Mirror’s Edge is a bit like a platypus; its component pieces are all familiar, but when assembled, they create something altogether new and wonderful. It’s played in first person, and has some guns, but certainly isn’t a first person shooter. There’s plenty of jumping and puzzles to solve, but it’s not a platformer. It has a breakneck pace and time trials, but it’s definitely not a racing game. It’s all of these and none of them, a bizarre amalgamation of style and speed that will leave you breathless and perhaps even a bit dizzy. Yes, Mirror’s Edge is many things, but boring sure ain’t one of them.
In yet another dystopian future (seriously, someone make a game where the future is a happy place, please), the government has begun sticking its nose into electronic communication so frequently that anyone wanting to keep their messages private uses a messenger called a runner instead. You play as Faith, one such nimble bag-carrier, who uses her athletic prowess to spring from rooftop to rooftop as she eludes the authorities and generally helps stick it to the man. She’s content to Fight the Power in her own small way until her policewoman sister is framed for murder by a mysterious conspiracy of someones.
Faith could take on the establishment guns blazing, but she’s not that kind of girl and besides, you’ve played that game before. Instead, you’ll use Faith’s skill as a runner to access areas and information that would be off-limits to the status quo who restrict themselves to street level. What this means in practical terms is lots of running and jumping from roof to roof, crawling through countless airducts, access corridors, and tunnels, to track your quarry and obtain the info you need to clear your sister’s name.
The police naturally aren’t thrilled with your interference, so you spend much of the game running for your life full-tilt as they attempt to gun you down. You could stand and fight – Faith has a number of sweet combat moves at her disposal – but the wiser move is almost always to turn and run. Whether you put up your dukes or take to your heels, you’ll have to make split-second decision after split-second decision in order to succeed. Knock the cop out or shoot him where he stands? Run for the ledge or shimmy up the pipe? Whatever you’re going to do, do it fast; stop to take a breath or get your bearings, and you’ll likely end up dead.
This frenetic pace is, ironically, both a huge part of the game’s appeal and its frustration. The gogogo nature of the levels is a perfect fit with the plot and your character, especially given the game’s first-person view. You truly begin to feel like a runner, pushing your body to its limits to stay one step ahead of the law. The world around you blurs as you pick up speed, sounds dies out until all you can hear is the rattling of your own breath. All that matters is the next jump, the next slide, the next door. It’s exhilarating, but it doesn’t leave much room for exploration or planning. Players that like to check out an environment’s every last nook and cranny will howl in frustration as they’re forced to overlook huge sections of the city in order to make their escapes.
Fortunately, you’re not barreling through a level completely blind. Most of the Mirror’s Edge scenery is stark and pristine, as though the entire city has been dunked in a bucket of whitewash, but bright and bold swaths of color accent the landscape, including the vibrant red that your “runner vision” uses to nudge you in the right direction. A bright red door might mark your entry point to the next part of the level, or red pipes will lead you to higher ground. It’s a beautifully seamless and nonintrusive way of pointing you towards the current goal, but if that’s not quite enough, you can also hit the B button to automatically look in the right direction. The two systems combined work very well at preventing you from ever feeling lost or confused about where you’re supposed to go.
Not that getting there is all that easy. When you’re on the run, the need to make quick decisions on the fly (pun intended) will, inevitably, lead you to occasionally make the wrong choice. Even if you do go the right way, the demanding jump, roll, and run moves you have to make will sometimes tangle your fingers to the point of breaking, at least the first few times you try them. Mirror’s Edge is very much a learn-by-failure kind of game – expect to die a lot. There are plenty of checkpoints peppered throughout each level, so you won’t have to retrace your steps that much when you die, but be prepared to try jumps over and over and over again before you get them right.
Compounding the frustration is the fact that using the 360 controller’s shoulder buttons to jump is clumsy and awkward. The type of quickshot tapping that running up a wall, turning 180 degrees and leaping to a ledge requires would be easier to do if you could simply map jump to one of the face buttons, but you can’t. You can choose from one of a very few preset controller figurations, and in all of them, jumping is controlled with a shoulder button. It would be far more user-friendly for less frequently used actions like disarm or “action” to be assigned to the less-than-responsive shoulder buttons, but you get what you get. You can, at least, tinker with the sensitivity of the buttons, which helps alleviate the problem somewhat.
Not all of Mirror’s Edge takes place at such a breathless pace, though. Each level has its fair share of environmental puzzles that are completely free of police interference, so you can take your time solving them. These puzzles are elegantly simple, relying more on precision moves and expert timing than overcomplicated scenarios. You’ll have to flip a few switches here and there, but for the most part the challenge comes from finding ways to reach catwalks, rooftops, and ledges that would seem to require a rewriting of the laws of physics, or at the very least a pair of wings. Solving these puzzles is immensely satisfying and a welcome respite after the high-octane pace of the rest of the game.
Let me confess something to you now: I haven’t finished Mirror’s Edge. And if I’m being completely honest with both you and myself, I probably never will. Not because it’s a bad game – it’s actually one of my favorites of the year – but because I simply don’t have the kind of patience it requires. If you can repeat the same steps and try the same jump ten times in a row without losing your cool or feeling the urge to throw your controller off the balcony, then I urge you to pick up this wonderfully different and superstylish game. If, like me, even the thought of such try-and-fail gameplay makes your eye twitch, hand the controller off to your pal and just watch. Whichever approach you choose, Mirror’s Edge is something you absolutely should make an effort to experience. It’s very short – even the most clumsy players will complete it in about ten hours or less – but it’s so fresh and unusual that you simply must try it. You may never become such a good runner that you can turn off your runner vision and traverse maps from memory (which is the best way to complete the time trials, by the way), but this is a game you’ll be glad exists, just the same. Even if you don’t come to love Mirror’s Edge, you’ll almost certainly appreciate it.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Susan Arendt wants Faith’s sweet shoes.