Mirror's Edge Review
Digital Illusions, the developer behind the Battlefield series, is going way, way outside its comfort zone with Mirror's Edge. While it shares a familiar first-person perspective, the focus in Mirror's Edge is less on gunplay, or really, combat of any kind, and more on navigating your environment using acrobatics, free running, parkour, whatever you want to call it. Even if, on a fundamental level, Mirror's Edge isn't that different from a nimble third-person action game like Prince of Persia, the game's sleek, over-saturated visual style is incredibly striking, and its first-person perspective can prove quite immersive. But the game loses its momentum when it all but forces you into combat situations and when it pits you against precarious jumping puzzles, two common occurrences that turn a viscerally kinetic experience into a tedious pattern of trial and error.
Mirror's Edge takes place in the near-future metropolis of Daily City, a glimmering glass-and-steel corporate dystopia where information control has become so acute that political dissidents use special couriers called runners to relay information. You play as a runner named Faith, and the story revolves around a political assassination that's been pinned on Faith's sister Kate. From there, the game plays out like an aerobic murder mystery, though instead of fingerprints and deerstalker caps, it's lots of rooftop-running and encounters with well-armed private security. There are hints of a greater conspiracy and the high-level corruption that courses through the city, but there's a distinct disconnect between the story and the action, a fault that's exacerbated by the game's awkwardly stylized animated cutscenes. Beyond the facile “I'm just trying to skate here” antiestablishment sentiments and the whistle-clean, hyperrealistic look that comes part-and-parcel with the setting, you don't get a very deep sense for the world of Mirror's Edge.
Still, the setup is enough to justify the game's preference of flight over fight, and as a runner, Faith's mobility is her greatest asset. Basic movement works the way you'd expect from a traditional FPS, though all of her jumping and climbing abilities are streamlined into two context-sensitive buttons--one for moving up, one for moving down. The game gets a lot of mileage out of these two buttons which, in the right circumstances, can allow Faith to scramble up walls, quickly leap over short obstacles, slide down ramps and under barriers, run along walls to cross short gaps, slide down zip lines, swing across horizontal bars, shimmy up vertical pipes, and more. You can also combine some of these abilities to perform more advanced moves like the l-jump, which has you running up a wall, quickly spinning around and kicking off, hopefully landing yourself on a higher surface. It's nothing you haven't seen in a third-person action game, but the first-person perspective can make it feel incredibly exotic.
It's not all leapin' ladies, though, as Faith is regularly met by small groups of highly antagonistic guards. She can perform a few different hand-to-hand combat maneuvers, and she can acquire guns by disarming or knocking out enemies, though once she's out of ammo, she'll discard her weapon. For all her agility, Faith is pretty fragile, and on the game's normal difficulty, it only takes a couple hits to put her down. The game encourages you to avoid conflict when possible, though it's not always practical. Mirror's Edge falters when you're forced to go toe-to-toe with your foes, who are consistently tougher and stronger than you. You don't stand a chance if faced with more than one enemy at a time, and even one-on-one your chances aren't great. Disarming an enemy requires just a single button press, and while the ability to slow down time for short bursts can be helpful, it still demands such particular timing, that if you botch it on your first try, chances are you won't live long enough for a second. The game is effective at making guns seem like a crude solution to your problems--partially because they're just not fun to shoot--though there are situations where they're simply the most pragmatic.
Few first-person games have made full-body dexterity so paramount to the experience as Mirror's Edge, largely because trying to execute precise movement when you can't see your character's body is exceptionally difficult. It's a problem Mirror's Edge isn't immune to, though it goes to some lengths to put as much of Faith on screen as possible. You'll see little bits of Faith's hands pumping into your line of sight when you get a good sprint going, her legs kicking out during a jump and tucking forward during a slide. If you look straight down, you can see pretty much her whole body, making it easy to get right up on a ledge. The most helpful cue is Faith's runner vision, which highlights objects in the environment that are key to your progression in bright red. For the most part, the levels in Mirror's Edge are extremely narrow, usually offering a few minor shortcuts, though most of the time you can hold a button to snap the camera to your next objective when you get lost.
When everything is working right, Mirror's Edge is a sublimely fluid experience. All the little touches--the way the camera will rattle and Faith's breathing will intensify as she runs up to a sprint, the coolly urgent techno music that swells at the right moments--compliment the effortlessness with which Faith can move. As the game progresses, though, taking you from the rooftops of Daily City to its inner clockworks and then back again, the leaps become more death-defying and the jumping puzzles demand more precision. The margin for error shrinks, and the mechanics and perspective can't keep up. It's easy to get disoriented, particularly in tight quarters, and you simply don't have enough information to make your moves. It's frustrating when there's no discernible difference between a failed attempt and a successful one. A jump puzzle or a bunch of guards are taxing enough on their own, but it's not long before the game is throwing both at you at once, and it hardly seems like you have adequate time to figure out your next move. You end up having to throw yourself against the problem, hoping to either luck out or stumble upon the solution. These bouts of trial-and-error grind the game to a halt, though Mirror's Edge also interrupts its own flow with conspicuously long elevator rides, as well as the occasional in-level load.
Consisting of just nine chapters, most of them running well under an hour your first time through, Mirror's Edge is a fleeting experience, though you can play through time trials or speed runs separate from the story. The highs in Mirror's Edge are undeniable, and Digital Illusions deserves credit for some of the bold choices it makes here, but the first-person perspective that helps make it so singular is also its biggest liability. Momentum is the biggest strength of Mirror's Edge, and it's unfortunate that it trips over itself so often.