Mirror's Edge is a first person action-adventure game that features French free-running art parkour as the primary means of movement, combat, and puzzle-solving. Players take the role of Asian twenty-something Faith Connors and guide her across the rooftops and through the buildings of a totalitarian society where "runners" like her are the only means for freedom of communication. The plot hinges on Faith's sister Kate and a government cover-up of a murder - both of which make for lots of roof-jumping, wall-running, and the occasional melee.
This game has gotten a lot of attention - not just for the parkour gameplay, but also for Faith and her dynamic background that's meant to jibe perfectly with the plot authored by Rhianna Pratchett (daughter of novelist Terry Pratchett). But for all its edginess, does Mirror's Edge really stand apart as a different kind of game, or does it fall short of the far window ledge of innovation?
The Parkour: Assassin's Creed can bite it - Mirror's Edge is the real deal when it comes to free-running. Though the game is linear, the motion of Faith as she runs and the sheer opportunities for flinging yourself off of building tops or bouncing off of drainage pipes makes you feel free as a bird. The controls lend themselves fairly well to the movement - most of what you'll be doing is pressing forward on the analogue stick to build up speed and then mashing L1 at key moments to execute jumps or start wall-running towards a goal.
The City of Electric Fences: The city is almost more interesting than the main character. It's a sprawling metropolis that at one point was a free society; now it's controlled by a fascist mayor that insists on painting everything white, green, blue or orange and putting electric fences in seemingly random places. Everything appears to be speciously clean and orderly, which makes it all the more upsetting when you realise - through cut scenes, character dialogue, and scrolling news headlines on elevator ad screen - that something bad went down here, something that drove Faith to live on the edge her whole life.
Time Trial Mode: This is where Mirror's Edge really shines. Instead of having you accomplish some story-based objective (which requires guys in thick armour to shoot at you), the entire point of this mode is to explore a level and find the fastest way to get from point A to point B. That's what parkour is all about, so it's no surprise that the game feels the most fun when that's all you're supposed to be doing.
The Melee Fighting: The game spends the first three chapters of story mode teaching you not to fight. Instead, you're taught that speed is your best ally. This is all well and good when it's used to get away from the guys with guns; but when the game drops about seven of them into an area and then specifically tells you that you've got to fight them, it's almost like you've been betrayed (not to mention this is the primary cause of mid-level loads). So instead of doing parkour - which is about not letting obstacles slow you down - you've got to stop and box. Doesn't help matters that Faith is kind of shit at boxing, and most of her moves don't do much damage, especially to the shooters wearing armour. Reaction Time will be your best friend in these situations, letting you can slow things down enough to disarm your attacker. (I wondered why they needed to include "bullet time" in a game where you weren't supposed to be shooting anybody - and now I know.)
Where Am I Going? What Am I Doing? Who the Hell is That Guy?: To be fair, Mirror's Edge had a lot going on with the gameplay - it was going to be hard to have a story that didn't get upstaged by the action. But the plot is so second-string that you completely forget about in the middle of levels. Why am I chasing this guy again? I have a sister? What? And to make matters worse, you almost never know where you're going when you start a level - Mirror's Edge doesn't do maps or that magical golden trail a la Fable II. Sometimes, when you're starting a level from the tippy-top of a building, Faith will pan her vision towards a distant object and maybe the guy giving you orders over your ear piece will say "Head for that orange building." But more often than not, he'll just say "Head for the financial district," and you have to figure out where that is based on where all the red-coloured ramps and pipes lead. This "runner vision" red would be a lot more useful if it happened consistently. Sometimes you'll be running up to a pipe and it won't turn red to indicate that you can climb it until after you've already jumped for it, praying that it was a viable climbing object.
Trial and Error - LOTS of Error: I resent any game that expects you to die over and over again until you learn the exact way the game wants its puzzles to be done. In Mirror's Edge, the feeling is almost ten times worse because the game touts "freedom of motion" so much that you mistakenly believe there might be more than one way to solve a puzzle. Every so often, there is - and you'll get lucky with that double wall-run to bypass the swinging bars - but mostly, there's just one way to solve the jumping puzzle and if you don't know it, you're road kill 50 feet below. (And what is with Faith being able to ninja-kick metal doors down, but not being able to knock open a wire mesh fence?) This problem only gets worse when attackers are added to the mix. So not only do you have to find the one magic way to get from point A to point B, but you've also got to outrun the guys shooting at you from behind (and some of them have shock darts - dicks). Expect to die a lot and don't bother trying to be creative with your parkour - it will end in death.
Mirror's Edge will divide gamers bitterly over whether it's the dog's bollocks because it's challenging and fresh or it's lousy because it's repetitive to the point of being bland. Both factions will find plenty of ammo for their arguments in the first three chapters of story mode alone: the parkour really is like nothing you've ever done before in a video game, and the puzzle-solving/melee fighting is nothing you haven't seen a billion times in other video games.
The bottom line is that DICE reached for the stars with their game design, and then chickened out before they got to their goal. There are moments when Mirror's Edge feels like it has all the momentum of a powerful game that truly is different and special, but these moments usually happen right before you're forced to melee a few dozen guys armed with sniper rifles. At this exact moment, the game stops feeling new and fun and starts feeling old and tired - and maybe adds a few more points to your blood pressure.
Mirror's Edge was developed by EA Digital Illusions CE (DICE), published by EA, and released in Australia on Nov. 13 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (date for PC version to be announced). Retails for $99.95. Completed story mode on PS3, tested time trial mode.
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