I can honestly say I didn’t see this coming. A Gamestop employee hands me a bright yellow messenger bag and four hours later the end credits of DICE’s Mirror’s Edge have rolled. Now the messenger bag is pretty sweet, but Mirror’s Edge – like its clean, empty, Orwellion cityscape – will leave you feeling cold. It wasn’t until after its forgivingly short campaign that the game came into its own.
For all its talk of freedom, running, and flow, Mirror’s Edge manages to stunt momentum at nearly every conceivable opportunity. Forget the trailers you’ve seen, or even the demo you may have played – those moments where you string one leap into the next or maneuver deftly through a squad of armed guards rarely come. Elevators mask loading times, grinding the action to a halt, and even then the game will lock up completely to load the next area. Often you’ll be running at a full clip only to hit the brick wall of a load time, shotgun blast, or obtuse level design. Runner vision, red highlights intended to hold your hand, do little to keep up the pace in an unintuitive environment.
Forks in the path come and go at random. While one area may be wide open, another will inexplicably kill you for trying something different. You’ll spend much of the game guessing the designer’s intentions, all the while being shot at relentlessly. The liberal use of gunfire to move things along has never felt so unnecessary. If running were always a viable option that would be one thing, but you’re forced to fight on several occasions. For such a short game, it’s puzzling how often it strays from its own premise.
That premise was what set expectations so high. Mirror’s Edge was the preordained torchbearer of innovation in the first-person genre. Like last year’s Portal, it takes the perspective beyond aiming guns, eschewing violence for a fresh experience. At least that was the idea, but just as the turrets in Portal rushed you to trial-and-error deaths rather than deductive reasoning, the guards in Mirror’s Edge push you to run blindly towards death or succumb to a hail of bullets. The insistence on conflict becomes so overbearing that you’ll find yourself taking arms, clocking in for a bit of Halo just to get a lay of the land. Developer DICE fails to escape the trappings of the genre it seems so desperate to set itself apart from.
The Shocking Twist
Where it slips up in the story mode, Mirror’s Edge all but redeems itself in the unlockable time trials. The icing on a blood-pressure-spiking cake, this secondary mode steals the show. It’s unfortunate that DICE would tuck this away in the second page of the main menu. Stripped of all conflict, the mode focuses on pure free-running. The trials take small, one or two minute chunks of the best areas of the main game, and ask you to get to several checkpoints as quickly as possible. The ability to download ghosts of other players’ best runs allows you can see the creative ways people top the leaderboards. It’s here that all the depth of the mechanics comes through; you can shave seconds through precise timing and angles of approach. Keeping up momentum becomes a nuanced and intuitive aspect of navigating the world. The simple, three-button control scheme is bolstered by fully realized animations that denote the difference between barely grabbing a ledge or clearing it and launching into a full sprint.
Mirror’s Edge comes to life in the time trial mode. It’s so much fun that it redeems the game, despite a weak story mode. It’s hard to deny a failure there, and it’s unfortunate that many people will miss out on the best part of the game. But the trials offer at least as much content as that mode, so if you can take the good with the bad, it’s highly recommended that you check it out.