Friday, June 26, 2009

Mirror's Edge: The In-Depth Game Autopsy (Part One)

As Mr. Keeley recently pointed out to me, my optimism in last summer's pre-release post about Mirror's Edge is a bit cringe-inducing. As I noted at the time, expectations were remarkably high for this, a game that clearly sought to break new ground in numerous ways. When the final product turned out to be, at times, disappointing and, at other times, downright infuriating, he and I quickly turned to assessing the game's successes and failures. I do not think, however, that either of our enthusiasm for the franchise has waned, as the potential for something great lives on with the promise of a sequel. For this reason, we have decided to collaborate on an in-depth, level-by-level analysis of what went right in Mirror's Edge... and what went horribly wrong.

Mr. Keeley's contributions will be presented in italics and mine in traditional font.

Prologue: The Edge

I must begin by pointing out that before I even set foot in the level, one of the game's great hypocrisies reared its head: those damn loading screens. For once, loading screens' length or frequency are not the subject of my disdain; their visual design is the irksome quality. The game's loading screens, you see, are used to provide "helpful" tips to gamers, presented under a looping animation that supposedly depicts this hint in action. The problem is, there are countless animations that show Faith, the protagonist, performing stunts whose fluidity and style surpass anything the player can ever do in-game and that, furthermore, seem to fit the game's style far better. The main area this applies to is the disarming of enemies – an area we will undoubtedly address later on in this post. So, simply keep in mind that many of the gripes we have below are repeatedly highlighted by their solutions' presence within the game's very own loading screens.


Put simply, this level is everything that is good about Mirror's Edge. The overwhelmingly affecting visual and aural style of the game washes over you from the first moment you peer into the washed out, white landscape of the city. It's an aesthetic that has not lost its novelty in the past months, as most developers still proudly tout the "subtle hints of color" their drab, uninspired shooters feature. The computer-controlled opening sequence highlights these strengths, as Faith peers into the distance and the game's striking music blends with the city's ambient sounds. Watching Faith leap across the steel canyons of the city does not only provide the enticing promise of excitement to come, but it displays the fluidity of movement that makes Mirror's Edge brim with potential.

Once control moves to the player, we meet one of the best designed areas in the game. Being able to move across these rooftop landscapes quickly and adeptly really hits home the idea of "flow" that is touted in the game's cutscenes. At this early moment, Faith is able to achieve a seamless unity with the space around her, as the objects become less like obstacles and more like tools for the art of freerunning. It is not literal freedom (why should it be?), but there is an indelible sense of freedom that comes with traversing these first few rooftops with skill. This feeling, I believe, comes from a balance that is struck in the level design: there are many obstacles, but none of them have to stop you in your tracks; many will hinder the inexperienced player at first, but none will always force you to stop.

What follows this segment is a small taste of the many hinderances that the game will use to stonewall you in later levels: doors, sealed hallways and (of course) armed guards. The reason that they do not do serious damage to the prologue is that they are fleeting and, often, avoidable. The first platforming puzzle is brief and clearly explained. The first enemies that you encounter are unprepared and can only give chase. The stumbling blocks the game throws at you here are appropriately small in dosage and add texture to the game's pacing. They also give way to a memorable climax, where Faith makes a dramatic escape hanging from a helicopter – a wonderful expression of the limitless potential that Faith's abilities hold.

Chapter One: Flight

Mr. Hollis-Lima addressed the feeling of freedom in the prologue level of Mirror’s Edge. There are very quick ways to get through the level, but first-time players may end up taking slower, more obvious routes. The game doesn’t have a “sandbox game” level of freedom, but you can run about more or less according to your style.

This fine style of play carries over to the first part of level one, but it’s also here that we begin to see some of the game’s weaknesses. After a nice invigorating rooftop jaunt, Faith finds herself inside. She runs through a few empty (as ever) corridors and hops into the first of the many elevators she will encounter in the course of her story. Surely the developers could have developed a nicer, more interesting way to load the coming portion of the level and get Faith to higher ground? You’re not able to jump or punch or otherwise do interesting things inside the elevator, so all you can do is run about, watch, your shadow, and wait. There’s some plot-related text scrolling down a computer screen in the elevator wall, but a) the plot isn’t terribly interesting and b) the text tends to repeat. Oh joy.

After the elevator ride, you get a first-person cutscene with some pretentious dialogue (“There are no accidents in this city”) before you get to flee the cops invading the building you’re in. The “runner vision” that is supposed to tell you where, generally, to go makes the first of its many disappearances here. You’ll likely die a few times just figuring out where to go. Runner vision works well enough outside, but it seems to vanish once you go indoors. Indeed, much of the game’s fun seems to go elsewhere once you step off the roofs and into buildings, ships, subways, and other such structures. Ventilation ducts too. You spend altogether too much time in the convenient runner-sized ducts that honeycomb the city. Imagine what the city's evil government could do if they cut the police budget and introduced a stipend for creating smaller ducts... Poor Faith would be screwed.

Once you get out of the ducts and on to the roofs again, you encounter one of Mirror’s Edge’s finest and most cinematic moments. As you jump onto a slanted glass roof and start sliding down, you see that a helicopter is coming in to take potshots at you. The chase continues across several rooftops, and it’s absolutely brilliant. The copter lends urgency to your parkour feats, but its attacks aren’t accurate enough that it will kill you easily. It may not be realistic, but it makes for a lot of fun.

The next building you enter features a police attack, but the game actually permits you to avoid fighting them – you sneak around them and enter the building’s elevator while their backs are turned. The level ends with an enjoyable ground-level chase – Though there are cops after you, they’re not terribly well-armed, they’re not terribly many of them, and fleeing them is a viable strategy. It’s a satisfying end to a level with some truly great moments. If only the game could have continued in this vein…

Chapter Two: Jacknife

Here begins the game's downward trend. The level picks up with Faith enjoying a momentary respite from the relentless chase – and do I ever mean momentary. After one climb over a tall fence, she is once again forced to flee from the helicopters that were omnipresent in the previous level. If the bottom of the developers' bag of tricks is already becoming visible to you, you're not alone. Repetitive and trite commands from city cops mixed with the sound of gunfire hitting metal will remain the game's primary means for creating urgency from this point forward.

This holds true as a helicopter (whose gunners have positively horrible aim) follows you most of the way down a massive vertical tunnel, after a brief bout of hallway/vent crawling. Little more than a series of pipes and platforms, this tunnel quickly grows tiresome and occasionally leaves you wondering if you are going in circles. The "runner vision" feature, however, does its job well enough here. It illustrates how these bare-bones platforming segments are mundane, but hardly the most grating aspect of the game. Besides, these are easily the most beautifully lit municipal sewage tunnels you will ever see. It really lets you know where the current regime's priorities lie.

The tunnel leads Faith to a massive... room, laden with catwalks and snipers. This area is surprisingly enjoyable, with a mostly linear design that allows you to progress quickly. One or two face-to-face encounters with snipers feel a bit cheap, as the troops' ability to beat you with their rifle is generally unhindered by your attacks. Here, Faith also encounters the true danger of the cops' perfect aim for the first time. Nothing is more comical than Faith slipping off of a fifty foot-high platform and watching two laser sights follow her the entire way down, never losing their lock.

These absurdities, however, pale in comparison to what follows your traversal back up to the surface (by way of a second, identical vertical tunnel). As the bloom effect kicks in and Faith's view is overwhelmed by white light, in creeps a tinge of red. As she stands on the rising platform that takes her on the final stretch to the surface, she is a trapped target for what can only be called the first clusterfuck of the game. (Worry not; it will not be the last.) Surrounding the mouth of this giant tunnel, in addition to armed guards, is a small enclosure of freight containers, trucks and barbed wire fences – three apparent favorites from the absurdly short list of assets (pieces of set dressing) this game features. With very little indication of where to go and very little time to figure it out before Faith is perforated, this area is the quintessential example of the level designers' unabashed disdain for the player. Searching for the exit while under fire is out of the question, so Faith is forced to stand and fight for the first time.

Here is where the game falls to pieces.

The fine folks over at EA DICE seem to believe that, while being bold in just about every respect, they had earned the right to rip parts of the level design from any old first person shooter. In other words, Faith is a square peg in this game's round hole. She is designed to run, not to fight. Hell, the loading screens even entreat you to avoid combat at all costs. Here, however, in the first of many similar monuments to non-cohesion, Faith is left with little choice.

How bad is the combat? The shotgun provides a perfect example. When in enemy hands, the it is a strong argument for Faith to run away. When in Faith's hands, it is a strong argument for the enemies to purchase firmer hair gel. Despite the sound it makes, the shotgun seems to emit a weak blast within a very narrow range of space, invariably allowing enemies to return fire and land the one or two blows needed to defeat her. Hand to hand combat is farce of equally high audacity. Defeating a single, armed enemy is fairly simple with the application of a few kicks and punches, but enemies generally travel in packs from this point on, making those few attacks impossible to execute safely (and rendering their inclusion in the game pointless). Faith's only other recourse when faced with unavoidable enemies is the exasperating disarm mechanic. Whenever she gets within a foot or two of an enemy, Faith is able to take away an enemy's firearm and incapacitate him with the precisely timed press of a button. This means forcing her to run up to the most intimidating foes and stand there, as they wind up their melee attack (in what must be slow motion) and swing their gun into the precise position needed to allow for a disarm. More often than not, Faith will get her face beaten in. More often than not, trying the same tactic again will be her only recourse. It essentially degrades all of the game's combat mechanics to a single, timed button press.

What follows this section could never compete in terms of sheer first-time frustration. (I add "first-time" because once the player is able to drag the level designers' intentions out into the light of day, the game becomes an absolute push-over. I spent most of my first playthrough in a prolonged state of rage, but I beat the game a second time in a speedy three hours.) It, however, does little to improve relations between player and game. Immediately upon exiting an elevator, Faith faces Jacknife, an ex-runner with a serious lack of humility. What this boils down to is Jacknife smugly waving to Faith at every turn, as she tries to chase him down. He's purportedly a talented runner. In reality, the game visibly warps him forward to prevent Faith from catching him. About a minute after she finds him, she chases him into an elevator where he (surprise!) smugly waves at her and the doors close a second too soon. Faith is forced to take an adjacent elevator down. (Do real freerunners make so much use of elevators?) The developers, in a bout of sheer delusion, seemed to believe that the player would be ready for a cute inside joke here, so there is muzak playing in the elevator as you stare at a blank wall for the umpteenth 30 second stretch.

Faith finally catches up to Jacknife when he knocks himself out. She must, however, traverse another rooftop playground first – one that proves that the game's grasp on the concept of "flow," even in its most basic form, is fading. Perhaps most taxing of all is swallowing the dialogue that concludes the level. Case in point: Jacknife ends each line with the knickname, "Faithy."

Chapter Three: Heat

Before I get to chapter three proper, I’d like to expand upon Matt’s comments on this game’s, um, memorable writing. Mirror’s Edge's writer is Rhianna Pratchett, the daughter of Sir Terry Pratchett, knight and author of the very fine Discworld novels. Alas, she is unlikely to receive a peerage for her writing anytime soon – The characters in the game don’t actually do much, and most of them are more or less interchangeable. In the course of Mirror’s Edge, two different runners betray Faith. I didn’t care, I wasn’t surprised, I just couldn’t remember who the second traitor was supposed to be. One hopes that future efforts from Ms. Pratchett will be better – her father wrote a few mediocre novels before he got to the really good stuff…

“Heat” gets off to a good enough start – there are dramatic jumps across rooftops, some satisfying wallrunning, and a merciful lack of police pursuit. One wishes that there were a bit more variety to the cityscape – Yes, I know the Forces of Evil want a clean and shiny city, but couldn’t we have a little more variety?

Speaking of variety, the interiors of chapter three once again feature some ventilation duct action. Are you a runner or a crawler? Sometimes I think the developers weren’t sure. Honestly, I’m pretty sure you spend more time in ducts in Mirror’s Edge than you do in the first Metal Gear Solid. Of course, duct crawling in Metal Gear helped you avoid guards, find items, and plan stealth attacks. Here, it’s just another sign of lazy design. Since I've already ranted about ducts twice, I'll try and avoid any more long discussions of them. Be assured, however, that they are present. Later in the game there are even duct mazes.

When the level’s titular “heat” appears, you don’t actually have to defeat all the cops who are chasing you. The game, in other words, works like the developers said it should.

At one point in her flight from the cops, Faith comes across a broken elevator – the elevator doors open onto the shaft, so Faith has to slide down a pipe to reach the next level of the building she’s in. It’s almost as if the developers know how annoying the elevators are… Shame they show up several more times throughout the game. Later on, there are even elevators that do not open until Faith has defeated all the (heavily-armed) enemies in the area. The game is full of other such cheap ways of making you stand and fight. Indeed, later in this level we find an area where the only way to advance is by climbing a series of pipes. As Faith climbs really slowly, the only way to survive the climb is to… kill all the enemies. As usual.

Speaking of enemies – Why are all the cops men? The plot of the game revolves around Faith’s attempt to save her sister, the cop, but I don’t believe we ever see any other female cops. Perhaps Faith’s city relegates all the other women officers to traffic control? And what does Kate’s sister think of Faith’s mass murder of cops? While you can complete the game without killing anyone, it’s rather an exercise in masochism. Faith, trying to clear her sister of a murder charge, murders dozen of police officers. Oh well…

Once you’ve killed your share of cops and climbed your share of pipes, you find an elevator. Yes! At least you get some fun parkour after it. You also get the game’s single most satisfying bit of combat – a cop runs up to you, but happens to stand to close to the edge of some scaffolding. You can knock him off the building before he even gets a chance to pistol-whip you. If only more enemies were so easily disposed of. Surely parkour offers all kinds of opportunities for entertaining environmental kills? Speaking of the environment, Faith never really gets to change anything in it - You can break the odd pane of glass, but you're never going to make any scaffolding collapse on your pursuers, nor will you be able to dislodge the most precariously-placed jump ramp. There's one exception to this rule late in the game - It comes as quite a surprise...

“Heat” ends with some more vintage Mirror’s Edge combat, though it’s theoretically possible to avoid combat here, provided you don’t mind getting shot in the back a few times. The crane-to-crane jump is pretty awesome though – If only there were more scenes like that and fewer shootouts with over-armed cops, Mirror’s Edge might be a good game.

Chapter Four: Ropeburn

Chapter four hits the ground stumbling with another misfire of the "runner vision" system. Faith is seemingly enclosed on a rooftop, surrounded by unscalable electric fences. The hint system points her to (!) the other side of the fence. The solution to this quandary is one of head-slapping simplicity, but I have yet to see a single person figure this out without spending five to ten minutes struggling with other solutions. The blame lies (apart from the obvious ineptitude of the level designers) with the broken "runner vision" system. It is more trouble than it is worth. There were at least two instances of objects turning red as Faith walked within one foot of them in this level, meaning she only received the hint once it was clear that she no longer needed it.

Upon reaching the half-finished building that is her destination (who knows why at this point), Faith is in for more hall crawling. The puzzles here are actually decent, except for one infuriating red herring that crops up shortly after entering the building. It is a narrow room that is about two stories tall. Faith is forced to drop into the bottom of it and, as she is doing so, three vertical pipes high up on the wall flicker red. To any player, this would suggest that these pipes are the key to exiting this apparent trap. A press of the circle (i.e. the hint) button, however, points Faith to a corner of the room. After close inspection (read: minutes of aimless attempts at scaling the walls), this corner has an extremely narrow opening that leads to the exit. This raises two concerns: 1) Why THE HELL did those pipes turn red? They bore no significance whatsoever. 2) Why make the exit a narrow slit in the wall? Were the developers so unsatisfied by their first attempt at artificially increasing the game's difficulty that they felt the need to make merely walking out of a room more complicated? Maybe they finally realized that it is a bit of a stretch to make every door in the city identical in appearance, so they chose to cut back on their usage of doors.

Who is up for quicktime events? Faith is! Another helping of obnoxious exposition and, suddenly, she is getting thrown off of a building by a man with poor dental hygiene. These first person cutscenes have always seemed a bit incongruous to begin with. There are already those contrived anime-style cutscenes that play between each level and Merc's incessant babbling over the radio to provide all of the lifeless dialogue one could ever want. Why do we need first person conversation, as well? I digress, however, because very little conversation takes place here. Faith is too busy repeatedly dying over another misdirecting flash of the color red. Having played this sequence countless times, I still have absolutely no idea when the button should be pressed, because hitting the it when the game says to invariably fails.

If, by some stroke of luck, one manages to rescue Faith from her cycle of death, she gets to escape by slipping past some guards who seem to prioritize taking their scripted positions over killing you. After a ride on top of an elevator (I know!) and another bizarre attempt at comedy involving a mentally handicapped janitor, Faith reaches the subways. Ah, the subways... I have to say: This game is memorable if only for its idiosyncrasies. The interior lighting here is, once again, worth noting. This is what Swedish subways must look like. In terms of gameplay, Faith begins this section with a take on Frogger for the HD era. Enemies are more likely to run into a train's path than land a shot on Faith in this segment, so she need not pay them any mind. It is all pleasant enough but, after a somewhat unintuitive puzzle involving fans, things begin to heat up.

Faith bursts onto a catwalk overlooking another train tunnel and Merc commands her to "take the train." It is a rare moment where the developers' wishes correspond perfectly with the player's. Rocketing through the mood-lit subway tunnels at fifty miles per hour is a thrill. It goes untainted by the inclusion of obstacles, too, because Faith seems to take a high speed metal bar to the face with nothing more than a grunt. After a harrowing transfer between stations, Faith's train stops dead and she is forced to run back up the tracks to a very well labeled exit, lest she become a small piece of meat in a large steel sandwich. It is an incredibly thrilling moment and it damn near makes up for the level's many deficiencies.

This feature will be continued in Part Two.

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