Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Living on the Mirror's Edge

In the wake of recent disclosures that the Obama administration has ordered unrestrained and unprecedented seizures of private electronic records, the opening cinematic of DICE’s 2008 1st-person game Mirror’s Edge seems especially timely, depicting a scenario that’s disturbingly similar to modern America.  “Once the city used to pulse with energy – dirty and dangerous, but alive and wonderful,” narrates the game’s heroine Faith Connors to fleeting shots of ominous cameras and violent riots.  “Now it's something else.  The changes came slowly at first; most didn't realize, or didn't care and accepted them.  They chose a comfortable life.  Those who didn't conform were pushed to the sidelines, criminalized.  They became our clients.”  Faith’s description of a society that values comfort over privacy mirrors (shame on me) the current state of America, which is now torn between patriots who prize Constitutional liberty and those apathetic individuals who would let the government spy on them for a pretense of security against terrorist attacks.  The debate over 4th amendment rights and the appropriate extent of privacy dates back to the publication of George Orwell’s 1984 and bears serious ramifications for the fate of any free nation, so it’s a huge shame that Mirror’s Edge basically forgets about it for the vast majority of the plot, electing instead to follow a generic, “save the princess” outline that’s been told countless times in gaming.  However, I still enjoyed Mirror’s Edge considerably for what it is, a unique and immersive alloy of running-and-jumping platformers and 1st-person shooters.

The events of Mirror’s Edge are set in the near future and take place in a rigid police state that invasively monitors all of people’s electronic transmissions.  To circumvent the confiscation of their private documents, people rely on parkour masters called runners to deliver messages.  The player controls Faith, a seasoned runner who stumbles upon an elaborate mystery when she finds Mayoral Candidate Robert Pope assassinated in his office and her sister Kate framed at the scene.  In addition, she unveils a clandestine program called Project Icarus, developed to beat the runners at their own game through the training of police officers in free running and hand-to-hand combat.  It appears there’s a double agent in the runners’ ranks.  No longer concerned with just her own survival, Faith determines to traverse the city in a hunt for Pope’s murderer and the Icarus mole, hoping to save her sister and prevent the extermination of the runners.  From the roofs of the tallest skyscrapers to the depths of the underground sewers and railways, she’ll be pursued relentlessly by law enforcement personnel known in slang as ‘blues’, whose superior firepower may nullify her speed and agility.

To its credit, Mirror’s Edge excels at transporting the player into a believable setting and maintaining the illusion that he’s embodying another person, rather than simply pushing buttons on a controller.  The 1st-person perspective of Mirror’s Edge differs from that of other shooters in that Faith’s limbs move realistically and interact with the environment to a great extent: her arms pump back and forth as she gains momentum, her hands brush along walls as she approaches them, her legs curl up as she hops a fence or other obstacle, and her whole body flails as she leaps from magnificent heights.  These are just a few examples of the painstaking labor put into this game’s animation.  Also of note is the way Faith’s vision blurs as she runs or endures large falls, a clever effect that augments the credibility of the 1st person view.  Mirror’s Edge also exhibits a rare proficiency in crafting intense chase scenes.  Contrary to the norm in shooters, the protagonist of DICE’s game is not a powerful supersoldier but a fragile civilian who must constantly flee from armed hostiles beyond her ability to confront.  In most cases, fighting back is not an option, and slowing down guarantees swift death in a hail of bullets.  The enraged shouts of guards, the threatening whirr of a chopper’s rotors, the shrill noise of glass panes shattering, and the persistent storm of projectiles ricocheting off surfaces in the player’s sight all combine to create some genuinely exhilarating action sequences.  Unfortunately, Faith doesn’t have the luxury of running all the time, and when she stops the game’s bigger weaknesses soon become apparent.

Mirror’s Edge has one of the sloppiest combat schemes I’ve ever encountered in a console game.  Not only do the guns feel horrible, but the mere act of acquiring them or trying to fight without them is a pain.  While Faith has the ability to engage enemies with several melee attacks and even to disarm them professionally, her incredibly low pain tolerance means that isolating foes and taking them out individually is the only feasible method to advance through police blockades.  This isn’t always practical, especially on higher difficulty levels, where repeated attempts on the same section are customary.  The same complaint applies to the rest of the game, which so often feels like a punishing system of trial and error, whereby even the slightest delay in hitting a certain button or the most minute error in the player’s aim sends him tumbling 10 stories to meet Wile E. Coyote at the city floor.  Those gamers who curse their television screen when frustrated will have sore throats upon completing Mirror’s Edge.  Headaches too – I speak from experience.

The game’s graphics are a mixed bag: although the 1st person animation is fantastic, as I said earlier, the city itself looks very stylized and fantastical, an attribute that doesn’t lend itself well to a 1st person shooter.  I found the physics for A.I. characters to be severely limited, with guards flopping over the same way no matter how I dispatched them, but Mirror’s Edge isn’t as physics-oriented a game as Halo or COD, so this fault is minor.  The developers should definitely have devoted more time to the textures of explosions, as the game culminates in a potentially awesome but sadly underwhelming helicopter crash that looks like something out of the Playstation 1.

Nevertheless, Mirror’s Edge is an entertaining, original not-really-shooter that allows one to execute all kinds of crazy stunts he’s usually warned “not to try at home”.   Hopefully the sequel planned for next-generation systems will be more lenient in difficulty and more politically aggressive than Faith’s introduction.  For the sake of avoiding irony, though, EA should keep ME2 away from the Xbox One and its creepy camera.  Bill Gates is watching you…

Grade rating: 7/10

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