Originality isn't dead, it's just searching in vain for the embrace of an audience too preoccupied with easily digestible genres and recognizable names to take a chance on something different. Mirror's Edge is a surprising, ambitious game from DICE, a developer once bound to the endless hamster wheel of the Battlefield series and a reassuring reminder of just what developers could do if they were given free license to be artists. Alas, the weeks between its release and the time I'm writing this have been a more painful reminder of just why they aren't given the chance more often.
The world of Mirror's Edge feels almost eerily real at times, but it proves that realism and style can exist together.
Beginning with Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, there have been many attempts in the video game industry to capture the dazzling sport of parkour/free running in digital form (Youtube the word if you don't know), but none of them have ever managed to do any more than exploit the impressive movements for some eye candy. Mirror's Edge hops on the bandwagon and takes the exact opposite approach of the rest of the industry, embracing the principles behind the art form, and ignoring how cool it looks to watch.
In moving from third to first person, DICE eliminates the distraction of watching a character run along walls and leap across rooftops, and instead allows for an immersive viewpoint to experience the raw physicality of free running. This is complimented by some of the best camera design in first person gaming, lending the feeling of actually having a body rather than gliding along like a floating camera. The entire experience focuses on the core idea of parkour: moving as efficiently as possible from one point to another in a complex urban setting. This means that, at its core, this is a platform game – though the developers reject that distinction. Even though it may be the purest platform game in years, it's easy to understand why they wouldn't want to be saddled with the label. This is a far cry form Super Mario.
While the feats of the game's protagonist, a young woman named Faith, are extraordinary, the game stays roughly within the lines of what an extremely athletic, highly trained individual could be capable of in real life. Long jumps require a well timed break-fall, and maintaining momentum is everything in pulling off jumps and wall runs. More efficient movement makes for easier transitions into other moves, and there's an incredible amount of subtlety and depth the controls. Where other games have attempted to automate flashy free running moves, Mirror's Edge forces players to stay within the lines of reality.
There are enemies along the way, of course, but this is a game about taking the path of least resistance, so enemies become obstacles more than targets. Faith can punch and kick her way through opponents if need be, but she's generally better off catching them off guard, stripping them of their weapons, and moving on. She can use pilfered firearms against other enemies as well, but DICE carefully keeps things away from first-person shooter territory. Guns only contain enough ammunition to kill two or three enemies, and anything larger than a pistol will keep Faith from running and jumping freely.
The world of Mirror's Edge feels almost eerily real at times, but it proves that realism and style can exist together. In its stronger moments, the incredibly detailed environments border on photorealistic, and yet they keep reality at arms length with a cold, clean visual style of glistening whites and strong, saturated primary and secondary colors, as if the whole city had been designed by Piet Mondrian. The sprawling megalopolis of glistening skyscrapers feels more and more like a fishbowl as you run through its halls and rooftops, never reaching the streets, with no one but enemy security forces to keep you company.
This style helps to lend a sinister quality to the pristine beauty of city, which compliments the atmosphere and story. Faith is fighting against a totalitarian authority that rules with an iron fists and maintains perfect order. Too perfect. The story unfolds in 2D animated cut scenes that depart from the eerie realism of the game itself, but still reflect the same sort of clean style. While the story isn't terribly long or involved, the game is clearly more about atmosphere than narrative.
As a game about running as fast as possible from one point to another, Mirror's Edge is not terribly long, and you can beat it in a few days without too much effort, but shrugging it off so quickly would mean missing the real fun. In fact, I dare say this is not a game that can truly be appreciated on a single play through. Even with the red highlights indicating key objects, it's impossible to really maintain the momentum you need for a really satisfying run without knowing your environment. The real joy comes from finding subtle ways to perfect your game in the time attack modes. While the levels are far from open-ended, they're amazingly well balanced and there are always subtle ways to shave seconds off your time by refining your technique or discovering some devious new way around an obstacle.
While I have long since finished the story mode, I can tell that I'm not going to be done with Mirror's Edge any time soon. They unique gameplay means this is a game can't simply be traded in for the next genre game that rolls around, and the addictive perfectionist appeal and thick atmosphere mean there is value far beyond plowing through its story. It's a deep, subtle game of risk and reward, and its very existences represents a huge risk on EA's part. I admire the ambition and the execution, but alas, this won't be the game for everyone. Anyone hoping for a shooter, a game of free exploration, or anything other than one hell of a crazy sprint will be disappointed, but for those with an open mind, this one should not be missed.