Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mirror's Edge

Screw you all. Mirror's Edge was excellent.

I say this despite my criticisms of its character design, despite years of dissatisfaction with publisher EA, and despite a general antipathy towards platform games stretching back over several decades. I'm sorry, but it was excellent.

Mirror's Edge is a first person parkour (free-running) game. The creation of a parkour game was more or less inevitable after Casino Royale popularised the sport for film and Prince of Persia and Assassin's Creed did it in bastardised form for games. The majority of Mirror's Edge involves traversing an urban rooftop environment from various points A to points B using improbable but physically-possible acrobatics, all at an absolutely breakneck pace. It's unique, it's fun, and it's thrilling from beginning to end.

The excellence in Mirror's Edge stems from two areas. The first is the visual style, which is full of primary colours and sharp vertices. It evokes a highly realistic urban environment while at the same time being easy to read for players moving through it at high speeds. The game looks great, and it does it in a way that enables rather than obstructs play.

The second excellence is in the control scheme, at least as it applies to the XBox 360 version that I played. Almost all of the interactivity is mapped to the two left shoulder buttons of the controller. Left bumper (the upper shoulder) is "go high", while left trigger (lower shoulder) is "go low". You jump, climb, and run up walls by "going high", and you slide, break-roll and leg-tuck by "going low". Actions are context sensitive and always predictable - you very rarely slide, for example, when trying to break-roll, or jump when you want to climb.

Those are the basic controls. Right bumper does a 180 turn, most often used in a wall-run/flip/jump maneuver, and right trigger is "strike", used equally for punching out enemies, booting open closed doors, and crashing through panes of glass in mid-air. The "Y" button allows you to execute time-sensitive disarm maneuvers on enemies.

My main complaint with the controls is that you're always moving forward, so holding the analog stick up to move feels redundant (and starts to hurt the thumb). Given the racing flavour of the game, it would feel more natural and less hand-breaking to have an "accelerate" button mapped to the face-pad. But that's a small complaint. Generally the controls are visceral, intuitive, and achieve the goal of any good control scheme by allowing you to reliably execute the amazing without feeling like you're being babied or talked down to.

Like any platform game, you'll regularly make mistakes, and the cost of a mistake is usually plummeting to your death. Like any good platform game, there's no long term cost for these mistakes. Respawn points are placed intelligently, generally immediately before the start of any significant challenge, and a flubbed jump never costs you more than about 90 seconds of play. Also, you're never required to learn by trial and error - the learning process isn't about how to do things, but how to do things better.

One of the major complaints levelled against Mirror's Edge is its overuse of combat. Combat is definitely its weakest spot. It takes about three bullets or two pistol-whippings to knock you out on the default difficulty, which is a pretty thin margin of error. Using your character's library of martial arts moves feels clunky and unsatisfying, with the exception of the rather cool strikes she can do if she has a running start. Disarms are much more effective, but late game enemies give you absolutey tiny timing windows to do these, which can be frustrating.

However, a lot of the complaints about combat are misconceived. Mirror's Edge is a game about running, not fighting, and each and every combat encounter in the game can actually be solved more easily by finding the right parkour route than it can with your fists. Late encounters with squads of enemies which initially frustrated me suddenly became laughably easy once I discovered the optimal paths through the area. The infamous "sniper roof" and "server room" encounters on the game's final level have been designed to allow you to sprint through without downing a single opponent, if you're clever.

I love also that although the game lets you get your hands on your opponent's guns, it really encourages you not to use them. When you find yourself holding a firearm, throwing it away feels right, and it's very satisfying to get from start to end without shooting anyone regardless of whether the game awards you its rather finicky achievement for that task. This is how I want games to treat firearms - as a reality, but always in the context of there being a better way.

Anyway, combat may not be the roadblock that some claim, but running towards enemies in Mirror's Edge is not really fun, and these sections should have been brutally pared down. The best parts of the game are the chase scenes, where you're pursuing a fleeing enemy or being hunted yourself. These are the moments when you're genuinely aware of just how amazing your move set is, and there should have been more sections like this. The game doesn't stop often enough to give you time to reflect on its strengths.

The last highlight of the game is its music. The soundtrack is truly excellent, particularly the various remixes of the main theme, "Still Alive". It's one of those tunes that you'll be humming long after you've finished the last level, and I'm pretty sure that hearing it over coming months is going to get me excited about a sequel each and every time.

So - on to the bad stuff, which starts with the narrative. To say that the story of Mirror's Edge has a raging case of the sucks would be an extreme understatement. This is one of the worst stories I've encountered in a very long time. Tetris had a more engaging plot. From the beginning to the end it's badly told, horribly acted, appallingly scripted, schizophrenically paced, and does little to highlight the world, its characters, or any of the themes of freedom and movement inherent in the gameplay. The characters are unengaging and your long-term goals are vague or absent, and in a final kick to the face the game's ending fails to feature its major villain and leaves you stranded on a rooftop while most everyone you know and love is being hunted down like dogs. Plus all of the cutscenes are done in absolutely butt-ugly style of animation that has nothing in common with the clean, precise look of the in-game visuals.

Mirror's Edge is short. The story mode clocks in at maybe seven hours, with a lot of that made up of missing jumps and restarting from checkpoints. You can speedrun each level in less than ten minutes (often significantly less) so theoretically a godlike player could finish the whole thing in an hour and a half. From the way that important story points go missing it feels like maybe some levels were cut in order to get the game out the door on time, although given the overall incompetence of the plotting it may have just been intended that way.

Story mode is half of the game; the other half consists of time trials, which let you play specially arranged sections of the main levels as a timed obstacle course. Given the excellence of the basic gameplay, that's more fun than it sounds. The difficulty here is that the qualifying times for each course can be a little demanding until you find the optimum route, and your finishing time isn't recorded unless you beat the qualifier, meaning that a lot of attempts at a course can result in no visible recognition of succes. It would be nice if times were recorded no matter what, so even when you're sucking you can see whether you're sucking less. Also, you can download "ghosts" of other people's attempts to run against to find better routes and improve your time, but you can only access your friends' attempts, or the attempts of the top 50 or so players in the world, so as far as ghosts go you're limited to "unhelpfully poor" or "unhelpfully good". Ultimately YouTube, as always, is the solution.

The time trials, as I said, are better than you'd think, but it would be nice if they had more structure. The game tracks how many "stars" you've earned across all trials, and gives you some achievements for them (although even the first requires some pretty hefty practice), but there should have been some unlockables keyed to these stars, or some sort of reason to keep shooting for higher levels of excellence beyond the inherent satisfaction of success.

Still, Mirror's Edge attempts to create an entirely new style of gameplay and does a better job of it than 90% of those who try. Very few of its failures are to do with its core mechanics, which means it's created a strong conceptual base for future titles to build on. It's not going to be a game for everyone - the focus on precision and the short tolerance of error means this is a game for a hardcore audience, not casual players - but it's a solid continuation of a type of play which embraces well-loved franchises such as Mega Man and Sonic the Hedgehog and I see no reason why those who enjoyed games like those shouldn't thrill and revel in the realism and freedom that Mirror's Edge brings to that classic tradition.

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