Friday, March 13, 2009

Game Review

Mirror's Edge (Electronic Arts/Dice)

Mirror's Edge is one of those games that you want to like more than you actually do. In some ways, it's one of the most innovative and attractive games of 2008. But in other ways, it's a frustrating experience due to some significant flaws in gameplay.

The story is set in the not-too-distant future, where The City has evolved from a vibrant, if dangerous, metropolis into a police state where all forms of electronic communication are monitored by the government. Enter the runners, a group of free-running couriers who deliver your greeting cards and love letters by jumping around rooftops. The playable character, Faith, is one such runner who returns to the job just in time to see her sister, a cop, framed for murder. What follows is a fairly simple murder mystery that's interspersed between levels where Faith is running and jumping for her life.

One of the great strengths of the game is its level design. At first glance, the levels seem rather bland, but closer inspection reveals an enormous amount of detail, especially during the rooftop segments. Moreover, unlike the linear nature of most jumping-puzzle games, Mirror's Edge usually provides multiple avenues of advance, which allows players to recover quickly if they get lost or mess up a jump. And some of the jumps are truly spectacular, giving the game a cinematic feel at points.

Character design is also excellent, and overall the game takes great advantage of the Unreal 3 engine. Cutscenes, however, are rendered in 2D artwork that is reminiscent of a graphic novel. These scenes, for the most part, move the story forward but they're not terribly memorable. The voice acting is uniformly good, and while the synth-pop soundtrack may not be to the liking of some players, it fits well with the game's aesthetic.

But frustration sets in early, usually around the time Faith fails to grab onto a ledge or pipe after 10 tries. The game demands an almost absurd level of precision for some jumps, but the first-person perspective narrows the player's field of vision and makes such precision all the more difficult. An obvious game of comparison is the recent Prince of Persia. Also a jumping-puzzle game, PoP's gameplay design made certain movements like wall-running mostly automatic, which in turn made it easy for even casual gamers to quickly become adept at controlling the Prince. Also, by shifting the camera out to a third-person perspective, PoP gave the player a greater sense of where they stood relative to their surroundings. Of course, shifting to a third-person point-of-view might take away some the cinematic feel of Mirror's Edge, but it would make the game much easier to play.

Another problematic aspect of the game is the hand-to-hand fighting. A critical move in the game's combat is the frontal disarm, which incapacitates the opponent and allows the player to steal their weapon. The timing for the disarm is tricky, especially against tougher opponents such as SWAT team members. This, in itself, is not a bad thing, and the game provides a bullet time option that should, in theory, make it easier to pull off the move. Unfortunately, the slow-mo feature does little to make combat easier, and I gave up on using it about halfway into the game. The guns in the game are fairly straightforward and work as you expect them to, but they don't really add much to the experience.

In the end, Mirror's Edge is a game that I'd recommend despite its failings. Hopefully, the game will be successful enough for Dice to make a sequel. And even more hopefully, that sequel will be the game that Mirror's Edge should have been.

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