Parkour simulator. Presumably this is what Mirror’s Edge is going for. However there are many decidedly non-parkour aspects of the game that saps the fun out free-running through skyscraper rooftops. So it really boils down to whether the free-running `fun’ part outweighs the less fun aspects of this 2009 game.
In Mirror’s Edge, you play as Faith, a `runner’ who transports messages across a totalitarian city by free-running the rooftops and evading the police. Faith’s sister is framed for the murder of a high-profile politician, and she has to find the true killer and clear her sister’s name. The plot of the game is a pretty basic dystopian story, which perhaps serves as a basic skeleton to prop up the rest of the game.
As a fan of dystopian novels and movies, I do find the setting of Mirror’s Edge fascinating, if pretty generic. But the plot feels very disconnected from the gameplay. At the beginning of each story chapter, you get a cutscene. Characters interact briefly mainly just to initialise the player at the new level. During gameplay, each level is mostly variations of the following: (1) You free-run/parkour to your objective. Once at the objective, (2) a cutscene kicks in where you investigate something or recover a McGuffin, depending on where you are on the plot. (3) After that, the shit hits the fan and you are chased by the police. Parkour away to escape. Then you move on to the next chapter. New cutscene. Repeat steps 1 to 3.
The game really deserves credit for its boldness in attempting to combine elements that conventionally do not blend well together – platforming and the first person perspective. Anyone who’s ever played platforming sections in FPS games knows the frustration of not knowing exactly where you are in relation to the platforms and edges. It’s all too easy to accidentally fall off the side or mistime a running jump. Even the Half Life game has learned this lesson, since in its sequel, the platforming sections are drastically toned down.
In any case, Mirror’s Edge really isn’t really about platforming, but free-running. And that might be its saving grace if it kept up with its free-running aspects. Parkour is fun, or looks fun because navigating various obstacles smoothly without losing your momentum is exhilarating and satisfying.
This brings us to one of the main problems of the game. Sometimes its design choices seem baffling. Too much of its level design contradicts its free-running parkour spirit. Very frequently it grinds you to a halt and makes you jump across scaffolding in a narrow shaft or tunnel. It stops feeling like you’re playing as a parkour athlete. Instead it easily feels like you’re a decidedly non-athletic scientist wearing a bulky hazard suit. (Feels like Half Life, basically.) Even if the level design allows you to parkour smoothly all the way to the end, it isn’t possible during the first playthrough. This is because you need to look around to figure out which way you are supposed to go in the first place. And that isn’t always very clear, as sometimes it feels like the environment is intentionally designed to lead you to false paths towards dead ends.
Sometimes the elements of the game feel contradictory. In the tutorial section of the game, we are taught how to free-run plus some basic combat elements. The tutorial display tells you to avoid combat whenever possible. It makes sense at the time, since the melee combat feels clunky and frustrating, so clearly you’re not supposed to engage in combat. In this game, ostensibly a parkour simulator, you are supposed to evade and run away from your enemies. But towards the latter half of the game, it keeps forcing you to engage in combat directly. Since, according to the tutorial’s advice, I spent most of my time early in the game evading enemies, I didn’t really familiarise myself with the combat mechanics. Until this one point in the game where you cannot progress the game until you defeated all the enemies!
It wouldn’t be much of a problem if these mandatory combat sequences are spread out reasonably far apart from each other. But towards the end of the game the level just keeps throwing enemies. Their numbers are too much that it’s impossible to run past them and survive their constant gunfire.
Sure, the game is frustrating at times, but it’s a worthy experiment for a game that came out in 2009, where since then the first person `parkour’ design surely has had time to be refined and develop. We now have games like Titanfall and Call of Duty: Ghosts which inherits the free-flow first-person movement of Mirror’s Edge. With a sequel on the horizon, it’ll be fascinating to see what ideas they come up with next.