Mirror's Edge has almost everything going for it. The innovative first-person parkour gameplay, meshed with a distinct high-contrast style, makes it look and play unlike anything before it. To think, only a generation ago, we touted Metroid Prime on Gamecube for its ability to successfully present first-person platforming. Mirror's Edge goes even further, offering a system that's far more complex, but at the same time, deceptively intuitive.
When I first got my hands on Mirror's Edge, I could only describe it to others as "the Mario of a new generation." Super Mario Bros. defined what good platforming games are all about: simple controls that do exactly what the player wants. The original NES game defined the new standards of 2D platforming, and did so with no frills. Players didn't need a complex story -- they just needed to save the princess.
Mirror's Edge succeeds in creating a game system that's, put simply, fun. There is an unquestionable joy that comes from jumping from platform to platform, rooftop to rooftop. Faith's arsenal of moves is quite wide, including wallruns, walljumps, kicks, slides, and rolls. Yet, in spite of the complexity of her moves, they're incredibly easy to pull off. Most of the game is played with just one button: L1, for jump. Players very rarely have to access the face buttons, as the game's most important actions are all mapped to the four shoulder buttons. By streamlining the controls, players can quickly and easily jump into the game, and do exactly what they want to do.
The game's relentless momentum doesn't allow for players to get caught up by tricky controls. Before the first real chapter even begins, players are treated to an incredible chase sequence. Bullets are flying about, and players are forced to run through rooftops, jumping from one place to another. The game does an excellent job of transposing Faith's fear into the player's hands (or is it vice versa?), as players make panicked decisions, rushing into leaps of faith, stumbling onto paths with no clear destination.
Mirror's Edge is a non-stop adrenaline rush, with one incredible setpiece after another. The prologue had my heart pounding, and subsequent levels only upped the ante. Level 1 features an incredible chase sequence in an office building. Faith must run away from a heavily armored squad that's trying to take her out. A helicopter awaits outside, and the windows and glass displays all start shattering as gunfire flies everywhere. Try keeping your head straight during that sequence. Another thrilling level has Faith jumping from one moving subway car to another. The chase sequences only get more intense as the enemies get progressively stronger and faster. Cops with pistols are easy to shove around, but wait until you get to the armored enemies with machine guns. Even scarier: enemies that can mimic your every move, and follow you through entire levels.
The stunning chase sequences are made possible through smart level design. While this isn't a free-roaming game a la Assassin's Creed, there are still multiple paths between point A and point B. Players may not discover them all, but those that play multiple times will discover there are many shortcuts -- ways of shaving precious seconds off their run. The levels, for the most part, don't feel game-like. The placement of objects in the world can feel quite natural, never breaking the reality presented by the game. "Runner's Vision," which highlights a potential path in red, makes it easy for players to find potential routes through a level (although Runner's Vision becomes increasingly sparse in later levels).
While a majority of the game is spent running away from something (or running to something), there are a few occasions where Faith must slow down and so some tricky indoor platforming. These pop up in the latter half of the game, and act almost like puzzles. Runner's Vision won't come into play during these sequences, and players must figure out exactly how to get to their destination. For example, one level features two massive scaffolding towers, and players must use them to get to the top floor of a building. "So, I have to wall run off of this wall, turn, kick off to that pipe hanging above, swing and grab a ledge on that side of the pillar." Sound crazy? You bet. But, the game will demand this kind of movement -- and it's so incredibly satisfying to succeed in conquering these tricky sequences.
Faith is an incredible runner, but she also is quite the warrior in combat, as well. Here, we see players becoming frustrated with the game. It's true that Faith can pick up guns, and it's true it will look very much like a FPS game when she does. But, that's not the point of the game. Even on the easiest difficulty, Faith is very easy to kill, with a small handful of hits taking her down. She's not a tank, nor is she meant to be. A single enemy can, and will, be able to knock out Faith with relative ease.
This kind of design encourages players to approach each combat situation smartly. I like to think of Faith as a horror movie villain -- running around as much as possible, trying to take each enemy out one at a time. Faith can disarm enemies quite easily, provided players have mastered the timing of the disarm move. Punches and kicks, while somewhat ineffectual, can still provide players a moment of breathing room. It's incredibly fun to run off a wall, kick someone in the face and then take their gun.
The gunplay isn't too great in Mirror's Edge -- there aren't that many weapons, and the controls don't feel tight enough for a FPS. Considering one of the game's achievements is to play the entire game without shooting an enemy, it's very possible to play the game without shooting. In fact, considering Faith's incredible agility, it might be easier to outrun enemies than it is to fight them.
I cannot emphasize strongly enough how enamored I am by the gameplay of Mirror's Edge. The core gameplay is so solid, and there are a number of directions I can think of taking it. For example, imagine a ninja game, where players are running around, swords and shooting stars in hand. I'm imagining a multiplayer game that takes advantage of this engine -- Capture the Flag amongst parkour masters sounds like an instant winner. (Dear EA, if you use any of these ideas, feel free to pay me a consultant's fee. Thanks!)
However, in spite of the incredible impact Mirror's Edge has had on me, it's sad to say that it's almost certain this won't win a "Game of the Year" award -- at least, not from us. While the gameplay, controls, graphics, music and presentation are all impeccable, there are two aspects that seriously detract from the overall experience: the story and the length of the game.
To call the story a mess would be an understatement. It's an unfocused mish-mash of cliche action movie storylines that do a great job of distancing the player from the world. It's a story about rescuing your sister. But wait, it's also a story about a government conspiracy. But wait, it's also a story about how an evil company is doing some kind of weird experiment. Wait, no, it's also a story about -- you get the point. The game's climax only resolves one of these threads, and just barely. The characterization is a total mess, with characters introduced (and killed) haphazardly left and right. Who are these people? Am I supposed to care about them? Because I certainly don't.
Although the game has some fantastic character models, the developers opted to use an atrocious animated look for the storytelling cutscenes that happen between chapters. Amateur animated porn looks better than this stuff. How did DICE let this happen?
Perhaps this is a classic example of the old saying: "less is more." If the developers chose to simply focus on one storyline (instead of four), perhaps it would have a bit more resonance. Or, maybe go the route of the classic NES Mario game -- don't bother with a story at all, and simply end each chapter with "Your Sister is in Another Building." Perhaps you'll disagree with me, but I believe not having a story is better than force-feeding a terrible one. When the gameplay is so compelling, there's little reason to impress me with a far-fetched conspiracy story.
While I don't have a problem with the game's length, I can see many others that will. There are ten levels in all, each taking about half an hour the first time through. That's 5 hours of gameplay in the Story mode. Mirror's Edge is firmly rooted in the old school world of speed runs and high scores, as hardcore gamers will undoubtedly play through each level multiple times, to discover the hidden bags, post the best times, and increase their time trial rankings. For those that want the most out of what the game can offer, I can see this taking easily over 20 hours. Perfecting a single time trial run, for example, may take an hour. Trying to find the best route through a level, and then executing that route, is quite addictive -- but perhaps that's not what you're looking for in a game.
In spite of the atrocious story, and the surprisingly short length of the game, Mirror's Edge is a game that's easy to wholeheartedly recommend. This truly is the beginning of a new kind of game, and I cannot wait for a sequel (or a copycat clone). If you're still unsure about this one, download the demo as it will give you a very good sense of what the game is like. If you're still on the edge, then perhaps you'll just have to take a leap of faith.
PS3 Fanboy Score: 8.0