Mirror’s Edge is a game that defies traditional game journalism. We’ve heard this before, of course, and it usually comes from the mouths of the ‘hardcore elite’ who proudly exclaim that the rest of us “just don’t get it.” The thing is, after reading EGM’s three-person review of the game, I had to admit that all three of them did get it. The game brings a unique feeling of space, speed, and dexterity to a genre that has never had any of the above. The reviewers got that, and it was duly noted in their reviews. So why did a game which does something so utterly unique and new get merely “good” scores? There are good reasons.
The simple fact of the matter is, combat in Mirror’s Edge is serviceable at best, and it is hard to ignore the strange inconsistency of having to stop and fight cops in a game that is, near as we can tell, all about running. It is also hard to ignore the game’s brevity. Granted, it is doubtful that the game’s momentum could have been sustained over a 15-20 hour span without slowing down. Nonetheless, there is something to the story and the world in which it takes place, that leaves the player with a feeling of missed opportunity. Surely a game that frequently evokes the opening Trinity Infinity scene from the first Matrix could have done something more with its setting and pace. So why doesn’t it?
As a game reviewer, it is difficult to ignore these problems. Can you really award an A to a game that is, by the numbers, something like 40% bad execution, even if the other 60% is worth the price of admission? Such games rarely get perfect scores. More often they garner B’s and sentences like, “While the core game mechanic is fun, it is bogged down by sloppy combat and a short story.” Fortunately, if EGM’s review text is actually read (I here place my vote to eliminate review scores), you will find a glowing recommendation, and it is well deserved.
Some have argued that Mirror’s Edge could be told from a third person perspective, and I think they are right. It is very likely that the parkour gameplay could work from that point of view, and in many ways it already has in Prince of Persia. But to use that as a basis for criticism is to miss the point. The point is that this kind of action has never before been attempted in the first person. (The few games that go anywhere near it have found their game reviews glimmering with sentences like, “The platforming sequences are spotty and imprecise.”) So Mirror’s Edge makes the attempt, and, against all odds, succeeds wonderfully. This is, incidentally, why the story doesn’t do more and why the combat isn’t more interesting: it just isn’t what the game is about.
The mechanics put into place to accomplish the unique feel of Mirror’s Edge are subtle enough to defy description. There are the more obvious things. Your character’s body, when seen, has a way of immediately placing you in the space. Likewise, the camera jerks, weaves, and bobs at all the right times and never at the wrong ones. (Bashing through doors with your forearm is especially satisfying.) And hitting the jump button doesn’t just heave your character, inexplicably, ten feet straight up into the air but rather flings you forward, over, or at the environment in logical ways.
To describe what Mirror’s Edge does is to paint a trite picture. It is enough to play it, where you will immediately feel the momentum behind every step your character takes. It is an engrossing and empowering experience. Mirror’s Edge does Sonic better than Sonic ever did, and it pulls it off without removing the camera from your character’s eyes.
The game might have benefited from a more singular vision, at least for Metacritic’s sake. Yet improving the game score is not so simple as removing the combat. There is a very visceral and very rewarding experience to be had when you are running for your life from foes that never seem more than one step behind. True, the veil sometimes flares a little, and you realize those cops behind that door will come out when you read the ledge, no matter how long it takes you to reach the ledge. The rest of the time, however, you are running, and when it works (meaning you don’t plunge to an early death), it’s exquisite. Conversely, the time trial mode all together lacks that sense of thrill, and if there was nothing more to the game than hitting checkpoints to a timer, we might have cause to wonder about all the fuss. In short, the sequel will be better served by improving on these combat sequences rather than doing away with them.
So, unlike other games that attempt too much and fail at everything (read: Spore), Mirror’s Edge does what it wants to do masterfully. The combat and story, while disappointing, cannot quite ruin what the developers are trying to do here, and for that, we should be grateful.