Mirror's Edge takes place in what appears, at first glance, to be a sprawling metropolis that has become something of a clean and stark utopian paradise. However, behind the city's thin veil of perfection beats the heart of a nanny state, where information is heavily monitored and teams of agile couriers called 'runners' risk their lives to transport sensitive data away from prying eyes.
The player steps into the gravity-defying shoes of Faith, a young runner fighting to keep the city free who's abruptly dragged into an ominous conspiracy when her sister, a city cop, is framed for murder. Using her quick feet and acrobatic skills, Faith duly embarks on the ultimate runner mission in an attempt to clear her sister's name and expose a mystery that threatens the entire runner community and the city itself.
If the storyline seems like something of a shoehorned device put in place to justify the game's ambitious first-person delivery, that's because it is. To be honest, the narrative structure in Mirror's Edge is somewhat limp and forgettable, which isn't helped by soulless character performances and hopelessly inappropriate 2D animations that provide flaccid plot expansion between individual missions. Indeed, not actually getting to see the in-game Faith makes it difficult to empathise with her as a believable protagonist, which isn't helped by the fact that she has the personality of a house brick and the segue animation surrounding her is appallingly bad throughout.
We can push all that to one side of course, because Mirror's Edge clearly hasn't been developed to showcase fabulously rich rendered sequences or win multiple writing awards, it has clearly been crafted to wow players and critics alike with its thrilling parkour gameplay, which EA and DICE would have us believe provides an "action-adventure experience unlike any other."
And, in a sense, that's a fair statement based on the game's heart-pounding pursuit sequences, which see Faith evading the authorities by bounding from rooftop to rooftop, breathlessly negotiating all manner of obstacles, scaling industrial interiors, sprinting through shopping malls, and even dodging onrushing metro trains. Sadly however, while the game's effortlessly flowing parkour pursuits are superbly visceral and exciting, they fail to elevate proceedings to the heights the initial Mirror's Edge trailers and demo promised.
This is, in the main, thanks to the unwanted intrusion of frequent and fractious gameplay tripwires and lapse level design that all-but destroys any mounting sense of rewarding rhythm. The biggest point of detraction here exists in the developmental decision to utilise a first-person perspective in a game that relies so heavily on the pinpoint execution of huge jumps where failure almost always ends in the sound of shattered bone and splattered flesh. Not being able to gauge the placement of Faith's feet while hurtling towards a gaping chasm between two buildings often leads to multiple jump attempts before finally getting lucky with the correct timing - before then looking to pick up the parkour pieces ahead of the next annoying rinse and repeat distraction.
It's also worth bearing in mind that if the developer had opted to produce Mirror's Edge as a third-person adventure, it would have instantly lost its supposedly 'innovative' angle before being labeled as something of a third-rate mix between Assassin's Creed and Prince of Persia, which is exactly what it is when viewed as an action adventure. And, things don't improve when assessing Mirror's Edge on the merits of its strengths as a shooter. Let's just say it's underwhelming in its passable functionality and lack of oomph, which is something of a shock considering DiCE is no stranger to crafting solid entrants to the FPS genre (read: the Battlefield series).
Adding insult to injury, completely avoiding the use of weaponry and tackling Mirror's Edge with nothing more than hand-to-hand combat and slick disarming moves (which is the single most appealing gameplay aspect), is soon rendered all-but impossible. This comes about thanks to single-player progression that leads to an ever-increasing force of gun-toting cops with unerringly accurate weapons proficiency, while Faith's fleet-footed skills mean she has no armoured resistance to their bullets. And here's the rub: if the missions didn't become steadily more populated with enemy opposition blocking Faith's advance, and were instead based on exhilarating parkour pursuits, the game would be over so very, very quickly - and it already lacks longevity with their inclusion.
What's more, disarming opponents can be a distinct pain. To successfully complete a disarming move, the player must press the disarm button (triangle) at the exact point the enemy's weapon flashes red, which triggers one of various flashy skill animations. To aid this process, the player can also utilise a brief slow motion tool that's built on parkour movement and enables more precise button timing. However, while it works well on single enemies, when faced with multiple foes, becoming an unwitting sack of meat for onrushing bullets and rifle butts only promotes yet more player frustration and repeated sequences.
According to the in-game tip system, which players will see regularly as it plays over the load screens, effective hand-to-hand combat is reliant on separating and isolating enemies, which essentially means running around like a headless chicken until the A.I. chooses to split itself into search groups of one. Yet putting that tactic into practice soon leads to the belief that EA and DiCE merely added the tip as weak justification to excuse an unrewarding physical combat system that simply doesn't work very well.
With fans of Mirror's Edge either preparing to vent their spleens or beg for mercy at this point, here comes a liberal sprinkling of salt for the game's self-inflicted wounds. First off, suspension of disbelief is damaged by dispatched enemies who often leave their weapons floating inexplicably in mid-air, while the player is also occasionally pulled from the action as the game suddenly freezes and takes a second or two to load. And, never before have I played a game so completely and utterly lacerated by non-stop screen tearing. Although it's entirely possible (but unlikely) that our review copy was to blame for this highly annoying glitch, it blighted the gameplay from start to finish and actually stung the eyes during prolonged play.
Mirror's Edge does boast a genuinely intriguing visual design, which provides a refreshingly vibrant angle to the usually dark and oppressive atmosphere laid down by the majority of first-person shooters. However, while the predominantly sun-soaked white skyscrapers and rooftops exude a distinctly different flare that's almost blinding in its overexposure, the dazzling cleanliness lacks depth and soon gives way to the notion that Faith is fighting to free a sterile city wiped completely clean of a living, breathing population.
Moreover, the sense of relentlessly sprinting over, through and under an empty city is compounded by the fact every environment is conveniently devoid of NPCs beyond the scripted cops and security forces that pursue the game's rubber-jointed heroine. And, while the bright white exteriors are periodically offset by the colourful confines of connecting interior corridors, rooms and open spaces, these similarly vacuous areas only serve to magnify the overriding sense of emptiness that gradually tarnishes the aesthetic oomph.
Much like the very first tantalising trailer for Star Wars Episode One or the recent elevation of Manchester City to the status of being the world's richest football club, the thrilling parkour action of Mirror's Edge promises so much, yet has ultimately been lost in a package that delivers so little.
Clunky physical combat, lifelessly linear level design, horridly ill-fitting segue animations, a bland narrative, shallow characters, and an unforgiving first-person viewpoint all conspire to shatter the game's wafer thin novelty value, which all-too quickly reveals Mirror's Edge to be a fabulously innovative concept mired by the old 'all style and no substance' adage.