As you'll know if you've read, well, pretty much anything at all about it, Mirror's Edge is an action-adventure game with a difference. Like so many other titles in the genre, it involves working out how to get from point A to point B and pulling off the right combination of moves to get there. But unlike most of them, it presents the action from a first-person perspective. For this reason it's most often referred to as an action-adventure with an FPS twist. But in fact, it's got more in common with racing games.
At least that's the case when it comes to the Time Trial mode, as we discovered during a recent hands-on session. There is a healthy selection of unlockable courses choose from, each one based on a level in the Story mode. The ultimate objective is to navigate your way to the end in the quickest time possible, hitting the highlighted checkpoints along the way. However, there's more to the Time Trial mode in Mirror's Edge than just beating the clock.
For starters, there are the controls to get to grips with. Because there's no combat involved in this section of the game, you only have the analog sticks and three context-sensitive buttons to worry about. The left stick makes Faith run, while the right stick moves the first-person camera. L1 is used to jump and vault over objects. L2 is for sliding under gaps and barrel rolling, and R1 is for pulling yourself up when hanging from ledges.
It's easy to grasp the basic manoeuvres. The controls are responsive, the context-sensitive elements make perfect sense and it's not long at all before you're running, jumping, vaulting, sliding and rolling with ease. All of this bodes well for the single-player game, but in Time Trial it's not just about whether you can pull off the moves. It's about pulling off the right moves at the right moments, and working out the best route through each level.
Which is where the racing game element comes in. Anyone who's spent time with the likes of the Project Gotham games will know you can't just rely on good driving skills to see you through; you have to get to know each track. The only way to get an impressive finishing time is by plotting out the perfect racing line, and working out which points provide an opportunity to shave split-seconds off your total.
It's the same here, with one important difference (apart from the fact you're not driving a car, obviously). Although checkpoints show the direction in which you should be heading, there are multiple ways to get between each one. You're not dealing with a linear piece of tarmac; the path ahead is usually wide open. There's a huge range of environmental objects between you and your objective, and you've got to work out how they might help or hinder your progress.
As an example, let's look at the first Time Trial course we got to try out, Edge. It'll look instantly familiar to anyone who's seen screenshots of the game - all bright lighting, white backgrounds and primary-coloured details. Your first mission is to negotiate four flights of stairs. You could just run up them, of course, as myself and the other journalists playing did to begin with. Then someone pointed out Faith can wall-run, which makes navigating stairs a little bit quicker. Just a little bit - but as we were to discover, every little helps.
Once out on the rooftop, the next obstacle is a fence which you can vault over or slide under. In terms of the individual moves the slide is quicker, but you lose a tiny bit of momentum - and momentum is all important here. Faith gathers speed as she runs and links moves together. If you do something that slows her down, or perhaps make an error that brings her to a full stop, you'll lose that momentum.
This might mean, for example, that you don't have enough power to perform that big jump at the end of the rooftop cleanly. You'll still make it but only by grabbing the ledge, and you'll lose a split-second as you have to pull yourself up. Similarly, it's important to perform a barrel roll with perfect timing when you land from jumps. Mess it up, and Faith will need a second to right herself - and you'll have lost all that momentum.
But even if you pull off a perfect chain of moves from the start of the course to the end, you won't get the fastest time if you haven't plotted out the best route. This is where the Time Trials have an action-adventure flavour you won't find in racing games. At the end of each trial you'll be told the distance you travelled, and the minimum distance you could have travelled had you taken the best possible route. The distance between these figures is often astonishing. You might be ever so proud of the shortcut you found round the back of that building, that secret jump that saves whole seconds and the hidden zip-line you discovered - only to find you're still covering a hundred metres more than you need to. And you have no idea why.
The result is that while you're repeating courses, you're not only practicing your moves but looking for new shortcuts and better routes. This makes the Time Trial courses more than just a test of how good you are at pressing buttons, and consequently more interesting. It also increases the incentive to repeat them over and over again, as does the star rating system. The only way to achieve three stars is to find the perfect racing line through the course, to work out the best moves for navigating your way through it, and to pull them all off flawlessly.
Which is by no means easy. Sometimes, for example, it's just impossible to see how you could reduce your distance travelled. At this point you might want to cheat, and download the ghost of someone better at the course than you. Then you can race against the ghost, and more importantly, see the route taken to get that super-fast time. You can also race against your own ghosts, which is a good way of spotting ways to improve your efficiency.
Not all the courses place an equal emphasis on route-planning and acrobatic precision. In another one we tried out, Stormdrains, there's only one pathway through most of the course - and it involves traversing a series of elevated platforms. There's very little room for error; if you miss a single jump, your only real choice is to start the whole thing again. However, the restart mechanism is fast enough and the courses short enough to prevent this from becoming too much of a chore.
The question is whether the Time Trial mode is good enough to provide long-term entertainment, or whether it'll feel like a tacked-on extra. That will partly depend on what kind of player you are. Those who have the patience to achieve perfection and get a thrill from topping leaderboards will probably find it has plenty of appeal; those who are more Mario Karters than Project Gotham Racers might not.
In any case, an even bigger question still hangs in the air: will Mirror's Edge really be as amazing as everyone hopes? Fortunately it won't be long before we can tell you once and for all, with just under a month to go until it's on shop shelves. For now, though, it's clear that DICE has thought long and hard about how Mirror's Edge can draw influence from other genres, and still offer something different.
Mirror's Edge is due out for PS3 and 360 on 14th November.