Wednesday, January 21, 2009

More on Mirror's Edge

1UP continues to prove itself in the wake of the UGO buyout by bringing us this postmortem interview with Tom Farrer, a producer for Mirror's Edge. Interesting tidbits include the reasoning behind their decision not to allow players to customize the controls and the admission that the animated cutscenes were not a complete success. On the latter point, the cutscenes were one of the few negatives I discuss in my review, and it appears that the decision was at least partly driven by the animation workload required to do them in-engine. It isn't clear whether or not there was any internal discussion on the merits of handling all cutscenes from a first person perspective.


Friday, January 09, 2009

L/N Review: Mirror's Edge

Mirror's Edge is a unique flower, a first person parkour game which is both innovative and retrograde. The game, like its Eurasian protagonist Faith, is fearless, unafraid to strive for realism and unafraid to admit, when all is said and done, that it is just a video game.

First, the innovation. Games which do new things mechanically are usually at least interesting. Generally speaking, unique mechanics either indicate the designers' willingness to rethink the appropriateness of accepted methods in realizing their game's concept or a concept that is so unique that there are no standard practices. It is often the first scenario which really demonstrates a team's commitment to innovation. Sometimes it is harder to trail blaze when a good road is already in place. The Mirror's Edge team deserves a lot of credit for building a system unique to their game. It would have been easy to create a parkour game based around canned animations and quick timer events, but they didn't. Instead they crafted a unique first person adventure, a platformer in a first person shooter's clothing. They also took the unorthodox approach of condensing a multitude of functions into two non-face buttons. With just three buttons the player can perform a complex array of free running maneuvers, without having anything handed to him and without ever being confused about which context sensitive action a button press will perform.

The level design, at first blush, is linear and doesn't allow for exploration of alternate routes. This is a novice mistake, however, due to the new player's preconceptions and poor understanding of the game's objectives and mechanics. The construction of the levels is actually one of the better realized aspects of the game. Just like in real life, it takes experience to understand the possibilities in parkour. The types of hidden routes available to Faith are of a much subtler nature. These are tricks that primarily serve to save time and maintain flow, not bypass large sections of the route. Their existence will quickly become apparent to anyone who spends a little time in the time trial mode racing against the ghosts of more experienced players. Mirror's Edge trains the player to see the game space in much the same way as traceurs learn to view the mundane landscapes of urban life. In Mirror's Edge an office building looks like an office building, bland on the surface but budding with possibilities for a runner as gifted as Faith. It is up to the player to recognize these possibilities.

The realistic approach to level design sometimes results in a lack of signposting in the environments, an absence of clear pathways and direction for the player. This is alleviated somewhat by 'runner vision', which is an optional system which colors certain key objects a bright red to aid in navigation. It is also possible to point Faith in the direction of the goal by pressing the O button. Unfortunately, both of these methods are a little lacking in execution. Even with them there are situations where the path forward is far from clear. While this can sometimes frustrate, especially when pursued by enemies, it is consistent with the game's goal of teaching the player to think quickly.

None of this would work if Mirror's Edge didn't also break new ground in portraying movement from a first person perspective. Mirror's Edge is a game requiring skill and expert timing and so the user feedback has to be informative enough to allow for precise judgements of position, momentum, distance, and angle. The game succeeds through a combination of visual and aural clues: the sound of footsteps and breathing to indicate speed, the bounce of the first person camera, the position and movement of Faith's appendages on screen, and so on. The game conveys everything the player needs to know through its first person perspective.

For a game as innovative as Mirror's Edge, it is also surprisingly retro. Mirror's Edge is a game that requires the player to master its mechanics, and in order to demand mastery it mustn't be afraid to punish poor play. In other words, Mirror's Edge is hard. The portions of the game where Faith is confronted by enemies are particularly challenging. Faith is fairly clumsy with weapons and can only absorb a small amount of damage. Her best chance against any enemy is to disarm him as quickly as possible(utilizing proper button press timing in the closest thing the game has to a quick timer event). Once disarmed, Faith will immobilize the enemy and can use his gun until the clip runs dry. The shooting controls, however, are a bit clunky and emphasize that gunplay isn't Faith's strong suit. In fact, if the player utilizes a little lateral thinking and attempts to avoid direct confrontation as much as possible -- the game constantly preaches avoidance -- the confrontations with the police will be much easier. Unfortunately, players who stubbornly attempt the same approach over and over are likely to do so dozens of times before finding success in some of the more challenging set pieces. Luckily, checkpoints are spaced frequently enough that the player isn't punished for experimenting with alternate strategies, but it isn't always obvious when the player is trying to do something the hard way either.

The story mode, although challenging, is quite short. The plot is forgettable, but the characters and environments are well done. Faith is an intriguing character with a great deal of aesthetic appeal, especially compared to the typically over feminized video game heroine. Plot development, when done in the form of in-game, first person sequences is executed brilliantly. But for some reason the developers chose to break the first person immersion into Faith's character by including poorly done animated sequences between chapters. These sequences are nothing more than a lazy approach to plot development. The story mode would have been greatly enhanced if the developers could have found a way to present the entire story from Faith's perspective.

Successive replays and speedruns of individual story chapters are worthwhile endeavors, but the time trials are where the game's longevity is truly found. Mirror's Edge is a game centered around its mechanics and level design and it is the time trial mode which brings these elements to a laser sharp focus. Dispensing with the sometimes frustrating combat elements present in the story chapters also plays to the game's strengths. The presence of online leaderboards and the ability to race the ghosts of other players' successful runs makes Mirror's Edge one of the best racing games ever made. The ghosts are indispensable for quickly learning many of the game's advanced techniques as well.

Aesthetically, the game has a clean and unique look. Like any good graphic work, Mirror's Edge is immediately recognizable. The music is also excellent, especially the title track "Still Alive". The only real blemish is Faith's voice actress. She isn't terrible, but she's certainly not strong and unique enough for the character.

Mirror's Edge is a triumph of both skill-based -- almost arcadeish -- game design and simulationist immersion. It applies retro gaming sensibilities to a first person parkour simulation and succeeds, both as a game and as an immersive experience.

Mirror's Edge(PS3) rolls a

for Ludology

and a

for Narratology

For an explanation of my L/N scoring system, read my posts on the theory and the implementation.

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