Mirror’s Edge (PS3)

Parkour, the french art of running around outside.
Who’d have thought it would make a good game idea? Well Dice and EA obviously.

You can find out whether I think they managed it over in my review at Acegamez.

Full review text can be chased after as it runs away below the cut:

Mirror’s Edge

There comes a point in every videogame where after playing it for long enough, the human body disassociates the differences between itself and the character onscreen. At this point, you stop thinking about the controls and the characters and everything becomes instinct; reflexes are everything and the motions of your onscreen avatar become second nature. This is where Mirror’s Edge attempts to place you – on a ceaseless roller coaster of peril and split second decision-making – and to an extent, it succeeds.

Many games have tried to emulate human movement while delivering a relative amount of freedom, from Flashback to Tomb Raider, but it soon became apparent that this was always going to be problematic. The first person shooter genre provided a means to see through the eyes of your viewpoint character and has on occasion given the illusion of movement and freedom. While this is nothing new, the freedom of movement in a fully 3D environment is usually constrained by limited actions and a slow pace. Mirror’s Edge aims to change all of that. Set in a futuristic Utopian society that’s deep in the grip of an oppressive government, it tells the story of a runner named Faith. She and her runner brethren are an underground society of messengers that leap across rooftops and dash through alleyways to transport their precious goods to its intended recipient. The game takes its cues from the French art of movement known as Parkour, a practice that has taken over from skateboarding as the outdoor pastime of choice in many city squares across the world.

Faith can achieve all manner of acrobatic manoeuvres as she dives, rolls, and even runs flat out along the sides of walls for a short distance, allowing you to reach places and navigate landscapes in a new and unorthodox fashion. This is made possible by the massively simplified yet cleverly implemented control system at the game’s core; fundamentally, it only features a few slight additions to the standard FPS framework, but the difference comes from how these basic controls can be twisted to your environment in this city of the future.

This is a city of great spectacle, where even the storm drains and sewers have a beauty to them, stretching into cavernous depths of stark blackness that contrast the occasionally painfully white rooftops that shimmer under a piercing sun. This is also a city under the rule of an iron fist, a strictly controlled metropolitan paradise where dissent is usually met with lethal force. The Runners however are a tolerated inconvenience, up until Faith and her policewoman sister become embroiled in the assassination of a politician who is attempting to assert change. This is the springboard for the rest of the story, as Faith first runs for her life and then embarks upon a voyage of discovery to uncover the true culprits.

One of the real joys of Mirror’s Edge is seeing a far off and strange location and trying to get to it; working out if a combination of a wall-run and a leap is enough or if there’s a convenient ledge to shimmy across. Picture the moment: you’ve landed on the roof of a sparklingly clean metropolitan skyscraper and stretching far into the distance ahead lies a tangled cityscape of roofs, scaffolds, pipes, bill hoardings and wires that at once seem both inviting and impossible; yet mere minutes after starting the game you’re charging headlong across the skyward labyrinth with a vague idea of what you want to do – and a few hours later you’re flying along walls and soaring over death-defying heights with the grace and beauty of a swan. This is true freedom – real and believable – and while it lasts you’ll be praising DICE for creating such a spellbinding experience and cursing the gods that made you live in the real world.

This incredibly immersive atmosphere is due in no small part to the level of detail and the refreshing flair of the graphics; having decided to make the game visually distinctive, DICE has imagined a curiously cold future world where the aesthetic conjures up what would happen if IKEA and neo-fascism met in some megalomaniac’s warped dreams. The game is resoundingly pretty, with rarely a bad texture, while the use of strong primary colours creates a genuinely unique visual aesthetic. This does occasionally grate though, as the bright buildings can literally be dazzling as the bloom effects make the reflections of the sunlight give you a near white-out. Still, the overall effect is spectacular and often mesmerising; the towering buildings stretch as far as the eye can see and sometimes you simply have to stop and look in wonder at the beauty of it. This is the antithesis of the usual dark, grimy, super-industrialised visions of future society that most games inflict upon us, and its conception is nothing short of sublime. Astonishingly, the accompanying audio is of such quality as to almost upstage the visual spectacle; while the sound effects and voice acting are appropriate but unremarkable, Lisa Mosokovsky’s soundtrack is truly inspired. Its hauntingly beautiful new age music washes over you as you play, alluding to Faith’s Zen-like grace, with a blend of evocative melodies and pulsating, techno-influenced numbers that cement your emotional involvement with the experience. If the review could only end right here then Mirror’s Edge would be close to perfection. Sadly, however, a host of increasingly pervasive problems serve to sour (and even potentially destroy) what is initially such a wonderfully sweet experience.

A questionable design aspect that is present from the outset, the chapter-separating cut scenes are depicted in a bizarre and heavily stylised cartoon fashion, falling somewhere between the cardboard animations of South Park and the detailed work of Aeon Flux’s Peter Chung. This stands as an odd choice, particularly considering that the game also features a number of scripted, in-game cut scenes. These can become increasingly annoying, as all control is taken away from you, yet you are stuck in first person and forced to spends excessive amounts of time sitting dormant as Faith stands around, chatting inanely with various characters – you cannot even look around at these points. The decision to present these scenes from a first person viewpoint rather than directing them with external camera angles actually detracts from the game and frustrates; it’s been proven unnecessary to enforce such a system as far back as the original Half-Life (although at least in Half-Life you can usually move around as you witness the set pieces that are taking place).

These cut scenes can make you feel unnaturally funnelled through the story, and unfortunately the same is true of the levels themselves, to an extent; the action is delineated into a single pathway with a depressing regularity. A key part of this is due to the goal-vision that, at the press of a button, swings Faith’s view unerringly towards her final objective at any given moment. However, this also has the criminal effect of throwing you off course, as a curious tap when in the wrong place can send you careering off the edge of a precipice. Even with this aid in place, it’s still all too easy to get lost, especially later on in the game, where many of the areas feature a highly complex layout and harass you through them when you have no clear idea where to start and only a vague idea of your destination.

Much has been made of Faith’s manoeuvrability and the intuitive nature of the controls, even though upon closer inspection they take their inspiration from several other games. Faith moves much like a first person shooter character, but with additions that are more usually reserved for the third person genre. In fact, it’s hard not to think of her as a reinvention of Lara Croft, as she swings on bars and vaults over walls, clinging to the lips of windowsills and rooftops as she sprints beneath the infinitely blue skies. She leaps and crouches, can mantle onto ledges like Garrett from the Thief series, and looking down shows us her beautifully rendered, tracksuit-clad legs and stylishly cloven running shoes. Should you see a low level pipe, a quick tap of the jump button causes you to vault over it, gaining speed as you go. Similarly, a tap of the crouch button sends you sliding under obstacles and down staircases on your shins. The key to the system’s success is its seamless flow and freedom of movement, and as you dive, roll and even run horizontally along walls, the pace never slackens. The game also kindly marks the best routes by highlighting some obstacles and objects with a vivid scarlet, so it’s easy to tell where you simply can’t avoid going, although this ‘runner vision’ can be turned off and is automatically disabled on the unlockable Hard difficulty level.

While parkour provides the gameplay’s foundation, you spend an inordinate amount of time running away from armed police and hired mercenaries. Because some confrontations are unavoidable, you also have a trio of combat moves, which help to pass enemies and occasionally fend them off. The first, a solitary fight control that can be contextually varied; use it in connection with a jump and you perform a flying scissor-kick, while combining it with a moving crouch sends you skidding into your foe and planting a boot in his groin. Old hands of the F.E.A.R. series will find these jumping kicks and sliding tackles strikingly familiar – what sets Mirror’s Edge apart is the fact that the combat is the least of your concerns. This is very much a game where fight comes a far second to flight, because the combatants that you find yourself pitted against are invariably armoured and carrying guns. Your punches and kicks become useless if you’re faced with more than one or two enemies at a time, as it takes between two and three hits to down a single foe with melee attacks alone. The ace up your sleeve is that you can disarm foes by pressing the right button when their weapon glows with that same shade of scarlet as the highlighted routes, firing off any remaining ammo before tossing the weapon aside. The problem with this second technique is that these opportunities pass so swiftly that they can be easily missed, leading to you receiving a blow in kind, and you can take scant few hits before you drop down dead. The final combat technique is a bullet-time function that charges up gradually and displays as a momentary blue haze, helping you to take out enemies but only lasting for a few seconds, rendering it fairly ineffective.

In short, the combat is best avoided, as the enemy is better equipped, better trained, has truer aim and is extremely trigger-happy. Moreover, your foes have the disconcerting ability to move in and out of buildings faster than anyone should be able to, meaning that while running you’re constantly under fire despite the many unpredictable twists and turns that you take [They sound suspiciously like Agents of the Matrix to me! Ed]. As a result, much of the game is designed around moving fast enough that no one can fire off an accurate shot at you – but the annoyance with this is that you are often forced into combat situations; there are portions of the game that require you to directly confront attackers, which is where the gameplay starts to break down and never entirely recovers. It seems as though someone at DICE decided that the average punter would want the chance to make use of the combat moves and disarming techniques and that, as a result, the game places you in several arena-like areas where you cannot escape until you’ve put down every last one of your armed assailants. These arenas are an unpleasant and difficult part of the game that break its flow and detracts from the fun and exhilaration of the earlier sections.

What makes this issue worse is that the maps themselves occasionally work against you; some surfaces automatically attempt to interpret your commands incorrectly. For example, on one level, while trying to run along a wall before leaping off and kicking a security guard in the face – a truly Wachowski Brothers-inspired moment – the game decided that I instead wanted to climb up that wall and Faith promptly flung herself onto it with her back to the guard, receiving a blast of shotgun shells for her trouble. Repeated attempts proved that this wasn’t a fluke or misjudgement on my part; the game simply doesn’t allow for you to wall-run on this particular surface and since you use the same control to perform both manoeuvres, the game constrains you to what it thinks is best. This isn’t the only instance of the problem, either; when free running, the further afield you go, the less likely it is that the map will let you find purchase on objects. On one level I tried to leap to a fire escape in the next building, only to find Faith plummeting to her doom after she steadfastly refused to grab hold of the ledges in front of her.

The core concept is brilliant and its implementation is impressive for the most part, but the issues with the combat and the lack of scope to break away from the main path to really explore the city are significant drawbacks. The decision to try and skew the experience toward FPS fans instead of remaining true to the parkour concept was not a good one, and while I accept that removing the combat element altogether isn’t the solution either, enforcing it merely shows how badly it clashes with the main gameplay – especially when the game decides to hit you with, and I apologise if this spoils a surprise, ‘parkour cops’. Yes, these are cops who can do everything you can… and more [They’re Matrix Agents – I’m telling you! Did any of them refer to you as Trinity? Ed.] As is typical of lazy design, the enemies are made more effective by giving them skills that you do not have but by rights should be able to practice; in fact, by far the most infuriating moment of the game was the realisation that not only were these two ninjoid villains practically unbeatable, able to neatly back-flip away from attacks or simply push you aside, but they could also win in any simultaneous attack. Completing the horror, the game confronts you with not two of these foes, but seven, giving you no option but to run for your life, out onto buildings where the usual cops appear on every rooftop, taking pot-shots at you as you frantically scramble for your life from these relentless pursuers [Where’s Neo when you need him? Okay, I’ll stop now. Ed]. Were the story more cleverly fitted together, this might actually work out, but it comes over as a poorly constructed B-movie plot, with Faith rushing hither and yon to no real aim other than giving the game an excuse to send you down a sewer tunnel or into a subway system. Granted, this makes for some fun levels, but these frustrating issues have a cumulative effect that is in danger of ruining the entire experience.

Mirror’s Edge is an intriguing and appealing concept that is wonderfully implemented in some respects and poorly so in others. The parkour aspects of leaping from building to building, running along walls, grabbing hold of ledges and hoisting yourself over fences, all in one wonderfully fluid sequence, is nothing short of exhilarating; indeed, the game is at its finest in the Time Trial mode that challenges you to navigate your way through a number of gates across a series of map sections in the shortest possible time. This is where you will likely return when the campaign begins to lose its shine due to combat elements that are frustrating to tackle and doubly so when you are offered no choice but to fight. The game is fresh and unique in many respects – not the least of which are its gorgeous graphics and spellbinding soundtrack – but its flaws are significant, and possibly fatal. As such, the only way to really know whether the joy of the parkour will overcome the anguish of the combat for you personally is to experience it for yourself.

 

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