Hands on with EA's Mirror's Edge

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A word of advice: Don't play Mirror's Edge in a darkened room. I have been, and my eyes feel like someone's massaged them with a leather strop. It's a very bright game, a very white game, a colorific riff on the classic dystopian purity play. When the protagonist looks around, her vision blurs in the glare, but the effect's almost redundant, because yours will too. The game almost needs an insert card warning you to leave a couple lights on. (Common sense, which I lack, helps too.)

Otherwise most of what I'd seen of this game prior to the demo that landed this weekend doesn't do how it plays a lick of justice. If you haven't heard of it, you're forgiven. It certainly hasn't had the promotional push of games like Fallout 3 or Fable 2.

What it isn't, is just another dystopian first-person shooter.

What it is: A game that actually makes you want to throw the rare gun you manage to snag off an enemy away.

Think back to tag. The best part of that game wasn't being it, but not being it. What's even more thrilling than chasing after someone? Running away from them. And that's what you do in Mirror's Edge. In fact you not only run, you sprint along rooftops snarled with pipes and chain link fences and steaming vents, leaping across urban chasms and stabbing the air with your legs, sliding under segmented metal air ducts and down long, skinny rails, grabbing the edges of things and dangling precariously before pulling yourself up, grunting, before tumbling into the next kinetic conundrum.

It takes a wild streak of bravery to make a game that requires precise and delicate body tactics, then hides the body out of sight. In trade, you're given a pretty rarefied view. As you move fluidly from building to building like the great granddaughter of Jordan Mechner's ledge-leaping prince, you relate to the protagonist's implied but largely unseen body with her eyes instead of parasailing behind her body in third-person. You can't visualize the distance it takes in body lengths to clear a fence strung with barbed wire, you have to eyeball and execute using firsthand data.

Does it work? I think so. I need more time with the full game to say for sure. I'm still easing into it, and it seems more complex than it really is because first-person shooters have so trained us that first-person motion is all forwards and backwards and side-to-side (with the occasional nod to the polite little "hup!" jump). It's also got some interesting visual wrinkles, like the way it takes your eyes a second to focus in the glare when you swing your view around, adding a second of anticipatory tactical challenge to course corrections.

You can see how it's arguably a first-person puzzle game, where you land in an area and have to solve an equation with upwards of 360 (degree) variables. In a line: "You mean I have to get from here to that?" And how.

Death comes swiftly. A shot, maybe two from an assailant and you're down. Melee hews realistic for a change. Isolating combatants is good. Running away is better. Your enemies are fast but not as fast as you. Leaping and rolling and thinking your way through a course the best way possible counts as ammunition here.

The only thing that feels irreconcilably awkward is SIXAXIS balancing, where you step out onto a pipe and do your best funambulist impression, tilting the controller left or right to keep from teetering over. Except that the game lags in response to left or right leans, so you overcompensate by tugging further, which causes you to suddenly lean way over, and then you overcompensate in the other direction, until you're presumably a bloody mess some stories down. Thankfully you can bypass SIXAXIS control and use the "L" thumbstick, which works much better.

Sound intriguing? The demo was just put up for both the 360 and PS3 (alas, no Windows version until sometime next year). Check it out. It's in stores worldwide November 11th.

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