Monday, December 01, 2008

Thanksgiving leftovers: Mirror's Edge

Above: Allow at least one hour after eating before playing Mirror's Edge

Still trying to recover from a long weekend spent gorging myself on turkey, stuffing, gravy, pie, potatoes, cranberry sauce, egg nog... (Note to international readers: You might be wondering how a holiday centered on gluttony differs from an average day here in America. Shut up.)

Although I spent much of my weekend traveling and visiting with relatives, I squeezed in a little bit of gaming time. Mirror's Edge continues to baffle and frustrate. I keep reading things that sound like high-minded defenses of the game, or at least more charitable interpretations than my own. And there is something strangely alluring about this game in the abstract. Each time I load it up, I find myself a little excited, thinking that this time I'll crack through that shell and get to the delicious nut inside. That feeling lasts no longer than two minutes.

But considering how varied the reaction to Mirror's Edge seems to be, I'd hesitate to tell anybody they should avoid it at all costs. Lots of people seem to love it. I think this is yet another situation where we bump up against the different reasons people have for playing games. For some, the punishing, trial-and-error style of Mirror's Edge's story mode is a virtue. For me, it's a dealbreaker. I want a little breathing room in there. It's a six-hour game, but I think it could be made twice as long by adding more laid-back platforming sections, with less at stake. Not only would ME not suffer from its wider focus, it would actually benefit. Its insistence on constant chase-scene mechanics is a detriment.

Yes, this is the opposite of what I say about 99 games out of 100. Hang on, I'm going somewhere with this.

The reason Mirror's Edge exists is to showcase its first-person free-running mechanics. I don't think that's in dispute. Matthew Gallant compared it in that respect to Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, which is a comparison I've also made. There's a game that provided you a new way to control your avatar, and then wisely stepped back and let you experiment with it. THPS had game-like goals -- hit switches, collect letters, find secret areas -- but permitted you the freedom to pursue them or not, according to your whims.

Another comparison I'd make is to Crackdown, which was a more traditional platforming game, but whose main appeal also came from the way its characters interacted with the game world. Your character could climb buildings, and eventually jump over them. There was some old-school run-and-gun action in there, which was necessary if you wanted to advance the story, but the game was most fun when you just prowled the rooftops for agility orbs. You had that option. You could play it your way. The designers didn't give you a set of tools and then refuse to let you use them.

Granted, that's not a perfect analogy to what happens in Mirror's Edge. This game's designers give you a set of tools and expect you to master them immediately. When I said the game could use more breathing room, this is what I mean: there simply isn't enough time or opportunity to learn the game mechanics in a consequence-free environment. As a result, you're stumbling through what are supposed to be fluid chase sequences. Unless you're an expert, your character jerks to a halt every few steps, and dies as often as most people blink.

(I loved the way Chris Dahlen put it: "I’d say that its core problem is that it looks like Rock Band 2 but plays like Mega Man 9; you want to settle in and enjoy the thrill, but imagine if Rock Band stopped the song every single time you hit a bum note.")

So often I feel like my argument against a game is, "I don't like this because I am bad at it." I feel a little bit like that now. But I wasn't good at Rock Band when I started playing it, or Tony Hawk, or Street Fighter, or Quake, or anything else that was new or different. How a game guides you up the learning curve says a lot about its priorities -- and, I'd argue, about its quality.

Huh, I was going to talk about Left 4 Dead in here, too. Guess we'll just save that for tomorrow.


Etelmik said...

Some games make you want to play them more when you lose at them. Others do not.

Mirror's Edge sounds like old-school, but the bad kind (the good kind makes you say "no way! I've got this!" then frantically try again).

Shawn Elliott said...

Forgive me for pasting my Level Up comment:

Mirror's Edge hopes to elicit a graceful, unrehearsed, and gymnastic performance from players under high pressure. Imagine the pitch: jumping puzzles without the stops and starts; without the uncertainty of players who want to carefully plot a path and leisurely calculate possible outcomes to unfamiliar leaps of faith. That's challenging. Since toothless scares lose their motivational impact once we sniff them out, it takes a real threat to prevent players from lingering . And real threats can, of course, kill. Trial-and-error gameplay isn't inherently evil; it just goes against DICE's dramatic intentions.

On another note, I've just learned that you know Bill Gardner. We should get together for drinks sometime.

Mitch Krpata said...

Mike, that's a good summation. As usual, it's really not so complicated. I think might actually be a good thing that opinions vary so widely about this game, though. That doesn't always happen.

Shawn, glad to see you back in blogworld. It's true that Mirror's Edge, on paper, is an exciting and unique experience. It's clear while you're playing what DICE envisioned, which makes it worse that they never seem to achieve it. I still don't buy that heavily armed police are needed to add tension to the act of running across rooftops hundreds of feet in the air. I feel like I'm stumbling through this game in spite of myself.

I like where your head's at with your last suggestion, too. That sounds like a good idea.

Shawn Elliott said...

I'm in absolute agreement. The fact that the game is at odds with itself is frustrating.

shMerker said...

I just finished the story-mode and I can't say I ever felt that. Then again I'm the sort of gamer who usually enjoys things that are very challenging, even punishingly difficult.

One thing I think they nailed in Mirror's Edge was letting you retry immediately. Many games punish failure by forcing you to navigate menus, wait for loads, or even repeat some of the action before you are allowed to try again. Mirror's Edge drops you straight back into the action without any of that.

For a skill and action veteran this is empowering because ultimately the only failed experiment is one in which you didn't learn anything.

I'm not really trying to say it's perfect since i have my own complaints about the game or even that what you brought up isn't a valid stance. I just think it's important to understand that there are players who like the action more or less the way it is.

That said, A "free play" mode that just set you in an interesting environment and let you run with no objectives or penalties would be appreciated. Rock Band and Tony Hawk both had practice modes too.

Mitch Krpata said...

Josh, you're right about that. The restarts aren't punitive. In fact, what continues to surprise me about my reaction to this game is that it does so many of the things that I wish a lot of games did! Spaced-out checkpoints are one of my biggest pet peeves, and this game lets you retry from almost exactly where you were. The problem I continue to have, like Mike said, is that losing doesn't encourage me to play more. (I mean, that boss fight at the end of the boat chapter? Hachi machi.)

Tonight I'm finally going to make a run at the time trials and see if they can salvage this game for me. It's no freestyle mode, but it could be something.

Andrew Charlton said...

I think the interesting thing about the experience people are having with Mirror's Edge is that everyone seems in complete agreement about what it does well and what it does poorly, yet the actual enjoyment people are getting out of it is vastly different.

It's not even about whether you enjoy that kind of trial-and-error gameplay, because normally I don't. I switched off the Mega Man 9 demo after failing at the second jump 10 times in a row. I like my games easy because I like to win, but Mirror's Edge has me hooked.

I'd like to see some game writers try to discover the reasons behind this dichotomy of experiences.

Daniel Purvis said...

My comment in blog form:

The gist is basically; you have Story Campaign and Time Trial. If you want to play ala Tony Hawk's, play the Time Trials.

Mitch Krpata said...

I've been playing the time trials and they are definitely more like what I expected out of the game. May be too little too late at this point, though. Ultimately I think that whether you're talking about story mode or the time trials, Mirror's Edge doesn't offer enough low-level rewards to keep me interested. Maybe if I'd started with the time trials and then moved onto the story, things might have been different. It's hard to say. But for sure, they're two different animals.

Anonymous said...

I had high anticipation for this game and after playing through it I felt a little underwhelmed. I thought there was potential for more. Like running through crowds or avoiding traffic. That sad I do keep comming back to it even with Gears2 and Left4Dead lying around ready to be played. I've finnished it twice now. The second time on hard but with guns which I dissmayed the frist time through for the achievement and because I felt Faith shouldnt have to use a gun. The storymode is still fun but where the game really comes through is in it's time trials. Like I said I played through it twice and I though I had things down but boy was I wrong! When you play a trial, think you did good and then realize there is a way through that level that is 20sec or more (!!) faster then you just did, that's when you start to learn the mechanics of the game. And that's where you start developing skills and noticing nuances to the gameplay you had not yet noticed. Like how much the momentum really comes into play when you climb or even just leap over small objects. There can be huge differences to how you get over a fence depending on your speed AND the distance to the fence when you jump onto it! Jump at the right moment and you won't even notice that there was a fence. At first I thought the time trials were a cheep way to extend the game but now I know better. There was a trial I couldn't figure out for the life of me and I hated it but once I figured it out it became my favourit course and I was astonished to learn move's I had never once used in the game before like jumping towards a construction scaffold but instead of holding on to a railing and jump over to just slide right in between two pipes. There are a load of possibilities for little tweaks like this and it really makes you look at the environments in a different way. Going back to the storymode with your new learned skills makes it feel fresh all over again. Oh, and did I mention you're not chased nor shot at in the trials?! Cheers