As part of a drive to publish quality new IP, Mirror’s Edge joined Dead Space as one of EA’s key new-gen titles when it was announced in 2007. DICE, previously known only for multiplayer shooter series Battlefield, sought to turn its primary genre upside down. “With Mirror’s Edge we set out to make something that was completely different from anything we had done before and, to a certain extent, different to anything anyone had done before,” producer Owen O’Brien said in 2010.
DICE didn’t want to rest on its laurels, and Mirror’s Edge grew out of that: a mainly gun-free FPS that employed free running as its governing mechanic. The developer wanted to challenge the notion that realistic movement couldn’t be done in an FPS genre – the fascinatingly sterile vision of the future grew out of that, as DICE’s intention was to create a world that provoked the senses, giving the player a metaphorical look at this dystopia as protagonist Faith saw it.
While not a massive seller, crushed by the influx of releases in the Christmas 2008 period, it quickly earned a cult following for going against the curve of dull military shooters. “We set out to try new things in almost every area and challenge conventions,” O’Brien added. “Some of these worked really well and some less so, but I’m glad we tried them all.”
There is nothing quite like Mirror’s Edge – it lies somewhere in the massive gap between a 3D platformer and a first-person shooter, a game that beautifully simulates the art of free running in a jaw-dropping, clinical utopia. Faith’s speed, precision and physicality are your only weapons, and while in many first-person games, movement is simply a means to an end, in this it’s the point of the experience.
DICE brings that to life with gusto. Levels are gigantic mazes employing a mixture of linear and freeform routes, intricate puzzles that are unravelled by experimentation. Faith isn’t a superhero, and Mirror’s Edge ensures that the player is in tune with the character’s vulnerabilities; that jumping then turning in mid-air will make her fall on her arse, as it does in real life. It’s only as you slowly start to conquer the mechanics that you feel empowered, drawn into this sense of hyperrealism, aided by remarkably subtle sound and visual cues designed to simulate momentum. It’s quite extraordinary how these delicate touches, like the sound of breathing or feet pounding against concrete, or even your vision narrowing as you hit full speed, can make movement feel so utterly important.
Nothing illustrates that better than those moments where Faith does have access to a gun, grabbed either by disarming a guard or finding one on the floor – firing a weapon in these instances just feels ordinary. You empty the clip, and move on. A firearm isn’t especially helpful when you have to keep moving to survive. It’s interesting that a developer so used to building gameplay paradigms around weapons created a game where they were entirely disposable to the player, but Mirror’s Edge earns the confidence from the player to hinge everything on the free running.
That is assisted by the game’s mighty art direction, which portrays a world that is bleakly extravagant, at once colourful yet threadbare. It’s a city that tells its own story simply by letting you play. Sadly, when the actual plot does flop into view via dull animated cut-scenes, the script is just generic dystopian tripe completely at odds with the ingenuity behind everything else within the experience.
But that’s not the true story of Mirror’s Edge, anyway – the real narrative is composed of quiet moments on skyscraper rooftops, scarpering away from gunfire or jumping between moving trains. The idea of being Faith represents a unique brand of storytelling that only a game is capable of pulling off.
Why It’s A Future Classic
Mirror’s Edge makes you wonder what would happen if every talented triple-A developer on the planet was allowed to explore creativity-driven ideas, rather than marketing-driven ones. Capturing the physicality of free running so perfectly, this was a massive risk by DICE, who were so firmly associated with military shooters prior to Mirror’s Edge’s release – everything about it felt new. In an industry where the walls seem to be closing in on triple-A games, DICE took its Battlefield-honed FPS expertise and convincingly evolved the way we embody virtual characters as players.
Veterans of Mirror’s Edge understand how rewarding it is to learn the design of the game, inside and out, and to begin seeing the red-highlighted world ahead of Faith as an opportunity for interactive expression, rather than an obstacle. We’d be surprised if any developer re-examined the first-person shooter in this elaborate fashion again.