Mirror’s Edge was a very good game. Visually stunning, outside of the 2D cutscenes at any rate. And I loved the free-running – the game made control simple, and then could concentrate on making the level design itself interesting and complex.
But I’m not sure I’d want to recommend it to people. Because for every awesome moment of gravity defying jumping there was a section made of utter fail and bullets. Consider this a bit of a rant about MEs combat, as well as some thoughts on what would have worked much better if they’d put a bit more thought into it. I've avoided much talk about the non-combat gameplay or the storyline, as it was the combat that really ruined the experience for me.
“There’s a murder, Merc!” exclaims Faith over her Bluetooth mobile phone thing. “I’m tracking down the murderer!” More sighs from Merc on the other end. “I’m going to bring this evil murderer to justice!” continues Faith down the phone, while she repeatedly punches a dead police officer in the face. “What’s that, Merc? ’Do some actual delivery work’? No chance, I’m on the trail of a murderer!”
Faith’s moral outrage at the murder of some bloke she hardly knew is hilarious. Not least because by the time you reach the crime scene at the end of level 2, chances are you’ve already killed at least one police officer.
Admittedly it isn’t entirely Faith’s fault. The rooftop speed police take their job very seriously. “There’s someone up here, sarge. They’re running around, sarge! What’ll we do sarge?” “Running? Not on my watch! Shoot to kill, lads! Free doughnuts for the one who takes her down!”
For the first level or so the designers remembered they were supposed to be making a game about running. You’re able to actually escape the police, and it feels like a triumph. Only then Faith’s magical Red-Paint-O-Vision kicks in, highlighting officers with a red glow that means “If you don’t kill this one he’ll shoot you in the back and totally mess up your jump. And then you’ll fall and die and have to go back to that last checkpoint. You know the one. It was way back over there somewhere.”
The game tries to give you a variety of combat options. Disarming opponents sounds like a winner; you steal their gun and knock them out. It’s a non-lethal takedown even Bond would be proud of. When it works, at least. Even if you complete the QTE-style disarm, you have to contend with the painfully long animations. Looking cool and flashy is no good if you end up dead.
Every time Faith disarms someone, she briefly thinks she’s back on her primary school Baton Twirling squad. “I’m gonna win!” thinks 8-year old Inner Faith happily, as the machine gun she’s stolen spins wildly up into the air. Meanwhile, three SWAT men shoot her repeatedly in the face with shotguns. Usually the gun you’ve nicked falls out of the air at just the right time to hit your rapidly collapsing self on the head like a cartoon anvil.
So pretty quickly you find disarming a bit hit and miss. As in the police hit Miss Faith in the face a lot while she does it. So you turn to the other part of your arsenal. Fists and feet. Now, usually, if someone punched me in the face or kicked me in the groin, I’d at least get hurt. But either the police are made of steel or Faith punches like a girl.
Most enemies require four or five hits to take them down. And if you try and punch the same enemy too much he gets some sort of temporary invulnerability. Then he smacks you in the face. And by god, do you feel it. None of this “Oh, did you hit me in the face? I didn’t feel a thing”, but more “Oh god you hit me in the face!” And while Faith staggers around like a drunk, all the police are quite free to shoot you repeatedly. It’s a recurring theme.
Eventually, you’ll get your hands on a gun and not die in the process. At this point you’re usually set to get through most combat situations. The dodgy bullet time mechanic is no good for lining up shots or nicking guns like it should be, but it’s handy for retreating to the nearest cover to let your health recharge. Other than that it’s a case of strafing and aiming, hoping the auto aim guides the bullets home before you run out of ammo.
The problem with the combat is that it breaks the flow of the game entirely. Mirror’s Edge is about speed and momentum, but every combat section brings this momentum to a halt as you go through the annoying process of dodgy combat. It gets worse in the second half of the game where the tedium of fighting outweighs the actual fun running sections. By the final level it’s all combat, with obstacles like air vents put in only to ensure you don’t carry weapons from one battle to the next.
It seems clear that the combat was added in later, probably due to some fear that the game wouldn’t do so well without people to kill every five minutes. If anything, the combat has been picked up on again and again in reviews as a real weak point. It adds nothing to the game. With some thought, though, it might not have been so bad.
A loading tip screen suggests stringing moves together with combat. But despite pulling off a flying kick from a running wall jump, it did no extra damage. The officer did his usual stagger, shook it off, and still required a volley of punches to drop. Combining running and combat like this would have diminished that sense of there being two separate games at work in Mirror’s Edge, and perhaps improved the experience as a whole.
From a design point of view, the police shouldn’t be treated as enemies to defeat. They should be seen as obstacles to overcome, just like a string of jumps or a gap to swing over.
Why not give Faith a charging headbutt so she could knock a policeman over and keep going? Or let Faith use that move in one of the loading screens, where she throws one policeman into another and runs off? Why not include boxes or shelves that you can knock over as you run by to slow down any officers running after you? Faith’s abilities should be about delaying her pursuers long enough to escape, not leaving a trail of bodies.
I expect there was some thinking along these lines. But it’s a shame that like so many other games they pushed for a Christmas release. A release date in less crowded times would have allowed for some much needed polish on these frustrating sections, and could well have resulted in better sales. Here’s hoping they take this on board for a sequel.