Why it’s great to see the return of Mirror’s Edge

Feature Ryan Lambie 11 Jun 2014 - 06:21

As EA unveils its new Mirror’s Edge, Ryan revisits the 2008 original, and explains why a new entry is worth looking forward to...

What an extraordinary year for gaming 2008 was. From Grand Theft Auto IV to World Of Goo and Fallout 3 to Braid, that year saw the release of great games of just about every kind. It was also a year of expression and great ideas from the time-control mechanics of Race Driver: Grid to the aforementioned Braid, to the astonishing visuals of Okami - a game still spoken about in hushed tones today.

Then there was Mirror’s Edge, EA DICE’s action game which seemed to fit right into the videogaming landscape of the time. It had some of the swagger of a game from a major publisher (though by no means the same Hollywood movie-level budget of GTA IV), but also a sensitivity to design and innovation you might expect from a great indie title.

Introducing a lithe, apparently fearless lead character named Faith, Mirror’s Edge was set in a near-future dystopia where surveillance technology has eradicated crime at the expense of freedom. With the goverment closely monitoring all digital means of communication, Faith is one of a new breed of couriers, who deliver hand-written messages between resistance groups who prefer to keep themselves firmly off the grid. 

Against this dystopian backdrop, a conspiracy thriller plays out, with Faith’s sister framed for murder. As Faith searches for the true culprit, she’s drawn into the machinations of a security firm’s secret project called Icarus. That’s the gist of the story, which largely takes a back seat to the sheer pace of the game’s on-foot action sequences.

Mirror’s Edge offered up a first-person sprint across a gleaming future city: a platform game for a generation raised on Super Mario 64 rather than its 2D predecessors. In its finest moments, EA DICE’s creation felt fast, fluid and instinctive: the correct route across the jungle of rooftops picked out with splashes of red against glaring white expanses of glass and concrete. The game kept pressing you on through these sequences; there was always a helicopter or a platoon of security guards hot on your heels, forcing you to remain at a dizzying sprint across yawning gaps and down ventilation shafts.

In most first-person games, the physical presence of the character you’re playing is repeatedly upstaged by the guns they’re carrying. In Mirror’s Edge, the almost complete lack of guns allowed Grace’s strength and skill to take centre stage. Just as a decent racing sim provides us with the illusion that we’re sitting at the helm of a machine with real power rumbling under the bonnet, so Mirror’s Edge made us believe that we were inhabiting the skin of someone fast, strong and unspeakably cool.

Interestingly, DICE didn’t eschew gunplay entirely, but the studio did manage to make the rare moments where you could pick up a gun seem utterly unrewarding. For some, this may have seemed like a terrible oversight, particularly when compared to the high-calibre delights of DICE’s own Battlefield series. Yet the tedium of handling a firearm in Mirror’s Edge was arguably the point: once you’d kicked an armed guard square in the sternum and then leapt from the rooftop of one skyscraper to another, firing a gun seemed positively mundane by comparison. 

It shouldn’t be forgotten, however, that not everything in Mirror’s Edge worked. The exhilarating freedom of those rooftop sequences was punctuated by areas where you were forced to slowly pick your way through dimly-lit, cluttered interiors, and it was in these moments that DICE showed its lack of design experience when it came to platformers - particularly when compared to a studio like Naughty Dog, who showed a particular talent for intuitive level design in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune the previous year.

There were signs, both in these muddled internal layouts and the occasionally frustrating controls, that Mirror’s Edge hadn’t been given quite enough time or money to be polished off to the level it deserved, and the cheap-looking, 2D animated cut-scenes only served to underline our suspicions. And yet, despite all these drawbacks, there were constant flashes of intelligence, novelty and sheer brilliance in Mirror’s Edge. Its central character, for one thing, was reassuringly different: a female lead whose gender is neither the crux of the story nor something to be leered over - she’s an athlete and resistance fighter who just happens to be a woman. That she wasn't caucasian, male or overtly obsessed with machine guns alone made her stand out. 

Like the game around her, there was something about Faith that deserved to be fleshed out and expanded on - yet for a while, it looked as though Mirror’s Edge would remain a stand-alone outing. A sequel was discussed as long ago as 2009, but two years later, worrying reports emerged that EA had rejected a prototype which could have led to Mirror’s Edge 2.

After years of almost total silence, a sequel to Mirror’s Edge was finally announced at E3 last year. And at this year’s expo, DICE released a video which showed off its current work in progress. Although the footage is still at the ‘conceptual prototype’ stage, it’s still Mirror’s Edge as we remember it: graceful, minimal, and breathtakingly fast-moving. Most importantly, it looks as though DICE is in the process of fixing some of the more disappointing aspects of the original - that the game's simply called Mirror's Edge also suggests that what we're in for is a top-to-bottom reimagining of the original rather than a sequel.

The developer has talked about making the level design less linear: more skilled players can go for shorter, more hazardous paths, while clumsier free runners can take circuitous yet less dangerous routes through each stage. Combat appears to have been given an overhaul, too, with Faith using her fighting skills as well as her speed and agility to take down enemies who are far stronger and better armed than she is - Assassin’s Creed-like aerial take-downs are joined by kicks, punches and sliding tackles which send bad guys flailing into the air. Faith still doesn’t pack a firearm, but then, she doesn’t particularly need one. As audio director James Slavin puts it, “She’s a projectile. She hits fast and hard, and then she moves on.”

The only disappointment to come from DICE’s E3 reveal, perhaps, is that its Mirror’s Edge sequel isn’t more complete than it currently is. On the other hand, it’s pleasing to see a developer taking its time over a sequel, and apparently trying its best to deliver on the promise of its predecessor.

Even today, 2008‘s Mirror’s Edge remains one of the quirky highlights from the last generation. Nothing looked or played like it at the time, and in its best moments, it has a sense of flow and movement which still feels modern today. At a time when developers are set on using the new generation of consoles to create ever broader and more elaborate worlds - worlds still full of guns and explosions - a new Mirror’s Edge could provide us with a direct, thrilling alternative.

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