E3 08 Preview: Mirror's Edge
This year’s E3 was packed with the expected assortment of shooters, sequels, and sports titles. But, despite a lack of abundant fresh content, a few games did stand out from the me-too pack; Electronic Arts, once considered the creativity-starved, money-hungry makers of familiar fare like Madden and movie-licensed titles, offered one of the show’s most promising new properties with Mirror’s Edge. Coming from DICE, the folks behind the Battlefield franchise, is a title so original it’s hard to place in an existing genre. At first glance Mirror's Edge looks like another been-there, done-that action game, but that’s only about two-thirds right; you see, while it absolutely frames its action in a first-person perspective, shooting is not the order of the day.
Playing as an agile and acrobatic female named Faith, players are tasked with tackling just as many obstacles as any first-person game, but the usual supersoldiers, zombies and aliens of other titles have been replaced with different types of challenges. Faith is a Runner—sort of like a bicycle messenger, but much cooler. Instead of a bike she uses her athleticism, and rather than lame packages, she carries items containing top-secret info and other such things that could get her killed if they landed in the wrong hands. Living in a big-brother-like futuristic society, she’s part of a rebellion that’s not pleased with the government’s massive surveillance and privacy-intruding methods.
The game plays out with Faith on the run from a variety of government-sponsored goons and other baddies looking to put a stop to her rebellious ways. And this is where those atypical obstacles come in; although Faith will be hoofin’ it from plenty of gun-slinging bad guys, it’s the everyday objects standing between her and an escape route that prove the biggest hurdles—often literally. Players will spend much of the game navigating Faith through a city that’s like a virtual obstacle course, leaping from ledges, balancing on pipes, hopping fences, diving under structures, and even jumping from one building to another. It’s in this area the game really shines, offering a focus never before seen to this extent in other games.
In my demo Faith was being chased on a rooftop, and while the clueless rent-a-cop on my tail posed little challenge, the experience of controlling Faith was absolutely exhilarating. This, in good part, was due to the care taken in presenting her as a full person, despite the first-person perspective. Unlike most first-person protagonists, Faith has visible legs, and her arms serve a larger purpose than pulling triggers and hurling grenades. When you dive, you’ll see her feet first reach the destination. When she runs, her arms realistically respond to the motion, and you'll feel like you’re breathlessly sprinting as you see them pumping up and down. And when she climbs a chain-link fence, you’ll see her grab it first, then swiftly vault over it. Adding to this palpable feeling of living in Faith's well-treaded shoes, is a nice sense of speed; the few jumping or climbing sequences offered in most first-person perspective games are clunky—hell, even the best efforts have you floating up ladders. But here, Faith runs with a smooth realism, that, if uninterrupted, propels her faster and faster. Even with obstacles in her path, she can run, jump and dive seamlessly and build a believable momentum.
This is all possible because of a super-intuitive control scheme, allowing players to tackle most of the action with simple analog movement and forgiving context-sensitive button presses. If a player jumps, and is within spitting distance of their target, Faith will grab hold—no frustrating jumping puzzles here. This mechanic is further enhanced by the environment's helpful color-coding; the expansive metropolis is painted in beautiful white and blue hues, but interactive items and other navigation-assisting points are colored red in a way that’s organic to the rest of the game world. At one point during my rooftop chase I was faced with a seemingly dead end in the form of a building ledge. While it looked like the only way was down--like fifty stories down--I spotted a red pipe snaking up an adjacent building. After retreating a few steps to get a nice head start, I took a running leap, fully expecting to meet the pavement real quick. However, I was relieved and recharged when I saw Faith's hands reach out to grapple the pipe and continue the cinematic sequence. Talk about an adrenaline jolt; if Mirror's Edge packs even a handful of these edge-of-your-seat scenarios, it'll be worth checking out.
Despite its refreshing take on the first-person genre, Mirror’s Edge may leave some gamers--especially those raised on the traditional FPS--looking for more familiar elements. If you're going to tackle Faith's inventive journey you should know what you're in for. For starters, don’t let the open-world presentation fool you, as this is not a sandbox-style game. Sure, you'll be standing atop skyscrapers, viewing beautiful concrete vistas, but Faith cannot reach every area she sees. In fact, during my demo I questioned the developer about how open the world is, and he responded “Not at all. This is a linear experience.” He went on to defend this design decision by explaining how such an original approach could not be tapped to its full potential if players could go wherever they wanted. Following a linear path will ensure gamers get the most out of Faith's unique adventure, experiencing the pulse-pounding free-running without being interrupted by constant branching pathways. After spending a few minutes in Faith’s shoes it seems difficult to argue with DICE’s inspired approach. Enter Mirror’s Edge with an open mind when it ships this fall, and you may just find yourself experiencing a game-of-the-year contender.