Friday, August 19, 2011

Mirror's Edge review

Several years ago, a group of my friends were trying to think of game ideas. One idea I suggested involved a first person shooter where you jump between rooftops (the idea involved playing around with gravity or something - this was a long time ago and it was far from fully formed). Not a terribly original idea, but the point was it was the kind of thing that sounded cool to me. So when, years later, I heard about Mirror's Edge and saw the videos, it genuinely felt as if someone had finally made the game I always wanted to play. And it looked amazing; somehow they had taken the first-person perspective, which everyone knew was awkward when it comes to precise movements and positioning, and made it control perfectly for platforming. It was like playing Prince of Persia as the Prince.

So obviously I rushed out and bought it. But for various reasons I never got very far before. I'll not list my excuses here, what's important is that this was my fault, not the game's. But being on holiday this month, I decided to go through and try to finish the old games in my collection that fell to the wayside. So a few days ago I finally put Mirror's Edge back in the 360, and started a new game.

Mirror's Edge, developed by DICE and published by EA, is a game about free running or parkour. It may be considered a first person shooter as you can shoot guns in the game, but I believe it's more appropriate to call it a first person platformer. Even if there were any earlier first person platformers, of which I know none, I think it would still be fair to say that this game is the first of it's kind. Which is why I find it surprising that it's so well designed and finely polished. Many games, when trying to implement an ambitious new system, will have some rough edges, some compromises - all too often a game is released which doesn't live up to the potential of the core idea. Or a game tries to shoehorn too many ideas in while simultaneously "ticking the boxes" (implementing elements of previous successful games), and the result is an unfocused mess.

Mirror's Edge successfully avoids these pitfalls. Everything about the game is designed from the ground up to work with the core system of free running, and it all comes together perfectly. The simple, clean graphics make it easy to judge distances and figure out what you can interact with, without making ledges and pipes and other items stand out like sore thumbs (referring back to Prince of Persia, if there was something you could grab or interact with in a special way it often looked out of place). The simplified nature of the graphics also means that the colour coding and "runner's vision" don't look out of place, allowing them to direct you more naturally than more obtrusive directional markers many games place in the HUD. The story and setting support both the gameplay and the graphics. The combat takes advantage of the player's speed and mobility, and the player's vulnerability encourages avoiding confrontation - which again supports the free running and fits with the story. Even the music fits well with the high-rise environments and helps create a feeling of lightness and freedom.

The free running mechanics are very well executed. The unusual control scheme takes a little getting used to, with the left trigger representing downwards movements (ducking, sliding, rolling, dropping) and the left bumper used for upwards movements (jumping, climbing), along with the right bumper spinning the player 180 degrees. Depending on the situation, these few buttons can be used to achieve a variety of moves. It all feels very natural once you've had some practice, and running along chaining a number of moves together to bypass a series of obstacles feels very rewarding when pulled off correctly. This is perhaps the game's greatest strength; just moving around the environment is fun. Considering the fact that the game is based on free running, it pretty much had to be. In comparison to third person platforming games (the foremost of which I consider to be the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time games), you can achieve just about all of the same moves and a few more, such as sliding under low obstacles, which is quite impressive when you think about it. Additionally, I felt that the moves chain together more smoothly, and coupled with the more realistic role of speed and momentum, Mirror's Edge just feels more natural.

This is also true of the environments; in Prince of Persia many levels don't look natural, appearing more like a series of recognizable objects (pillars to climb up, poles to swing from, edges to grab) than an actual room or building that someone would build. While it's still easy to tell exactly what you can interact with and how in Mirror's Edge, surfaces and items that you can climb or jump off sit in the environment better and the levels just feel a lot more believable; which makes it feel less like you're jumping through a series of hoops that someone has laid out for you and more like you're forging a path where one does not exist. And since these items look like they belong the levels are filled with them and you can interact consistently with anything in the level, unlike Prince of Persia or Uncharted where practically every climbable ledge and pole is necessary to pass the level, or traditional shooters where typically the only places you can climb are the ones where you need to. Interestingly, the environments have more variety than you might expect; in addition to the rooftops players have to navigate a range of indoor areas such as warehouses, subway tunnels, ventilation systems, offices, car parks, and construction sites. The differences are not just visual; different levels present different challenges. Many rooftop segments, for example, are about speed as you are often being chased, while interior sections are about figuring out how to pass obstacles - it's not always obvious thanks to the more natural levels, which don't necessarily highlight a path for you.

Combat is interesting. To overcome the main problem in first person close combat, that is your tendency to move right past the enemy while trying to close to melee distance, Mirror's Edge uses a subtle "lock on" when you get in close. Basically this helps you point directly at the enemy so that when you walk forwards you walk right up to them until you collide and stop, rather than slipping past. That's not to say it's impossible to get past them, far from it, only that it usually won't happen by accident (at least once you've had a little practice). It is subtle enough that you normally won't notice it, and it won't interfere if it's your intention to run past an enemy, but effective enough that close combat works better than any first person game I've played before. There's two combat buttons: a strike and a disarm. The disarm takes down an enemy with a single button press, but requires very specific timing on stronger enemies and it will take a fair bit of practice to learn to pull off consistently, but they do look pretty cool. The strike button triggers a simple punch or combination, but can be combined with the jump and duck buttons when you have some forwards momentum for flying and sliding kicks, which are pretty cool. The flying kick is powerful and fun, but the sliding kick is typically easier to land and stuns opponents for long enough for you to land another combination, making it your best bet for dealing with tougher enemies.

You can also trigger a brief period of slow-motion. This can be used to help deal with difficult enemies or jumping sequences, or just make particularly cool jumps feel even more dramatic. It recharges when you run, but you always start with it charged so you can always use it when you get stuck.

With only two buttons and a limited number of moves, you may think that combat is simple. And it is a little, but that doesn't make it easy. When you're busy dealing with one opponent you'll be taking fire from any others in sight, even disarm moves take too long and you probably won't survive if you try disarming an enemy in front of his partner. Thus it's essential not to attack groups directly, but to use your maneuverability to draw them out and split them up so that you can tackle them one at a time. You can also pick up a downed enemy's gun (or steal it with the disarm) and turn it on the rest. This is especially useful when you face multiple enemies in smaller areas, which starts to happen more frequently later in the game.

The actual shooting mechanics are simple and lack the refinements of a dedicated shooter such as aiming assist or a targetting / zoom mode (with the exception of the sniper rifle), however the AI is not designed to keep moving and make use of cover the way it would in a true shooter, allowing guns to be used effectively with a little effort. I do not consider this to be a shortcoming of the game; Dice is after all a very experienced developer of first person shooters such as the Battlefield series. Rather these elements were simplified in order to support the free-running gameplay (as well as the tone of the game and the plot); the player is encouraged to rely on speed and agility to try to overcome or bypass enemies rather than picking up a gun and shooting his way out. The fact that weapons only have a single magazine of ammo and cannot be reloaded, and also that the player cannot climb (or even move quickly) when holding anything larger than a handgun further supports this.

The story is something that may not appeal to everyone, but I feel it's not only suitable but relevant. Obviously inspired by Orwell's 1984, the game is set in a city where the government control is absolute and non-compliance is not tolerated. The game does not go into detail about the rights and wrongs of it; probably a good idea as doing so may come across as dry or preachy or possibly alienated some potential players. It simply goes into enough detail to create a plausible reason for people to run across rooftops: since all communications are monitored, some people need non-conventional means of getting messages and packages around. That's where the runners come in; carrying packages across the rooftops, they maintain their client's privacy (I assume there's some reason why they can't carry packages on street level, I guess Big Brother watches the streets?), thus making them valuable to people who don't like the government knowing their business.

Not only does this justify the gameplay, it also fits in perfectly with the graphics; the clean visual style fits the idea of a tightly controlled futuristic city where everything looks perfect on the surface and the 'rough' elements are pushed out to make people feel safe. But there's might be more to it than that. This is just conjecture on my part, but I suspect the intention was to appeal to youths who feel constrained by the safe, boring sensibilities of society at large and enjoy the excitement of edgier living. The runner's themselves are certainly 'hip' (so far as I can judge these things, which is not very far); not exactly gang members but certainly not safe, mainstream citizens.

You play as Faith, a female runner trying to find out why her sister was framed for murder. The mystery element of the plot creates rather more interesting mission goals than the standard "blow that thing up so that you can get to the next thing you need to blow up" seen in many shooters. It's not particularly deep, not that you would expect it to be, but it does seem to lose it's way just a little bit in the middle. That's not really surprising; as you design a number of missions to fill out a game and give it a decent amount of variety and length of play time, most games see their plot meander back and forth to accommodate those levels. Perhaps it's because the plot in Mirror's Edge is a little more focused that this becomes more noticeable than in many games where the plot is less cohesive. Overall the story does tie in to the setting very nicely and I personally enjoyed it. The end was not a neat conclusion with everyone living happily ever after, but it was a certainly not the kind of dark, doom-and-gloom depressing nonsense that I'm seeing in many games these days. In fact it was completely suitable both in terms of the story and as a game; a victory, but not the end of the war, satisfying but leaving plenty of scope for a sequel.

Strangely, there are in-game cut-scenes which take place in first person, but also between levels there are animated cut-scenes in a different visual style and traditional perspective. These are pre-rendered in a stylized 2D which I believe (but can't be sure) is actually a really well cell-shaded 3D. I believe these were shot from a normal camera perspective in order to show Faith so we can get familiar with her as a character, which we cannot do from the first person. I'm not sure why the particular visual style was chosen, I suspect pre-rendered video was necessary to give the characters more natural movement and expression than the game engine could provide, and the 2D style was chosen as being more interesting. Perhaps it was done because a slightly different style would feel a little strange, while a very different style wouldn't have that problem - I believe slight differences can sometimes be more unsettling that significant ones, but this is pure conjecture. At any rate it works well enough. I did feel that more time spent fleshing out the supporting cast and their relationships with Faith, or just describing the world of the runners in general, would have been time well spent. As it is the city feels a little underpopulated and the runners don't have much presence.

If the game has a flaw, it's that it can feel a little drawn out at times (though this is probably subjective); you will spend an entire level running and jumping, watch a brief cut-scene, then go right back to running and jumping - after a few levels it can feel a little repetitive. These days most games break up long sections of shooting or fighting with different activities such as exploring, puzzle solving or driving. And while this becomes much less of a problem nearer to the end where there is more combat, you might find Mirror's Edge feels a little drawn out around around the middle and may prefer to play it in shorter sessions. But if you do start to feel a bit bored halfway through I recommend that you persevere; the game does pick up again.

Overall I give it a 10 out of 10: the game sets out to do something new, which it does almost perfectly, creating a unique and highly enjoyable experience. Furthermore, it shows great potential for the future of first person games.

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