Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Come fire, come fire / Let it burn and love come racing through

Imagine a city. In its past, it was a dirty and dangerous place. Safety was a luxury, something not inherent in the world. To ensure safety, the people turned to City Hall, and gave those in power the ability to carefully monitor and protect them. Dangerous information and digital communications were filtered by the government until such data was safe for public consumption. The people needed these restraints to save their lives. They could not be totally free if they wanted to live.

But some did not enjoy this new way of life. Some wanted to cast off these restraints and communicate without scrutiny and fear of censorship, to be free once more. These people, however, realized that City Hall was too entrenched in everything to do anything of meaning within the system, so they instead chose to act outside of it. "Runners" were born, messengers of sorts who would scale the metropolitan mountains of metal and glass and deliver information that their clients did not want to be filtered or censored.

You are Faith, one such Runner. Welcome to the Mirror's Edge.

As the above trailer illustrates, Mirror's Edge is a video game that attempts something quite novel. The idea of traversing a city in a parkour/free-running type manner is nothing new as similar mechanics can be found in the Prince of Persia series and Assassin's Creed, but the way it is handled here is quite unique. By placing the player within their in-game avatar via the use of a first-person view, and by making the avatar's limbs and the like visible while in this view, the game attempts to convey the feeling of actually doing these acrobatics. Granted, it is of course only a mere shadow of the actual activities of parkour and free-running, but within the bounds of a video game, it feels very real and visceral. EA DICE, a team usually known for the Battlefield series, has thus succeeded, in my eyes, in bringing the essence of the traversal of the urban landscape to the PS3, Xbox 360, and the PC.

While most agree that Mirror's Edge provides a quite unique and thrilling experience, opinion varies on other aspects of the game. Common complaints are that the game is too linear in its execution, that the plot is quite weak, and that the game is quite short. These are all valid complaints in my book, but they do not irk me as much as they irk others.

Firstly, in regards to its linearity: Mirror's Edge is a quite linear game, but I personally don't see anything wrong with that. The game was never striving to be an open experience, but more of a carefully crafted sequence of events with thrilling chases and acrobatics never in short supply. It's sometimes imperfect in this regard, but still holds up quite well. I would have to admit that an open world game with the controls and the like of Mirror's Edge would be quite fascinating indeed, but I can't fault Mirror's Edge for not being something it wasn't even trying to be in the first place.

Next, to tackle the point of the plot. The story is not great, to be honest. It is a tad run-of-the-mill dystopian rebellion, and the twists can be seen coming from quite a ways away. Even in saying this, though, it's not terrible. If I have a major gripe with the story, though, it would be with the 2D animated cinematics. They dash all immersion quite instantly by pulling the camera to a third-person view instead of the in-game first-person, and by being, as stated previously, two dimensional. They're not too shabby in execution (though some scenes and movements look a tad odd), but they seem heavily out of place in the game. What's especially head-scratching about the inclusion of these 2D cinematics is that there are some cutscenes that are done in-game in a first-person view. It's as if the team couldn't decide which approach to use. This predicament thus makes the not-terrible story seem weaker. I can only hope that EA DICE realizes the folly in this regard, and repairs it for possible future instalments of the game. An example of these cinematics can be found in the below video (it's the first 2D cinematic in the game).

To sidetrack a bit, though, the character of Faith is worth mentioning separately. For one, she is the primary protagonist: those following the video game industry know all too well that female lead roles in games are unfortunately all too rare. It's nice to see, then, that Faith is one of the better female game leads (for those unaware, she is standing on top of the crane near the end of the first video of this post, and she is the primary focus/narrator of the second video). In the realm of the physical, she is refreshingly quite average looking (no huge bust, no revealed ass, no Asian stereotyping, etc), and she is clothed as one would expect a Runner to be (nothing showing that shouldn't be, but comfortable enough to be acrobatic in). In the video game world, this is a good sign. In the realm of her personality, she's not too remarkable, but better than most video game females. She exudes an air of being a "badass girl", but it's not overdone (for the most part; there are some instances where it could be argued otherwise). She is confident, but not shut off from her emotions. She is paranoid and distrusting of authority, maybe even to an excess, but it's dealt with well in the game. She's a character I gladly support, in the end, and I only wish that we see more positive female characters like her in future games. God knows that we're sorely lacking in that department. Sure, Faith may be no Alyx Vance of Half-Life 2 fame or Jade from Beyond Good & Evil, but she's a much more welcome lady than those from Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden.

Now, to get back on track: the game can be called short, yes. In my own personal playthrough (I have been playing the PS3 version), I completed two playthroughs of the game (one on the Normal difficulty and one on Hard) in 2 - 4 days. In comparison to most games, this is almost laughable. But even so, I do not regret the length. The game, in my eyes, seemed to be a good length for what it was going for. Then again, I am generally more accepting of short games than most, but even so, there's also plenty of replayability under the hood of Mirror's Edge. The Time Trial mode allows you to race against the clock to reach checkpoints in maps that come from the game (minus enemies and the like), and getting the better times are no easy tasks. The downloadable content maps are also no pushovers, and are quite entertaining to play (unlike the other levels which are taken from the city of the game, the DLC levels are completely abstract and designed to test the full extent of one's skills, and I love them). Additionally, the Speedrun mode allows the player to attempt to complete the game's Chapters as quickly as possible. Granted, these "race" modes may not tickle everyone's fancy, but considering the speedy and acrobatic nature of the main game, the modes fit in quite nicely.

So, to conclude then, Mirror's Edge is a game worth your time, despite what others may say. It contains an experience that cannot be found anywhere else, and Faith is quite a refreshing female protagonist. In fact, I may even venture to say that if the game came out at a different time and did not have to compete with behemoths like Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2, it may have even been given generally more positive reviews. The game is a bold move, at the very least, in terms of the first-person acrobatics, and EA DICE should be applauded for attempting something new. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it definitely deserves a taste. I'm hooked on it, anyway.

Oh, and before I go, here are some "bonus" videos.

The first is of some of the abstract DLC maps I mentioned earlier. When I say abstract, I mean abstract. They are a blast to play as well as to look at. Have a gander:

The second is of the theme song of the game: Still Alive by Lisa Miskovsky. It's possible to find an instrumental version, but this is the original track (and one of the lines is the title of this post). I have to admit, I first was adverse to the vocal version and preferred only the instrumental, but as time went on, the vocal version grew on me. Have a listen:

Until next time, then!

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