Still Playing: Mirror’s Edge

A game that has fantastic graphics and not-so-great gameplay cannot be trusted. Functional visuals combined with well-crafted gameplay cast a game as the underdog, and you know where you are with something that’s irredeemably terrible on every level – an honest, unpretentious game that knows its place.

But if a game is as elegant as it is infuriating? It’s somehow underhand. Deceptive. It cruises into your affections on the strength of its looks, gradually wearing down your goodwill until you’ve got nothing to do except part ways, lighter in the pocket and heavier in the heart.

There’s not much that typifies this more than Mirror’s Edge. From the appearance of the first screenshots, everyone wanted to play this, and from about the beginning of the third level, most people wanted to stop. It’s a combination of things that sink it. The 3D platforming at the core of the game just doesn’t quite work – your jumps often don’t seem to go far enough; ledges are just that bit too narrow to land on gracefully; enticing gaps underneath roof furniture are slightly too long to slide all the way through, forcing you to humiliatingly waddle out the other side like a parkour duck emerging from a pipe.

Most importantly – and almost fatally – it’s inconsistent. If you’re supposed to string together movie-spectacular lines of unbroken free-running, then you need to feel confident that your mantle from drainpipe to skyscraper ledge is going to work every time. Nine times out of ten isn’t good enough if there’s no indication as to what went wrong on the tenth.

That’s combined with clumsy gunplay, tedious loading-break lift rides that pop up just when you’re getting into your flow, and awkward cutscenes that fail to invest you in Faith’s leaps. It’s doggedly linear, too; for a game about free-running, there’s precious little freedom to be found traversing its cluttered playgrounds.

So why are we here, then? Why is this article called ‘Still Playing’, rather than ‘Not Playing’, when the subject is a game that – after you’ve hit the pavement from seventy floors up eight times in a row – appears to actively hate you?

The answer is that Mirror’s Edge doesn’t hate you. Dark Souls? Now that’s a game that hates you – so much so that it spends all its time thinking up new and frighteningly creative ways of killing you. Mirror’s Edge simply doesn’t care how you feel – whether you’re staring awestruck at an urban vista or spending ten minutes failing a QTE, it’s too busy checking out its own reflection to spend much time worrying whether or not you’re having any fun.

Mirror’s Edge is beautiful enough that it’s worth it. The game’s aesthetic is so unique, so well-realised, that even traditionally hackneyed locations are made glorious. Industrial corridors are strikingly detailed and perfectly lit, with primary coloured pipework and walkways contrasted with white-glazed brickwork the colour and intensity of a film-star’s teeth. Those lifts you spend so much time in dazzle with lime-green panelling and brushed aluminium detailing, while the corporate waiting rooms outside are so tasteful and soothing you almost forget the fact you blatantly should have made that last jump.

Even the sewer level looks great. Most games include sewer levels because brown is the cheapest colour to render, and research has proven that gamers love killing rats in dank corridors more than they love their mothers. In Mirror’s Edge, the storm drains are a cathedral of light. The water is so clear, you could read a book in it while washing your gorgeous hair; the floors are clean enough that you could eat off them, provided you popped out beforehand and got some nicer cutlery from John Lewis.

Then there’s the game’s greatest achievement, the open cityscapes you run through, and over and across. There’s nothing like it anywhere else – monolithic skyscrapers that crowd around you, as huge and white and still as glaciers. High above them, planes hang frozen in the air; far below you, tiny people are barely visible at the bottom of these cold glass canyons. It’s a modernist vision of a future planned into sterile perfection, as clean and efficient as an autoclaved scalpel, where humans live either as servants or as vermin in the walls. The architecture and the scale alone tells a story many times more lean and evocative than the one that stumbles out in the cutscenes.

And, just occasionally enough, it works as a game. If you ditch the guns, then combat turns from sluggish trial-and-error purgatory into something almost like a puzzle game; you’re still in purgatory, but it’s a challenging, thoughtful purgatory of selective hit and run attacks and choreographed takedowns, rather than one of lethargic Unreal-powered shootouts. There are times when the game gives you a parkour route that genuinely flows and your lines across the roof furniture feel thrilling and controlled, with the pursuing security forces evoking the mad childhood panic of being chased. It’s not so much the freedom of the city as the satisfaction of an actor hitting their marks, but the pleasure you get from smoothly Prince-of-Persia-ing up the side of a Brutalist artefact with the police just on your heels is real enough.

But then of course you fail to grab a pipe for no obvious reason and smash into the icy tarmac below. Again. And again. Mirror’s Edge is far from perfect. It’s less a game than an interactive coffee table book; it’s as beautiful and empty as one of the magazines scattered around its immaculately designed office complexes. And like those high-end style tomes, while it won’t keep you enthralled for hours, it will lend a brief feeling of sophistication to any living room, with its austere glamour, flawlessly dressed sets, and the best interior design in gaming.