Amidst a sea of sequels, genre games, and movie-licensed cash-ins, you can find those games that somehow rise above it all. I didn't expect to see it here; maybe I just underestimated DICE as a one trick pony after so many years of Battlefield. But it's hard not to be captivated by EA's new first-person action game, Mirror's Edge. The beautiful style and incredible motion design are unmistakable, but it's the absence of strong genre conventions that helps it to stand apart.
With an emphasis on free running and trailers and demonstrations that showed nothing but perfect jumps, my biggest fear was that Mirror's Edge would fall into the same traps as Assassin's Creed and streamline its running and jumping into a barely interactive exercise. These fears were further compounded by talks of a very simple control scheme that uses only two buttons to interact with the world (the left shoulder buttons). It seems to be the trend these days that casual rules all and that style takes precedence over substance.
But I'm hear to tell you that Mirror's Edge is the truth. Simplicity and accessibility does not need to mean that the game is easy, nor shallow. In fact, this game is very much a platformer in the classic sense, and we should all remember how much gameplay and depth the genre greats were able to back into a four-button control scheme. Jumping and ducking have a lot of context-sensitive applications, and it takes timing to land your jumps, and technique to maintain the needed momentum.
In fact, there seems to be some real depth beyond the style and I was suddenly brought back to the early days of Sonic the Hedgehog. The levels are packed with alternate routes that have been balanced with risk/reward in mind. Levels will keep track of your best time and even though, like Sega's old flagship platformer, there isn't an artificial incentive to burn through the game, there seems to be some tremendous potential for replay.
Combat seems to be very different from what you'd typically expect. You character is unarmed, and rather than classic melee attacks, the heroine of Mirror's Edge relies on well times counters: sliding kicks, reversals, and throws that can disarm an enemy. You can snag a gun and do a little running and gunning, but the large weapons are too cumbersome to carry while performing your usual aerial feats and, like Condemned, there are no ammunition pick-ups, so firearms are only useful for short spurts. Combat blends well with the speed-oriented style and it's clear that this won't devolve into a first-person shooter.
Of course, the time we spent with the demo and developers is hardly enough to gauge balance, but it's clear that DICE has its finger on my pulse, and the test drive has more than settled my nagging cynicism. EA is on to something, and if it can muster the follow-through, it just might have the best new franchise of the year.