Why Mirror’s Edge is a Flawed Masterpiece

There are very few games from the last generation that have reached the same cult status that Mirror’s Edge has.  The game was released within a month of Dead Space, Saints Row 2, Rock Band 2, Far Cry 2, Fable II, Fallout 3, LittleBigPlanet, MotorStorm: Pacific Rift, Resistance 2, Gears of War 2, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, Call of Duty: World at War, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, Left 4 Dead, Need for Speed: Undercover, Sonic Unleashed, Tomb Raider: Underworld, Prince of Persia (2008), and the PC version of Grand Theft Auto IV.  If Microsoft was dumb for releasing Rise of the Tomb Raider on the same day as Fallout 4 last year, then I don’t know what that would make EA in 2008.  Who was going to buy a brand new IP with an unproven core mechanic when they could buy other games that they knew they would like?  Add to this the fact that the game’s critical reception was pretty muted.  The game got a 9.5 from OXM and an A- from I-UP but also a 5 from Edge, 3 Stars from Giant Bomb, and a 7 from Gamespot.  Hell, even IGN’s PC reviewer and console reviewer had fairly different thoughts on the game.  Despite the game ending up with a respectable 7981 on Metacritic, you couldn’t call it anything other than divisive.  And even as a fan of the game, I can’t really dispute the issues that most critics had with it.  The game is incredibly flawed, and it is just a matter of whether or not you can overlook those flaws and appreciate what the game does right.  But through positive word of mouth and steep discounts, the game eventually overcame its poor initial sales to sell 2.5 million units over time.  This led to EA finally green-lighting a sequel after years of toying with the idea.  And while the recent beta made me both excited and nervous about next month’s Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, I decided to hop back into the original to remember what made it so great.  Because after eight years, there is still nothing quite like Mirror’s Edge.

Mirror’s Edge is still a beautiful game

What makes Mirror’s Edge so special is that unlike every other game I mentioned in the opening paragraph, it was doing something that had never been done.  At a time when this industry was rife with sequels and shooters, Mirror’s Edge dared to be different.  It was a game where the primary mechanic was running and climbing, and unlike the Assassin’s Creed series which had launched just a year before, these mechanics were not as simple as pushing a button to climb.  This is actually where the game received a lot of its initial criticism.  Mirror’s Edge is a difficult game that will require trial and error and mastery of the controls.  It is at its core a first person platformer.  You will lose momentum or fall down and have to learn from these mistakes, and the game came out at a time when that idea wasn’t in vogue.  Now we have games such as Dark Souls in the AAA space as well as Super Meat Boy, Hotline Miami, and countless other independent games that thrive on the idea of trial and error.  And much like those games, the difficult nature of Mirror’s Edge makes it even more satisfying when you finally accomplish what you were trying to do.  Whether it is completing a time trial, beating your speedrun time, completing a gunless run of the game, or even just making it through a section of the campaign you find difficult, there are countless moments of triumph throughout Mirror’s Edge.  And when you string together five traversal moves in a row perfectly, you feel like you are the best video game player in the world. It’s well worth some of the initial frustration that you might feel upon picking the game up.

All of this works because of a well designed control scheme.  There are a lot of different moves that you have to pull off, and this can be daunting at first.  However, all of them are executed with just three buttons and the analog sticks.  The smartest thing this game does mirrorsedge-pc-screenshot3control wise is that the L1 button is used for jumping and all upwards movements such as vaulting, climbing, and wall running while the L2 button is used for sliding and any downwards movements such as dropping from a ledge and performing rolls.  If you get it ingrained in your mind that the front button means up and the back one means down along with the R1 button being used for a 180° turn, then you will be able to approach any situation in Mirror’s Edge without needing to overthink it.  You can just attack any obstacle head on and let muscle memory take over.  You enter a zen-like state where you start to see the level present itself to you and start thinking four moves ahead.  Just like any other first person game, the left stick moves your character and the right stick controls where you look.  However, this is pivotal in Mirror’s Edge.  Where you look ultimately determines where you perform your next action.  The amount of time you spend not on the ground means that you need to master using these two sticks in conjunction with each other in a way that is similar to other first person games but not exactly the same.  For instance, if you climb a wall horizontally and turn around while doing so, you will no longer be climbing that wall.  However, if you climb a wall vertically, you are free to look around as long as you keep running with the left stick.  And while this might sound somewhat complicated, it all makes sense when you pick up the controller.  A lot of this has to do with their commitment to the first person perspective.  When Faith climbs a ladder or grabs a ledge, you see her hands and arms animate the action very deliberately like a character in a Starbreeze game.  But DICE takes it even further here by having her stick her arms out when she crosses a beam, push her arms flat against the wall when walking 687474703a2f2f7777772e643467616d65706c61792e636f6d2f77702d636f6e74656e742f75706c6f6164732f323031302f30352f6d6972726f72735f656467655f77616c6c5f72756e2e6a7067along an edge, swing her legs out in front of her when holding on to a bar, or bring her knee up when vaulting off an object.  All of these animations and more create a visual language that makes you feel like you are controlling a character as opposed to a camera.  All of this comes together in a way that can only be described with one word; flow.  Flow is a bit of an ambiguous term and actually fairly controversial in game studies circles, but as far as I’m concerned Mirror’s Edge is the epitome of it.  When everything clicks and you make it through a level without slowing down or stopping, it feels incredibly satisfying and natural in a way that no game before or since has been able to capture.  Some people might never reach that point, and the campaign does have some design flaws that could cause this, but if you do it is really incredible.

The biggest flaw this game has comes in the form of guns.  I’m not the first person to say this, and I won’t be the last one either.  The game allowed Faith to steal guns from enemies and basically start shooting her way through levels.  There is a way this can work conceptually, but I do think that adding the ability to shoot guns in any fashion would have been a bad idea.  It’s a decision that appears to be pandering to an audience that would not buy this game in the first place and would only annoy the people who were interested in the game.  However, the implementation of them is as bad as it could possibly be.  The idea of stealing a gun from an enemy is cool, but it requires timing that matches up with the gun flashing red but not the actual animation.  This means that you have to run up to a guy, stop, and then wait for the gun to flash red.  And then once you succeed at that (which isn’t a guaranteed outcome), you then can continue to use the gun until you perform your next traversal move or run out of ammo.  The shooting here is terrible, which is somewhat surprising coming from DICE but not really surprising considering you have no button to aim down sights and the entire game encourages constant movement.  If Faith ran up to a guard, stole his gun, and then quickly fired a shot at a nearby enemy while keeping her forward momentum and then dropping the gun, all would be fine.  I’m all for machine-gun-less games, but if they had to be here, that would be the ideal way to incorporate them.  Instead the way they are implemented ruins the flow of the game. You don’t have to use them, and going through a gunless run of the game is actually pretty satisfying, but there are some sections that are clearly designed with guns in mind, and trying to run through them can be very frustrating.

Using guns is never as cool as it looks in this screenshot

The only other complaint I have with the game is the story.  The world of Mirror’s Edge is conceptually awesome and visually striking.  Eight years later the art style holds up and the Solar Fields soundtrack is incredible.  The idea of being a messenger in a dystopian society who is forced to deliver messages via the rooftops is one with a lot of promise.  However, all of this is dropped almost immediately as you get caught up in a larger political conspiracy that is never fully explained, full of unmemorable characters with unclear motivations, with an ending that doesn’t really conclude anything.  The story isn’t the reason you come to this game, but it is a shame that there is a fair amount of wasted potential given the great setup and incredible visual design.

And if you beat the five hour campaign and never touch the game again, you will probably come away thinking that it is a fun game with a lot of missed opportunities and wasted potential.  It really isn’t until you start diving into the speedruns and particularly the time trials that the game comes into its own.  Mirror’s Edge built a respectable speedrunning Mirror's_Edge_(PC)_25community, and there are multiple reasons for that.  The first is that the levels and mechanics are both designed in a way that makes them easy to exploit and experiment with.  Despite being linear, you are never being shuffled from hallway to hallway in Mirror’s Edge.  This means that you can try to find faster ways to get to the level and changing just one jump can shave much needed seconds off of your time.  The game also goes out of its way to encourage speedrunning.  There is an option on the main menu where you can load into a level and it will clock your time for you.  This is complete with leader boards and a reasonable but difficult qualifying time to work towards.  I beat all of the qualifying times in my quest to get the platinum trophy, and it was an incredibly difficult yet rewarding experience.

But the best part of Mirror’s Edge has to be the time trials mode.  This mode takes levels from the main game and has you navigate them in completely different ways.  It really shows off how well these levels are designed.  My favorite is one that takes place in the game’s final location.  In the story, you barely interact with this place.  However, the time trial has you running all over it in a way that I never realized was possible.  It really is an incredible display of the game’s level design that made me want to go back and look at each level in a completely different way.  This mode is built for replayability too.  It has the same leader boards as the speedruns and the qualifying times are replaced by a three star system.  But what really makes it great is the almost instant restarts and the checkpoints which tell you how you are doing compared to your best run.  In the speedruns, you might not realize until 6 minutes in that you won’t make the qualifying time.  The time trial mode doesn’t waste your time though, and a botched run gives you the freedom to either experiment or try again.  It’s telling that the DLC they put out for this game was all based on the time trials mode. It feels like the knew what the draw was.

The Pure Time Trials DLC is definitely worth checking out.

I think I don’t need to tell you at this point that I love this game.  Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, and I’m cautiously optimistic for it.  However, nothing will ever be quite like the first game.  Despite terrible gunplay and a forgettable story that drag the campaign down, Mirror’s Edge is still a game that everybody should play.  And it is only a testament to its quality that despite these glaring and universally agreed upon flaws, it is still a fan favorite after all these years. Mirror’s Edge deserves to be remembered as one of the previous generation’s early classics, and I hope time continues to be kind to it.

Note: This piece was lightly edited in September 2018 as part of a site overhaul.

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