Mirror's Edge - The City Is Your Playground

November 11, 2008

Innovation has always been one of the shining stars of video games where the best ideas are quickly cannibalized into the culture. A gimmick, on the other hand, often seems like a derogatory tag, just a bit of garnish that fails to actually add real flavor. The line between the two can be hard to discern. A first-person, free-running parkour adventure asked us to have faith based upon its tantalizing trailers, but does Mirror's Edge deliver?

Living out on the edge means a clean cut city of skyscrapers, totalitarian regimes and runners--illegal couriers who hustle information, goods, or whatever else, from one side of town to the other. Enter Faith, a runner who gets caught up in murder and conspiracy with a little family drama mixed in.

The plot progresses through occasional and brief in-game cutscenes, or more often, from radio chatter from her network of fellow runners. It's like a carrot on a stick. It gives you enough motivation to keep pushing forward, but a grander sense of urgency never arises. It doesn't help that the meat of the exposition comes from flashy 2D animations between each level. While technically well-done, they splinter the surreal world into something cartoony, and completely divorced from the narrative. Characters seem whiny and underdeveloped, lacking menace or motivation. There's flash, but there's not always substance.

Faith's tale takes you through the city skyline, jumping, wall-running, and doing all other sorts of acrobatics. While a lot of levels are rooftop rendezvous, be prepared to transverse some pretty pristine sewers, malls, and other interiors. So it's mixed up, even if they're all continuously decorated with pipes, ledges, and other climbing essentials. There's a big emphasis on momentum, and being able to quickly assess a situation and work out an escape plan is essential to keep it flowing. It's very rewarding when you pull off a string of difficult maneuvers, but it's also equally devastating to be stuck.

That's where the color red and a helpful guide button come in. While it can be turned off, an option called runner's vision gives likely paths a red tint, showing the way, while the guide button shows where you should be heading. It may seem like cheating, or a crutch, but they're very useful tools to getting you acclimated to the trials and tumbles ahead. They also both recede in their ability as the levels advance, with less red and more general camera cues as you start to feel more comfortable in Faith's skin.

Very often the boys in blue are hot on your trail, and it won't take long for them to start shooting, forcing you to push on. Ideas may be bulletproof, but apparently Faith isn't. Also, she isn't always being chased--sometimes she does the chasing. These sorts of switch-ups, along with the combat, help break up the swift pace. There is a dash of variety, with train jumps or hunting down hidden bags stashed throughout the level.

Without a doubt there is an optimal race line through each level, but there's also room for experimentation in the time trial mode. With over 20 levels to unlock and master, it's as simple as racing through a series of checkpoints, but getting there can be anything but. A first run can leave you puzzled, while achieving the top times can up that to pure bafflement. We're sure the speed run community will appreciate breaking it down and shaving off milliseconds, and with leader boards and downloadable ghosts, bragging rights and refinement techniques will be available for all.

The value you get out of Mirror's Edge will be directly proportional to how much you enjoy the core gameplay. The story mode can be completed in around seven hours, so if you're not into speed running, take it into consideration.

There's an air of the uncanny, and not just from the Unreal engine producing vibrant colors. You may need to spend some time unlearning first-person shooter reflexes. The most important actions are tied to shoulder buttons, and it's easy to miss some early jumps, or do a 180 when holding a gun instead of firing. Working through it, the controls start to make sense, giving support to the binary, under or over choices the game supplies, with jump and duck taking top stage. The perspective does work for platforming, and for trickier jumps or maneuvers you can call on a slow-motion reserve to perfect timing.

Combat puts a big emphasis on timing as well, where disarming an opponent at just the right moment is often the quickest way to proceed, as opposed to trying to pummel them into submission. Though stylish, they're really glorified quicktime events. The gunplay is mediocre, but brief and optional, and the enemy AI is poor. Guns are more of a power-up here, and discarded when out of bullets or voluntarily dropped as many moves can't be performed when holding them.

Identifying what you can climb, vault off of, or scale is essential for making progress through the metropolis jungle gym, while pulling off the mental gymnastics in tandem with the required reflexes is very gratifying. There may be occasional flair of anger as Faith plummets to her death from an off-angle jump or untimely trip, but it's worth working through, because when you're on a roll there's a real sense of fear and accomplishment as you pull off these nimble actions from such a personal perspective.

The city is definitely something to behold, and while it's strangely empty there's an eerie charm to its straight lines and effervescent moxie. Whether you like its look or not, there's definitely no other game that looks like it. Occasional mid-level loads, clipping, and aliasing issues oppose the hyper hygienic feel and stand out more than in other, grittier games. Here, even a clutter is clean. The cutscenes come off as an easy way out deal, though they do their job. Faith's own impressive visage only makes the briefest of cameos in the 3D realm, making it difficult to attach to the character. The wonderful soundtrack is tailor made for such a sterile place, a sort of ambient cool that somehow seems friendly without warmth.

Faith's not infallible, but Mirror's Edge sides with innovation. First-person platforming is certainly nothing new, but an entire game built around it is. It works and comes across as a new beast, just don't expect a lot of play time from it unless you're obsessive compulsive. There's still room for refinement, but anyone who's curious, jump in. Just try to land on your feet.