Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mirror's Edge: Holding On By Its Fingertips

Two-and-a-half stars out of five.

Mirror’s Edge, from EA DICE, is as far as I know video gaming’s first foray into the world of parkour. It executes the subject admirably. The innovative engine it uses to simulate running along rooftops and jumping from foothold to handhold to foothold is excellent; neither so difficult that it quickly becomes frustrating nor so forgiving that the player does not feel like he is working hard for every meter of ground. I frequently found myself holding my breath during particularly challenging leaps. The parkour portion of Mirror’s Edge could be a game in itself. In fact, it probably should have been.

I bought Mirror’s Edge despite warnings that it contained SWAT teams because I assumed that, as one friend described it, the enemies would be there to discourage slowing down. An important part of parkour is the speed with which one travels from point A to point B, and in a game with a plot that has nothing to do with the sport of parkour, there should be something in place to create a sense of urgency. I do not have a thematic objection to the presence of enemies in the game. Indeed, there are many ways that the police in Mirror’s Edge could have been utilized well to encourage constant movement, and on rare occasion the game does hit on one or two of them. Unfortunately, the developers do not seem to have recognized their value, and instead incorporate enemies as an unpredictable and frustrating element of their puzzle construction.

In fact, despite the game’s early warnings that hostiles should be avoided rather than fought, Mirror’s Edge is constantly putting the player in situations where direct confrontration, if not conflict, is required by the environment. The player’s radio contact repeatedly warns her to “be ready for a fight” from about the third chapter on. Police appear directly in the path of the player without explanation, even when that path involves overcoming considerable inaccessibility. And these are not the blue-uniformed pistol-bearing cops of the downloadable free demo. These are armored men carrying assault shotguns and rifles, and in some cases 50-caliber machine guns. If there is one message I want to express clearly in this review, it is this: the police are everywhere in this game. Expect the majority of this game to be parkour, but parkour under automatic weapons fire.

Even this could be forgiven, despite the fact that they are armed in this fashion to deal with the threat of a single woman armed only with her speed, if the police had good code governing them. But they do not. There is no stealth system in Mirror’s Edge. Enemies become aware of the player when they are activated, regardless of the player’s actions or concealment. And once they are aware of the player, they never lose track of her, no matter how insane or hidden her movements. The player will never step out of cover in Mirror’s Edge and not be greeted by a hail of bullets. The police can and do track the player around corners and through solid objects.

In many cases, the police do not spawn until the player has wasted too much time in a single area, but this is not universally the case, and there are a few locations in the game that contain enemies from the start and require the player to perform a time-consuming task while there, outside of cover and essentially stationary. The game never explicitly requires combat, but when climbing a pipe or opening a hatch takes two or three seconds, and the pipe or hatch are not protected, failing to deal with the armed men beforehand has predictable results.

In the end, what makes the combat in Mirror’s Edge a failure is not its inclusion but its execution. It would have been a simple matter to always have the police in a pursuit role, or if that became too contrived or difficult, to make the player significantly more vulnerable to gunfire while stationary and significantly less vulnerable while moving. Instead, the enemies are often directly in the players’ path, and gunfire is extremely erratic, to the extent that the player can make a run under fire without taking a single bullet that on a previous attempt resulted in her being gunned down instantly – and vice versa. If a designer is going to use gunfire in puzzle design, their algorithms for accuracy simply have to be more reliable than that. The demo could be beaten without taking a single bullet by making no more than two well-aimed slide kicks. If the whole game had played like that, this would have been a very different review.

The only thing keeping Mirror’s Edge from being a two-star game, despite the excellent parkour engine, is the time trial mode. These are genuinely fun rehashes of the parkour in the game’s story mode, often with some changes to the required route to keep things interesting. Unfortunately, in order to unlock these, you have to first beat the story mode of the game. The speedrun mode of the game is just the story mode with a timer attached, and adds no real value. Hopefully, if DICE produces a sequel, they will make the time trials available from the start and will also do something to eliminate or at least reduce the ubiquitous combat content from the original. Mirror’s Edge is not the game it should have been.

The final encounter of Mirror’s Edge is a short, entertaining boss fight that does not involve combat (only about half the “boss fights” in the game don’t), but rather quick and skillful use of parkour abilities. I successfully executed the required maneuver first try and happily watched the villain receive his comeuppance, only to then immediately succumb to the numerous high-powered gunshot wounds to my back. The experience defines Mirror’s Edge pretty well, in my mind – a good game ruined by poorly designed content that was irrelevant to begin with.

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