Horror Is a personal thing. For some BioShock's syringewielding Little Sisters cause shudders. To others Dead Space's attacking when sliced-and-diced mutants cause their bile to churn. Meanwhile gamers old enough to remember SHODAN shudder at the sound of a stuttering contralto. But the game that terrifies me is Mirror's Edge.
Really, this game shouldn't generate any sort of dread: its City is antiseptically clean and blindingly shiny; the gameplay is practically gore-free; and the trance soundtrack is unable to cause tension. Yet if I play this game for more than a minute, my sweaty palms cause my hands to slip off my controller, and my heart tries to pound out of my ribcage. Really, I shouldn't be surprised by these affects - you see, I'm acrophobic.
I can't use a stepladder, let alone stand on a chair, without quaking. Occasionally I've woken screaming, due to dreams that I'm falling off a skyscraper.
Yet in Mirror's Edge I take on the role of Faith, who uses parkour to bound across rooftops.
Now thanks to DICE, I've spent the last few days watching skyscraper windows flash before my eyes as I slip from a ledge, and listening to all-too-realistic sounds of bones crunching and flesh splattering as Faith strikes concrete.
This game plays out my nightmares in front of my eyes. Worse - it's forcing me to take part in my nightmares.
Stopping playing should be the sensible thing to do, but it appears there's something positive about this experience. I'm roughly halfway through the game, but now my palms are distinctly less sweaty, my breathing is less laboured, and my shivering is reduced when I play. In short, the more I play Mirror's Edge, the more my phobia seems to be fading.
I doubt you'll ever see me tracing along London's rooftops, but Faith's suffering could mean that stepladders won't terrify me any more.
Download Mirror's Edge
I'll Be Honest and tell you right now this is one of the trickiest reviews I've had to write for a substantial period of time. You see, Mirror's Edge is a game that will (and has) split the community down the middle. I can imagine the comment pages on various websites right now, the fevered defence of the fanboys and sarcastic jibes of the trolls. The thing is, both of these groups are right in their own way. Every good point is balanced out by a bad one, every thrilling escape from the 'blues' (cops) matched by an infuriatingly placed checkpoint.
Mirror's Edge involves a young woman (Faith) struggling to clear her cop sister (Kate) of a murder charge. A mayoral candidate has been executed in his office, the murder weapon being Kate's gun. Faith is on the opposite side of the law, part of a group of 'runners' -couriers who deliver secret messages by the rooftops of the city, thereby evading the Big Brother-style surveillance of the ruling totalitarian regime.
You do this by running and jumping a substantial amount, and when you get into the flow of things, all this athletics is really exhilarating. When the bullets are flying and the police are hot on your heels, there's a distinct feeling of pressure, panic and excitement that builds up as you get closer to that big jump onto the next building. Elation follows when you've cleared that final hurdle by the skin of your teeth, but herein lies the game's first problem.
If you don't make that hurdle, you're left to the mercy of the checkpoint system. Now, I've never been an advocate of checkpoints, much preferring the good old quicksave Some say it makes games too easy, I say you don't have to actually use it if you think that's the case. Certainly, Mirror's Edge could have been improved by the presence of an easily tapped F5 at an opportune moment Tire problem with arbitrary checkpoints is that they have to be placed perfectly to be effective. If they aren't frustrations quickly mount up and mice get thrown out the window.
One of the things most likely to put someone off a game as a result of this is being forced to repeat the same section time after time. In a title like Mirror's Edge, where the excitement and thrill of the chase is the primary ingredient doing the same bit again completely negates that. Due to the uneven dispersal of the checkpoints, you often have to start a substantial distance away from the place you died and, if this happens to be a tricky part (there's a group of cops or a helicopter shooting at you, for example) you're going to be quickly grinding those teeth down to bloody stumps.
This is where Mirror's Edge's signposted linearity becomes both a blessing and a curse. You see. when you're running away from gun-toting police officers, you have mere seconds to decide which direction to run. The advantage of Mirror's Edge's linear model is that, most of the time, you know exactly where to go and everything clicks into place to produce brilliant action sequences. The game is at its very best when the split-second decisions go your way, when you make that leap between speeding trains or smash through the door just in time to avoid being cut to pieces by gun fire.
Where the linear model falls flat on its face is when things aren't immediately obvious, leading to moments of confused frustration as you're trying to figure out where to go as the cops are shooting you up. Couple this with the awkward checkpoints and you have a recipe for disaster. There's also no option to quickly restart from the last checkpoint (at least none that I saw), which can lead to problems when you clear one in the middle of a difficult section, but then mess up afterwards, falling back down or regressing to a point before the checkpoint. In the trickier platforming sections towards the end, you either have to do them all again or quit to the main menu and reload that way, which is hardly ideal. Thankfully, these moments don't occur too often (though, as you'd expect, the further you go, the more likely they are to crop up). Usually, Runner Vision guides you in the right direction. Runner Vision (not available on the hardest difficulty) highlights important areas of the landscape that you can use to jump off, cling on to or manipulate by colouring them in (usually bright red). It isn't a foolproof system though - sometimes the important areas aren't highlighted at all, which can be frustrating when indoors. The danger with the Runner Vision feature is that it can make the game feel too linear, like it is on rails, but as we saw above, by having these signposts all over the place, you at least avoid the frustration of getting lost and dying repeatedly.
Runner Vision is one of the most prominent examples of Mirror's Edge's unique visual style. As you can see from the screenshots, the environments are post-modern in their stark colour schemes. At first, you'll be worried that all you'll do is play about on rooftops, surrounded by the gleaming white buildings and primary coloured Runner Vision objects. Thankfully, DICE have done a good job of varying the design of the locations, while sticking to their 'slabs of colour' template. It really does make for some striking visuals, even when indoors, which makes a refreshing change from most games. What you will also notice is how resolutely clean everything is - even the sewers are devoid of dirt or grime.
The lack of visual clutter means the game will perform really well on midrange machines, even with a smidge of anti-aliasing chucked in. The slab-like nature of the colours and architectural design makes anti-aliasing particularly important, as crisp edges make the visuals look a lot more impressive. That said, I did get one or two moments of inexplicable system crunching at random times and I couldn't find a way of un-letterboxing the game, but on the whole, things ran as smooth as silk. Having it in letterbox wasn't a hassle either - in fact, I didn't even notice it until somebody pointed it out.
As a first-person game, there are also a few moments when you're forced to fight back against the cops, mainly through hand-to-hand combat and disarming moves. When your crosshair turns blue, you have access to a bullet time-esque slo-mo ability, which makes it much easier to time your attacks and disarm your opponents. If you do succeed in stealing a gun, you can use it to defend yourself for a short period.
What you can't do is pick weapons up off the floor or obtain extra ammunition for the one you are holding. This might annoy some, but the game wouldn't really work if you were allowed to tote weaponry around all over the place. One of the best things about Mirror's Edge is that it makes you not want to kill the police - all you want to do is have it away on your toes. In any case, you'd also miss out on the opportunity to deliver a flying kick to a cop and send him flying off a building.
Once you do get into hand-to-hand combat, you can deliver punches to the face, crouch-punches to the groin if you duck or various flying/sliding kicks depending on your momentum. You can even wall-kick by jumping off a wall, spinning and then executing a flying kick. It would have been interesting to see a Riddick-esque system employed, with more context-sensitive moves and actions available, but you usually don't want to get anywhere near the police, so it isn't really something you ever truly miss. Most of the time, combat is actually a bit fiddly and you'll often end up being killed while faffing about trying to pull off a move. Curiously, Faith can also get hit by more bullets than she can take violent shoves from the enemy.
Fortunately, the rest of the game feels perfectly suited to the mouse and keys, which is good news to us PC players. DICE haven't ignored those of us who have a particular disdain for using pads and Mirror's Edge is perfectly playable without one. I'd even go so far as to say it was better, but that's purely a matter of personal choice. What is certain is that movement is smooth and natural and you'll soon be leaping off buildings with the best of them. You won't necessarily be doing it for very long, though. Mirror's Edge is definitely on the short side, with approximately seven hours or so to get through before you reach the end. It's possible to finish the game in two sittings if you really burn through it Once you've finished the single-player mode, you can venture online to compete for supremacy on the Time Attack leaderboards, but that's about it. Yes, there are hidden items to collect and secret paths to discover, plus a hard mode that gets unlocked, but you've basically had your lot once you finish it.
Some will doubtless complain about this and may be justified in asking why they spent $25 for a few hours of jumping about On the other hand, if you doubled the content in Mirror's Edge, you'd probably find you were getting bored halfway. At the moment, seven or so hours feels about right. After all, there's only so many times you can jump from building to building before the novelty wears thin. That said, given that DICE are aiming for Mirror's Edge to be the first in a trilogy, the more cynical could be forgiven for thinking the game has been artificially shortened to keep the player wanting more from the next game.
The story is also a bit patchy, at least in its execution. While the idea of a squadron of high-flying runners skipping merrily across the rooftops is a good one (although it does get a bit cliched at times), the game never lets the player get involved with this. You only get one 'normal' mission before Faith's sister is set up and you embark on a series of regular missions would have been nice to play through before the main story kicked in, just so we could explore the surrounding world a bit more. You don't feel connected to the story as much as you should as you rarely enter the world that gives the plot context. Without context, there's little reason to care what happens to Faith's sister. It's a shame, because, as I say, there's an interesting world out there to explore - we just don't get a chance to do it.
Cut Below Average
The inter-mission cutscenes aren't done very well either, not grabbing the attention of the player or making them eager to reach the next one. What you want to do is get back to the action instead of watching them, which is a sad indictment of the failure to connect the player with the events around them.
The action often feels disconnected from what you're trying to achieve. In one mission, you have to find a person called Jacknife, a former runner. Unfortunately, there isn't really anything differentiating this mission from any other, other than the bit at the end where you chase him. Yes, environments change and you visit new areas, but you could just as easily take the level out of the game, isolate it and you'd have exactly the same experience playing it 'out of context' as you did before. The plot is essentially irrelevant when playing the game and, considering a lot has been made of the story, it's disappointing when you realise it. It's not even the plot that is the problem, more that the action never feels connected to it.
Mirror's Edge is a good game, no question, but sadly it doesn't deserve to be recommended. Much as I was thrilled by the action, I was equally nonplussed by the lack of emotional connection to the characters and the plot. There's a lot of potential here if DICE can put the action into context - perhaps make all the cutscenes in-engine and allow us to fully take in what Faith does rather than have it read to us in K staid animated sequences. You won't be disappointed if you do decide to shell out for Mirror's Edge, but neither will you be playing it in a few months. There's a classic game here waiting to get out. Let's hope DICE can unearth it next time.
And no, you can't see Faith's breasts if you look down.
Ea's First-Person definitely-not-a-shoot-'em-up dropped in November for those plucky Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 owners. It underperformed despite its starkly original concept, due to it being released alongside thousands of other games and not being set in WWII.
Hopefully the extra time is to fully optimise the game for PC, as nothing will hurt it more than a shoddy porting (EA's Dead Space, anyone?). Still, precise first-person controls are what the PC is made for and being precise is what Mirror's Edge is all about. An inch away from that pipe you jumped to? Tough shit, you fall to your death, you try again. Some decent mouse control would work wonders.
There have been plenty of grumbles about the linearity, the shortness and the general lack of replayability beyond Time Trials. Nevertheless it's a really fun and imaginative game and deserves to be played for daring to be original.
When a company reboots a franchise after only one game, I get a little nervous. Especially when it's Mirror's Edge, a title I loved but one that didn't quite catch on with the masses. To be fair, early teases hint at a world that could look utterly gorgeous on those new consoles, and thankfully, not a hint of Faith wielding a gun can be seen a decision I'm afraid might not end up sticking.