Wednesday, 30 July 2008

E3 Preview: Mirror's Edge

Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: DICE Sweden
Formats: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
Release Date: Novemeber 2008

Once renowned for the continuous output of money raking, low quality franchises, publishers EA have seemingly turned a corner few other big hitters have been willing to take in recent years. With spiraling costs surrounding cinematic next generation expectations, the majority of gaming’s most established producers have clung to tried and tested means to ensure a healthy profit bracket when all the development is said and done. Perhaps because EA have been far from backward in their aggressive consumption of smaller publishers, subsidiary companies and development studios, they are now in a prime position to toy with levels of experimentation, avoided like the plague by their luminaries.
Joining a now wide ranging portfolio, Mirror’s Edge has been a project creating quite a stir since the first screens and concepts were laid down a year ago. Despite this, few had seen anything other than tasters of the revolutionary gameplay that intends to combine platforming, puzzle solving, shooting and parkour into a sophisticated and immersive first person action adventure title.
Headed by Swedish developers DICE, Mirror’s Edge is something of a departure from the fare offered by their now seminal Battlefield series, recently added to by the excellent Battlefield: Bad Company. Powered by the legendary Unreal Engine 3, Mirror’s Edge is set upon a clinical fictitious city of the future. A seeming utopia with its spotless urban vista’s, the sheer sterility of the environment is suffocating and indicative of those who assume power. You play as Faith, an orphan of dissent determined to free your sister from the corrupt totalitarian government who detain her and utilize unprecedented levels of surveillance through communication monitoring to subdue the cities citizens. Owing to the electronic benevolence of the regime, those in opposition to the establishment employ runners to convey messages across the rooftops like human carrier pigeons. Having become a street urchin after her parent’s death, Faith became a runner for criminals and dissidents alike and now finds herself being chased by an Orwellian government intent on her capture and silence.
Fairly sophisticated stuff then and the back-story is supported by an equally sophisticated gaming ethic that promises to “convey the strain and physical contact with the environment.” DICE have achieved this by tying camera movements to the eye level perspective of Faith. In doing so the camera operates within the same parameters as our own virtual viewpoint would when performing jumps, slides and death-defying leaps of Faith, get it? Furthermore arms come flailing out to provide momentum in mid air and if combat is necessary, your Chuck Norris style back-kick will feature your leg moving away from your body as it would do in real life.
Whilst this may sound rather unoriginal on paper, DICE’s ability to capture motion in the context of the first person standpoint is nothing short of amazing and could become the blueprint for the way developers approach first person camera direction in the next, next generation. Whilst games have attempted this dynamic in the past, namely Namco’s Breakdown, what makes DICE’s attempt particularly appealing is the fluidity of the real time physics that make it look all the more organic. Unfortunately trying to convey this in text is like trying to describing colour to a blind person, it really has to be seen to be believed.
Of course, grandstanding one original game design element pre-release often reeks of masked shortcomings and recently journo’s have been quick to brand Mirror’s Edge as little more than a packaged tech demo. Under these assumption’s it was good to see EA begin to flesh out the sheer variety in movement players can come to expect and the various story and gameplay components that will come as some payoff to our motion sickness.
Mirror’s Edge is not an FPS, merely an FPE or First Person Escape. There will be guns in the game and if you have the fortune to mule kick a shotgun out of a government agent’s arm you can continue to use it as long as it is loaded. But don’t expect to find floating boxes of ammo cluttering up the minimalist landscape or Faith retaining her agility whilst carrying heavy arsenals. No, DICE may well have been the brains behind the bulletfest that was the Battlefield series, but the aim in Mirror’s Edge is not to engage in lopsided shootouts with the ominous shades wearing agents, indeed there is an achievement for game completions sans the gunplay. Instead players are expected to utilize Faith’s agility to escape sticky situations and in doing so will be further aided by Faith’s “Runner Vision,” a honed ability to track the best paths through the cluttered rooftops and pitfalls of the skyline. In reality, “Runner Vision” is distinctive red lines marking out the best routes for escape through the bleached landscapes and offers some direction in an immersive, if sterile, world that features no HUD. Whether this feature is optional, or a fixed game breaker waits to be seen, but in its current state it feels a little too much like hand holding on the developer’s part.
Control is set to be simple and fluid in a furthered attempt to suspend reality but practice is likely to be the key with some of the early jumps and balancing elements proving difficult. Still DICE have kitted Faith out with a neat range of abilities borrowed from parkour. Sliding, wall running, wall sliding, beam balancing and beam swinging are to name a few. Think of it as urban gymnastics combined with N+. Further control will extend into combat with the onus on hand to hand, disarmament and sliding takedowns much like a feminine Neil Ruddock and this will be topped out with a finite “bullet time” style ability, allowing Faith to slow time, be it to down an enemy or pull of difficult jumps.
DICE’s decision to create incredibly sparse environments helps to highlight the various in game physics, but the limited color palette could become a little too much and to see a few new levels that utilize a visually differential approach was thankful. What is clear in its pre-release state is the sense of scale and height are mastered extraordinarily well and combine with the perspective to create a believable experience. Still questions arise over how long the physics defying gameplay and purposely limited visual aplomb could hold interest. Sure the free running element will be exciting for a few hours, but unless the game is shorter than Portal, DICE are going to have to throw a little more into the mix to avoid the unique gameplay mechanic buckling under the weight of its own importance.
Furthermore there appears to be some collision detection issues, that or the enemy AI which appeared a little slow in EA’s E3 presentation have the marksmanship prowess of a Bond villain’s henchman. Nevertheless, Mirror’s Edge is slated for a November release and there is time to polish up some of these minor issues and create an optional setting for “Runner Vision.” Hopefully the action will be drawn away from the rooftops and a recent trailer has shown some underground train tracks and a sewer too diversify the aesthetics. There is a lot of interest invested in the industry breaking design on show having picked up the E3 Best Action Game award. Whilst shaping up and looking like a thoroughly unique experience, only time will tell if it is equally rewarding and attention grabbing one.

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