By using the increasingly popular free-running activity of Parkour as its theme and mixing it with a story of murder and intrigue, EA’s DICE Studio certainly deserves credit for thinking outside of the conventional box. Despite some thrills along the way though it’s an experiment that ultimately fails to provide the exhilarating and free-flowing first person action experience that we’d hoped. Mirror’s Edge is a great concept that starts off well, but doesn’t quite live up to its full potential and dazzling good looks.
By giving you control over a range of intuitive and fun-to-execute acrobatic free-running moves, Mirror’s Edge shows great promise in the initial stages as you vault impressively over fences, scale buildings, shimmy up drainpipes and make huge leaps of faith across rooftops in an attempt to smoothly traverse the sparkling and stylishly designed metropolis. However, during the first half-an-hour or so of springing, sliding and jumping across the environment you’ll have experienced practically everything, certainly all the good things anyway, that the game has to offer. The fast pace, the feeling of speed and the flowing movement of free-running that is so accurately captured in the preliminary levels also fails to filter into the latter parts of the game where the action slows down considerably before grinding to an abrupt halt at its unsatisfactory conclusion, a measly 5 to 6 hours later.
Set within the confines of a totalitarian regime, where all forms of communication are strictly monitored by the powers that be, the story of Mirror’s Edge follows Faith, a free-running courier who spends her days working above the law sprinting across the city, dodging government officials along the way in order to deliver sensitive data to a group of revolutionaries. It’s a story-line that had great potential, but even with the nicely drawn anime cut-scenes that accompany each chapter, yet never quite live up to the quality of the gorgeous in-game graphics, it soon dies its death and becomes nothing more than an irrelevant distraction and an excuse to just run around the city dodging gun-wielding officials.
When you first find yourself standing upon a rooftop high above the busy city streets, where you get a first glimpse at the massive concrete jungle of mirrored-glass-encrusted skyscrapers and brilliant white rooftops far away in the distance, it’s an impressive sight. The city looks encouragingly huge, an adventure playground for free-runners, so you’d think. However, despite a few branching paths, Mirror’s Edge is a disappointingly linear game where pathways to your goal are indicated via “Runner Vision,” red objects that highlight where you can safely jump to reach a balcony or rooftop, where you can climb up a set of ladders, grab onto a drain-pipe or scurry through a ventilation shaft.
The inside locations in particular are very restricted with set paths to follow restricting you to grabbing only onto certain ledges or smashing through particular doors. The outside locations, however, do offer a certain degree of freedom and at least allow you to make the most of the set of acrobatic moves on offer. Once you string a few actions together, which requires inch perfect timing, the feeling of speed and movement as you dive under ducts, spring into the air from ledge to ledge or zip-line from one roof-top to the next, makes for an exciting experience.
Part of the excitement is because the developer has created a sense of urgency throughout the game. You constantly have to keep on the move wherever you go at all times otherwise you get caught in a storm of bullets from government officials who burst onto rooftops and surround you at any given opportunity. Initially, this keeps the game moving and flowing and encourages you to take risks that see you taking on big jumps, which occasionally won’t pay off. However, it also works to the detriment of the gameplay and at times you’re pushed a bit too hard; you’re just not given enough time to think. If you stop for a moment to look around in order to work out where you need to go you’ll more often than not get shot. Especially later on in the game, when pathway hints become fewer, this means that you’re often forced to use trial and error to work out exactly how to reach your goal. In some sections this becomes intensely frustrating. We died half-a-dozen times trying to work out a path through a building to the exit and then when we re-spawned we simply made slow progress each time by having to remember the route we had travelled and then taking it up from the point where we’d left it.
Although the main bulk of the action is free running you can tackle the enemies head on, combat is extremely dull. The simplistic mechanics allow you to slide, jump kick or melee an opponent, but it’s a waste of time because you can simply press ‘Y’ during a small window of opportunity and disarm opponents immediately allowing you to go on your way with no threat. It feels like the enemies in Mirror’s Edge were added purely to encourage movement and speed as you try to avoid their gunfire. The elementary fight mechanics feel as though they were added hastily added as an afterthought.
As far as the free-running goes though, Mirror’s Edge get it right with a smooth control system that allows you to slide, duck, jump, grab and wall-run as you navigate the concrete jungle. Although you can string a few moves together, for example, a wall-run and then a ledge grab, there’s no complication combo moves to master, it’s simple button presses that rely totally on your timing in order to make that jump or hook onto that ledge. The initial mapping of the jump mechanic to the L2 button, rather than one of the face buttons, takes some getting use to but it’s a clever control system that uses the L2 button for all upwards actions, such as jumping and vaulting and LB for all downwards actions, such as sliding and ducking. It works well and whilst you’re leaping around the larger outside environments and stringing moves together you really do get the feeling of momentum and speed, which is exactly what DICE studios wanted to create.
Whilst Mirror’s Edge is technically superb though, it just isn’t consistent. When you’re forced to hotfoot it into inside locations they feel empty and you’re movement is restricted. The feeling of freedom and speed just disappears and it becomes more about puzzle solving and trying to work out which direction to go. We don’t mind puzzle solving, but when there’s a bunch of goons on your back constantly shooting at you it can be rather frustrating. When DICE does gets it right though, most notably in the levels where there’s a much larger area to explore and you get to experiment with your free-running moves on the objects scattered around, Mirror’s Edge is an exhilarating experience that manages to stimulate your senses with it’s eye-catching visual style.
The art style is unique, with brilliant whites contrasting with primary colors such as bold reds and deep blues. The use of mirrored-glass gives the illusion that spaces are bigger than the actually are and gives the outside locations depth and scale. Even the color schemes of the minimalist interiors work their magic on your senses as you move from dark corridors to bright open rooms and then get blasted by bright oranges, pastel greens and royal blues. Mirror’s Edge is an instantly visually appealing game that is let down somewhat by the actual level design and restricted freedom that comes as part of that. Combining free running with limp combat and puzzle solving just hasn’t quite worked.
There is hope though. Mirror’s Edge is an ambitious game and this, so we’re told, is just the first in a trilogy. Although we didn’t always enjoy this free-running action adventure it does have massive potential and we’re looking forward to seeing whether DICE can recreate the excitement of the earlier levels throughout the whole game. As it stands, Mirror’s Edge is still worth a look, but prepared to be frustrated as you’re freedom is taken away from you the further you progress.