Editorial: Mirror’s Edge – A refreshing experiment weighed down by its flaws

Mirror’s Edge is a title that was developed by DICE and published by EA, and it has lofty ambitions. It’s a free-running game in the first-person perspective that discourages killing in lieu of getting from point a to point b as smoothly as possible.

Discourages killing? You mean I don’t have to maintain an awkward relationship with the iron sights and a wall for a majority of the game as I destroy factions of foreign enemies? Yes. As refreshing (or frightening) as this sounds, Mirror’s Edge isn’t without its issues.

For every piece of praise I can muster, an equally glaring flaw stands opposed. It’s an experiment I was happy to try, even if I did end up disappointed by its flaws.

Visually impressive

What I genuinely like about Mirror’s Edge is its visual palette. What does this mean, exactly? In a generation of games that choose darker, grittier palettes that typically feel drained, DICE chose to inject a brighter blend of primary colors. Instead of dark gray and brown, we see light blues mixed with white and light grays. Lighter blends of yellow, red, and green are used to accentuate the city. Its visual style is simple, but it’s aesthetically consistent and aligns with the story.

The game also offers a clever system to go with its free-running mechanic. As you run, the paths you can take highlight themselves with a shade of bright red, which stands out in the simple environments of lighter, primary colors. This keeps the flow constantly moving forward while also offering a challenge. As the game progresses, the red’s presence lessens and it’s up to the player to use trial and error to figure out where to go. The difficulty curve and trial and error nature are where my contention rests, but I’ll elaborate on this thought in a bit.

The on-screen user-interface is minimal and non-obtrusive, which I find to be wondrous. HUDs can often become a crutch with their abundance or an atrocity with their awful design. Congratulations are in order for it, as I often forgot it was even there and the game, quite frankly, doesn’t need it.

One concern I had before playing was the potential for disorienting gameplay. Viewing a character slide, run, wall run, swing, and roll from the first person perspective are not usually things implemented in other first-person games. Fortunately, a great deal of thought went into it, and it most certainly shows. Not once did I feel disoriented, uncomfortable, or the urge to throw bricks at my rowdy neighbor’s home because of the game’s visual direction. That’s what the lackluster story is for!

A mishandled narrative

We play as Faith, a female character that’s commendably not ridiculously endowed or scantily clad, because any other developer would have thrown realism into a bin and hopped aboard the misogyny train to sell more copies. I unfortunately can’t recall many similar instances. Chell from Portal? Alyx from Half-Life 2? Zoey from Left 4 Dead? All right, any other developer besides Valve, it would seem.

Even with a refreshing character design front and center, Mirror’s Edge can’t shake its abysmal plot and poor execution. There’s a set-up that alludes to the runners (courier) being the only line of communication for a resistance that’s wedged in a totalitarian like government. The city looks simplistic, clean, and lifeless, much like the in-game character models. Not much of an explanation is offered beyond the introduction, and the plot plays like a standard list of set-pieces and cliches.

I’d find myself asking questions concerning the setting, out of curiosity, then losing interest once I could see the game had no intention on answering any of it. The lack of pacing, structure, and precision hurts Mirror’s Edge, and its roster of characters do little to change that. In fact, the game could have starred a handful of cardboard cut-outs and it would have been just as effective. We’re fed dramatic moments at later points that lack any resonance with the audience because of this.

It also doesn’t help that the story is fleshed out with cheaply made animated segments. Perhaps the idea is to see them as simplistic as its visual direction, but they just stand out as jarring in comparison to the rest of the in-game segments. Why couldn’t we completely stay with Faith’s point of view? Clearly, work went into implementing her character model with precision for the player’s first-person perspective. Why not use it?

Granted, I finished the game because of the (mostly) thrilling set pieces, but it could have been so much more than a passable experience. Imagine if I actually cared about what was going on? Good games can invoke tension, intrigue, and excitement through a mixture of compelling gameplay and a decent narrative. Mirror’s Edge strings you along with lukewarm and occasionally acceptable gameplay. Its mechanics are sound, but its execution is not.

Solid mechanics weighed down by poor execution

The core of Mirror’s Edge is solid. However, the nature of platforming from the first-person perspective is troubling. The game is accommodating, but there are still moments where a mis-judged gap or object will leave you repeatedly expiring. But dying in this context can be blamed on myself, not necessarily the developer. Why was I irritated throughout my time with the game, then?

The problem lies in the cheap deaths that occur during particular segments of Mirror’s Edge. The combat mechanics of Faith are noticeably skewed to the weaker side of the spectrum for two particular reasons. First, for a sense of realism and the character. Faith is agile and her talent is clearly in running and maneuvering around environments. Second, to push the sense of free-running. The developers clearly did not want the experience to boil down to the standard run and gun affair. So handling weapons is bland, combat is clunky and unforgiving, and Faith has very little health.

When this realism works, due to a consistency with the design and mechanics, the game soars. Picture running through a parking garage and avoiding the guards waiting for you by sliding by one, and knocking the other out. Then, making your way through to the adjoining building and running down flights of stairs, diving and dodging the gunfire being thrown in your direction, until finally crashing through a window and continuing to your assigned destination.

It all sounds very exciting, doesn’t it? The problem lies in the trial and error nature that occasionally sinks the ambition. A couple shots will stop Faith, and very little punches or kicks in her direction will end her. So the idea is to keep moving. But trying to avoid combat at a latter stage because of what’s been instilled in the prior parts. It’s possible to get past through the game without firing a bullet, yes, but the process can be incredibly aggravating. Especially when the said enemies are armored, armed with powerful weaponry, and ready to send you back to the next checkpoint with very little effort. The perfect runs scattered about the Internet prove that it’s possible, but I’m strictly referring to my experience, without playing through the segments over and over.

To put it simply, you will die a lot in Mirror’s Edge, and you will not always know what you’re supposed to do to avoid death until perhaps the sixth or seventh attempt. A game that’s central focus is free-running shouldn’t shift gears in such a direction, as it kills the flow of gameplay. Some will be able to tolerate this and say “It’s great, regardless.” I, however, will hold it against the game, and throw rocks at passing cars in frustration.

Its ambition is refreshing, but disappointing

This is where the problem really finds itself apparent. Mirror’s Edge is a free-running game that wants to give you freedom to traverse through an environment from point a to point b without relying too much on combat and gunplay. The unfortunate reality is that you’re stuck going through a pre-determined path the developers felt worked the best throughout the said environment. Only a couple choices actually exist for the player and often time they diverge into just one set path.

The game’s desire to impart an open environment is transparent by the linearity and repetition of the experience. I understand that games inherently are linear and repetitive, but good design decisions can get around this through careful planning and precise execution.

For instance, adding more paths for the player to utilize would have helped mask the linearity of what ultimately made it into the final build. Furthermore, sequences that feature invincible enemies in chase, could have had a time limit imposed. So if I did choose to incapacitate them, I’d still have a reason to make haste to point b. Instead, I die and restart from the last poorly placed check-point, killing the flow. Enemy AI is also egregiously simplistic. Whether I run past or choose to stay and fight, enemies will stand in the same spot and fire their weapons. Strictly combative foes will follow in tow until they catch up, then stand in the same place and land blows.

As I said, when Mirror’s Edge works, it’s fantastic. Running up a crane, jumping down to another building, then rolling as you hit the roof is as harrowing as it sounds. But those bits are dampened by the frustrating trial and error nature of the gameplay. It’s incredibly short duration and lackluster narrative also weigh the experience down to a chore.

But is it worth playing? Yes. I stand by its existence, regardless of my frustrations. It’s commendable that the game was even published, and I do hope we get to see more experiments that aren’t necessarily generic rip-offs or safe (cookie-cutter) sequels. The act of experimentation birthed fantastic endeavors such as Portal. A lack of it birthed eight kill-the-same-foreigner-for-eight-hours games and several spin-off titles. I’ll take the former over the latter.