Console Yourself: Mirror's Edge
“If she keeps on taking damage or falls from a great height, Faith will die.” -Instruction Manual
Format: Xbox 360, PS3• Developer: DICE• Released: Nov 2008
EA have recently shown a persistence to match their new heroine, combating the disappointing sales of Mirror’s Edge with aggressive discounting and an extremely unusual post-release advertising campaign. They obviously had high hopes for DICE’s single player adventure, which combines a focus on the free running craze with a brilliantly conceived setting and tone. This optimism was understandable, with press interest building in the light of the spectacular graphics and uniquely well animated avatar. However, while the adventures of the black market pakor courier aren’t a complete write off, the game’s flaws are so abundant that the general public’s refusal to get on board is entirely understandable.
First things first- Faith Connors’ in game persona is a magnificent creation, offering a solidity of presence not seen in any other first person title. Her limbs are rarely out of shot, and every action is completely animated. This makes her the anti-Gordon Freeman; not a floating spec of dust carrying a weapon in mid-air, but a fully modelled human. The illusion is so nearly total that it’s gutting when it occasionally falls down. Balance Faith atop a flagpole, and you’ll look down to see her feet confidently planted in midair either side of the mast. For the most part through, the effect is perfect, and not even these minor flaws are present in the character’s home. DICE’s mastery of the Unreal Engine has allowed a breathtaking realisation of the unnamed city, with every level introducing a new aspect to complement the iconic rooftop scenes that characterise the game’s style. In theory, the subtle colour coding should irritate with objects of interest are shaded red as a reflection of Faith’s “Runner Vision” focus on items that may be of use to her. In practise though, this subtle direction pointing works beautifully, and compliments probably the best use of colour in any game. The white trees and blotchy pedestrians outside of Faith’s path merely reflect the sterile and dull nature of the semi-fascist utopia in which she lives, and add up to a superbly immerse experience.
Despite the fact that most of the title’s cast have full character models using the in-game engine, the majority of the cutscenes are 2D animations. While these have been universally panned in other reviews, the visual style adopted is quietly appealing, just ill suited to the material performed. The cartoon art direction isn’t really able to cope with shadow; a severe failing given how frequently Faith stages meetings is darkened car parks. This slight problem aside, the reminder of the game’s non-interactive aspects are just as superbly designed as the visual style, with the ambient and dynamic music tracks all perfectly suited to the tone of the action. It’s slightly debatable whether a plot for the title was needed at all- Faith’s day job as a rooftop courier for dissident groups is arguably enough to sustain interest for an extended period. The government conspiracy story, however, is extremely well structured, providing revelations at a pace to maintain player interest without keeping the scenario in continual flux. The small cast of characters is distinctive, and each makes a real contribution to the story. Unlike Assassin’s Creed, also intended as the first part of a trilogy, the plotline comes to a natural and logical conclusion, while providing a hook for the next title.
After playing through the first half of the game, I thought I’d come to a settled conclusion. Mirror’s Edge appeared to offer a compelling experience as long as the player was willing to suspend their disbelief and deliberately overlook the title’s flaws. Memorise the linear route, sink into the atmosphere, and replays of the levels appear to offer a compelling spectacle. Innovative, with a few difficulties that should be ironed out in the sequel- three stars.
Unfortunately, I am unable follow through on this plan, due to the fetid nature of the last third of the game. The final three levels show each of the title’s flaws to their fullest extent, one at a time. “The Ship” draws the player’s attention to the horrible fudge of the game’s combat mechanic, as Faith infiltrates a cargo freighter riddled with SWAT teams. DICE seem to have been unable to grasp that there’s more to making a first person non-combat title than creating an FPS where the player is not allowed to shoot back. Faith’s signature disarm move is focussed around a tiny window of opportunity, and there’s a strong temptation to use her limited amount of bullet time to acquire the first guard’s weapon and use it on the rest of his squad. The ethos of the game would have the player avoiding pursuit with effortless acrobatic grace, but after the fifth death from gunfire as the player attempts to swing from a bar; the logic of taking out the police first becomes inescapable. It’s telling that the game’s “Easy” difficulty setting effectively disables the combat, allowing Faith to shrug off vast amounts of damage and treat the game as a straight shooter, blowing away the hoards of police who attempt to apprehend her. While allowing swift progress, this damages the player’s suspension of disbelief- Connors’ troubles stem from the fact that she is wanted for one charge of murder, and leaving a trail of bodies in her wake is rather challenging to this scenario.
After the nautical killing spree, Faith has to scale a tower of scaffolding, ramming home just how disjointed and artificial her moveset is. There’s no grace or improvisation here, just a predetermined series of button presses that, if executed at the correct time, will allow progress. Tomb Raider’s linear and prescriptive assault courses felt tired by only the second outing, but DICE here carries over their spirit wholesale. The final stage, in which Connors storms the city’s government building, presents the game’s third pitfall- rank incompetence. A dodgy checkpoint system means it’s sometimes possible to die and restart at a location further along the level. During a passage through the Shard’s elevator system, death can come at random should Faith have the misfortune to be jumping across a shaft when the lift is called. The only way in which an area of rooftop can be traversed is by trail and error, with each attempt ended by sniper fire. Retreating a considerable distance from an exploding gas main is not enough to save you, while an alcove right next to it offers protection. These failures of logic and instant deaths are present throughout the game, but in this concentrated form, they become impossible to overlook.
It’s curious. I’ve written about poor games in this series of reviews before. When considering Devil May Cry 4 or Assassin’s Creed, I felt a strong resentment towards the title for having wasted my time on a half-baked effort. Mirror’s Edge is objectively a poorer piece of software than either of those two games, riddled with basic design errors. Yet I’m somehow still pleased that the title exists, and look at the box on my shelf without malice. It’s a visionary, graphically beautiful and innovative piece of software- just as long as I never have to play it again.