Wednesday, July 1, 2009

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

This post is preceded by Part One of the feature on Mirror's Edge. Mr. Keeley's contributions will again be presented in italics and mine in traditional font.

Chapter Five: New Eden

Near the beginning of this level, Faith has to run across yet another set of tracks. Her friend Merc, who provides audio advice to Faith throughout the game, suggests that Our Heroine look for a particular access stairway that she might "get back on to the roofs where [she] belongs." If only the developers understood Mirror's Edge as much as their characters do. While there are some good non-roof portions of the game, Mirror's Edge is at its best when the player is doing open-air acrobatics. While I have no doubt that there is potential for good "ground-based" parkour gameplay, there's precious little of it in this game. Hallways and elevators are not good.

Chapter Five actually features some very good platforming and freerunning in its early stages; alas, it also has what may be the most frustrating and ill-conceived setpiece in the whole game. Parkour in a mall is potentially interesting and fun. Parkour in a mall is markedly less fun when said mall is a) empty of civilians and b) full of heavily armed policemen. Despite what speedrun videos may show you, it is next to impossible to escape without "neutralizing" all the enemies, especially if you don't already know the level like the back of your hand. Though the enemies may be standing thirty feet below Faith's leap to a ventilation duct and safety, these cops have incredible aim; they will kill you many times. It was during the mall sequence that I decided to stop playing as a pacifist - I shot the cops and I liked it. Or, if I didn't like it, I at least preferred it to engaging in the game's awful hand-to-hand combat. The police in Mirror's Edge can take a flying kick without flinching, provided they lift their guns to their chest to shield themselves. If Faith's foot hits this gun, Faith loses half her health. The guards are very quick with their gun-blocking.

I should perhaps point out that the level is called "New Eden" because the mall is. Naming a shopping center "New Eden" - What a brilliant and scathing critique of consumerism.

In one portion of the mall, Faith has to turn off a deadly fan blocking the entrance to a duct. These fans are great - You have to wait until they are entirely stopped, or touching them will instantly kill you. In another level, I made the mistake of stepping into one that was down to about one rotation every five seconds. It killed me. Sweet Mirror's Edge logic.

Chapter Six: Pirandello Kruger

I'll kick this segment off with another nugget that comes courtesy of the loading screen: The game urges players to isolate individual enemies, making them easier to dispatch. This concept stuck with me as I traversed the level – in an amazed, negative sort of way, of course. Not only is Faith put in a number of situations where she has multiple enemies with clear shots on her, but those enemies often refuse to move an inch. Perhaps it is just me, but attempting to isolate armed, immobile enemies who happen to be in wide open spaces seems counterintuitive. Thanks, loading screen!

This level kicks off with some solid rooftop action but, as so many of them have thus far, it stumbles quickly. The first enemy Faith encounters is distracted by some mundane conversation over his radio. (They try to give these guys personality six levels in? Let's cut our losses and stick to "Go! Go! Go!" and "Move! Move! Move!" please.) This provides an opportunity for an easy disarm, and a moment for Faith to realize that she is now the target of two other snipers who stand across the way. They, and their cohorts on the ground, can all be dealt with by way of the rifle Faith has just acquired, assuming the player had enough time to figure out its controls. Thankfully, all enemies seem to slump to the ground when shot by this gun, regardless of where they are hit. If the player is profoundly stupid and is attempting to beat the game without the aid of firearms, this area is quite the bitch. Needless to say, trial and error is the only solution.

What makes this area truly rant-worthy, however, is yet another "runner vision" mishap. (I am beginning to think that Faith may need an optometrist.) There is a red door on the building that is directly across from Faith's sniper nest. It is very high up, but not so high that all players will declare it unreachable. Predictably, there is another red door tucked away at ground level, but that's hard to see when the area is teeming with enemies. This, more than anything else in the game, cannot be anything other than a sadistic joke. That high door is unreachable, and Faith never ends up there later in the level. It need not exist, but it does. My conclusion is that its only purpose can be the torture of players.

It will not take one long after entering the building before they realize that Faith has entered (wait for it) the obligatory Factory Level. So much for breaking new ground. They were doing so well, otherwise... Sharp-eyed players will notice that the entrance is filled with the nondescript "Mr. Tronik" boxes that litter the game. Apparently, they manufacture generic video game assets here. Wait, but it is actually the home of Pirandello Kruger, the crooked security company that has way too much power. ...So, why do they need a labyrinthine factory filled with armed soldiers? Maybe, like the person who placed that door on the roof, they are just assholes like that.

A few minutes into the factory, another headache-inducing room full of enemies comes along. This time, they populate catwalks above a stockroom. The most comical aspect of this setup is the fact that the men tend to open fire on Faith before she enters the room. As if this were not unfair enough, Faith must vault up to the catwalks before she can lay a hand on any of them. With their godlike aim undaunted, Faith must make an absolutely flawless climb for and disarm of the first enemy for any chance at survival. With the proper exit again proving elusive, the remaining pair of enemies must be dealt with as well. Their refusal to move from their initial position makes both charging them and shooting them from any reasonable distance impossible. Arbitrarily throw in the game's first exploding barrels, and we have another classic Mirror's Edge stonewall.

On, however, presses Faith. After some solid platforming, she comes across a confounding room where hitting an elevator switch creates no apparent results. There is an unmarked hole hidden at the bottom of the shaft. (Your constant failures are beginning to bore me, "runner vision.") The hole drops Faith into some particularly clandestine-looking hallways. I smell a plot point! She finds a slick room full of LCD screens. Tap-tap on the keyboard and... apparently, someone wants to kill the runners.

Uh, okay. Thanks for the heads up.

Out bursts a bunch of cops who seem far fonder of motion than their predecessors. They chase Faith through a giant gymnasium and back onto the city's roofs. (Thank God.) It is all pretty fun. Punching out windows and jumping between buildings is certainly a welcome twist, too. Suddenly, Faith hits a dead end; she is cornered at the end of a building with only elevated train tracks before her, a few stories down. It is clearly not a safe jump, but Merc pushes you: "Hitch a ride, girl." So, Faith lands, ass first, on the roof of a moving train that is passing by about fifty feet down. I am not sure if this moment is a result of one, bad idea or a lack of ideas, but either way, it seems a bit insulting. Why, at this singular point in the game, is this a safe jump? Forget what reality dictates; what about the rules within the game? Trains have been established as safe to ride, yes, but fifty-foot leaps? Eh, I suppose that complaining about the contrivances of contextual events in this game is not really fair when the general rules of the game are inconsistent to begin with.

Chapter Seven: The Boat

Short Version:
Faith sneaks a ride onto a plot-significant boat. Gamers regret it.

Long Version:
I suppose it was nice of the developers to try and mix up the environments a bit, to offer some variety. Unfortunately, this is a pretty miserable level. Mirror's Edge should be about speed and grace, not gunfights in dank ships. I especially like the doors that take forever to open - these doors force you to fight your pursuers. Who are more heavily-armed than usual. Yes!

Victory over your foes brings you a long and slow bout of duct-crawling, pipe-climbing, and ledge-shimmying. Also more entirely unnecessary slow doors. Because speed, interest, and half-decent level design are overrated.

Once you get on the boat's deck, you have to avoid attacks from a sniper. This is actually fairly interesting, though it doesn't make up for the utter tedium of the rest of the level. The fight with your attacker also brings home just how ridiculously bad this game's combat system is - Your attacks are limited, the physics are unrealistic, and your enemies show very little sign of taking damage. Once you beat your attacker and they flee, you get a half-decent chase through the boat. It's actually kind of neat. Too bad the level ends with another fist fight, after which your foe is revealed as Someone You Know. Considering that this character has little to no prior purpose in the game, it's hardly shocking that she betrays you.

"The Boat" may not be the most irritating level in the game, but it may be the most tedious. Who greenlit this waste of everyone's time?

Chapter Eight: Kate

Another bit of quality platforming kicks off this level, and the incessant hail of gunfire that follows Faith has a welcome replacement here: the soft footsteps of three runner-cops on her tail. It makes the platforming legitimately urgent and generally fun, although the tazer attack that they use when in close range is more annoying than anything else. Once the enemies are left behind, traversing an exterior elevator shaft and some hanging crates is a bit more of a pain than it should be, but the sequence is not prolonged.

It leads to an impressive indoor segment that is easily the level designers' proudest achievement. Faith enters a giant atrium that must be at least a half-dozen stories high. The hint button points her to the top. She must traverse a maze of scaffolds and walkways to reach her goal. If it sounds tedious, let me clarify: this is the strength of Mirror's Edge in its purest form; it is the rock-solid core that could have made the game great – unadulterated first person platforming, without convolution or misdirection. Every step of the way, the path is made clear, yet it is consistently challenging. Reaching the top of the massive room feels like a genuine achievement and, while there may be hang-ups along the way, the game does its best to refrain from punishment with frequent checkpoints. Throughout this segment, subtle, environmental cues guide Faith, allowing the broken "runner vision" system to take a back seat. For the first time, the game returns to the organic cohesion that made its opening moments so compelling.

This section contains a musical track that will be strangely familiar to those playing on the Playstation 3. That is because it is the song that plays in the system's main menu when the disc is inserted. To me, this indicates that the game's music producer believes that the song represents the game well. It is not a surprise, then, that it should also be used in this area of the game. This is not the only moment, however, where the soundtrack elevates the game. Through and through, the music lends a tense, modern beauty to the game. I may know very little about music but, in my humble opinion, this is one of the best video game soundtracks in recent years.

It should not be a surprise that reaching the top of the atrium sets off the game's return to its old tricks. A scripted sequence where Faith must shoot out the truck carrying her sister is unintuitive and uninteresting. This scene is followed by a lobby full of enemies that make one of the most frustrating sequences in the game. Fighting a path down to the bottom floor invariably requires many repeated attempts, for reasons that one can extrapolate from the complaints Mr. Keeley and I have made above. It is a sad fall back to Earth for players coming off of a segment so strong that it briefly rekindles hope in the game.

Chapter Nine: The Shard

In this level we finally see the City at night. Shame we see so little of it, as it's so pretty and enjoyable to traverse. No, most of this level is spent indoors, and much of "The Shard" is devoted to (shock) gunfights with cops. Near the start of the level, we get the game's one instance of environmental destruction: You have to turn on the gas in a hallway to start an explosion that blows an inconvenient door off of its hinges. Unfortunately, this door leads to a parking garage full of cops. Which is followed by a lobby full of even deadlier cops. Which is followed by another bit of climbing through an elevator shaft - You will most likely die several times here, especially as there's little warning when other elevator cars come. You'd think the cops would have stopped the elevators while Our Heroine infiltrates the building? Who is on those elevators? To no one's surprise, the elevators lead to ducts. And crawling.

After the ducts, however, you find one of the game's best portions, as Faith must move from rooftop to rooftop while dodging snipers. You can see the laser pointers the snipers use, so you can actually determine when you're in danger. It's nice. Plus the nighttime setting is lovely. Shame more of the game's combat wasn't like this. After this, Faith takes an elevator to the city's surveillance server room and the last miserable gunfight of this game's innumerable miserable gunfights.

When Faith reaches the roof, she confronts Jackknife (Remember him? Me neither.) and a group of guards. Instead of engaging in a firefight, you leap on to the helicopter in which Jackknife is departing (Didn't we do something like this at the beginning of the game), kick him out of the helicopter's open door, and watch the game's ending. Oh, and Faith saves her sister. Things look bad for Faith and Kate, as they're on top of a skyscraper absolutely crawling with trigger-happy cops. Did I mention that some of these cops are standing on the roof? The ending, of course, does not address this minor issue. Doubtless Faith's runner skills save her. And her sister.

The ending, in fact, resolves very little. I guess this means there will be a sequel. I'm both hopeful and afraid.

This feature will be concluded in Part Three.

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