If any game was going to win an award for being cool, Mirror's Edge would be it. From the title screen onwards you're treated to a uniquely styled action game that exudes cool from every pore, drips with cutting edge technical brilliance and never tries to deviate from its platforming focus. The big question is whether or not all this cool and a remarkably simple control scheme is enough to make free-running Mirror's Edge the game of the year candidate it always looked like being.
Mirror's Edge sees you playing as Faith, a female runner in a near future in which security is tight and every move is watched and analysed. While the general public comply, worried for their safety and the penalties for breaking the law, the runners work above the law, delivering sensitive data to people by using highrise rooftops as their road network. The storyline seems more or less created to give a purpose to the parkour inspired action platforming gameplay, but it does that perfectly and creates a convincing totalitarian atmosphere.
Although viewed from a first-person perspective it would be wrong to call Mirror's Edge a first-person shooter. For the most part you're weapon-less, with the first-person perspective giving you the perfect view of the city and the exhilarating moves you're able to pull off. For a game that looks incredibly complicated to control, developer DICE should be commended for managing to map most of what matters onto the four shoulder buttons of the two next-gen console controllers. The key to everything Faith does is really the way all upwards actions are mapped to L1/LB and all downward actions are mapped to L2/LT. You'll need to play through the tutorial level to get a feel for it, but once you do it makes perfect sense and never gets in the way of gameplay.
Faith's movement is essentially controlled like any other FPS, with her running speed increasing as you continue to move unobstructed by obstacles. If a small structure is in your way, tap L1/LB and Faith will either leap straight over or climb up onto it; if a ramp of sorts is built out of a small object leading to a larger structure, tap the same button and you'll use the first object as a springboard to leap over both. Equally, if you see a gap underneath an object, tap L2/LT and Faith will slide underneath. It might sound clunky spelled out here, but in practice it's tremendously fluid and makes for some of the best platforming gameplay available on any platform.
These little movements make up a lot of the game, but Faith is a thrill seeker, so massive leaps of, well, faith, are always just around the corner. Runner vision (not available on the hardest unlocked difficulty mode) highlights key objects in red, so you're always aware of roughly where you need to go, be it off the edge of a ramp or down a zip wire. Faith isn't a super human, so a big fall will hurt her, meaning a good landing is essential. Holding the down button just prior to landing is the key to this, causing Faith to roll when she hits the ground, and letting you continue your run without losing too much momentum.
We haven't even touched on the more advanced techniques yet, like wall running (and jumping from a wall run), wall jumps by using the quick turn button and tucked jumps by holding the up button while in the air. Although Runner Vision shows suitable objects to use and the circle/B button points Faith towards her destination, there's not a single route through each level - far from it. The levels have been built in a way to make the most of Faith's incredible agility, so the obvious route is rarely, if ever, the best option. Of course, it's still great fun to play through the game using nothing but what's marked out, but by the latter half of the game (which is disappointingly short, we're sad to report) you're more comfortable with Faith's abilities and try more things out.
It's a testament to the gameplay that we even enjoyed opening doors, something that quite rightly barely gets a mention in the majority of games. The way Faith smashes through them never gets dull, and the transition from the sterile indoor environments to the stunning outdoors always impress. Doors are fun, but smashing through glass is even better. It feels strange talking about such mundane things, but when you're Faith, seeing the world with her eyes, even the most simple actions feel good.
If there's a part of the game that's likely to divide opinion it's the combat. Although developed by FPS veterans DICE, gun combat in Mirror's Edge isn't good. On the small number of occasions we felt it necessary to pick up and use a gun, things felt awkward, almost as if Faith herself wasn't comfortable using guns as a way to tackle enemies. Gameplay flaw or deliberate design choice, it works in that it fits in with the rest of the game. You'll focus on either ignoring enemies completely or use Faith's close-quarters combat. Disarms are key to taking out enemies, with a single button press at the correct time snatching a weapon and downing the enemy, but the system isn't perfect.
R2/RT is used for all combat in the game, with a press while on the floor performing a punch, a flying kick while in the air and a ground kick while sliding. You can even combine a wall run with a flying kick and link moves together, but there's one flaw that will irk some a lot more than others. A successful attack will often stun an enemy for a few seconds, but during this time Faith can't disarm them. Despite the enemy being out of action for that time, it's impossible to disarm until he's back up and starting an attack animation. It's something you can live with, but better combat is a must in the sequel. The best encounters occur when Faith is faced with more agile enemies, able to scale buildings and follow her in ways standard cops can't. Here you'll have to make the most of your newly learnt skills and the chase gameplay is about the best the game has to offer.
While Faith is mainly running about on rooftops and inside office complexes, you get more than enough variety thrown in. One area is set inside a massive underground storm drain, another sees her jumping onto a train before leaping from one to another. It's thrilling stuff, and never lets up. An argument could be put forward that the end is a little cheap (snipers aren't the best enemy to come across when your main form of attack is up close and personal), but every section has a solution, no matter how tricky (or impossible) it may seem for those moments where Faith repeatedly eats dirt. At times you'll moan about her slow bar shuffling and ledge walking speed and the way enemies can spot you from quite a distance, but these are really only slight niggles in an otherwise expertly made game.
The modes likely to elevate Mirror's Edge to potential game of the year are speed run and time trial. Speed run is, as you'd expect, playing through the main campaign levels as quickly as possible. It's the enemy free time trial levels that have the potential to keep you hooked though. It's here that the game's route variety shines through and your quality is shamed. By the end of the game we felt we were pretty good, but our first time on the initial time trial stage showed just what can be done. Our one star time was a good 45 seconds off what was needed for three stars. With downloadable ghosts and online leaderboards, you could be playing this for a long, long time.
No game we've played this year comes close to matching the clinically clean style seen in Mirror's Edge. The outdoor sections are bathed in glorious light and the city stretches far into the distance, whereas the indoor sections are brilliantly designed and capture the tone of the story perfectly. There are problems, notably some rough textures in both versions of the game, a less than perfect frame rate and aliasing issues in the PS3 version, but they're not major. There's really not much between the two versions, and both include an absolutely spot on soundtrack. Considering both games offer rewards in the form of Achievements on 360 and trophies on PS3 (some tough ones to earn too, if you're after a challenge), your choice of platform should come down to your preferred controller. The shoulder buttons on the PS3 pad suited better in our opinion, but each to their own. If DICE is to make a sequel we'd also like to see a few civilians about the city and inside the various buildings - other than cops and other assailants the game is devoid of life.
There are times in Mirror's Edge when you'll be frustrated, replaying a section for the umpteenth time with no solution in sight, but persevere; Faith always has a way out - you just have to find it. Combine a thoroughly entertaining single-player campaign with a stunning and challenging time trial mode and you'll soon forget that you managed to run through the story in six hours or less. There's depth here that you'll only discover hours into time trialling a single stage, and as we said, no other game released this year comes close to being as cool. We can't wait to see what Faith gets up to next.