Wot I Think: Mirror’s Edge

By Alec Meer on January 20th, 2009 at 6:13 pm.

Here comes an awkward metaphor: Mirror’s Edge (the delayed PC version of which was finally released last week) is hiding in the closet. Unsurprisingly, this only makes life difficult for it. For every moment it pretends to be an FPS, it feels wrong, and to any onlooker it’s visibly uncomfortable in this assumed role. If only it would cast off this sham and reveal its true colours – well, then we’d have a game proud of itself. Mirror’s Edge is a racing game, but it doesn’t have the courage to admit it. Be proud, ME. Tell the world what you are, cry it from those rooftops you spend so much time gallivanting across: “I AM A RACING GAME!”

But it doesn’t, and it’s a coward for it. Certainly, it’s not the game we hoped it would be from those early shots of a vast, alabaster cityscape. For all the alluring Le Parkour theme, that white world of rooftops isn’t yours to explore. Instead, you have a course – a circuit you have to follow with relative exactitude. There’s some give and take and a few canny shortcuts, but really you’re always headed in one direction. While that makes for a broken dream or two, it’s not inherently a problem: this is, after all, supposed to be a game about movement, fluidity and speed rather than about exploration.

Except it’s not that, either. Or at least it’s not that in the mode everyone will gravitate to – the story mode. Story mode isn’t very good. More critically, the reliance on as overbearing a narrative as Mirror’s Edge is yoked to actively distracts from what the game does very well, which is the mechanics of fluid roof-running. With the constant carrot of new plot points dangled in front of you, whenever you miss a jump or make a lousy landing, you fail the game. The flow’s disrupted and you’re faced with the annoyance of repetition (for this uses a fairly inconsiderately-implemented checkpoint save system) if you want to progress. That’s close enough to the standard system for any FPS, of course, but it’s different here – because Mirror’s Edge is a racing game.

While we do, to some extent, play racing games to progress, largely we’re playing to test ourselves, to better our own records and achievements. If you played a racing game because you wanted to reach the next between-race cutscene, screwing up would be annoying – it means you have to tackle that race again. If, though, you’re racing to achieve a best time or a shiny medal, screwing up means you’ve failed yourself as opposed to the game. You try again because you want to do better, not because you have to.

That’s why Mirror’s Edge story mode fails. Death, usually by falling but sometimes by bullets in the face, comes often. Death systems, in other words, we’re accustomed to from action-orientated genres. Perhaps ME deserves accolades for attempting something of a genre fusion, but if it had discarded its fairly insipid efforts to be an action game its challenges would be thrilling challenges of its players own ability, not challenges laid by arbitrary setpieces. That the story is not an interesting one, hung around thinly-sketched characters and a weirdly unspecific dystopic tomorrow, is almost irrelevant. This isn’t a game that should have a story – or if it did, no more of one than a Tony Hawk or SSX game. Fantasy sporting challenges contained by only the loosest structure: that’s what Mirror’s Edge should be.

Instead, it makes exactly the mistakes we all predicted it would when we first heard about it. It’s restrictive, it doesn’t allow for much thinking on your feet, the combat feels out of place and grows in importance far too much, it hinges around Tomb Raider deaths and it lacks the variety you’d expect from a singleplayer FPS. Mistakes so obvious that it’s almost astounding they’re there. Storyline mode has one thing going for it: it’s very short. You’ll blow through it in a weekend, easy.

Yet, once all the storyline guff and the associated uncomfortable compromises are pushed aside, there’s something sparkling and beautiful hiding. Mirror’s Edge has a time trial mode, one that’s been overlooked in all the pre-release blather about tie-in comics and whether Faith’s hot or not. It’s easy to overlook it, especially if you’ve already sampled and been disheartened by the story mode – you’ll presume it’s just cheerless repetition of levels you’ve already died a few too many dozen times on. Don’t do that. Play the tutorial, then leave the Story alone and come back to the Time Trials. It’s where Mirror’s Edge has the confidence to be what it really is – a racing game, but with legs not wheels, hands not gears.

The courses are still prescribed and that means your attention still won’t stay with them for long, but by placing visible checkpoints scattered sequentially across those beautifully bare rooftops rather than claustrophobically ushering you from setpiece puzzle to setpiece puzzle, there’s more scope for shortcutting and for adapting to an error. You’re chasing a high score, both one set by the game and one set by unseen other players, and to achieve that you trial-and-error establish the best possible route you can devise. When you fail or fall short of your goal, it’s a drive to try again, to improve yourself, which that forlorn narrative mode just can’t muster. It’s doing something similar to The Club, but with a more appealing, logical key mechanic, and with far more character thanks to that stark, serene visual style.

Faith, you see, doesn’t matter a jot – sure, she’s a vaguely successful attempt to create an iconic character and thus launch a franchise, but the game’s real character is the city skyline. Forever giddying in its scale and beautiful in that signature sterile way, the reason for it being so and whatever tale is supposed to be gripping the streets below seems so irrelevant. It’s a fantasy obstacle course. For every second that Mirror’s Edge loses sight of that, it fails. When it’s just you, the rooftops and Faith’s slim repertoire of jumps, shimmies, slides and rolls, it’s something like the urban Tarzan game we all hoped Mirror’s Edge would be. Time Trial mode rewards practice and it rewards perseverance, and it’s the only reason to buy Mirror’s Edge.

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132 Comments »

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  1. Helm says:

    “Crap Story, Predictable, (I think i guessed the twist half-way through the tute level)”

    Not to say I’m super-empathic or anything, but I think I guessed in the very first screen we see that person and she looks at our character.

  2. UncleLou says:

    “Also, I’m still irked that Faith’s features make her look like a caricature of Asians.

    Huh. I had an asian personage say pretty much the opposite to me, recently (when discussing the DICE artwork versus that fan-made ‘more attractive’ version).”

    Bit surprised about this, too. She surely looks a lot less like a caricature to me than Asians in most games from Asia do.

  3. bansama says:

    The time trials in this game simply do not interest me. But I do find it hard to pull myself away from the story levels. Sure they’re short, but I feel they work better for it. And I have to agree that the times you’re being chased are where the real adrenaline rushes come.

    I am not a fan of the console-esque checkpoint save system though and it’s about time developers dumped it. Games are far more enjoyable — especially when full of trial and error jumps, such as this one — when you are given the choice to quicksave where you want, and not where the developers dictate.

    I like that you are given fairly specific paths to travel across too, as having free reign in the story mode would just detract from the element of danger you have when being chased. Although, such open ended exploration gameplay should have been provided as an optional play mode, just so the beautiful world that has been designed doesn’t go to waste. But then, I had the same feelings for Ico too.

    I also hope we see more of Mirror’s Edge as the world they created is simple breathtaking, I certainly didn’t recognise that it was based on the Unreal Engine (most other Unreal Engine based games I’ve seen all tend to have a similar feel to them, or is that just me?)

    I certainly see myself getting a lot of replay from this game too, despite it’s length. Again, just as I did with Ico (which was another exceptionally short game), so you know, size really isn’t everything =)

  4. Andy`` says:

    schizo: There’s not much I can say, I guess. I haven’t worked on Unreal powered games quite as long, and only in a more superficial manner I’m guessing. Dave L.’s comment ties into what I was thinking though, and pretty much says something I should have elaborated on (360/PS3 problems -> PC team helps 360/PS3 out the door -> less time for PC work to be done). Also, it’s great that you can hit 30fps on mid-range hardware. What about the minimum spec hardware? Or are we condoning having games not run properly on the stated min spec here? ;)

    “This is spectacularly overestimating.”

    Probably. I always have been trying to just find quick ways through rather than finding sneaky ways of avoiding certain enemies. I’ve gone through prologue, ch1, ch2, ch4, ch5 and ch6 without killing anyone, but I always figured you had to kill the guys before pipes (ch3 cpC, ch6 cpB) or they’d easily kill you on your labourious climb up the pipe – that makes 5 of my badly estimated 11/12. I always cleared the top deck of ch7 cpB (the boat you were talking about) since I tended to die quite alot opening the door, though I managed to miss one of them and survive once (that totals to 9). I also probably overestimated on ch9 in the server room, since I tend to disarm the nearest one on the right, shoot the one on the left, then shoot the MG guy and go down the middle (12). Though I know if you’re careful you can route them around a bit and you don’t have to kill the MGer to make it up the stairs. I just never tried :)

  5. JKjoker says:

    I have mixed feelings about ME’s gameplay, when you are outside, the path is obvious and you got the fuzz on your ass the game flows naturaly and it feels like that awesome scene in The Matrix 1 when neo is running for a phone and the agents appear everywhere, its just Great, but the conjunction of all those things is actually pretty rare in the game.

    the worst parts of the game are when the path is not obvious (which is most of the time, specially indoors) and you are getting shot, that leads to several jumps of faith (which end on smashed Faith) and “wtf-is-this-door-closed?” moments which completely break the flow, you start cursing the devs while you look arround wondering : im supposed to find a door ? climb to that airshaft over there ? use the elevator ? what ? there is only one way in and one way out, every other door is closed, every other shaft is sealed with adamantium or something, the game talks about the “runner sense” but its more like “the linear path the devs created sense”

    the game npcs even make sure you get annoyed by this, in the 3rd level your “navigator” says “the bullets are going to kill you, go inside” while you are running though the roofs, so you run to the next door you see … closed … in fact you have to spend about 5 more minutes in the roof before you go inside … meh

    i do not get any enjoyment out of the time trials, i dont like racing games unless im racing others

    as for Faith, i dont think she is hot, in fact i dont give a damn about her or her sister, since im not explained anything about the world i dont give a damn about it or anyone in it, i was expecting a deus ex/blade runner style cospiracy story but nothing man, gime something to work with …

    in the end I feel ME is nothing more than a tech demo, the engine is actually pretty good, i love feeling the momentum of my character, i love how she interacts with the world, i think a good company like raven or something could make a really really good fps out of this engine ( maybe something like starcraft: ghost or splinter cell/bond with lots of climbing and escaping scenes, oh, maybe a no one lives forever 3, in fact it would fit any kind of spy/stealth fps)

  6. Valentin Galea says:

    The graphics man! The graphics! Forget all else and play it just for that…

    I honestly ‘felt’ the difference between the warmth of the sun soaked areas and the cold shadowy ones!

  7. JKjoker says:

    fuck the graphics, gimme gameplay or die!

  8. schizoslayer says:

    “What about the minimum spec hardware? Or are we condoning having games not run properly on the stated min spec here? ;)”

    Well my point is that you can hit Xbox/PS3 quality graphics on Mid-range hardware easily. To hit minimum requires downscaling textures, lowering the resolution/AA and changing the shader model.

    Basically ever since UT3 the Unreal engine has been very very easy to work with on PC and you have to try pretty hard (lots of dynamic shadows/lighting) to make a top-end PC sweat and it scales down very nicely.

    So when you are basing all your budgets on the memory and shader limitations of consoles hitting 30 on PC is relatively easy. Certainly compared to pre-UT3 versions of the engine which were very much optimized for Xbox and something of a pain to get running well on PC as the engine didn’t scale as well as it does now.

  9. Pzykozis says:

    I thought the complete opposite about the game from this review, I loved the story mode albiet somewhat shallow and soo soo very short and I hated the emphasis on time trials and speedruns cause it invariably made the game feel even shorter.

    Hopefully in the sequel there’ll be more freedom to actually explore and do your own running sessions and of course a more developed story.

    It’s definately in my top 5 games at this point in time due to its innovations that I think are truely great aswell as the immense rush you get when chased. Overall a great game.

  10. Arnulf says:

    @ Schmung regarding friends list:

    Yes, you can have a friends list on the PC version. You need to create an account with EA and then you can record your results on the leaderboard. The leaderboard has filters for your in-game friends list.

  11. Brian says:

    I wish there were no guns at all in this game. I wish this was a multiplayer racing game, perhaps with very light hand-to-hand combat. In fact, what I really wish for is a 2-player hunter/hunted versus game, or maybe a 4-player CTF game. Maybe even a multiplayer futuristic rooftop football game of some sort.

    This game concept could really benefit from the open-ended Unreal Tournament treatment. Imagine all the creative game modes the mod scene could come up with.

  12. catmorbid says:

    I can’t help but think how wonderful ME would be, if they’d stick the engine and the acrobatics into a dynamic sandbox world… I really hope they’re doing that for ME2, since all the gameplay is already in there, all they’d need to do is give it a good environment to play in. It’s a good game, but sadly not worth the money I paid for it :/

  13. fearian says:

    I have played damn near every major game of the last 6 years and mirrors edge is the most fun I have had in a long time. I cannot rember having more fun than this in a singleplayer game EVER.

    So what if you die alot? I havn’t had much of a problem with it. people say the combat sucks? I enjoy it! I love slamming into a PK from the shadows then BAM BAM BAM dropping their friends with a sniper rifle. you cant get headshots like that on the 360!

    Iv’e heard people say theres no story – its there but not in any obtrusive way that gets in front of me bouncing and swinging across glorious dysotopian rooftops in beautiful colour and warm shadows… hang on Im going to go play mirrors edge some more, brb..

  14. Tei says:

    Hi guys.
    No related-ish comment:
    Theres a mode for Warsow that is about to run around maps as fast as posible using tricks. Ok, is nothing like what seems ME run, but maybe you guys can try, If you guys are already somewhat on “speedrunning” maps.

  15. Daniel Speed says:

    I hate the shooting bits. Chasing bits, fine, even fun. Shooting bits where you’re likely to die, hate.

    I got through a lot of the game completely avoiding confrontation, and then BAM, those pipes and the 3 guys. I was so unprepared for fighting, and the fact that as far as I can see, you pretty much *have* to fight there that this really really frustrated me.

    Then there were three consecutive pipe jumps at one point, and it would never pick up the last pipe.

    Then there was the sewers area, where I had no idea where to go till I eventually found a *tiny* red button.

    The tiny red swingbar in the shopping mall, the tiny elevator button.

    The incredibly annoying bit after the falling thing, where working out where to go seemed to be something done in 5 second increments between dying.

    As I remarked to a friend, there’s nothing more annoying than a game where you’re supposed to run away, where you don’t know where to run to because of bad level design, and you’re punished for it.

    These were the bits that really annoyed me, and then there was the stupidity of the EA account for time trials, and the noted wierdness that a game about parkour does not have a mode which allows you to find your own routes somewhat, as well as the loneliness of their multiplayer modes.

  16. bitkari says:

    It’s a platform game.

  17. Dave L. says:

    “Dave L.’s comment ties into what I was thinking though, and pretty much says something I should have elaborated on (360/PS3 problems -> PC team helps 360/PS3 out the door -> less time for PC work to be done)”

    That’s it exactly. It has nothing to do with difficulty getting the PC version done, and everything to do with difficulty getting the 360 and PS3 versions done (and on time, and at the SAME time), especially since the console versions were probably the lead SKUs.

  18. Bhazor says:

    Just want to say.
    Disapointment, I fuggin called it after the first trailer.

  19. Mman says:

    Someone has managed to hack in editor support: http://on-mirrors-edge.com/forums/viewtopic.php?id=2742

    It’s supposed to be kind of unstable now, but if it’s there I’m sure someone will be able to polish it up.

  20. Heliocentric says:

    awesome sauce, wonder how robust the ai is. Adding ai drones to hastle you and this could be the best way to play the game.

  21. jsutcliffe says:

    Addendum to my earlier post:

    I finished the game, thought “hey, now time to do time trials” … and got bored after an hour. I thought they’d be more fun, but they’re so frustrating. Especially when you realise there’s really only one path to getting a good score.

    I uninstalled. Maybe if that map editor stuff yields some worthwhile maps, or if the DLC looks like it’ll be decent, I’ll give it another go, but I am now disappointed.

  22. Hypocee says:

    I bought it more for what DICE dared to try and the new things they got right than what they actually accomplished as a product. I see no conflict with my unwillingness to ever play Prince of Persia v2 which similarly aimed high and fell short LA LA LA LA.

  23. Mman says:

    “Especially when you realise there’s really only one path to getting a good score.”

    That only applies if you’re going for the world record; almost every time trial has multiple methods if you’re just going for three stars.

  24. jsutcliffe says:

    @MMan — Indeed, but three stars is hardly a good score. I’ll wager there are very few paths that’ll net you a two-star score, even.

  25. Po0py says:

    Excellent game. Not fussed that the story is flimsy and I would advise to try to avoid using guns altogether. This is not an fps game so don’t be shootin dat thing, y’hear? They shouldn’t have given us an option to shoot, thats just distracting and it confuses the noobs.

    I’m completely addicted to time trials. It’s another one of those “I’ll have one more go and then I’ll go to bed.” games. But it is not without fault. If there is an option to view how other players have acheived their high score then I haven’t figured it out yet. I would dearly love to see how young Timmy can complete a level in under thirty seconds when I can only manage one minute ten whilst busting a gut, in an aparently faultless run. Or is there foul play on the leaderboards? I suspect there is.

  26. Krelios says:

    I couldn’t disagree with this article more. While dying and repeating a sequence can be frustrating, the game itself is a masterpiece. I have loved almost every minute of almost every level and the fluidity of the controls when you really get the hang of it is fantastic. It is part FPS and part racing game and it wouldn’t be as good without both parts. The story is a bit cliched but it still compels you to play the next chapter to see what happens next, which is really all that I can ask from a cut-scene. Mirror’s Edge is amazing and I hope they do more games in the series.

  27. The Shed says:

    I still feel free-roaming would be the sweetest spot for this game’s style, even if it was limited freedom like in Thief: DS. See, in GTAIV, it got fairly dull after a while when you finished a mission and you’d have a few stars to escape from. Mirror’s Edge on the other hand, would be truly thrilling if it gave you a “mission complete” notice, then left you on your own feet to leg it from those darned cops. And what about bag-catching? In the beginning of M.E., you’re basically told that you have to do jobs to eat/ live in general. Aside from that first mission, you don’t do a runner job once. In a free-roaming layout for the game, side-missions would be a given- and runner jobs would be the perfect side mission.

    My main gripe with the “linear mission then shoddy cutscene then linear mission” level structure was that the missions never ended properly, and never clicked with the ensuing cutscene. The mission would start with you running, and end with you running, the fade to white would be rubbish. Again, a free-roaming structure would sort this right out- the move from missions to cutscene would be seamless. Like in Thief: Deadly Shadows.

  28. TheBlackJoker says:

    CAN SOMEONE HELP ME PLS!!! i love this game ( for begining) but i have some problems … after i pass the last check point in the first mission when the choper fallows me everywere , i get in the elevator and after charging game it start s all over again … what can i do ???? HELP :(((((((

  29. Skylance says:

    @TheBlackJoker

    Go to GameFAQs, dude. More than anywhere on the internet, that’s the place to ask questions like that.

  30. MacQ says:

    +1, but I don’t like the time trials. That’s because I’m not a competative guy and can’t understand the joy of repeating something til I die of boredom, just to have my nickname on a list.

    And what’s with the cheaters and why haven’t they been banned and erased yet?

  31. MacQ says:

    The +1 goes to Krelios’ post, not the article (the first post says it all about that).

  32. deuterium. says:

    This article was so wide of the mark that it’s embarassing to read.