Mirror’s Edge

Ah, Mirror’s Edge, you beautiful little victim of the hype machine. Highly promoted, widely derided, deeply discounted. Having played through half the levels already, I’m not yet convinced that the basic gameplay here deserves the complaints that have been directed at it. Apparently some people have tried to treat the game like a shooter, and were disappointed, and even more people tried to treat it like a GTA-style open-world game, and were even more disappointed: you can vary your path through the levels, but not that much. But taken on its own terms, it’s not bad. (A bit unvarying, perhaps, but I expect to finish Story Mode before I get tired of it.) Basically what we have here is a 3D platformer in the mold of Prince of Persia and Tomb Raider, but in first-person perspective, and with people shooting at you to encourage you to keep moving. You can shoot back if you like, but why would you? That would just slow you down, and that’s clearly not what the game wants. Whenever I look at the mission objectives tab, I see a note in the corner stating that I have not yet fired a single shot, and this feels a lot like the “conduct” challenges in Nethack.

I should say some words about the visual style right away, because it’s the game’s shiniest feature. While the rendering is photorealistic and the world is reasonably detailed, the use of color is stylized. Everything looks like it has a fresh coat of paint: it’s all gleaming white or highly-saturated solid colors over large areas. It’s like being inside the world’s largest modernist sculpture, and it’s definitely the cleanest-looking urban dystopia I’ve ever seen.

The really interesting thing, though, is the way the colors figure into gameplay. For example, losing health causes the colors to desaturate, as if the bright look of the world is simply a function of the observer’s outlook. (Perhaps to the average man on the street it looks more like a normal city.) Also, color is often simply used to make significant items pop, particularly through what is called “Runner Vision”. Runner Vision means that special opportunities for movement, such as pipes you can climb or planks you can use as springboards, are colored red. While some things seem to be permanently red, Runner Vision is basically dynamic: white things fade to red as you approach them. If I had been told to implement something like this, I’d probably have done it through colored lighting — changing the light on specific objects, as seen in, e.g., the Thief games (where it’s done to highlight the object currently in focus), is pretty easy to do in most graphics engines. But it doesn’t seem to have been done that way here. The red things look like they’re lit the same as always, just painted red now.

Moving through this environment with a cocky swagger are the Runners, outlaw couriers who oppose the system and promote freedom of information with the power of parkour. Runners are basically superheroes, albeit ones whose main power is running away. Seriously, the way you leap from rooftop to rooftop here is something that used to be the exclusive domain of people who were explicitly superhuman, rather than just free-spirited and driven to great lengths by oppression. The first thing I was reminded of by the largely rooftop-based environment here, and the way you interact with it, was the Treyarch Spider-Man games. (Particularly the first one, which has a chase scene with the supervillain Venom that’s very similar in feel to the chase scene with another Runner in level 3.) The villains are similarly comic-bookish, clichés of corruption covering up some kind of secret project. The cutscenes between the levels emphasize this by switching to a more cartoony flat-shaded look, which is distinctly weird in context. Traditionally, pre-rendered cutscenes are more realistic than interactive content.

Anyway, it’ll probably take me only one more day to wrap up Story Mode. I’ll have some things to say about the mechanics of the first-person interface tomorrow.

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