Review by Steerpike
Released November 12, 2008 (Console); Jan 14, 2009 (Windows)
Available for Windows XP/Vista, Xbox 360 (version reviewed), PS3
“While it is innovative, and very courageous, it doesn’t hold that much needed glass up to the rest of videogaming and say ‘see? This is what you look like. Aren’t you ashamed?’ It could have, but it didn’t.”
Change We Can Believe In
I want so bad to believe in Mirror’s Edge, to love it as I hoped it would love me. The idea of the game, the stark, alluring art direction, and the innovative spirit behind the whole mechanic of play; I yearn for them. So Mirror’s Edge came into my home with a substantial advantage over other games: it was one I wanted to like, as though it were a mewing new kitten that’s so adorable you forget you have allergies.
Turns out that those allergies don’t go away just because you want them to, and despite Mirror’s Edge offering so much, grasping for the heavens, it doesn’t quite make it due to what I can only assume is fear on the part of the developers – fear that they’d gone too far, made a game no one would recognize; fear that their work would be pleasing only to them. And in their fear they did things that rational people would not have. They added and removed, they pushed Mirror’s Edge back from the Mirror’s Edge. While it is innovative, and very courageous, it doesn’t hold that much needed glass up to the rest of videogaming and say “see? This is what you look like. Aren’t you ashamed?” It could have, but it didn’t.
Mirror’s Edge is a game about running.
Running like you might have run when you were so small you can’t even understand how or why such an ancient memory remains to you now. Running so fast the wind isn’t caressing but pawing at you, your ears burning and the edges of your vision growing blurry. Running until your head pounds, miserable and delicious at the same time. It’s about jumping and diving and clambering, but doing these things like you MEAN IT, not just like you’re going through the motions. It’s a platformer, but what DICE set out to do with Mirror’s Edge was create a platformer like none other – a truly exhilarating platformer, a world in which you run, and run and run and run and run and that alone is enough to keep you coming back, because in the end, running is freedom, and Mirror’s Edge is also a game about freedom.
The problem is that Mirror’s Edge falls apart when you stop running, and unfortunately, you stop running a lot.
I Like Being a Delta
Swedish developer DICE, best known for the Battlefield series, was very coy with screens and information when Mirror’s Edge was first leaked about a year and a half ago. Just a couple of shots showing a breathtakingly austere cityscape, a place of such brightness and barrenness that it struck a chord in many gamers. Beyond that, all most people knew was that Mirror’s Edge would be a platformer focused more on movement than combat, inspired by the urban jungle-gymery of parkour, and that – contrary to essentially every other platformer in the universe – it would be a first person game.
With Unreal 3.0 technology again showing off its versatility in the visuals department, the discussion turned now to a debate over the wisdom of first-person platforming. First-person is a popular standby, of course, but not for platform games. First person typically denies you body awareness (except in a few rare exceptions, like Thief: Deadly Shadows and Dark Messiah of Might & Magic); you’re generally just a camera floating at head height. And more challenging still is the fact that in a first person game you lack peripheral vision – an imperative in a platformer, a game style that’s all about precise and impeccably timed jumps and balances. Would DICE pull it off?
The answer is yes… sort of. It’s now clear that DICE’s goal with Mirror’s Edge was less to create a first-person platformer and more to build a game where you genuinely feel the momentum of running, the vertigo of heights, the nauseating gastric plunge when you fall, and the dizzying loss of perspective during a roll or tumble. These things DICE manages perfectly, and there’s no doubt that such visceral in-your-faceism of kinetic sensation couldn’t be accomplished in the third person. It just can’t. So instead DICE gave protagonist Faith a body that you can see when you look down. It built in realistic camera sways as she breathes or heaves herself onto a ledge or catwalk. It blurs the edges of her vision as she picks up speed on a run. All that works.
At its most basic level, in Mirror’s Edge your job is to build and maintain momentum. Faith is a “Runner,” a footbound courier employed by underground city factions to transport crucial messages, using the city’s towering skyscrapers as her own thieves highway. She’s part acrobat and part ninja, with a good bit of political boat-rocker thrown in. In the city where she lives, there’s compelling need for people with all three talents.
“The changes came slowly at first,” intones Jules de Jongh, the sadly lifeless actress who voices Faith. Along with this glum narrative are pictures of a city’s transformation, from filthy and vibrant urban melting pot to whitewashed, camera-riddled Stepford fascist utopia. DICE’s art direction for the city is so incredibly severe and bold (it takes courage to use essentially two colors for your game) that you can practically feel the chill sharpness off the place. In this city, since the changes came, all communication and movement is monitored; privacy is simply a sacrifice the people willingly made in exchange for silent, safe prosperity. It is so clean here, so crisp and bright and cold, that you can practically taste the pulsing rot that boils beneath the stark white columns and starched white collars.
Obviously, there are those who resisted the changes, but with every scrap of information collected and examined, the underground depends on primitive methods for communication. This is where the Runners come in, with their stylish yellow messenger bags and their death-defying ability to move through the city unnoticed. They live on the outside, or as Faith says, “between the gloss and the reality.” That is the Mirror’s Edge: the razor sharp line between a totalitarianism so cunningly manufactured that the world welcomes it, and the often uglier and more convoluted but (theoretically) superior human freedom.
Patriotism, Protection, Prosperity
We get a little of Faith’s background in the game, and a little more in some prequel videos released online in the weeks leading up to release. As a troubled office-burglarizing urchin, Faith was taken in by Mercury, the guy who runs the Runners, and trained in the art of flinging herself around a thousand feet from the unforgiving pavement. Soon she’s a Runner herself. transmitting messages between individuals who’d prefer not to have their words scrutinized.
Trouble begins when her sister Kate – whose career has taken quite a different path from Faith’s – is framed for the murder of a political reformer who promised to bring change and freedom more in line with the way the city used to be prior to the current regime. With his death and blood apparently on her sister’s hands, Faith sets off to right wrongs and yadda yadda yadda.
The story is less interesting than the millimeters-below-the-surface political message about the loss of liberty, the monitoring of communication, and the end to privacy, all in the name of “protection of the people.” A very similar thing, of course, took place in the United States during the previous administration, when the Bush government regularly manipulated national fears in order to erode freedoms and concentrate power in a single executive. Given that DICE is Swedish, Mirror’s Edge may be allegorical in the sense that it’s from the outside looking in. That may just be American self-centeredness, of course. It’s quite possible that Mirror’s Edge is just a neutral political commentary and has nothing to do with the U.S. at all.
The way they communicate the changes in the city, aside from Faith’s narrative, is the second most striking and impressive aspect of the game. The city is so bright, so gleamingly clean, with just the odd splash of brilliant color (usually denoting a safe path) here and there. I’ve never seen anything quite like this cold blue and white city, and as much as I know that the game is an argument against fascism, looking at such a beautiful place, and seeing that most of its citizens are perfectly happy, prosperous, and content, kind of makes me wonder whether it’d be so bad to live there.
Unfortunately, the game’s cinematics don’t nearly live up to the stark beauty of the in-game graphics. They’re cel-shaded semi-anime, a style that most resembles a strange hybrid of Peter Chung and Production IG. It’s interesting to look at and would probably make a great animated feature, but the fact is these cinematics look markedly – markedly – worse than the game itself. It’s particularly apparent in the character designs: the cinematics have the Eurasian Faith looking significantly more ethnic, while supporting character Celeste looks like Cruella de Ville; quite a departure from the DA-AMN blonde we encounter in game.
The story Mirror’s Edge tells is short, and not particularly brilliant, despite the experience of writer Rihanna Pratchett. Many of the ideas behind the game are very clever, but unfortunately the script is too dependent on one-liners that miss more often than they hit, annoying character nicknames, and in-your-face politicism without even the barest hint of subtlety. Compared to the space marines we usually get, Mirror’s Edge is practically Pulitzer-worthy, but the truth is, as a political thriller, it couldn’t hold its own against other media.
A Kinder, Gentler Nation
If the graphic design is second, unquestionably the most impressive aspect of Mirror’s Edge is the movement. When you build up a good head of speed on a mission, and you’re vaulting and sliding between obstacles (conveniently illuminated in brilliant red; as a Runner, it’s natural that Faith would see a bridge where you or I would see a crane, and a handhold where we’d see a window sill), man, when it’s like that, this game can’t be beat. It will leave you winded and exhilarated and there’s nothing like it, the sheer joy of momentum and movement, when you’re on a first-name basis with inertia and all the world’s just flying around you like an old paper-track racing game; your vision blurred, your heart pounding, and it’s your playground, and you rule it.
And then you bump into a wall and come to a dead stop and it all deflates like a sad helium balloon left floating too long after the birthday party.
I repeat myself: this game is about building and maintaining momentum. When you’ve got it, it’s sweet. When you lose it, which is far, far too often, it’s just irritating. DICE clearly feared that a platform game without complex platforming would be either too easy or simply boring, so Mirror’s Edge includes some pretty brutal puzzles that demand the best of your observation, timing, and reflexes. So you spend a lot of time not running, and running is all that Mirror’s Edge ought to be about. Well, that and jumping. And sliding.
Other than simply stopping, which breaks the thrill of the game, there’s death. You spend a lot of time dead as Faith, because she falls constantly. Jumps are mercilessly unforgiving, and often you’re expected to pull off moves that would make the Prince of Persia cringe – flipping wall-walks, mid-air twists, timed slides – and you’ve got to stick your landing. It’s irritating, because in many instances you’ll fall dozens of times before you get it right, and you could have spent all that time running.
Combat is another way to die in Mirror’s Edge, against the ubiquitous “blues” that seemingly populate every rooftop of this despotic metropolis. Combat is a pain, especially near the end when there’s a ton of it. Faith’s reflexes can slow time momentarily, and she’s capable of a fair few cool disarming and ass-kicking moves, but all in all first person fisticuffs rarely work. It gets worse when you swipe a firearm from a careless blue and start shooting; amazingly for the creators of Battlefield, gun controls in Mirror’s Edge are oafish and vexing, so most of the time you’re better of using hands and feet – but against guns, that can get tough.
On the subject of controls, Mirror’s Edge innovates. “High” and “Low” actions are handled by the left bumper and trigger respectively, which is darned weird at first. It quickly becomes natural, though, after a few failed attempts at the tutorial and first mission. And unlike Assassin’s Creed’s bizarre new control scheme, of which one reviewer famously said “the controls are brilliant until I really need them to work,” in Mirror’s Edge, the system remains intuitive even during hectic moments like combat.
All in all, Mirror’s Edge would have been better off as an open world, job-board type of game, a gymnastic Autoduel, than it is as a linear mission-based FPP. The yawning expanse of the city conceals the fact that there’s rarely more than one way to get from A to B, and the game’s brevity, coupled with humdrum mission design, mar the experience badly. You also spend a strangely large amount of time indoors, which, while it allows DICE artists to use a color other than white (and use them well, the art direction is universally superb), takes away from the high-flying acrobatics that’re kind of the point of the game.
Reformer with Results
Despite DICE and EA’s fervent conviction that it would sell a blockbusting three million units, Mirror’s Edge has so far moved less than a sixth of that, and it’s viewed as- well, not quite a failure, but certainly not a performer. Reviews have been mixed, and though EA recently announced that a sequel would be developed, the publisher also indicated that there would be changes to core gameplay, meaning Mirror’s Edge 2 is likely to be a third person platformer or a first person shooter. The game annoyingly sets up its own sequel at the end (I hate it when games assume their own success), but the innovative nature of its play is probably over as of now.
Above I said something to the effect that Mirror’s Edge had the opportunity to shine a light on the depthlessness of other videogames through its innovation, and that it failed to do so. I meant that political thrillers – good ones – are rare in the medium, and I hoped Mirror’s Edge would change that. Because the story is only marginally deeper than a standard sci-fi tale and nowhere near as rich as Morrowind or Deus Ex, it did not. I meant that the viscerality of momentum might make developers reconsider ways in which they physically affect the player. Because the momentum stops so often, it did not. I meant its astringent use of color and audacious, stylish art direction might encourage similar experimentation. That one might happen. And I do commend Mirror’s Edge on its outstanding female protagonist, one whose intelligence and physical strength equal her beauty, whose clothing is totally appropriate and whose breasts are not so large as to exert their own gravity.
But despite all it has going for it, Mirror’s Edge never quite reaches the summit of anything. There’s too much frustration and too many instances where the developers clearly backpedaled, going with conventional design wisdom rather than trusting their instincts and producing a game experience that’s truly new. I can understand the fear to some degree; a game where you do nothing but run around sounds pretty risky. But when the running is as psychically refreshing as it is in Mirror’s Edge, that’s a risk they’d have done well to take, and it’s a pity they didn’t, because no one’s likely to get the chance again any time soon.
Minimum System Requirements for PC
Windows XP SP2/Vista; Pentium 4 3.0GHz or equivalent; 1GB RAM; 256MB DX9 video with shader model 3.0; Physx supported with later model nVidia cards