Monday, August 24, 2009

Crashing Through the Mirror

I 'beat' the story mode in Mirror's Edge for the Xbox 360 last night.

Man, I have really mixed feelings about the game.

It isn't a really recent game for the console, but when I first started thinking about getting a 360 for playing import STGs, this was one American game I was pretty sure I wanted.

The good: The premise is that you are a female anti-hero(ine) who basically moves through this first-person game like Jackie Chan, combining acrobatics and martial arts. It is very unique and although it looks like it might be a typical FPS, the de-emphasising of guns (for you) changes all the rules. The graphics and stage design are phenomenal. Incredibly lifelike movement and all of it aided by unsurpassed audio. The music is REALLY good, and the sounds of your movement and efforts really put you into her shoes. The enemy AI is pretty good. They don't do unbelievably stupid things if you are armed.

The bad: The plot is incredibly cliched and unambitious. Typical corrupt cops and city officials with betrayal by friends and all that. There wasn't one plot point I didn't see a mile away. It could be argued that the plot in an action game like this is secondary, but when a title shoots to be this immersive (and is successful during the actual gameplay) this is a real letdown. With all the cash that must've gone into the visuals and audio they couldn't hire a real writer. All kinds of contrived plot convolutions and none of it surprising... just sort of confusing at times.

The ugly: The cutscenes. If you read anything on the 'net about this game, this is where everyone agrees. The flat animated cutscenes are the height of gross suckage. Again, looks like the money ran out before they got to these. At least the most dramatic moments in the game are actually done in-game with the polygonal models you interact with as a player. This is incredibly important to the ending which would have been an absolute catastrophe with the shitty cutscene style.

Probably the worst thing for me though, are the controls. This needs a little more explanation though:

As cool as this game looks and moves, it may be that that the concept of an agility-based hero (like Spiderman or Strider) played through a first person perspective just cannot be realised effectively with available technologies. In a 2d game, the player's distanced perspective allows an objective view. If the programmers and designers are doing their job, there may be routes to figure out, and controls to master, but all the tools and clues will be there for you to master the game. It isn't as immersive as 3d but there isn't as much guess work. No hurrying to look behind you, no struggling to see what's ahead. It may not be as realistic, but 2d is simpler to control.

In the 3d gaming world, F(irst)P(erson)S(hooter) games typically just need move (maybe with multiple speeds), look, shoot, jump, duck/crouch, change weapon, and 'fiddle with object'. As long as the needs of the characters in the game don't jump much beyond that simple list it is pretty easy to manage getting around. The move and look controls are the rather obvious toggles that almost every controller these days sports. Shoot is usually a trigger. Jump is usually the other side's 'upper' trigger with duck/crouch the lower trigger. So this is all fairly intuitive. But when you start adding in all the physicality of a 'ninja' game it becomes problematic.

Now any set of controls no matter how complex can be memorised. If gamers can learn and fluidly play Virtual On or Senko No Ronde in superfast competitive play, then the controls of Mirror's Edge can be mastered. It is just not that intuitive. It takes A LOT longer to learn competently than an FPS because you WILL need to jump up, bounce off a wall, and grab a ledge... and that's just a lot of shit compared to blowing junk up in Wolfenstein. Couple this with the the timing necessary to pull off the complex moves, the fact that two critical buttons are analog, so your hitting them has to be firm in addition to quick, and that missing usually leads to death. There's a lot of frustration there just based on using the controls. In any 3d action game, whether first or third person, precision jumping is THE BANE. Up that factor in Mirror's Edge exponentially. You die a fucking lot!

It is a game about leaping along rooftops, over gaps between buildings, and tightrope walking along beams and cranes. When you aren't involved in some death-defying archictectural stunt you are ducking for cover and dodging automatic weapons fire. To their credit, the designers DID simplify certain things. Grabs when you are flying through the air, whether ledge or pipe are automatic. Just get into the vicinity and you latch on. But for every simplification there is another complexity. Yeah, I can grab that plank sticking out, but if I'm off to one side by even six virtual inches she will not grab it. And you will be off by that six inches... frequently. Because the Xbox 360 analog stick is a slippery little fucker. It takes a master just to run in a goshdamn straight line with it. In real life, the heroine Faith, wouldn't fail to compensate for slight misalignments like that. But that shit isn't just the fault of the controller:

In point of fact, there is a lot of lack of real-world intuition that just makes this a really difficult world to adapt to. Almost all of it is game limitation stuff. Even with the best steering wheel and pedals money can buy, driving games cannot convey the feel of the road under your seat, or the vibration through the tires for which your brain and body are constantly adjusting. You don't slew in your seat as you make a turn. There's all this feedback that aids us in driving a car that you can't simulate without a massive, expensive simulator. It is the same in Mirror's Edge. I can't tell you how many times I ran off the edge of a platform or walkway after having jumped down on it because I lacked the actual feedback your body would give me in a similar situation. In real-life you could make that jump tighter and backpedal or shift your body back to stay on the platform. In the game, Faith just walks right the fuck off. It often seems like this game is a scenario that really requires full human peripheral vision too... but none of us have the ability to simulate THAT no matter how wide our HDTVs are. So there's all this shit that you should see, guys shooting at you, a little lip to grab onto, whatever but you don't. Or let's say its a lot of effort to see it. Its the same complication all FPS games have but it is almost crippling to the fun in Mirror's Edge. I'm not an unsubtle game player but sometimes I felt like MY version of Faith should've been riding the short bus.

The game also attempts to de-emphasize physical combat compared to an ordinary FPS too. Faith's moves are real-world martial arts based and implemented pretty well in my opinion, but many of the limitations mentioned above have an analog in the combat sequences. Being able to disarm a cop and take his gun is of paramount importance, yet it can be really difficult to judge the correct distance, let alone work out the timing. Watch in horror as Faith misses the grab for the gun and gets pistol-whipped into unconsciousness over and over and over again. The game and the manual actually tell you 'avoid combat whenever possible', and yet there are key sequences where you must get a cop's gun and literally kill your way through a situation. Because Faith is so outmatched in combat you will double your own body weight in violently-received lead before you know THIS is just such a sequence.

So maybe an acrobatic 3d action game is kind of too far ahead of its time. We don't have the controllers and screens to simulate this well enough. But here's the real reason I don't think Mirror's Edge works so well. The game is largely a puzzle game. Action oriented, but a puzzle game. Most of your time will be spent on figuring out where to go. The game helps you to some degree by indicating in red what objects can be grabbed onto or jumped from. But that's really artificial. Faith would know her own abilities and be able to determine whether she could make a jump. She can look around and see what poles, pipes and ledges can be scaled without them turning red to show her. Oddly, as the game progresses it puts you into rooms to escape and DOESN'T turn usable topography red. These can be really frustrating. I must've looked at a walkthrough five times in these situations through the course of the game. I realise the room is the puzzle and that if they indicated the exact objects in red, there'd be little challenge. But it is still predicated on the player not understanding what Faith can and can't do, which is contrived. Of course Faith would know what she can and can't do. It just seems weird to be dodging machine gun bullets, leaping over alleys, and kicking in doors only to be stuck figuring out how to scale the various objects in a room to get to the artifically reddened vent near the ceiling. In real life she WOULD have to figure it out, but she wouldn't get stuck on the fact she didn't know she could hang onto that tiny lip up on the wall. Or stymied not knowing that she could, in fact, leap that odd-looking gap. As players we don't have all the practice and experience that the character supposedly does. So how does a game give that to a player to overcome his making Faith look like a complete doofus. Well, it doesn't.

I don't know if this is really making any sense. Its a lot of blah-blah-blah, but I'm just DISAPPOINTED in the game failing the incredible potential of its premise. I want to like it. I think some parts of it are incredible and it may be the best use of movement and sound I've yet seen in a 3d game. I just think the IDEA of a ninja-like hero or heroine might be yet beyond the scope of our 'affordable' video game technology. I'm not expecting any game system to simulate EXACTLY what its like to be Jackie Chan. I'm perfectly happy with many racing games even though they don't transmit accurate reproductions of the physical forces at work in a moving car. I think if they DID compensate for all these frustrations, either the challenge would disappear, or all Faith's movements would consist of canned sequences that would devolve the game into a game you watch more than play. I've been reading some articles lately talking about the balance between realism and fun/playability. This game has a very fine line to have to tread in presenting the hair-raising thrill of jumping from building to building with your life at stake, and still give you a game you can actually play.

There were times, even after I'd fallen a hundred times in previous chapters, that my heart was in my mouth as the game leads you through another vertigo-inducing setpiece. On the flip side, I just felt so often like my controller or my lack of understanding were what drove me to look at online hints. I'd come up against a hurdle and just COULD NOT see where Faith could go because it just wasn't apparent, even through the game up to that point, just what she could do. For some people this sort of figuring out and learning-- trial and error and a lot of death-- would make for a fun game, it just wasn't really what I'd signed on for.

My own misgivings about what can be simulated or not, some clever git can probably come up with a way to represent this sort of first person ninja game that is more intuitive. It'll be awesome, especially if lighting strikes twice and they manage the same sense of movement and fantastic audio.

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