At the E3 2013 EA press conference, a one minute in-engine trailer revealed what many had longed for and speculated was in development: a new Mirror’s Edge. Since the original’s release in 2008, those who had been enamored with Mirror’s Edge have clamored, begged, demanded, and waited with many shades of patience for more. E3 2014 revealed a closer look into the development progress of the game, racketing up the anticipation. Now, seven years after Mirror’s Edge and over two years removed since the first reveal of a new game, those ardent fans will finally get their wish.
Mirror’s Edge was released in 2008, a product of DICE and EA. It had everything going for it: a reputable developer, a behemoth publisher, a bright and shiny new gameplay concept, and everyone’s attention following a breathtaking E3 2008 presentation and a wildly successful gameplay demo. Pre-sales were through the roof. Mirror’s Edge had the full attention of the video game world come release day. However, critics didn’t know exactly what to do with it. On one hand, everyone agreed that Mirror’s Edge was innovative and impressive. On the other, they found a host of problems. Critics were torn, and the word that seems most consistent from review to review is “flawed.” Over the years, that label has remained, but fans of Mirror’s Edge have been loyal and vocal, elevating the game to a cult classic.
However, no creator sets out to make a cult classic. Why would they? A cult classic, by definition, has a limited fanbase. Cult classics only become such after extended periods of controversy, debate, and tireless discussion over the merits of the work. Creators would much rather simply have devoted fans and the success that usually comes along with that. True, having your work become a cult classic is far preferable to what usually happens when a work is not well received among the larger community, destined to play its course quickly and be lost to the obscurity of a thousand other titles and works of its time, remembered by few.
With all the hype surrounding Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst following E3 2015 and its announced February 2016 release date, I decided it was a great time to revisit the first Mirror’s Edge and rediscover the magic that has resided in the hearts of so many long-suffering fans all these years. I’ve seen plenty of screenshots, parodies, original artwork, and parkour recreations over the years; it was time to get back to the source. What I found was:
Mirror’s Edge is a terrible game.
Now, before you cry for blood and fly to the comments section to tell me how wrong I am and where I can stick my opinion, hear me out. I’m not saying this to harm, but to help. You see, regardless of my opinion of the quality of the game, I’m still a fan. When I first purchased Mirror’s Edge, I played it through twice, once right after the other. Memories of moments of incredible, unique gameplay have long stuck with me. And, most of all, I want Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst to succeed. I believe it can be great, and I want it to be the best it can be.
That’s why today I’m bringing you my list of the biggest problems with Mirror’s Edge. Diagnosing leads to healing. Next time, I will give you my list of things Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst needs to do to elevate the series from cult classic to a true gaming giant. (Plot spoilers follow for Mirror’s Edge.)
Problem #1: The story
Faith: “Once the city used to pulse with energy; dirty and dangerous, but alive and wonderful. 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. Some didn’t. And those who refused to conform were pushed to the sidelines, criminalized. They became our clients.”
…And, that’s it.
The entirety of the backstory in 30 seconds of exposition, a concept thin as tissue paper expected to hold the weight of the decision to kill or maim any police officer that stands in your way.
Even in 2008, it was hard to swallow. The late 2000s were a transitory time in video games. The majority of the decade had been dominated by rapidly improving technology pushing the frontiers of gaming to more and more realistic worlds. World War 2 shooters were some of the most successful during the preceding years, but gamers had grown sick of these and were hungry for new concepts. This made video game writing more difficult for many triple-A developers that had been making first person games. World War 2 is so popular because the entire world agrees that the Nazis make for a perfect enemy. You could gun down an entire platoon of soldiers without a single pang of guilt or self-realization. Developers had to come up with new enemies and make killing them just as acceptable.
Mirror’s Edge’s solution was the police. Clearly the idea was to create a city dominated by a totalitarian, evil empire, with all citizens under constant surveillance, where nobody has any real freedom. It’s not a bad concept. Seven years later, many of the same fears expressed in Mirror’s Edge exist in the modern political theater. The underlying concepts behind enemies and the ideas of right and wrong and good and evil in the world of Mirror’s Edge were not the problem, it was how they were, or rather, were not executed.
Cel: “Merc said your Mom died.”
Faith: “She was killed during the downtown riots. Protest marches that went bad.”
If that sounds familiar, that’s because it is. When it comes to police/protest interactions, 2008 was a much simpler time. In the past year, riots and protests of Ferguson, Baltimore, and dozens of lower profile cases have launched debates over the militarization of police, riots, race relations, discrimination, and corruption of the power of law enforcement into a full-scale political war. It has been one of the landmark polarizing issues of the decade. Imagine, in this heated political atmosphere, if Mirror’s Edge came out today, with its attitude of “Ok, all cops are bad guys. You can beat them up and shoot them all. If they shoot at you, it’s because they are all bad guys and you’re the good guy for killing the cops.” (Those of you who haven’t played or don’t well remember Mirror’s Edge might think that’s a hyperbolic oversimplification. It’s not. That’s legitimately the full depth of world development in which the rest of the plot of Mirror’s Edge sits.) How quickly would Mirror’s Edge get a full feature on Fox News as being an anti-police murder simulator? There would be political outrage that an EA executive wouldn’t want to be seen in the same country with. It has only been seven years, but Mirror’s Edge has politically aged worse than about any other game in video game history.
Problem #2: The free-running piece offered little freedom and was difficult to use.
Mirror’s Edge achieved its cult classic status through its first person perspective freerunning and parkour. Seen before only in the third-person point of view in games such as Prince of Persia and Assassin’s Creed, it has never come close to being matched. In those moments, running from rooftop to rooftop, jumping a fence, running along a wall, leaping onto an elevated platform, sliding down a cable, and dropping 50 feet onto a huge pad, Mirror’s Edge was exhilarating in a way that no other game had been before or has been since matched.
Too bad, then, that there are about five of those moments across the entire game. The rest of the game is an exercise in trial and error, guessing and failing, frustration and profanity. The game is linear, so every time you enter an area, perhaps they player character Faith has run it hundreds of times, but you, the player, have never seen it before. This leads to trying to grab onto things that are ungrabable, coming face to face with a wall and having to stop to look around where to jump to next, running in circles while being shot at trying to figure out where the game wants you to go, and of course, falling. Falling, falling, falling, and even more falling. Collision detection issues abound, leaving you jumping up and down several times in front of a ledge you desperately need to grab on to before being gunned down by a helicopter. Freerunning and parkour are easily the best, most memorable part of Mirror’s Edge, so it’s a testament to how good it can be that something so broken could be so incredible.
Problem #3: It was short.
I commented earlier that I had played Mirror’s Edge three times before. And it’s true – I played it front to back twice after it came out, and once before writing this article following E3. I even spent some time working on a few of the time trials. My total playtime? 15.3 hours on Steam. Even though in each playthrough I died dozens upon dozens of times (sometimes at the same part), my time per playthrough is about 5 hours. There’s no real standard play length for any game, but anytime a full-priced triple-A release comes in under 10 hours, people are going to be disappointed. The world of Mirror’s Edge could have been a limitless playground; instead, you’re confined to a handful of rooftops and corridors with little time or space to enjoy them.
Problem #4: The combat and other gameplay was atrocious.
I mentioned before that I am a fan of the freerunning, and how no other game prior or since Mirror’s Edge has even come close to matching it. It’s a good thing too, because that’s about the only gameplay that reaches past tolerable. The idea behind the gameplay is solid: you’re a small runner, not a heavily armored super-soldier, so combat should be quick in, quick out, hit hard and fast, and avoid confrontation whenever possible. Sadly, that’s not how the game worked out. During the tutorial, you are taught nothing more than a couple punches and kicks and a disarm maneuver. You are then expected to evade and attack squads of 3-6 heavily armed and armored soldiers in fairly small environments. And unless you manage to sneak up on someone, it takes more than one attack to take out an enemy than you’re allowed to dish out before they shove you away and open fire. This also made the boss fights downright intolerable. It took a number of blows before an assassin you’ve been chasing goes down, and most of those attacks you learn throughout the game are pretty much worthless face to face with an enemy. Mash your attack button, hope, reload, and hope some more.
You’re told to try to separate your enemies and attack from different angles, but from the moment combat starts, all enemies know of your exact position at all times. There is no option for hiding, no sneaking, no stealth. You simply have to run around and around until you can find a close enough gap where you can run at and attack the police officer before you catch too many bullets, while hoping you’re far enough away from the other four who know exactly where you are. And as you run around, slowly picking off those officers one by one, you’d better hope the last one doesn’t kill you, because you’re going to have to go back and go through the whole encounter again.
It seems almost insulting to the subject matter that these encounters are required at all. The whole point of parkour and freerunning is being able to go where others cannot, seeing paths and strategies invisible to everyone else. But then you’re shoved into a parking garage with the only exit being an elevator watched over by a soldier in full body armor with a SAW and unlimited ammunition.
The concept isn’t the only thing about the combat that’s broken either. There were a number of times in my last playthrough where I tried to run past a cop, only for my character to stop, my point of view turned 90 degrees toward the officer, who then reached out and shoved her. Mind you, I didn’t say the officer grabbed the player character Faith. The GAME stopped her, turned her, THEN the cop shoved her! I get that combat is a necessary and complicated mechanic in the narrative and world of Mirror’s Edge, but it gets it so wrong that it’s impossible to overlook.
Problem #5: The cutscenes were completely unwatchable.
Maybe this one is just me, but when I started Mirror’s Edge and got to the first cutscene, my jaw dropped. Even now, the graphics of Mirror’s Edge could still be considered beautiful and impressive, but those cutscenes are as ugly as I have ever seen compared to their game. I’m not usually one to criticize artistic choices, but the differences between the gameplay and the cutscenes are so incongruent that you would never guess they were from the same game if you didn’t know better. There are games where comic-style cutscenes match the narrative style and enhance the gameplay. But with Mirror’s Edge, there’s no reason for comic cutscenes to exist. There’s nothing comic-y about the game, and there was certainly budget and talent for something more appropriate. To be honest, I have no idea why EA and DICE decided to take cutscenes in that direction, but the stylistic decision certainly didn’t contribute anything to the overall work, and made it look cheap and disjointed.
I could certainly go on talking about the problems with Mirror’s Edge: the characters were unlikable and poorly developed, storylines went nowhere or ended just when they got interesting, bad quicktime events, a slow motion feature that didn’t really contribute much to combat. The list goes on, but I’ve written far more about Mirror’s Edge than I thought I would.
It’s shocking to me then, after everything here, that I’m STILL excited for Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst. It’s clear I’m not the only one either. During EA’s E3 2015 press conference, the broadcast had banner announcements saying how many minutes were left until Mirror’s Edge would be shown. Despite its many flaws, this is a game that many people loved and are passionate about. There’s much to be hopeful for, too. Clearly, the first Mirror’s Edge was an experiment, and if the flaws can be fixed, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst has a pretty high potential ceiling. Next time, I’m going to discuss what Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst needs to do to be successful. For now, enjoy the trailer from E3 2015 and if you’re a fan, stay optimistic.
Was I too harsh in my critique of Mirror’s Edge? What did you think of the original? Will you be playing Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst when it’s released in February 2016? Sound off in the comments below.