Monday, January 12, 2009

Mirror's Edge

As a fat smoker who completed the high-school-mandated mile “run” in about fifteen minutes, I've never felt fast in my entire life. I've envied my lithe friends who competed in weekly cross country events and could literally run to the gas station up the road before I got to my car. Mirror's Edge gives me a taste of how they must experience the world.

Mirror's Edge is all about speed and, as the game puts it, “flow”. Presented with the conveniently-spaced rooftops of a hypothetical totalitarian city, you are (as the protagonist, Faith) expected to sprint from point A to point B, sliding under obstacles, scaling chain-link fences, and leaping over dizzying gaps. And it feels awesome.

Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment (a mouthful they shorten to DICE) succeeded in capturing the spirit of parkour and encapsulating it in a first-person experience. The choice for first-person perspective is bold and seemingly incompatible with maneuvering through complex 3D environments. We expect that in a first-person game, the best you can do is jog along at a medium clip and hop flat-footed straight into the air about a meter and a half. However, as DICE has shown us, this is merely expectation. There's no physical reason that a first-person character can't interact with the environment as fully as a second-person character or, for that matter, as a real person.

We're used to using the third-person perspective in games that expect us to creep along ledges or make impossible leaps. We're used to this because every other developer has assumed that, unless you can see your character's feet, you won't be able to judge where you are well enough to keep from hurtling to our deaths. And, indeed, I believe that's true. So, DICE included Faith's body. Tilt the camera down, and you can see her size 10 tabi-inspired running shoes; get to running fast enough, and Faith's hands spring into view as she pumps her arms; hang from a ledge, and her feet dangle in the wind. When you do a rolling landing, you gaze into your navel as you tumble ass over head and the world spins around you. On top of giving you a clearer view of how close to the edge you are, the inclusion of Faith's body contributes hugely to the feeling of speed--it gives you a scale against which to compare the distances you're covering. Considering that no amount of contortion can convince Master Chief to see any part of himself but his manacled gun hand, this is a radical departure from the norm.

The number of different moves you can do is pretty extensive. You can grab onto anything that resembles a ledge; drop down, jump up, jump away, mantle, shimmy. You can slide (or duck-walk, if you're not running). You can “coil” yourself in the air after jumping to clear waist-high obstacles. You can wall run, and jump away from the wall while doing so. You can land from a massive jump in a shattered-femur-avoiding roll. You can climb fences, and scrabble a short way up featureless walls. As far as I can tell, none of these moves have been exaggerated beyond the abilities of an athletic and practiced human--I actually found a guy on youtube who can wall run about twice as far as Faith.

All of these moves work everywhere that it looks like they should. There are no specially designated environmental features required to activate them--even light fixtures are valid hanging points. You just move, complete with an excellently-adapted control scheme. The left shoulder buttons are used for all of your moves, with the upper one doing “up movements” and the lower one performing “down movements”. These would be things like jumping, mantling, climbing or crouching, dropping, sliding; respectively. The one exception to the anything-anywhere rule is that horizontal swinging devices (think uneven bars) and their moves go hand in hand, and only appear in specific places.

In general, the moves are chained together to maintain your momentum. A sequence might go something like: run, slide under a pipe, leap and coil over some ductwork, slide under another pipe, climb a chain-link fence, vault off of a pile of detritus, and leap across a fifteen foot gap to a shorter building, landing in a roll. Weirdly, though, that last roll breaks your momentum. Very weirdly, since you'd think that a roll would be absolutely ideal for maintaining forward momentum--the few times I've personally rolled out of wipeouts on my longboard, I came up running faster than I ever could have gotten going on my own. But, that aside, the running feels great. Which is good, because you wind up doing a lot of it as you attempt to escape the cops.

In general, discretion is the better part of gameplay in Mirror's Edge. While you certainly combat enemies (more on that later), for the most part you're better off if you just run away. I find this downright refreshing. It's also thrilling and terrifying. No FPS has ever made me breathe hard, heart racing, as I try desperately just to survive. Sure, I've wailed with frustration as waves of too-strong enemies converge to chew me to pulp, or as I run out of rockets to defeat Satan. But, no other game has made me feel like a rabbit escaping the fox, frantically looking for the tiniest of gaps through which to escape.

The game does give you huge, shining clues as to where you should go (except at the hardest difficulty level). 95% of the game world is rendered in white, with black outlines and shaded blue shadows. There are splashes of color, especially inside buildings, which serve to break up the monotony. And they're memorable, shocking, and beautiful for that reason. But, for instance, even a presumably vibrant tree is nothing but black-outlined white leaves and a black-outlined white trunk. Which isn't to say that any of it is low definition or cartoony; it's just desaturated. Except for the red. Beautiful, beautiful #ff0000.

Red, you see, is the favorite color of parkour couriers. And so various elements integral to your flow will be highlighted in red: hallways, boards, balance beams, ledges, ladders. Following the trail of red gives you the route you should take through the level. It's not necessarily the best route, mind you, but it's the most readily available one. It's the one you choose when there're fifteen SMG-wielding cops behind you and you're panicking. And if there's nothing red around, go up, up, up as high as you can.

Despite the hinting, your path through most levels will be learned through trial and error. You will die many, many times as you misjudge distances and timing, or as you simply pick the wrong route between red hints. However, even falling to your death is immersive and kind of fun. You maintain full camera control as you fall every meter from the top of the building to the street below, watching the little ants of people grow rapidly larger. And when you hit the bottom, you hear a SPLUNCH and the game reloads from your last checkpoint. The reload time is usually under five seconds, and checkpoints are usually less than thirty seconds to one minute beforehand, so your frequent death never becomes annoying. The falls are actually visceral enough to set off my acrophobia, and I could only take so many in a row before my stomach started to churn and I felt light headed.

I enjoyed the combat as well, despite what I've heard from forum whiners. It's certainly not as varied as the parkour moves, but it fits in with them perfectly. It's suicide hang on to a gun, since it slows you down so much and you can't carry spare ammo. So, instead, you rely on a set of disarms plus a couple hand-to-hand moves. Combat feels like a scene from early in a Jet Li movie: slide down the railing, slide into the cop, kick him in the nuts, grab his shotgun (smacking him in the head with it in the process), shoot his buddy on the left, on the right, throw away the gun, and head for the exit--all without stopping or even breaking your stride. The combat isn't much fun if your goal is to eliminate everybody in the area, but as it ties into the flow and completing your objectives, it's great.

Frustratingly, the game has about a half dozen instances where you must eliminate everybody in the area. And in these areas, the combat falls on its face. Either you make your first disarm and then quickly kill everybody with one shot each; or you flub the disarm and the cops shred you in a bukkake of bullets. In these situations, I found myself mostly doing the first disarm and then finding the one dude with a full-on squad-support machine gun, killing him, and using his weapon to finish the rest of the cops. I really can't imagine trying to beat these sections while also going for the trophy (or Achievement) awarded for zero enemies shot--entering hand-to-hand combat with more than one cop around ensures your rapid death. And, honestly, it doesn't make much sense in a game that's supposed to be about running.

The biggest failing of Mirror's Edge is the level design of the last third of the game. While running and leaping feels tremendous out in the open of the rooftops, the game turns into just another puzzle-platformer when you go inside. And the last couple of levels are set in tunnels and corridors. While they're kind of cool from an urban-exploration and puzzle standpoint, they bear almost no resemblance to the previous levels that you've come to love. Instead of long chains of stunt after stunt with nary a pause between, you'll stand in an eight-meter by eight-meter room for five minutes, with no sense of urgency, trying to figure out exactly which of a series of totally-obvious ledges to jump on to get up to a clearly-visible, red-marked ventilation duct. It just made me want the gun from Portal so I could get on with it already. I kept hoping that the interior levels were a phase that Mirror's Edge would grow out of. But, the game ended (with an incomplete story, setting up a sequel) before I ever saw the rooftops again. And that was very sad, because the game started with a bang but ended with a whimper.

The lackluster final levels are especially aggravating because you don't get even close to enough of the fun outdoor levels, as the game is so short. Not quite as short as Portal, but from what I'm seeing on youtube, you can apparently do a speedrun of the whole game in about half an hour (knowing the path, having m4d ski11z, skipping cutscenes). Playing for my first time, watching all of every cutscene, I finished Mirror's Edge in about five or six hours--I finished Portal in only about an hour less, and it doesn't have cutscenes. And unless you're doing a speedrun (or doing a review), there's not much point to playing again: you'll remember the solutions to all the puzzles that challenged you on your first run. While these reviews aren't really about whether a game is worth what they're charging, I was kind of annoyed to have paid $60 for a game about as short as Portal. If they do the sequels as downloadable content, this might be forgiven. But, it's published by EA, so don't hold your breath on that one. They're going to soak those of us who like innovative content and original IP just like they soak the meat heads who buy Madden every year. That said, $60 seemed reasonable for the experience. But, like a roller coaster, I was still disappointed with the duration.

The art, as briefly mentioned above, is distinctive in its desaturation. All exterior environments are rendered in black and white, with blue shadows. There are occasional full-color billboards or logos, which draw the eye and are frequently on or near distant buildings that house your objectives. For contrast, interior locations key to plot advancement are monochromatically colored in bright, supersaturated colors. These come infrequently enough that I literally found myself grinning stupidly at the overwhelming beauty of big green walls (green like #00ff00, by the way). Nowhere do you see objects or level geometry textured in a traditional “realistic” manner. The effect completely sets the levels of Mirror's Edge apart from the endless “rock” brown or “metal” gray corridors of most FPS games. And it's abso-fucking-lutely beautiful.

The cut scenes are a little bizarre, being done as cartoons outside the in-game rendering engine. They fit thematically with the rest of the visual design, but they look like that French anime-knockoff animation from the 80's. I read in an interview that the director chose to go this route because he could have inexpensive 2D animators handle the cutscenes, thereby freeing up his 3D artists to work on in-game content. That decision resulted in superior game art, I'm sure. But, it doesn't change the fact that the cut scenes are of lower quality than the in-game art.

Mirror's Edge is a unique experience. There's nothing else out there that's even close. While you could argue that Prince of Persia also involves parkour, you'd be wrong. PoP is about super-human acrobatics, performed by an inhuman waif rendered in the second person on your screen. Besides, as much fun as it is to watch the Prince flip around, you never feel what he's feeling. Mirror's Edge lets you feel, at least for a little while, what those crazy Frenchmen must feel every time they go for a jog.


  1. Interesting reviews. I'll be following your blog. How often do you think you'll post?

  2. I think I may have to steal "bukkake of bullets" -- that's really a perfect description.

    I didn't buy the game, since I'm way too backlogged as-is, but I might have to at some point -- I'd like the game to sell well enough to reward DICE for at least trying a new IP with some non-cliché game elements.

  3. Harald Hansen: I'm shooting for a weekly schedule. Probably every Thursday night?

    But, I have other hobbies, a wife, and occasionally paying gigs (I'm a programmer). Not to mention that there are frequent spates of bugger-all coming out. So, it sometimes may be longer between full reviews.


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