Review by egpNoodlez
A great new concept marred by poor design
Ah, Mirror's Edge. A month ago this was one of the most hyped up games ever; being an original concept of first person free running, I myself was looking forward to the game. Following the story of a Runner called Faith, the game was amazing to watch and when we got the demo, even more fun to play. A month later, EA's new experiment has been not kind to me; while many other people seem to hold Mirror's Edge as a successful new entry into innovation, I've found the experience to be less than stellar. Now here's why.
Graphics: Graphically, Mirror's Edge isn't that bad. Character models are decent, although some look a little trademark EA weird, with Celeste sharing the same plastic hairstyle as Nicole from EA's Dead Space. Still, you can tell a good level of work went into the character's, and it's nice to see how they evolved in the game's extras tab. The guns are nicely modelled, and effects like sparks and explosions look pretty good.
About exteriors, the buildings look good, and especially a lot of work has gone onto their roofs considering you're running across a city's worth of rooftops. On ground level, there's a few roads and benches about, enough to make it look like a real city. The interiors are also well done, with office spaces realistically filled with desks, computers and paperwork strewn about.
There are a few minor faults in this area: for one, the buildings' exteriors are usually painted a nice brilliant white, and combined with a bit of bloom, this means a lot of the time you'll simply be running into a load of white. This can be distracting and even disorientating, like looking into the sun for too long. Strangely, some interiors are also painted with this incredible white and STILL have bloom.
However, the second problem about the interiors is that some simply don't make sense. There's a lot of small hallways that lead to a lift; the hallways feel out of place and strangely designed, being that most are a dogleg-left or right. I know the point of these corridors is to lead to a lift so the game can load, but it could have been designed better. Saying about the lifts, they're even worse; there's very little detail in lifts. No floor numbers, no light indicating how far up or down you've gone, usually there's just a upwards scrolling text screen on the wall which sometimes has mildly amusing things to read.
Overall, the graphics are functional, but sometimes a bit boring and bland, and sometimes a bit strong for the eyes with the bloom. While there are very beautiful moments, like when you're mimicking Jackie Chan by sliding down the side of a building while a helicopter is shooting at you, there are also very cheap moments such as the cutscenes, which simply resemble Esurance commercials. Finally, considering there is a 3D model of Faith that you're actually always using in the game, it's weird we hardly ever get to see her.
Sound: The sound area of the game is much better; the music when you're trying to figure out where to go and what to do is usually subtle and gentle, easing you into a calm mindset so you can gather your bearings and work out where to go. In contrast, when the game goes into a combat section the beat comes down nice and hard, and you feel pumped to either fight or flight your enemies.
The sound effects are pretty good, with all firearms sounding solid, and very cool little sounds like when you splat after a missing a jump and falling twenty foot to your death. The voice acting is pretty good, character voices sound natural and fit well, and the voice direction in general was well done. Not too much to say about the sound, other than it's pretty good and enjoyable. A funny little note is that the main song is Still Alive, which is the same name as the main song of the last great experiment, Portal. I'll follow up on this later.
Story: A BIG area where the game suffers. The backstory is that you're a Runner, a type of courier who delivers Runner Bags containing secret information that people don't want to see. Runners have become necessary because as Big Brother has expanded, people have traded in their freedom and secrecy in exchange for greater security. Now, crime is a memory, but so is the free human spirit.
Previously, you've been shot and now that you've recovered, you're back on the job (not that any of that is really explained). The main story is that you've been framed and somehow so has your sister, who happens to be a cop. Now you have to figure out who framed you and why, as well as rescue your sister from being wrongfully sentenced.
The main problem with the story? While it does nicely to focus on Faith's side, it also means there are a lot of throwaway characters in the game, and also the whole concept of being a Runner is never pursued.
To elaborate, there is one character in particular, who literally appears for five seconds (ten seconds actually, because you're automatically slowed down when you first meet them). Tell me, if you're going to spend the time rendering a character model and give him a voice actor, why only have him in the game for ten seconds? The time it took building that character model, they could have spent tightening up the game.
As for the Runner side, there are Runner Bags hidden at so-called Stash Points throughout the game, 3 per stage. However, they have absolutely nothing to do with the story. It's also strange they never explain the Runner's Glyph, which is basically the Mirror's Edge logo that Faith wears on her right eye.
Gameplay: While I've gone on about the aesthetics and sound design, it's time to look into the meat of the game, and the main failings I've found in it.
To start, the control scheme is initially very well setup. Unlike other games where a face button usually jumps, Mirror's Edge places jump as L1 (actually, L1 corresponds to upwards movement, which without a context is jump), and as strange as it sounds to have the jump button in a place like that, it's actually very intuitive. Downwards movements such as crouching are L2 - therefore it's very easy to string together a number of moves, jumping and vaulting over obstacles with L1, while crouching and sliding under obstacles with L2. It is very easy to get used to, and once you've seen a range of Faith's actions, it's very fun to pull of a number of flashy moves in succession, and even moreso to get past hard or long parts of a level really quickly whilst looking damn cool. Just one minor thing that's more to do with controllers than the game, triggers are more sensitive than buttons. This means often when you want to do a coiled jump, you might end up just sliding with no jump and falling to your death. Keep in mind to always press your left shoulder button before the left trigger when coil jumping.
For exploration, there's standard interaction with X, a hint system that points Faith towards either her objective or something that can help her reach her objective with Circle, and Reaction Time (i.e: slowdown power) with Square. The exploration is very trial and error sometimes, and combined some areas where you under pressure from a bunch of security officers all firing at you, exploration during your first play can be varied between fun and frustrating in a matter of minutes.
Considering there are very few true alternate paths, the main fun of the exploring really is when you're using your moves to get around places. BUT that's where the first person free running is no longer free running at all, just applying parkour to a first person game. For one, there is no free roam, or even a mode that resembles it. The Time Trials really don't count since they're isolated areas rather than the whole city featured in the game. So, free running actually becomes linear progression through the use of parkour.
Combat is a little finicky - the game has a soft lock on system where it will try to lock onto an enemy when you attack them with R2. However, when you're moving and then attack, often what happens is the camera swings around to attack the enemy, and unless you totally stop moving, the lock on fails and you end up actually running right past your enemy. Disarming is a lot easier, just press Triangle when their weapon flashes red during close fighting to disarm and knock out your enemies. You can also just knock them out with your standard punches, combining your jumps or slides to perform flying/sliding kicks, or even use wallrun kicks that make it very easy to disarm an opponent.
The enemies fight back a typical AI fashion; shooting at you from afar, and when you're close enough they'll melee you, and in the meantime they'll slowly close the distance between you and them. They can also block, which also hurts you, and this becomes a little annoying as Faith herself cannot block. Combined with the finicky combat and situations where it's usually not one-on-one (usually, it's at least three-on-one), you're pretty much forced to run. This isn't something really bad, considering Faith is only supposed to be a Runner and not a warrior, but it just feels silly after you watch a few loading screens where Faith knocks out people in a couple smooth moves (there's even one where she knocks out two people at once).
A duller note about the gameplay is the same thing that has been said constantly: the gunplay simply isn't that good. Granted, the game isn't a first person shooter. HOWEVER, given that you have the option to shoot, and given that EA has made a lot of first person shooters, it's amazing just how bad this is. Trying to set the reticule over a medium-to-long-distance enemy can be very hard, as the aiming just feels unnatural for some reason. Again, I understand Faith isn't a gunslinger, but why did EA have to make this feel so bad? Also, the shotgun and assault rifle both seem to weigh down Faith so much she can't jump more than an inch off the ground, yet Faith can do every one of her moves when she has a machinepistol in her hand...
Final part of the gameplay of course will be the parkour itself. Oh boy, this is going to get ugly. Firstly, we've gone over upwards movement and downwards movement with L1 and L2, essentially jumping and ducking. This feels okay at the start, and to aid you with more difficult moves, you can use R1 to perform 90/180 degree turns for combination wallruns. In the end however, it is still a context sensitive game at core, and its this very element that detracts so much from the game experience.
Some objects have extremely small context boxes. Let's use a kicker as an example (a kicker jump is basically a small box next to another bigger box like a pair of steps, so Faith can take a big step and then perform a long, high jump off the second box). Just being slightly to the left or right sometimes means you won't hit your kicker jump, meaning you don't get your boosted jump across the gap, which means you're jumping into the gap and to your death at that point. If you press jump too late on the kicker, sometimes Faith actually activates the box behind the kicker, which is usually a speedvault - so instead of the jump, you've accelerated your momentum to your death.
Speaking of momentum, the game stresses for you to keep moment by keeping your running clean, rolling from big jumps, etc., Unfortunately, they don't seem to have told the level designers or the other gameplay staff this.
Some levels have so much stuff in the way it's ridiculous. While the details are valid (i.e: pipes, vents, scaffolding), sometimes it's just put exactly where it doesn't need to be. If you land on an uneven surface, you lose momentum, same with scraping against something. Of course, when running across rooftops and indoors, there's plenty of stuff just waiting to bump into you, and that's not counting the stuff you won't see. What won't you see? Things that could possible be a foot under your line of sight, yet Faith won't jump/vault because your reticule isn't on it. The worse scenario involving line of sight? When you can't see where your legs.
This is where I get to heckle the gameplay staff and their decision to have the character you're controlling not a camera floating five feet off the ground, but as a fully rendered person (but no, you can't see down your top if you look down). While I would normally praise this sort of thing, in Mirror's Edge this becomes the bane of your existence, as you're not ever quite sure if you need to coil your jumps so Faith gets that extra height, or sacrifice that so you still have the option to mantle; after all, you can't do both at the same time. This means you'll have to get familiar with the kind of heights Faith has to deal with, and subsequently what position you need to be in to get through.
Also sometimes, the problem is having too much momentum. Sometimes you'll want to climb onto a small object and jump to another one before making it back to firm ground; while it's not always necessary, sometimes this is either the only way or quickest way. You'll go to jump at the object, but if you happen to speedvault by jumping at the right time, the added momentum can send Faith right off the platform you just jumped on. If you did manage to stop, you'll have to pray this small platform can give you enough momentum to make it to the next platform, or that a wallrun at that speed can safely send you across. Why couldn't Faith just climb on the platform without speeding off automatically, and why can she not perform long standing jumps? I'm a normal guy and my longest normal standing jump is a good metre and a bit, yet Faith barely makes half a metre.
Back to the level designers one last time, it's also notable that EA were kind of lazy with the design. You see, all objects in the game seem to have been designed with contexts already assigned, thus saving EA the job of mainly programming contexts in. While this speeds up development in one way, it also opens the doors to new problems. Sometimes you'll find your interacting with items you didn't even think were part of the level. The main culprits are horizontal pipes and poles used to swing Faith across small gaps. Some are just used for level design, i.e: for scaffolding. However, you'll go to jump past it, when suddenly you'll be holding onto it. Worse, because it's not assigned to anything else, you're not allowed to look around at all, you just have to pray the ground is still beneath you when you let go.
While all this is very fine for the standard single player campaign, without adding too much stress to you (other than momentary trial-and-error), you have to keep in mind the main story is only about eight hours long. After that is the speedruns and timetrials; and when you throw the aforementioned problems and mix them with the urgency of speedrunning, video game rage is the least of our worries.
Now I've played this game quite a bit. I haven't played the online EA services and never intend to. Despite that, I have gotten my fifty stars for my Time Trials, having also found all the routes by myself. I only have the speedrun trophies left, so please don't say that I don't know what I'm talking about, when this review was complied solely to explain to people the pains you will feel when you try to get the most out of this game. Obviously the control works, after all I've heard of very fast time trials online. However, for me, most of the time it's far too gimmicky, depending entirely too much on the contexts, which aren't even specifically programmed.
In Closing: If you haven't guessed, I haven't found Mirror's Edge to be that great a game. Don't get me wrong, it's playable, it's original, and it's quite fun while it lasts. You can make runs that are seamless with little to no mistakes, so it's not about whether or not you can, but for me it's about the consistancy at which you can make those runs with this type of control scheme. However, once you start to play towards getting everything, that's when the game starts to feel quirky and rushed, both in its design and purpose. This should have been a great breakthrough into a new genre, but as it stands it's a decent experiment that will hopefully have taught EA a lot. Mirror's Edge has a lot of potential, and if EA are willing to spend some time on Mirror's Edge 2 I'm willing to bet it will be everything Mirror's Edge was looking to be. There are a lot of little fun things hidden away such as the sharpie messages which resemble the funny little secrets from Portal, which neatly segways back into the point I was making in the sound area. Mirror's Edge seems to have been trying to sit as this year's Portal; original, epic, and brilliantly white. As it stands, it's got all three; but Portal was also brilliantly dark in humour, and in a way surreal. Mirror's Edge tries to be serious and witty, and just comes off as a rushed story with a lot of artificial depth and dry humour, in regards to the world in Mirror's Edge, its people, and its functions.
A solid rental title if you just want a new experience, and it presents itself decently. However, once you really start delving into it, it'll test how much of a speedrunner you are, both in execution and in patience. The trophies will take a little while to get due to the need to learn routes as well as practice them, but this only serves to extend the gamelife by as much as you can be bothered with trophies. Again, I can't comment on the EA Online as I never intend to sign up for an EA account. Still, I hope this gives you an idea of what made Mirror's Edge stand out before, and what makes it overrated now. If EA are willing to tighten the control scheme, give the game (and player) a bit more freedom, and concentrate more on game's story and characters, I believe the next game will be incredible and totally blow away our expectations. For now, it's only a fair play.
Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Product Release: Mirror's Edge (EU, 11/14/08)
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