Discussion Review: Mirror’s Edge

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Mirror’s Edge has been a polarizing force since it shipped on consoles back in November. Gamers seem to either love it or hate it, with very few meeting in the middle. So given the wide range of opinion surrounding the title, we thought a discussion review was in order. Mike tackled the recently released PC version while I’ve been parkouring it up with the PS3 version since launch day, and this week we came together to chat about our experiences and compare thoughts on the game’s most commonly polarizing aspects.

So do we love it? Do we hate it? Read on to find out!

Matt: Like most games that attempt to innovate a genre and rely heavily on being unique, Mirror’s Edge is a game that is bit undercooked in certain areas. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a great game or that it didn’t live up to all the hype, because it is and it does — at least in my eyes it does. However, opinions of the game seem to vary drastically, so I’m very interested to talk about it and see what you thought of the game, Mike.

One of the most frequent criticisms I hear is about the game’s story not being very good. In some ways I would concur with this because there really is no depth to the plot or truly significant character development, but for this type of game I really didn’t care. The story spins a compelling video game yarn with the depth of a standard anime cartoon — as seen in the cool anime cut scenes used to push the narrative forward in each chapter — and to me that’s all it needed to do. This is a game about speed and freedom of movement, so if the plot was too heavy handed there would’ve been some danger of cut scenes and dialogue interrupting the pacing. Would I have liked a more dynamic storyline? Sure. But I enjoyed the story that was told, thought the voice acting was solid, and overall liked Faith as a new star character to build a franchise around.

Another complaint I’ve often heard is how confusing the level designs are, leading to many moments stuck not knowing which direction to go in. This baffles me. For one, the game users a guidance technique called Runner Vision in which all interactive objects directly ahead of you glow a bright red. As further backup, you can hold down a button that automatically pans and focuses the camera in the direction you are supposed to go. So I find it hard to believe that so many players had so much trouble figuring out where to go. I can only think of one or maybe two times where I was stumped on how to proceed past a certain area, but that was early on when I was still grasping how to utilize the environment to get around.

Frankly, I thought the levels were designed quite intelligently myself. Certainly not as open-ended as I was expecting, which was a little disappointing, but there always seemed to be a couple different ways to get from point A to point B, and I enjoyed experimenting with different methods of completing the objective at hand, even if it meant having to die and retry a few times.

Mike: Before I answer your questions, I wanted to talk about the game itself a bit. While it seems that folks like Matt know everything about every upcoming game, as someone who has written a weekly ‘new game releases’ column for a couple of different places for more than a couple of years now, let me tell you that every game writer is prone to two things: bandwidth overload and platform myopia. Since we’ve just gotten out of the fall release season, the ‘bandwidth overload’ should be pretty apparent – games like my recent review of Robocalypse flew completely under the radar for most gamers and there are just not enough hours in the day for bloggers to pay adequate attention to every new release.

That brings me to the second – platform myopia. What I mean there is that given the deluge of information, it is only possible to focus on so many things. For myself, that means paying attention to upcoming releases for the PC, Mac, DS, PSP and iPhone. Of course there are exceptions, but for me they are genre exceptions – I will tend to follow ‘western’ RPG’s on any platform, such as Fable 2. What this means, of course, is that the only brain-space Mirror’s Edge got from me was to note that it was an action platformer for the PS3 and XBOX360 getting some very mixed reviews. I had barely registered that there was a PC release when Matt invited me to do a cross-platform discussion review with him! The upside of that is I entered the game with little knowledge and no pre-conceived notions.

My initial concern given the little I *did* know about the game – that it involved platforming-like movement and was released on the XBOX360 and PS3 a couple of months before the PC – caused my ‘consolitis’ sniffer to become active. Basically, I was concerned that the game would feel like a shoddily ported console experience where all of the interface and interaction items would seem clearly designed for a controller and be cumbersome for a keyboard and mouse. I was relieved and thrilled that wasn’t the case here – the game was nicely adapted for the PC in a way that felt like it was designed for the system. Nevertheless, after spending time with both the X360 controller and keyboard & mouse, I settled on the controller as I had more success (read: less wind in my hair plummeting to my death) that way.

Sometimes it is really cool to step just outside of your comfort zone and play something that uses some pre-existing skills but does so in a different way than usual. That is how I felt way back when playing the game Oni. It was recommended to me based on the gameplay, and while it was far outside of the FPS-centric gaming I was doing, I found it to be a complete blast to play. The same is true with Mirror’s Edge. It is not the sort of game I would seek out or actively track, but it is the type that I am glad I played. And despite all of the flaws I found, and the fact that the replayability isn’t great, that is all that matters.

To more directly answer some of your questions, I think that the game is essentially devoid of all but the lightest-weight plot. But again, that didn’t matter to me. Think of a game like Painkiller (recently released on Good Old Games, by the way): there is a quick intro that sets the scene and the rest is about running & gunning your way from room to room. In that case, if the gameplay fell short, you wouldn’t complain about the story! The same is true here: with all of the cool stuff that draws you in, the thin story and ‘cardboard cutout’ characters are the last thing on my mind.

So what are the first things on my mind? Well, I loved the style – such as the way the game switches seamlessly between an anime look at highly detailed 3D world view, for example. Everything about the presentation plays into that style – graphics are super-bright, people are all cool looking and things look very much like the ‘parkour’ things I’ve watched in the past on YouTube. As for the levels, they remind me of some puzzle and adventure games have played through the years – you get a start and end point with some hints along the way. There are always silly and unrealistic elements required to make the overall environment support the gameplay, but I never found anything overly objectionable. The Runner Vision guides generally work quite well, as does the ability to see your goal by pressing a button – but it is still possible to get lost, partly because of the complexity of some segments, and partly because you will almost always have enemies harassing you. Which brings me to the combat …

I really am not a big fan of the combat system, and that remains my biggest complaint with the game. In a game that feels like is should be much more centered around the speed and and jumping and puzzle solving elements, there was entirely too much time spent dealing with combat, and worse yet the systems aren’t so hot. The tutorial helps you with the hand-to-hand combat, disarming foes, and so on, but by the middle of the game you will will find yourself mired down by enemies at every turn, and while you wouldn’t expect Faith to be the next B. J. Blazkowicz, she can barely hit anything while only sustaining a few hits before dying. And the rationale behind much of the combat is never explained and makes little sense … but then again, it isn’t fair for me to not care about the lack of plot when I like the game and suddenly care about it when I don’t!

Matt: Great points all around.

For a game like Mirror’s Edge, it probably is best that you didn’t follow it much. I think part of what has led to so many mixed views has been the level of hype it had building up to its release and the fact that it didn’t quite meet what many players may have expected from it (on the mainstream side I think some folks were probably even wooed by the flashy visuals without realizing what type of game it really was). But then again, it had been one of my top most wanted games since the moment it was announced, and except for a few areas it still managed to live up to my sky-high expectations. I never put unrealistic expectations on any game though. I am the type of person who can look at screenshots or watch a trailer and know instantly whether or not I’ll enjoy a game (same thing with movie trailers), but I pride myself on being able to block out pre-conceived notions I may have personally or may have heard from outside sources before I go into playing a game for the first time.

If you were following along leading up to Mirror’s Edge‘s release and how often I drooled over new trailers and whatnot, it goes without saying that I knew I would love the game the very instant I laid eyes on that breathtaking unveil trailer way back when even if the final product had some glaring flaws. Which it does.

You touched on a couple of those flaws, the biggest, I agree, is definitely the combat design. I actually enjoyed the combat in the early stages of the game because in many instances you are at least afforded the choice to engage the enemy or flee, which adds an extra layer of tension to the thrilling parkour gameplay. Running and slide-kicking (or jump-kicking) into an enemy to knock them off balance before sprinting by them while they were stunned was a trick I learned to use often. But unfortunately combat situations become unavoidable too often later on in the game to the point where the pacing starts to veer off track. That’s a key flaw too, because when you get the chance to just freely flow through the environments, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, hopping fences and sliding under overhanging pipes Mirror’s Edge is as exhilarating a gaming experience as I’ve ever played. And the chase/flee sequences… oh they are so amazing, be it moments when you’ve got an attack chopper hot on your trail or another runner attempting to out-parkour you in an attempt to get away.

I’m glad to hear the PC version turned out so well, and is not another half-assed PC port like so many other recent multi-platform games (GTA IV and Saints Row 2, I’m looking at you two!). I still have a hard time believing that a first-person platforming game like this could handle well with a mouse and keyboard, but that’s probably just because I’m more of a console gamer and simply find any game that’s not an RPG or FPS difficult to manage without a controller in my hands. And I must say, Mirror’s Edge is fairly complex with its control scheme. Not awkward to where it detracts from the game, but enough of a challenge to maybe scare off the more casual type of gamer who just wants to pick up a game and instantly be able to enjoy themselves. Some of the parkour strings you have to pull off are tricky, and you do have to put in some effort to acclimate yourself to how Mirror’s Edge plays since it is so very different from any other game out right now. Personally, I like games that I have to sort of “learn” how to play, but I know many folks don’t so it’s all a matter of taste.

I’d also like to expound more on the subject of style. Mirror’s Edge is as stylized a game as you’ll ever come across. The contrasting color palette of bright neon colors on top of pristine white surfaces gives the game world this surreal quality that perfectly represents the whole Utopian cityscape vibe of the game world the developers were clearly striving to create. I appreciated the subtlety of the camerawork and HUD-less presentation as well. You can see Faith’s arms and legs flailing in front of you on long jumps; on rolls you see the surrounding environment flip by; and when leaping to a climbable pole attached to the side of a building there’s this tactile jarring sensation that conveys the physically demanding nature of the feat. The audio design is brilliant too and goes hand in hand with these visual elements to heighten the immersion. Things like Faith’s breathing and grunts of exertion, the wind whizzing by as you run and jump, and the buzz of Faith’s gloves scraping along a zipline. I adore the soundtrack too. The title track “Still Alive” has been in heavy circulation on my iPod since hearing it for the first time in the unveil trailer.

I also wanted to discuss something else you briefly touched on: the replayability factor. Lack of replay value is another one of the criticsms I’ve heard quite a bit and strongly oppose. While the story mode is pretty short — maybe 6-8 hours tops — it is very replayable. I’ve played through the story twice so far, and occasionally still drop in now and then to go after the runner bags that are hidden in each chapter. On top of that, you can do speed runs through each chapter, and there is an extensive time trial mode completely seperate from the storyline. In fact, the time trial mode may be the best part of the game altogether since it’s all about completing various parkour runs and comparing run times with other players. EA is already beginning to expand upon the time trials as well with a new DLC map pack coming up next month (and an exclusive map that just came out for the PS3 version — tried it last night and the new environment is crazy cool!). To me, Mirror’s Edge is bursting with replay value. I’d be playing it so much more if there weren’t so many other games I still need to plow through.

Mike: I was also surprised at how well the game translated to the PC. Personally, I naturally adapt to the keyboard & mouse better than a controller – but that is MY personal bias! Nonetheless, for games like Top Spin and Tomb Raider, among others, there is no beating a controller. This one was a bit of a quandary for me – I have been playing first person games with keyboard & mouse for many years, and was recently working through a section of Arx Fatalis that requires some tricky jumps. Mirror’s Edge *can* be played that way successfully. But as you say, there are some tricky combo moves that involve series of button presses that are almost ‘chords’, and occasionally they just felt unnatural on the keyboard. I never found that on the controller – despite the fact that I feel on the low end of a learning curve every time I pick it up!

Since writing my review notes I have checked out some reviews at other places, and like you say – they are all over the place! Some praise the PC controls transition, others deride it! Yet I can see both points – the game can be tough and unforgiving (especially in ‘difficult’ mode … I was constantly lost without Runner Vision!), and that combined with the roughness of the combat system can make it seem like the controls are to blame. But I honestly feel that for a game of this type the developers did a really good job of making the PC version as playable as possible with the keyboard & mouse, and adapted the interface to the point that it doesn’t feel like the lousy PC ports you mentioned (or Fallout 3 for that matter – but we can’t go there again!).

You really keyed into the combat, which for me hinges on the phrase “adds an extra layer of tension to the thrilling parkour gameplay”. As you say, early on – and occasionally throughout – it really does that, balances nicely, and enhanced the game. But later on, just like you say, the combat begins to interfere with the core gameplay – and not in a good way. I think of it like balancing classes in a RPG: you have to ensure that you allow the player to focus on the things you are telling them are most important and not put too much junk in their way. And that is how the combat fails for me – I am a very good FPS player, and am pretty good at all action-combat games in general. So I don’t mind that there is significant combat … it is just that I found the combat mechanics fairly weak – some of the moves were cool, as you say, but actually trying to kill stuff wasn’t so good – and too much focus and time was spent trying to stay alive in the face of combat situations that it took me out of the core parkour fun I was having. And that is a real shame. So perhaps my complaint is more about the lousy balance between combat to parkour.

As for replayability, I am taking the broad view – because every game that is fun and challenging is inherently replayable. Heck, I have played Tetris for more than two decades but still love it, and own seven versions of Puzzle Quest! But, for example, when you look at an action-RPG, if the classes all play more of less the same then the replayability is diminished. Similarly, if there is no multiplayer in a game that seems built for multiplayer then replayability is also limited. Mirror’s Edge has a fairly short (my play took about 6 hours) single player mode which unlocks speed tests and time trials. Those are fun, and it is also fun to go back and play the main parts of the game again – and I’m sure I will do that some day. It is a unique experience and therefore not like too many short shooters and action games that are only good for a single quick run and then never touched again.

Sadly, the PC version doesn’t offer a demo for some strange reason … so that makes it a harder recommendation for me. For the XBOX360 & PS3 my recommendation is to definitely try the demo … but on the PC I suppose the best approach is to check out some of the videos posted here (check back through our Mirror’s Edge archives for TONS of footage) and see if the style looks appealing. If it does – and if you have ever watched parkour videos on YouTube then you will not be disappointed.

I guess that really sums up my thoughts – Mirror’s Edge is a unique experience, but is that enough? Based on the concept alone I would say ‘yes’, but ultimately I found the game to be better in concept than execution. I could easily forgive the lack of depth in story and characters, and even some of the roughness of combat, and the lack of any replay beyond a couple of unlockables and repeating the game. But adding them all up changes my recommendation somewhat. I believe that everyone should give this game a fair shot instead of dismissing it based on the mixed reviews.

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Matt: Yep, I’d say you hit the nail on the head. The combat problems are more an issue of balance than anything else. Sure, the combat and gunplay mechanics are kinda clumsy, but when the choice is given to you to engage the enemy or not it all works harmoniously. The clumsy feel plays to the realism that Faith is a runner not a fighter, so it makes sense that she isn’t able to easily beat down armored guards strapped with guns. But again, too often you are FORCED to confront your attackers, and at these times the weaknesses in the combat design rear their ugly heads.

For me, the unique factor ultimately carries Mirror’s Edge a long way — a long way indeed because it may just be my personal favorite game of 2008. I’ll gladly take a game that is maybe a bit rough around the edges but at least attempts to break new ground over some “me-too” shooter or unimaginative sequel. It’s also just an incredibly fun, stylish platformer, so all things considered it gets a solid “Buy It!” nod from me.

Hopefully now that EA DICE have the core engine and technology in place they get a crack at a sequel and totally let loose with the parkour mechanics and put additional effort into fleshing out a deeper narrative and Faith as a character. I for one will be waiting on pins and needles for that day to come.

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Pros:
+ Unique and exhilarating first-person parkour platforming
+ Incredibly stylized art design – the game’s look just oozes cool
+ Superb audio design
+ Smart level designs
+ Time trials, speed runs and other bonuses add great replay value
+ Skill-based controls and stiff challenge should please hardcore gamers

Cons:
– So-so combat mechanics
– Poor parkour-to-combat balance
– Story is decent but could have been fleshed out more
– Limited accessibility — trial and error and complex controls not for everyone

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3 and PC, also available for Xbox 360
Publisher: EA
Developer: EA DICE
Release Date: 11/11/08 (PS3, Xbox 360), 1/13/09 (PC)
Genre: First-Person Action/Platformer
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!