Virtual ventures #7

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I think I’ve played Mirror’s Edge as many times as I have more for its unconventionality as a “shooter” than for how good it actually is.

There was a time where I had an affinity for typical shooting games, such as Halo and Half-Life 2 (especially Half-Life 2, though yet another review of that one would probably give my longtime followers headaches).

These days, I’ve pretty much written shooting games off for being built around glorifying gun violence. I’m not against justifiable gun usage (i.e. defense of self and innocents, hunting for food), and I don’t know if shooting games truly do influence real-world shootings, but I don’t feel comfortable condemning such shootings while revelling in shooting virtual people.

With Mirror’s Edge, instead of shooting bad guys down left and right, the goal is to run away from the people shooting at us; it’s our choice how to dispatch them when the game backs us into a corner. We can beat them unconscious, or we can take their guns and shoot them with them. Even with that, the shooting mechanics have more nuance than those of typical shooters. There are no ammo clips lying all over the place; each gun has limited use.

The lack of focus on combat is due to the gameplay’s domineering mechanic: parkour, which has us traverse a colorful futuristic city through wild stunts. There are exhilarating set pieces the game puts us through, or at least they’re exhilarating for the first couple playthroughs. After a few more, the novelty wears off, and what’s left is how half-baked the mechanics are.

Sure, the first few chapters work well enough gameplay-wise, but the latter chapters, where the puzzles get more difficult, are where the seams really show. When frustration stems from puzzles whose steps require utmost precision that we have to restart from the beginning when we make a mistake due to the checkpoint system, and there are couple of such puzzles, it’s more of a problem with game design than a lack of skill, and it kills the fun.

The parkour master we play as is Faith Connors, a member of a band of Runners who go above the law, traversing the city through sheer physicality, to assist others who dare to break free from the unnamed city’s highly-surveyed conformity. Only, I’m still not sure how exactly the Runner’s assist these people. I mean, the opening mission has us deliver some sort of info package for a client, but it doesn’t explain where the info comes from or what it’s for.

During said first mission, the usually passive cops become unusually trigger-happy and begin open-firing on the Runners. After that, Faith finds out that her sister, Kate, has been framed for the murder of a mayoral candidate who could have “made a difference” in the city.

As such, the storyline is also half-baked, turning out to be way more complicated than it needs to be in what seems like the developers’ attempt to squeeze as much gameplay out of parkour as they could, and it still doesn’t end up at a substantial length.

(Spoiler alert) Eventually, this whole conspiracy turns out to be a ploy to off anyone who fights for what the city used to be, especially the Runners. The story could have been simplified a great deal, and made more sense, if Faith and the Runners were framed for the assassination, with the police going after them tying into that. Why do they have to frame a cop for the assassination? And if they do, why not instead explain that Kate needed to take the blame because she followed the candidate? Explaining unspecifically that “a cop” needed to take the blame just makes it confusing. Heck, since the authorities were eventually going to unleash a unit specifically trained to fight the Runners anyway, why have the police shoot at them at all?

Not only does none of it make sense, but the nonsense is egregiously straight-faced. There’s plenty of sarcasm and snark on display, but none of it is particularly fun. The biggest missed opportunity, at least for my sense of humor, is that nobody, not even the wittiest character, tells the protagonist to “take of leap of Faith”. Does a game where we play as a skinny girl who can beat fully armored cops unconscious and punch metal doors open without breaking her hands really need to take itself this seriously?

And this isn’t even getting into the odd stylistic choice of aesthetically realistic gameplay in between seemingly Flash-animated cutscenes nor how anticlimactic the final “boss battle” is.

At the very least, the game has a catchy theme song (“Still Alive”, not to be confused with the Portal theme song of the same name), vibrant visuals (which I have yet to experience in their full glory due to my computer’s compatibility, or lack thereof), an attempt at thematic resonance in Faith and Kate’s sisterhood, and the sheer coolness of its concept.

It’s not totally unplayable; it’s just mediocre. Thankfully, I can beat it only in three hours (after a six-hour first playthrough), though it could be shorter if it weren’t for a couple of particular puzzles. I know that there’s a more open-ended (gameplay-wise) reboot in the form of Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, but there’s no way my current PC could handle that.

The unfortunate part is that the more masterfully crafted shooters I know are built around us revelling in gun violence. I’ll take a “shooter” that celebrates the agility of the human body more than the effectiveness of a gun, even if it is mediocre.


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