Wednesday, July 10, 2013
"Mirror's Edge" is a first-person platformer that was released way way back in 2008. Remember 2008? When Obama was going to save America instead of listening in on our sexting conversations? When the PlayStation 3 was insanely expensive and gas was insanely cheap? And when "Final Fantasy XIII" seemed like an exciting and innovative game? Good times. Anyway, I may not be able to afford the trip to GameStop, but I was able to finally afford a PS3 last year, so now I'm finally able to play this game. It was definitely worth the five-year wait too, because this title can be beaten in a day, so at six dollars, its finally exactly the right price.
There are only nine levels in "Mirror's Edge", meaning that a dedicated speedrunner could complete the entire game in under an hour. To accommodate for that puny length, the developers of "Mirror's Edge", a rather unpopular company lately called "Electronic Arts"*, decided to pad the game out with a classic design philosophy: difficulty. Once upon a time back in the age of Super Nintendos and not-so-Super Nintendos, a game could never really hope to be much longer than ten hours, at best. How do you make your experience memorable and meaningful to the player? Make it brutally goddamn hard, so they have to spend weeks mastering your product before they see the final boss. Games like "Ninja Gaiden" or "Ghosts and Goblins" require entire spiritual journeys deep to your gaming subconscious, to the very core of your muscle memory and twitch reflexes. You have to discover horrible things about yourself, overcome deep character flaws, and that's just to reach level 8. In today's world, we have quick-time events, automatic health regeneration, and a working save function (no passwords for the Millennial Generation), so difficulty is dead. Which is why "Mirror's Edge" feels like such a breath of fresh air.
I was able to beat "Bioshock Infinite" by suicidally charging forward over and over again, without really gaining much skills, without much need to refine my abilities or strategies, I could just pop off a few badies and reload. Hell, even when a bigger enemy managed to kill me, it didn't matter much since their HP wasn't restored. "Mirror's Edge" isn't playing by those rules. Luckily it doesn't bring back the old-school gaming lives system, and there are no Game Overs, but when you die, you still go back. If you're in a room trying to use your little Asian girl kung-fu to take down ten soldiers, you have to kill every one of them. Kill seven and get make a mistake on #8, it doesn't matter, you have to kill all seven again. You die on a tough jump, the Prince of Persia isn't going to suddenly remember that he actually made that leap, you're dead now. You go back. Which is why, "Mirror's Edge", despite being way too short, is one of the most challenging and interesting games of the last console generation. This is just honest gaming fun.
The world of "Mirror's Edge" is an obsessively-clean police state where every building, wall, roof, and potted plant has been painted a uniform white. In what is something of a rarity for modern video games, "Mirror's Edge" actually features a beautiful and unique visual theme, contrasting deathly white with various bright neon colors. Partially this is used to explain to the player which of the various objects you need to climb on in order to progress, painting various pipes, ramps, or boxes red as a clue - JUMP ON THAT. But it goes beyond that, creating stark hallways with various flashes of eye-gouging green. Its really impressive, giving a unique and fascinating flavor to a game that could have just as easily been endless shades of grey. So "Mirror's Edge" is a very pretty game to look at - unless you're playing on a PS3, but I'll get to that in a moment - but does it play well?
While watching an online speed-run of "Mirror's Edge", you'll get a frantic sense of engaging speed and chases, as the heroine, Faith, used her parkour skills to climb, run, jump, and dive through the bitter white urban environment. Getting to that level, though, takes a great deal of practice. Early on, your "Mirror's Edge" experience will consist of dieing over and over again on a single jump that is particularly difficult, or getting cornered by the insanely-aggressive police force. Only a master could play through an entire level in a single run, and by the way you start to get your grip on the parkour elements, the game turns into a brutal war against entire legions of manic cops. Now you have to master the combat, or Faith is going to trade endless broken bones for endless bullet holes in her base-jumping ass.
When I bought this game, I assumed that since you were a little hundred-pound Asian girl who put all of her stats into speed, evasion, and agility, that combat wasn't really going to be a major focus. Sorry, but for some reason I come from a universe where a minor criminal like Faith would rather run from the police than kick them in the balls and engage a platoon in a massive firefight. Here I thought cops and combat would be a minor occurrence, that even a single cop would be a frightening threat, and that Faith wasn't designed to be a killing machine. Well, a killing machine she is. The last two levels involving unleashing explosions of horrifying violence, Faith is a goddamn storm of destruction. In level 8, I was running down a staircase while ten cops ran up to capture me. Rather than wall-run or use a fancy evasion maneuver, I kicked the cops in the balls, stole their guns, and butchered their friends. (By the way, that's the secret to just about every enemy encounter: slide into the guy, kick him in the balls, hit until he's down, then take his gun. Murder until bullets run out. Repeat.) The pure white walls were dripping blood by the time I was done with them.
Curiously, Faith and her compatriots of hipster parkour outlaws spend the entire game wondering why the police are so aggressive and constantly rain bullets upon them at first site. It might have something to do with the fact that I once stole a sniper rifle and proceeded to carve holes in the brains of several probably decent hard-working middle class police officers. Just a thought.
The story is... unimportant. Faith works with an "underground" organization of package deliverers who ironically work above the rooftops and the all-seeing eyes of the police. There's only really one mission where you deliver a package though, the rest of the game is a very boring and uninteresting conspiracy involving Faith's sister who has been set-up as the fall-girl for an assassination of a... who cares? The entire plot takes up roughly five minutes of the games' time, and EA was uninterested in these events that the game doesn't even bother letting you fight the real villain. You conclude the adventure by killing a mid-level flunkey out of an elevator. The guy claims he masterminded everything, but he also admits that his real boss is safe and sound. (He also claims that he purposefully left me alive throughout the adventure, which is utter nonsense, he couldn't have wanted me more dead if he had sent 600 heavily-armed secret police officers out to destroy me... which is exactly what he did.) Faith and her sister escape, that's kinda it. This entire story takes up about ten minutes of the games' time, and is, for some reason, told through cartoon cutscenes, which I suspect were quicker and easier to make than actually using the game engine.
Unfortunately, "Mirror's Edge" has something of an air of cheapness. There's something... unfinished about the entire experience. Your first clue is the screen quality, which on the PS3 looks like an epileptic fit, with more screen-tearing and graphical glitches than a Youtube video circa 2005. Though sometimes you can't see the screen-tearing because there are certain hallways in this game darker than the black core of EA's undead heart, allowing screenshots of absolute perfect blackness. Another far more serious problem is that in level 9, if you don't pause the game in exactly the right time, it will freeze up and cause your entire system to hang. Frankly, a glitch of that magnitude is simply inexcusable. That kind of game-breaking problem makes the fact that is no final boss and the game has a puny length seem like minor gripes. Except they really aren't. What's weird about the final boss situation is that there was a perfectly fine and satisfying boss in level 7, and there are super enemies that have been introduced that you're never allowed to fight. Instead I just kick a twerp out of a helicopter and apparently all is well?
Anyway, EA is actually a making a sequel to "Mirror's Edge", so maybe those minor complaints will be fixed in the next game. They're saying they're going to make the next title open-world, when that seems somewhat unnecessary to me. "Mirror's Edge" was fine as a game with just a small collection of stages, they just needed more polish, and more girth. I'm fine with linearity in a platforming game, especially one as interesting as this one. I feel like there might be a truly perfect and massively enjoyable game within the design concept of "Mirror's Edge", it just needed a bit more.
* This is actually the first EA game I've played in just about a decade, ever since they viciously cannibalized Westwood Studios and murdered my beloved Command & Conquer series. I guess that makes me one of the lucky ones, since I was able to escape their godawful multiplayer-only recreation of "Sim City" this year without a single scratch or PTSD. Way to earn that "Worst Company in America" title two years in a row, EA.