Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Review: Mirror's Edge

In a nutshell, when you combine equal parts parkour, cel shaded animation, inane anti-establishment pap and overuse of primary colors, you get this game.

Overview/Plot -
Basically, in the future America has become a super-fascist/corporate dictatorship/police state. You know, all the conflicting babble that neo-hippies these days rant about, usually injecting the word halliburton or a slur against (now thankfully) former President Gee Dubya Bush in the mix for good measure. It's so over the top it's practically become a cartoon unto itself (a bit ironic, considering the cut scenes are all cel-shaded but the gameplay itself tries for hyper-realistic detail).

The last few pockets of la resistance can only exist because they communicate via a group of athletic young iconoclasts called "runners" who afford their daily bread carrying contraband and sedition in bright yellow and black nylon carrying cases, leaping from rooftop to rooftop.

This game is the wet dream made real for every parkour enthusiast who ever jumped an alleyway pretending he was on the run from "the man." Because that's what you're doing in this game, only the fate of the WORLD rests upon your skinny, scuffed self being able to navigate 4 blocks of shiny, glistening downtown rooftops without falling to your death, being shot by snipers or plain old beaten up by cops with sticks.

The protagonist in Mirror's Edge is a scrappy girl from the streets of undisclosed Asian origin. In the cut scenes, the method of animation, body language and voice acting makes it appear suspiciously close to as if someone had taken a certain female animated insurance spokesbabe, strapped down her chest under an ace bandage, and dipped her head in black printer's ink. That's right: Emo Esurance.

Graphics -
In the cut scenes, the world is a dark, gritty, and flat. This is a direct contrast with the gameplay which is bright, clean, shiny and incredibly detailed. In fact, I'd say the visual effects in the game are incredibly impressive. The levels are intricately designed, the models are elegantly authored, the textures are rich in color and detail. The strongest thing this game has going for it is how impressive the visual experience is. If you have an Aegia PhysX card (or an 8000 or 9000 series nVidia card), there is PhysX support which comes into play mostly in the area of flapping/tearing fabric or plastic or shattering glass, both to impressive effect.

Sound -
The voice acting is pretty good, too. There's not a whole lot in the way of background music, but the ambience is pretty good as well. One amusing note is that with all the jumping, landing, grabbing, vaulting, struggling, punching, and getting punched that is involved in this game, the constant grunts and exclamations of your protagonist might make somebody in the next room think you were playing a game of a more salacious nature.

Gameplay -
The problem is, the authors of this game were so caught up in making it impressive that they largely neglected to make it fun. The punishment for even the slightest failure is either instant death, or falling to the bottom of a tedious section you will have to repeat (making you instead WISH for instant death). The game does supply you with a handy "push this button to get pointed to your goal" button, but often it is entirely unobvious (if not unfathomable) how one is supposed to navigate there, even given your character's nigh-superhuman preternatural ability to run along and jump off of perfectly smooth vertical surfaces.

And the one area where the game decides to eschew fantasy and embrace reality is the area of how much physical abuse you can endure before loss of consciousness. Being stuck by a melee attack (which always seems to involve the butt of a large gun to the head) twice causes you slump to the floor and black out, and at best you can suffer through 3 distinct bullet wounds, the fourth causing you to spontaneously shuffle off your skinny mortal coil. The "quick push the button" quicktime event that is every single melee encounter in the game is excruciatingly unforgiving with a despairingly narrow window in which pushing the button has any effect. Think the Call of Duty 4 "press V to kill the dog before it rips out your throat" dynamic, but with the difficulty setting on "sadistic." I was completely unable to ever successfully complete any such encounter without first using bullet time.

The game is also (perhaps mercifully) short, bordering on the abrupt. Even with multiple deaths and having to repeat certain sections 20 times or more, I still finished this game in my first sitting in around 4 hours. Compounding this problem is the static, limited, and surprisingly linear (especially for a game supposed to be about the limitless freedom of parkour) nature of the levels makes the replay value of the title virtually zilch, unless you're obsessive about getting the best time on time trial, which frankly never resonated with me in any game.

I'm not one for wanting to spoil plot points either, but there's also a massively obvious case of "Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!" going on here that got telegraphed within the first 30 minutes of the game.

Conclusion -
Mirror's edge makes for a very impressive proof of concept, and an excellent and beautiful tech demo. The controls are even pretty good, for a console port. No, the problem here is the actual game itself. I found playing it an exercise in frustration (one that insulted my intelligence to boot), and actually sort of thankful it was so short. I can safely say I do not feel the need to ever play it again.

Grade: C
, and it only got that high on technical merit.

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