you move, keyed to your speed (and momentum is involved — more on that shortly). If you approach a solid surface, Faith puts her hands up against them, rather than standing flat-faced against a wall.

Additionally, the game has exceptionally well designed movement and controls to reflect them. The the game controls simply — beyond your usual first person movement and look controls, you also have four major buttons: Up, Down, Grab and Attack. Everything is context sensitive and becomes rapidly intuitive. You press Up to jump or climb, down to drop or roll, grab to snatch or cling and attack to punch or kick. It feels very natural once you’ve acclimatized to it, and before long, you’re wall running and leaping over fences with ease. Even complicated maneuvers, like wall jumping, are pretty simple. This all comes together around momentum — a key to the game’s mechanics. Moving smoothly lets you move faster, which is sometimes necessary, or at least convenient.

This ties together in to the combat system as well — which is as straight forward as exploring the environment. Pressing ‘Attack’ does a punch, doing it while sliding does a low kick, doing it while jumping does a flying kick and  if you jump down on an enemy you can stomp down on them. Additionally, you can disarm your enemies with the ‘grab’ button when they try to attack you, which not only gets you their gun, but is an instant take down. The game also tries to let you out run your enemies and simply escape. Combat has the now-common regenerating health, and the player is pleasantly fragile in an actual conflict, which I found very refreshing.

Finally, Mirror’s Edge features some excellent visual style. It’s a gorgeous world of white splashed with primary colors, remarkably well detailed and realized. More than most games I’ve played, Mirror’s Edge feels like a real place. While some of the sets are a little inexplicable (like some extensive ventilation systems and impractical access rooms) and some details are oddly left out when not in use (like elevator access panels) but it’s not a frequent occurrence so it doesn’t normally break your immersion.

With all that said: The Bad. The most notable is that while the movement system is great and works well and is a lot of fun, the game offers you very few opportunities to actually use it. There’s some sort of disconnect between the brilliance of the game mechanics and the stupidity of much of the level design, which follows the super-linear format that is so popular in big-budget games these days. I can understand the popular desire to have players complete a straight forward level with a forward moving plot, but it’s counter intuitive to the parkour idea that the game is based around. The player is given all of these abilities to get around, but in most of the game there’s only one path to take with only one practical solution to whatever obstacles are in your way. You’re often encouraged to try and run past enemies, but the level design rarely actually allows for it.

There are only a small number of areas that have open paths that let you avoid enemies or move naturally — if you ever make a wrong turn, you can quickly get stuck. If you aren’t doing exactly what the designers want you to do, the whole flow of the game falls apart. And with the few open areas that you DO come across in the game, it’s clear that the reason the majority of the game is so completely linear must have been either incompetence or laziness somewhere along the level design chain.

The combat system isn’t perfect either. For some reason, Faith can be shot a few dozen times, but can only be punched a few times before collapsing. If you fail to disarm an opponent, no matter what they were doing, they’ll hit you with a strong hand-to-hand attack; fail twice and you go down. You’re told in the tutorial stage about disarming enemies from behind, but Faith isn’t stealthy — I never found an opportunity to use it in the game. They stress the idea of non-violence through out the game, encouraging players to KO enemies rather than shooting them, but killing the enemies doesn’t change anything. In fact, in a few scenes where they want you to run rather than fight, the enemies aren’t just overwhelming, they’re factually invincible — a real cop out.

While the game has a great visual style, the ‘Runner Vision’ feature — which was clearly meant to work within the visual style to give cues to the player as to what they can interact with by making set pieces red — is inconsistent and makes any red areas confusing. In some areas, interactive pieces are always red, and sometimes they only turn red when you’re approaching them — and some when your approaching them at speed. It’s not a bad idea for a feature, but it was clearly not thought out.

As poorly executed at the Runner Vision mechanic is, it isn’t anything compared to the ‘Reaction Time’ mechanic, which slows down the speed of the game in order to let you complete complicated actions more accurately. Ultimately, it’s there to justify how narrow the window of opportunity is for disarming some of the tougher swat-cops in the game. There’s very few places where you need to navigate the environment quickly enough that using Reaction Time would make sense, let alone be necessary. And it’s not particularly useful in combat either — Reaction Time lasts only long enough to execute a single disarm, offers no advantages on other attacks, and there are easier ways to take out enemies when there’s only one or two of them. So why would you ever use Reaction Time? I didn’t.

And to cap it all off, Mirror’s Edge features one of the most pointless stories I’ve ever come across, and it’s clear that it’s not for a lack of trying. The game is set up with some sort of plot based around the transport of sensitive information — all the elements were there, with the concept of the runners, and the bag that attracts all the attention at the beginning of the game that you pass off to another runner. There are a bunch of interesting elements that were set up at the very beginning of the game that are quickly dismissed. The game has a dumber, hole filled plot shoehorned in to it with 2D cut-scenes (which were less compelling than the 3D imagery in the rest of the game, including the 3D cut-scenes also used — why not all one or the other?) and a wide variety of bad plot wholes and inexplicable elements, characters and inconsistencies.

It drove me crazy to hear about Kate as an ‘accused murderer’ for most of the plot, then during one scene (which felt out of place) she gets convicted and you have to save her from being transported to prison. It seems like the whole point of the scene is to force you to use a sniper rifle at least once during the game; without you could go the whole game without firing a shot. And once that level is over, Kate is never called ‘convicted’ again — everyone calls her ‘accused’. It’s a sloppy mistake, and it’s not the only one. The game has a non-ending, where individual villains might be defeated but their organizations still stand. Faith and Kate are still wanted by the local police, and none of the loose ends are tied up.

The Overall? Mirror’s Edge is a cool idea that was marred by some bad execution. It’s a great step forward in terms of mechanics, but it’s hard to enjoy when the game doesn’t reflect those advances with superior level design. There is a sequel planned, but I don’t know that it’ll resolve any of the problems from the first game.  (I’m actually afraid it’d exacerbate them.)

A better story would help, but the world of difference would be to improve the level design to make the areas more explorable. It may help to improve combat as well — reduce the number of faceless mook cops you face and increase more enemies like the pursuit cops or the enemy runners where combat is extended and feels more like a genuine fight rather than the pointless bullet dodging that the rest of the game consisted of. When the game is good, it’s great, but when it’s bad, it’s tedious.

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2 Responses to “Mirror’s Edge: Successes and Failures”

  1. Joss Says:

    I agree with all your points. The game is great in many ways but falls flat in others. In some sections of the game,several small niggles conspire to form big problems. There is a divide between the what the player THINKS in possible to do in the game, and what actually IS possible. This is the source of much frustration, especially when the difference between success and failure us a fraction of a second with the cross hairs the on exact pixels required by the designers.

  2. killing games Says:

    I agree with all your points. The game is great in many ways but falls flat in others. In some sections of the game,several small niggles conspire to form big problems. There is a divide between the what the player THINKS in possible to do in the game, and what actually IS possible. This is the source of much frustration, especially when the difference between success and failure us a fraction of a second with the cross hairs the on exact pixels required by the designers.

    thanks
    killing games

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