11 Years On, Mirror's Edge Is Still A Masterpiece

Image: Electronic Arts

I don’t tend to replay video games very often. The demands of this job mean I’m normally straight onto the next one as soon as the credits roll on the last. But every year I try to find the time to revisit one of my all-time favourites: EA’s Mirror’s Edge.

It’s not a perfect game, I know. When it first released in 2008 I remember that, despite its mostly positive reviews, Mirror’s Edge had its fair share of significant criticisms as well, many of them entirely valid. It was short (you can tell it was 2008 because that really mattered), and there were too many moments where you’d encounter repeated and frustrating deaths that would sap the game of its speedy lifeblood. Oh, and the combat sucked.

Time has been kind to Mirror’s Edge and its best intentions, though, and the last thing it needs now is my help defending it. It even (belatedly, and regrettably) got a sequel.

But as good as it was, I think the most remarkable thing about Mirror’s Edge is that it’s still good, and just keeps getting better with age.

Partly, I think, this is on me. I’ve played Mirror’s Edge so many times that even with year-long breaks in between runs I can instantly recall routes and navigate its twisting corridors without getting lost, which isolates me from many of the game’s bigger problems. You don’t need to worry about combat, for example, if you know the best path to just sprint past the bad guys.

Another contributor is the game’s visuals. There’s nothing terribly fancy going on in Mirror’s Edge, at least not at first glance: there aren’t many weather effects, not much goes BOOM and there’s rarely another human being on the screen. All you ever really see while you’re running is crisp, clean architecture and a colour palette designed as much to aid the player on their runs as it was to just look cool.

It could have looked boring, or basic. Instead those white walls, red pipes and blue skies have, over the last decade, become iconic visual signatures, instantly recognisable as this game’s thing. It doesn’t matter that Mirror’s Edge was released in 2008, because those clean lines and bold colours look as modern in 2019 as they did back then.

Not that I want to undersell the rest of the game’s graphics. It’s all aged gracefully; Mirror’s Edge’s player models and facial animations look surprisingly good for a game of its age, and I remember how amazing it was at the time — with an Nvidia card, anyway — to see things like flags flapping in the wind and glass that genuinely shattered (both of which still look great in 2019).

It’s impossible to look back on Mirror’s Edge and not at least mention its failings. I’m slightly biased, since I’ve now played through the game hundreds of times and so am almost immune to its deficiencies, but the more I play the game the more the purity of its core vision pushes all of its frustrations to the margins.

Yeah, the combat wasn’t great, and the indoor sections were a pain, but I think those are issues not because they’re issues in of themselves, or were broken, but because they’re seen as padding, roadblocks keeping you from enjoying the one thing the game was made to do: breakneck parkour.

Folks hated anything that wasn’t parkour because parkour is what we were here for. Mirror’s Edge is about the thrill of the chase, and the joy of performing superhuman — but also very human — acrobatics across rooftops. It’s so good that every moment spent in the game not doing this is agony.

It’s ironic that the game’s narrative portrays you as a hunted rebel, because while there are certainly moments of terror and pursuit, much of Mirror’s Edge is actually incredibly liberating. The entire game is built around the conceit that you’re playing as a regular human capable of extraordinary feats, and you’ll spend most of your time in levels designed to let you express yourself and make the most of those skills.

To take a running jump off a ramp, the world blurring around the edges of the screen as you leap between buildings, a bright blue sky flashing in front of you before returning softly to earth, is magic. It’s a singular gaming moment that’s almost without peer, right up there with snapping up an iron sight in Call of Duty, a Tony Hawk grind or a Halo melee attack.

And it wouldn’t mean shit without the game’s absolute commitment to the first-person perspective, which I admire more with each passing year. The simple and predictable AAA Electronic Arts thing to do for a game that’s a platformer at heart would have been to reduce it to a third-person perspective, in order to make it easier for players to time and place their jumps.

DICE were having none of that. Mirror’s Edge is so first-person that there are cutscene hugs that play out in the perspective, which might be hilarious in those rare instances where it jars, but for 99% of the game are absolutely essential to the experience.

Being locked into first-person and all its accompanying momentum and effects means that basic jumps and rolls that would be mundane in another series are transformed into gut-churning, white-knuckle rides. A leap in Mario is a constant, as unremarkable as drawing breath. A jump in Mirror’s Edge, no matter how small, is thrilling.

As is the fall when you mess it up.

I couldn’t round out a love-in of Mirror’s Edge without mentioning the work of Swedish musician Magnus Birgersson, aka Solar Fields. His soundtrack to the game, comprised mostly of gentle, other-wordly electronica, is the perfect match for the city’s Tokyo-future-inspired aesthetic, whether it’s the more chilled backing for some exploration or the pulsing rhythm of a chase. And much like the game’s visuals, the music has aged remarkably well.

I love Mirror’s Edge because it’s stubborn. It’s as though EA signed a tiny indie game rather than a massive international studio. Nothing feels watered down, or focus tested, or softened for a broader audience. It’s a game that wanted to look and play a certain way, and was content enduring its shortcomings in order to achieve that.

So much of the Mirror’s Edge experience is wholly owned by the game: the architecture, the colours, the characters, the perspective, the acrobatics, the music. Everything about Mirror’s Edge just screams Mirror’s Edge, most of it as timeless as it is beautiful. It’s been 11 years since I first fell in love with the game, and I bet I’ll be sitting down in 11 years time feeling much the same as I do now.


Comments

    Agree with pretty much all of this. I loved this game. The sequel must be one of my most disappointing games of this generation. So disappointing that I'd actually forgotten there even was a sequel until this article reminded me of it :P

      I loved the sequel, especially Warning Call by Chvrches. I'd love to know why that wasn't the closing credits song, despite being on the in-game jukebox.

      The sequel lets you run wherever you want. It's just so cool not to be bound by the confines of a 'level'.

      The re-imagined Faith is cool, but different in certain ways, to her progenitor. I was a bit disappointed they got rid of Merc in favour of Noah, and turned Faith's sister into something different (avoiding spoilers). I did like Plastic and Icarus though, and Dogen's cool as well.

      There is so much more to do in the sequel than in the original, and the graphics are just amazing!

      The original will always hold a special place in my heart. It was unique for its time, had KILLER art design, and proved that you could make an awesome FPS that didn't focus on shooting. And let's not forget Still Alive by Lisa Miskovsky.

      I guess I just love both games, albeit for slightly different reasons.

        I just thought it suffered from the same thing the first one did - EA (or it may well have been DICE for all I know) just didn't seem to have the courage to put it out there as its own thing, instead feeling compelled to force it to conform to whatever was fashionable at the time. In the first game, that was guns. Can't have a first person game without shooting! So they stuck some shitty combat in there that didn't suit the game at all. By the time the sequel came around, it was open world games that were selling so they made it a free-roaming open world kind of affair which, again, didn't seem to suit the game as well as the more carefully designed levels of the original.

        The open world design of Catalyst was pretty cool, but to be honest, I think the level design in the original was better focused and more memorable. Most likely because there was one direction you needed to go. Perhaps it made it easier for the level designers to pull off interesting scenarios and environments.

        Then, through the time trials, expanding on that "one direction" to discover variants that, quite often, amazed me when I saw a shadow pull it off. That was distilled epiphany right here, and was a complete joy. Never quite got that feeling in the sequel.

        Not that I dislike Catalyst. Quite the opposite. I enjoyed it very much. I just think that the original had more character and a tighter gameplay experience.

        Warning Call is okay but it's no Still Alive.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SzmUde_EK5Y

        This has been my ringtone ever since the game came out and I have no desire to change it.

          You're right, it's *better*. Still Alive was ruined by the vocals IMO.

            The single that came as a bonus download with the game has four different mixes, one of which is an instrumental. :)

        I'd love to know why that wasn't the closing credits song, despite being on the in-game jukebox.

        The reason was licensing issues, which is very ironic considering the song was written for the game. You can listen to the developers discussing this here: https://youtu.be/pRHbb2sQ6bo?t=1558

        Catalyst's soundtrack is fantastic too. A lot like the original but much more of it.

          Solar Fields returned for Catalyst. For everything else that might be wrong with the game, the soundtrack is excellent.

    It even (belatedly, and regrettably) got a sequel.

    regrettably

    You are dead to me, Luke.

    It's a polarising game gameplay-wise. When Mirror's Edge was good it shone brilliantly, and when it was bad it felt utterly frustrating and even broken. The one thing Mirror's Edge did exceedingly well was not having any middle ground. The purest experience you can have with the game is ironically not in the game itself but rather the time trial map pack. There you can parkour freely and get in that exhilarating zone that feels so satisfying.

      From memory though, the time trial maps were kind of abstract, in that they had no relation to the cityscape of the game. That was a bit of a turn-off for me. I just loved the feel of running through the city.

        Fair. But for me it's the interruptions - primarily combat - that got in the way of the joy of parkour.

      The normal built-in non-abstract non-DLC time trials are awesome, and I think better than the abstract DLC. A person doesn’t really know Mirrors Edge until earning 3 stars on all of them. So good.

    I am so happy you mentioned the amazing Solar Fields soundtrack in this article. The game was what allowed me to discover his amazing music, along with the fantastic work of associated artists like Aes Dana, Carbon Based Lifeforms and HUVA Network.

    Also Lisa Mikovsky's Still Alive is the best song called Still Alive that came out in 2008 and this is absolutely a hill I will die on.

    Mirror's Edge is my aesthetic 100% and absolutely, unarguably the game of its generation.

    Thanks for a great article. And let me take the moment to remind everyone that Catalyst is not a sequel, but a reboot. No narrative connections to the original whatsoever.

    Also, the game just turned 10 (last November) so saying 11 years is a bit of a stretch, even though there are technically 11 years between 2008 and 2019.

    Last edited 18/01/19 8:58 pm

    Mirror's Edge just nailed the core gameplay cycle for me. The challenge-reward cycle of picking through a run to find the most efficient route, and then trying repeatedly to execute that route with the perfect timing was so addictive.

    I loved the unforgiving commitment to the first person perspective, too. It reminded me of one of my favourite games from the previous generation, Project Breakdown. It was a very broken and at time infuriating game, but at the time it was utterly unique and was the first example of a relentless first person perspective combined with nausea inducing acrobatics that I can recall, and I don't think it ever gets anywhere near the credit it deserves. But I'll leave that little tangental rant there before I get carried away.

    I mean, it's not just the career of a video game journalist thay makes it tough to replay a game. I work full time and after doing things I need to do around the house, have some time for gaming. And most of that is Rocket League. Because I know if something suddenly comes up, it's only a short time per game so I can go and do it.

    Ahhh, the joys of being a responsible adult. I miss the days of being able to stay up all night gaming and smash out a game in a few days. Now I have all these "responsibilities". Gross.

    Do yourselves a favour, kids. Never grow up.

    I think calling Mirror's Edge a "master piece" is quite a bold statement but at the end of the day, it's just an opinion I don't agree with, but I do know Mirror's Edge has a massive fan base and quite a following.

    I think for it's time, I will credit Mirror's Edge as a technical marvel. The game looked absolutely brilliant. The environments were simple, yet so clean, colourful and detailed, and the character models looked great too, with realistic animation and movement. The first person parkour mechanics were awesome too and for its time, very clever. The game had a cool soundtrack and an interesting concept for its plot.

    For me personally, what let the game down the most was with how linear it was. Indeed, it was a very move from point A to point B, and if you lost your momentum or your way, you would just get stuck and suddenly, the game felt so slow. The combat was painful (although kind of fun at first) but there were many times were the game would just become frustratingly difficult, as you would die over and over again.

    The game's length was unfortunate, clocking in at about five to eight hours, depending on your difficulty of play and speed of progression, with no unlockables or content to return to afterwards (except for the freaky environment free running DLC thing, which was a nice release).

    The sequel wasn't much better, unfortunately... but I do feel like with Mirror's Edge: Catalyst, they tried to make it better than the original.

      It was point A to point B, which allowed for tidier cleaner tighter great level design. Also, within that point A to point B there were many many many different lines and moves. It’s literally like saying that a racing game is point A to Point B “you’re on a line around the track!” In fact it’s more like a skateboarding game, because point A to point B is about your self expression and skill within that space.

      You also seem messed up by all the nonsense hype about open worlds and game lengths. Youre really citing game length as a criticism? A lot of people do that and it seems like they dont understand good videogames and instead focus on meaningless quantification. I have played through Mirror’s Edge 1 more times than any other modern game precisely because of its digestible size. Most other games are bloated and overlong (aside from being not fun). And all the open worlds are filled with repetition and pointless obsessive collectibles. You cite “content to replay” like unlocks and collectibles, which again fits with what I said earlier, it’s more generic zombie-like focus on weird quantified marketing bullet points instead of gameplay. The “replay” is to play the whole excellent linear game again, with improved skill and improved creativity and improved understanding. And Mirror’s Edge is very replayable because it’s not bloated or overly long. It’s crisp.

      Gaming is spiritually dying because of “longer, longer, longer, more HOURS!” and “more more more collectibles and unlocks and prizes and numbers and in-game currencies”. It’s a plague of bloat. It has nothing to do with good gameplay.

      Length, and unlocks, are not what Mirror’s Edge is about, and not what any good videogame should be about.

      Not trying to be insulting by the way. I’m saying what I think is important.

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