Back in 2008, the endless tug-of-war to claim eternal prize of ‘Worst Video Game Publisher’ was pulling in favor of Activision. The company was firmly ensconced in their role of strip mining of both the Guitar Hero and Tony Hawk franchises and riding high on the launching of the Call of Duty franchise into the stratosphere. The opponent in this feat of douchey strength was EA, who had decided to try a bold new direction. Its CEO, John Riccitiello, stated that instead of only doing sequels and rehashes every year, it was going to commit themselves to cultivating new intellectual properties and letting the creativity of its in-house staff flourish. Well, the truth is it only lasted for two games…but what games they were. The first was, of course, Dead Space. It wasn’t the most original formula: Equal parts Resident Evil, Aliens, and Event Horizon with a pinch of Solaris thrown in for good measure. It was however executed brilliantly, and it did well enough commercially and critically to warrant a sequel which Visceral Games just knocked out of the park. Dead Space 2 was so good that it ended up on many ‘Game of the Year’ lists last year even though it was released in January.
The other game was Mirror’s Edge.
Like Dead Space, Mirror’s Edge wears its influences on its sleeve. It’s the story of a dystopian future in which the Underground Resistance operates in secret. The main character, Faith, is a Runner who transports packages and information via the rooftops of the occupied city one step ahead of the authorities bent on destroying her and her cause. Mirror’s Edge has an interesting place on the ‘games of this generation’ mantle. It is a game that seems to be more respected than loved. Like Dead Space (or I guess Assassin’s Creed – although I don’t think either of them are particularly enjoyable), there is a definite school of thought concerning it in that “it’s a pretty good demonstration of the mechanics and I can’t wait to see what they do with the sequel”. It was pretty much universally praised for its visual style — daring to show a sterile, clean environment in this generation of grubby brown settings, as well as for its fluid Parkour mechanics. Conversely, it was criticized by many who seemed to go into it expecting something more open-ended and forgiving as a total experience. When I review a game, I try to figure out what it is that the developers are trying to do and determine how successful they were in achieving that goal. That’s why I don’t really like the Assassin’s Creed series: Its developers try to go for that free-running approach but it feels spread thin and boring. Mirror’s Edge doesn’t put on airs about being anything more than a tightly scripted, punishing, and linear platformer….you know, kind of like Super Meat Boy.
I’ll be honest, the first couple of hours playing Mirror’s Edge really pissed me off. It requires a level of precision and flow in order to navigate the world in a truly satisfying way, and it took me some time to get the feel for it. Super Meat Boy is not unlike this in that it requires a bit of a ‘warming up’ phase to get into the pace and flow of the game. Both games demand that you do it their way, and God damn it you’d better get it right. If you don’t, you will fail. A lot. The thrill of this game, to me, is in the repetition – making incremental progress and stringing together a flawless sequence of moves in order to progress with style. There’s a lot of frustration that goes into getting the moves right, but in both games it is immeasurably satisfying to blow past hazards and move on. The buzz word at the time of Mirror’s Edge‘s release was ‘momentum’. Both games are about much more than just timing or precision; they are about achieving a rhythm of movement in which muscle memory takes over from thinking as a beneficial tool for progression.
[Navigating the ‘Plane’]
Make no mistake: Super Meat Boy is a tough game. While there are many more things that can kill you in any given level, navigation is generally easier than in Mirror’s Edge. Both games show you where you need to get to, but provide you with two challenges:
1. What path do I take to get to the objective?
2. Now that I know HOW to get there, CAN I get there?
Mirror’s Edge, by virtue of being a First-Person game in a 3D environment, adds a layer of disorientation to the level design which adds to the challenge and can admittedly rub people the wrong way. The first attempts to figure out where to go and how to get there are all about testing different things and almost inevitably dying by fall/gunshot/train/etc. Sure, it’s frustrating but it’s also kind of exciting in the same way that working out a new puzzle gets your brain tingling. There are few games in this generation that have given me as much of a sense of satisfaction for clearing an area flawlessly as Mirror’s Edge. Super Meat Boy is right up there, as is Portal 2, but Mirror’s Edge taps into something much more tangible and….real than those others.
Aside from gameplay, one of the main complaints about Mirror’s Edge was about the style of the cutscenes between levels. In an odd twist compared to games from the last couple of generations, the graphical beefiness is dedicated to gameplay rather than in-game movies. The gameplay portions are highly detailed; in fact the character models still look impressive four years later and the physics of the world are striking. For the cutscenes however, the story is told via animated vignettes which look closer to something out of a Suda 51 game than anything approaching photorealistic. In its own way, Super Meat Boy does the same thing. Its game world is itself stylized so it’s a different kind of dissonance that occurs when shifting to ‘story mode’, but it’s still similarly jarring. Mirror’s Edge is a big-budget title from EA, one of the largest publishers on the planet. One can imagine the perception is that they were somehow ‘cheaping out’ on visuals while focusing on the parts in which you can play. My basic response to that is, “And that’s a problem?” Besides that, while I find this game’s story to be interesting enough, it’s hardly what keeps me playing. After the first playthrough, I’m pretty much skipping those scenes to get back into action or doing the time trials, so why should I freak out about the art style of sections which aren’t interactive anyway?
Because Mirror’s Edge was a highly touted game from a major publisher that didn’t perform to expectations, there are a lot of copies floating around. I picked it up on the recent Steam Summer Sale for $5 (regular price $20 and I’d recommend it at that price too) and it’s been a total find. It’s uncertain whether EA or Dice will ever revisit this intellectual property and refine the gameplay for a sequel in this or the next generation. Mirror’s Edge is kind of a strange title, and it’s not terribly surprising that it didn’t succeed because there was nothing really like it at the time. In a generation of gaming in which so many people complain about developers not taking risks and crapping out derivative games, Mirror’s Edge stands out as a unique and before-its-time example of that rare occasion when a studio gets its dad’s credit card and is told the sky’s the limit.