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The big risk with Swedish developer Digital Illusion's wildly brave Mirror's Edge (Xbox 360, PS3) is that it'll be misunderstood. It's a platformer that flaunts its gleaming rooftop playgrounds entirely in first-person. It's a first-person shooter, but only because the bullet fired into soaring spaces is you. Streaks of dashing and leaping require precision body tactics, but from a body that's largely unseen. Color-splashed levels splay like architectural equations with precarious solutions but offer only fleeting directional cues. Guns can be karate-chopped from the arms of enemies, but those guns slow you down and cramp your technique. Combat is possible, but death comes swiftly, so it's better avoided. The entire experience is an accumulation of paradoxes, an amalgam of existing genres, but which plays like none of them.
If that gives you pause, it should. We've gotten too comfortable fitting games into broad, meaningless slots, the way a bookstore divides and conquers with a bunch of empty, consoling placards. House of Leaves is horror, never literature. Watchmen is marooned in graphic novels. File The Handmaid's Tale in science fiction at your peril. (Don't get me started on music and movies.) So while it's probably safe to call Mirror's Edge an "action game," it's about as helpful as calling ballet "a physical activity set to music." Which brings me to the part where I tell you a little bit about something called parkour, occasionally referred to as l'art du déplacement, or "the art of movement," a real world activity that's at the heart of what makes this game so unique.
Parkour, according to its founder David Belle, involves moving through an environment as swiftly and efficiently as possible using only your body's innate abilities. Imagine a nondescript urban area with concrete barriers and steel pylons and interposing stairways flanked by metal railings and brick walls. Now imagine it's not just a collection of mundane objects, but an obstacle course, something to be traversed in the straightest, fastest vector possible, where hurdles are transformed into exploitable possibilities and not mere impediments to be avoided. Distance viewed not "as the crow flies," but as James O'Barr's The Crow would navigate it. Elevate that a few dozen stories to the level of dizzying skyscraper rooftops snarled with steaming tubes and chain link fences and metal air ducts, then seal it in a hyper-clean, gaze-searing glare, and voila, EA's Mirror's Edge.
If that sounds intriguing, let's start with why the game's narrative isn't. Did we need another prosaic near-future tale about the price of security slapping around the usual suspects (transparency, privacy, freedom)? I guess so. Figuratively and literally rising above it all, a cabal of info-couriers who wear stylish tracksuits and fingerless gloves deliver insurgent dispatches across rooftops like olympic postal employees. You're one of them, initially framed for a crime you didn't commit, drawn into a conspiracy involving your sister. The characterizations never crack what makes any of the personalities tick, though, and the bend in the tale when it comes is mundane and implausible. Producer Nick Channon may "want you to connect" with the protagonist, but the story never offers you any reason to.
That's okay, because what's left -- which is to say the other ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the game -- is an exhilarating kinetic puzzler in which you chamber your body like a bullet and fire it through gauntlets of architectural obstacles. That means bursting over ledges headlong, desperately scanning for a place to land, or dangling precariously off the edge of some sky-high construction crane before pulling yourself up just barely to safety. It's about staring across huge spaces and seeing your goal as some distant speck of next-to-nothing and exclaiming "You mean I have to get from here to that?" Just forget the plot, because Mirror's Edge is all about doing, not deep thinking.
It's also about running away from things. Digital Illusions understands something that's primordial: Being chased by something you can't see is far more terrifying than hunting something you can. It's tag, except you're never it, and the guys who are have bullets.
At first your opponents can only stand and shoot or clump after you in plodding herds. That's intentional, of course, since you're finding your feet, and feeling for the world's contours and limits. Eventually, though, they'll match you leap for leap, and follow you off the edges of anything, so that no retreat is safe, and no pinpoint respite inviolable. That these guys don't show up until the end is kind of a downer in a game you can beat (as I did) in a single sitting, but they're exhilarating while they last, and one of several reasons you'll want to replay chapters individually and look for new routes to top personal best times or upstage others' scores online.
Out of Control
Managing barrages of half-blind hurdles and tumbling drops from zip lines while keeping out of harm's way, all in first-person, takes some acclimatizing. It's the same old view with a radically different hand-eye ratio. First-person shooters have taught us that in-body motion is all forwards and backwards and side-to-side, but here you're potentially traveling in any direction, and often stringing together dozens of course adjustments in the space of as many seconds.
Mirror's Edge adapts its controls to the task by channeling all you can do -- mostly jumps and spins and tumbles -- into just three or four button-presses, asking simply that you point your view in the direction you want to go and spring forward. It's a simple and elegant setup that's remarkably intuitive. Getting enough speed under your legs requires squaring the distances between things instead of mashing buttons or triggering power-ups. Jumps depend on launch speed and angle of attack. Slides too. Turn vaults aka "half turns" take only three button presses (leap, turn, leap) but require delicate timing as you run up walls and flip your head around before peeling off at a reverse angle.
Since the geometry of each area (and not a bunch of button combos or flashy moves) determines its difficulty, you'll see a gradual uptick in complexity as each chapter ticks by. You'll start in areas that have easy to spot routes aided by optional visual cues that paint useful objects a shade of fire hydrant red, but finish with incredibly tricky head-scratchers. One in particular -- a combat-free ascent up a gloriously sunlit atrium near the end -- is among the finest, most memorable sequences in any game I've played in years.
Occasionally you'll flip around to the wrong side of something, but the game won't let you flip back, so you can either dangle forever, or let go and die. It happens rarely, but it's evidence that even if the controls feel remarkably fine-tuned, sometimes the environments aren't.
It certainly helps that the physics are forgiving when it comes to leaps and touchdowns. You're not exactly wearing magnetic boots, but your stopping distance is such that simply landing on girders or narrow planks is usually enough to zero your velocity. This lets you focus more on aiming than whether your momentum's going to send you teetering into oblivion. It part of a design framework that understands when to reinforce real-world physics as well as when to bend them.
Move to Move
Individual moves are relatively easy to execute, but the challenge is stringing several together, say wall-running, turning mid-run and leaping to another platform, then turning again and flipping the view to spring up to the next level. Much of the time it's difficult to get a sense for how much space you've traversed because you're sprinting all out. Sometimes it's enough to get to the end of a crazy run and pause to look back and marvel at how far or high up you've come.
Special objects can sometimes propel you further, and others you'll interact with automatically. You only have to pull up or down when you grab a target ladder or ledge -- the game holds on for you. The trickier bits involve aiming for those pipes and not skewing left or right, or clearing vast spaces between platforms at completely different heights. But even when you're chewing cement, it takes only a couples seconds to reload and try again. Checkpoints bookmark your progress at multiple points in a chapter, so you re-spawn pretty much where you died, and never at the start of a protracted sequence.
I'd recommend ignoring the few pistols and machine guns and sniper rifles the game periodically teases, but if you're trigger-itchy they're certainly available. So is hand-to-hand melee with enemies if you're so inclined. The game clearly prefers that you run around enemies using your parkour savvy, but allows you a few basic jabs and jump or slide kicks as well as the option to disarm an opponent by tapping a button at the right moment in a timed sequence. Carrying guns slows you down and makes you clumsy, and pointing and aiming has none of the tactical subtlety found in most shooters, but then this is a game that can't rightly be called one anyway.
Mirror's Edge is at it's best when there's nothing onscreen but you and a world of objects and architectural ideas to scramble across. That architecture enables a stunningly original and often heartbreakingly beautiful world, filled with colors that leap out like splashes of brilliance in a blizzard of dazzle: chartreuse yellow, persimmon orange, emerald green, an entire scintillating city bleached blinding white. You'll want to slow up when the game lets you and take some of that in. There's a lot to see here that's its own reward. Nothing you've played until this game looks quite like it.
And then you'll want to thank EA -- a publisher whose reputation hews "safe and familiar" with games that have names typically followed by an incremental number -- for supporting the game's existence. It's precisely what the industry needs. More of this. More that leads.
Finis coronat opus, "the ends justify the means," is splashed on the walls and discovered scrolling on elevator screens as you explore the strangely beautiful interior of the city's tallest building in the game's final beats, home to the story's central sinister powers. It's an apt enough expression for the neo-Orwellian riff. Reverse it and you have a tag line for the game itself.
PCW Score: 90%