First-person games can be thrilling, but they always seem to involve shooting (to the dismay of concerned parents and bored gamers). That's what makes "Mirror's Edge" so unique, writes Brett McCallon ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
In modern video games first-person perspective, in which a game's camera is fixed approximately at a player's eyes, offers the illusion of near-total immersion within a game's world. Bullets appear to fly directly at you, not just at your onscreen avatar, which quickens the pulse and pours on the adrenaline. This helps to explain why the first-person shooter (FPS) genre has become such a gaming powerhouse. Series that feature this perspective, such as the "Halo" and "Call of Duty" games, have been among the most successful titles of the past few years.
However, first-person perspective in games has a number of disadvantages. For example, it can be difficult to intuit the precise position of a character's "body" in the game space. While aiming, shooting and moving along a flat plane are relatively simple, it's hard to figure out exactly where the character's "feet" are, so precise jumping is a challenge.
In practical terms, this has meant that almost all first-person perspective games are shooters (though some role-playing and driving games offer a first-person option). This has raised the hackles of both concerned parents and some bored gamers. Is shooting really the best way to harness the excitement of first-person perspective?
"Mirror's Edge", released last autumn by Electronic Arts, answers this question with an emphatic "no".
In essence, the game is designed to simulate parkour, as originated in France and popularised by various spectacular YouTube clips (and the opening sequence of the James Bond film "Casino Royale"). In parkour, practitioners climb, vault, jump, balance and in every way manoeuvre around, over, under and through various urban architecture. It's hard to describe, but watching it in action is guaranteed to amaze. Masters of parkour appear to defy the laws of physics, as well as the limitations of the human body, several times per second.
Other games have included elements of parkour, notably the "Prince of Persia" and "Assassin's Creed" games. Yet both depicted the action from a third-person perspective, so that players could easily comprehend the position of their characters and the distance to their next temporary handhold or landing point.
What makes "Mirror's Edge" so challenging, so exhilarating and often so frustrating is that it is played entirely from a first-person perspective. Players navigate the character, Faith, through various arresting, sparse, beautifully rendered urban obstacle courses, all the while maintaining the same view that the character herself would have. Just as in first-person shooters, this leads to some incredible gameplay moments. For example, during one notable sequence, Faith hurtles through the interior of a building, ducking around various armed enemies, only to find herself stranded on a terrace with no obvious next move. Soon enough it becomes clear that the only way forward is to hurtle bodily over the railing, slide down a hundred feet of angled, mirrored skyscraper and finally execute a split-second jump to grasp a railing on another building high above the virtual street. Watching the edge of a skyscraper race toward you, knowing that only a perfect leap will save you from a dizzying fall is a heart-palpitating experience, and one for which the game's design team (Swedish studio DICE) deserves tremendous credit.
Moments like these are some of the most exhilarating sequences offered by any recent game. Still, "Mirror's Edge" suffers from some of the typical limitations of first-person perspective. Players often need to execute a complex series of movements with split-second timing, yet spatial relationships still remain vague. (Thankfully the game returns players to their last safe position almost immediately after a fall, making trial-and-error gameplay less annoying than usual.)
Armed enemies appear at various points throughout each of the game's nine levels. While "Mirror's Edge" lets players kick, punch and disarm foes in slow motion, the game is designed to discourage shooting. Picking up a weapon removes all of Faith's complex movement abilities and drastically slows her otherwise breathtaking speed. Moreover, shooting just seems like the wrong approach in Mirror's Edge; some of the game's best moments come when players are able to intuit a path that takes them over, above and through ranks of machinegun-toting heavies, staying just ahead of the bullets all the while.
Still, opting to avoid the easy path by depending on well-placed kicks and evasion tends to mean suffering numerous deaths at each enemy encounter before finally figuring out how to escape.
"Mirror's Edge" is often frustrating, with a throwaway plot and no memorable characters, but it is also a strikingly original gameplay experience. Hopefully future iterations will build on the game's thrilling, movement-centred intensity and reduce the frustration. We could use a game that grants a first-person intensity without forcing players to perforate their foes.
Picture credit: "Mirror's Edge", Electronic Arts
(Brett McCallon is a writer based in New Orleans. His last gaming column was about the post-nuclear-war landscape of "Fallout 3".)