Mirror's Edge isn't your typical videogame dystopia, and that's exactly the point. There's no rust, no rubble, and no legions of storm troopers running through shattered streets. Instead there's gleaming cleanliness, a spotless high-rise environment of shining steel and glass without a leaf out of place. This is an altogether different vision of hell - a sanitised and well-kept prison where the population have traded their personal freedom for crime-free streets, limitless supplies of sexy gymwear and a shoot-to-kill anti-littering policy. It's a world, you suspect, where somebody has made the trains run on time: a dystopia, then, but a subtle, believable one. That sly kind of thinking is the first sign that Mirror's Edge might be something special.
The second sign is the visuals - and that's in terms of design, not just fidelity and polygon stats. This is a case of form following function, a look dictated by the blank canvas of the city, and the Runner's Vision which allows Faith, the fleet-footed courier protagonist, to instinctively know which environmental objects she can use as she heads from A to B. Rather than highlighting useful bits of scenery in a shimmering videogame glow, the game paints them a primary colour. The results are striking and distinctive, and the few existing Mirror's Edge screenshots are already unmistakable. It's a rare style, and one that would look good running on any system, no matter the hardware power.
And the third, and most important, sign is focus. This is a game about movement, and it elevates the simple act of getting around to a position of prime importance. That's a potential risk, particularly as Mirror's Edge is emphatically first-person, which, when combined with platforming has historically been about as much fun as being backed over by a combine harvester. But there's something about this one that inspires confidence. The developers talk a good game, certainly, but don't they always? Instead, hope lies in the clarity of the design, in the sure-footed poise displayed in the environments and style. Mirror's Edge may finally be the game to break the curse of wonky jumping and floaty combat that ultimately sunk previous first-person action games like Breakdown. It's certainly got ideas as to how it plans on doing it.
For starters, developer DICE has taken pains to put the person into first-person. Look down and you'll see a torso and legs beneath you; jump, and your feet kick out in front, allowing you to guide your descent; run, and you'll find you have to build up speed realistically, each foot that hits the ground providing not just a reassuring animation, but an actual physical sense of movement and connection to the environment. Other games have tried this, and Dark Messiah of Might & Magic got closest, but there were still times your body was clearly just another bit of scenery. For Mirror's Edge to pull it off, the effect has to be near-perfect.
Then there's the control system, which is showing a lot of promise. It's heavily streamlined, but not, thankfully, pared down to the autopilot standards of Assassin's Creed. Given the game's focus on vertical environments, Mirror's Edge's two main buttons are L1 and L2 on the Sixaxis, which are used as 'up' and 'down' (how well this will map to the 360's bumper remains to be seen). Both work contextually: pressing up allows you jump over low railings, or grab ledges and pull yourself onto them; down sends you into a slide if running, or lets you roll under barriers. The system's apparent simplicity hints at a game that wants you to master it quickly and then begin experimenting. You can cludge your way through these levels stupidly, bouncing off air vents and smacking into walls, but you're not getting the most out of the game until you can fling impromptu combos together with abandon, thinking on your feet, and moving through the landscape like a sweatpanted torpedo.
This all sounds fabulous, but there's a problem: if only EA would actually let us have a go at the game ourselves. A recent press event initially suggested that we might finally get to put our feet in Faith's bright red trainers, but our hopes were shattered and it turned out to be another opportunity to watch a developer perform a walkthrough. Chin up, though: at least they showed us some new stuff along the way.
Things kicked off with a leisurely play through the original trailer level - presumably to convince the many doubters present that this is in fact real in-game footage. The blue sky and white buildings are already classics, but the slower pace of the demonstration allowed us to more fully appreciate the way the Runner's Vision washes a layer of pure primary-colour information over the sheer HD city. There's no need for any disruptive third-person camera lunges to mark out your target, a distant door, when the game can make it shine out of the surrounding landscape simply by painting it bright red instead.
Equally, multiple routes and opportunities seem to suggest themselves everywhere, and even though the level is a simple trek from start point to finish line, there's a real variety in how you get there, whether you choose to wall-run, pick your way around fences, or hurl yourself from rooftop to rooftop. Throughout this, the bob and weave of the camera is invigorating without being distracting, and the final leap from the last building triggers Reaction Time, built up through successful movement combos, which allows you to slow proceedings at crucial moments where you have to pull off something particularly tricky in mid-air.
If the trailer level suggests that this is one long, uninterrupted sprint of a game, the new environment we're shown next changes the tone entirely. Moving from the top of the world to the bottom, we're now deep down in a storm drain - a massive pit of gleaming concrete - looking up. The job here is to work from railing to walkway, picking a way to the top. There are gentle puzzles - move a crane-load of pipes to act as a bridge - but nothing that would stump Dr Rubik for very long. Much more exciting is the effortless way Mirror's Edge slots itself into a new rhythm, a cautious and precise stop-start pacing that's a lifetime away from the smooth free-running on the rooftops above. It's a shame to see a little bit of cloning going on (one pile of boxes turns up several times, which can be particularly distracting when you're trying to get your bearings in such a sterile environment) but the game has lost none of its self-assurance in the change in gear.
Getting to the top of the drain, there's a final surprise - violence. A quick kick allows Faith to snatch a rifle from an enemy, and then it's into FPS territory as you've come to expect it. Sort of. Gun in hand, the balance with which Mirror's Edge manages its separate mechanics is on display: fire-fights are a welcome change after all that climbing, and the business of finding cover and trading bullets is handled with noisy flair, but the game never lets you forget what it's really about. Pick up a weapon, and your movement is instantly limited: guns are an encumbrance you'll need in certain situations, but you'll be happy to ditch them again once the fight is finished, so that you can regain your intoxicating litheness once more.
To see Mirror's Edge running is to instantly want to play it, but that's not to say there isn't anything to worry about beyond the fact that EA are being sparing in handing over the controller. Even if the game succeeds in nailing first-person movement, there are still huge problems to overcome in terms of hand-to-hand combat - something we've seen very little of so far. It's also a little disappointing to learn more of the back-story (even if it is presented in fantastic flat-colour anime) and discover that the justification for all this acrobatic rebellion is a kidnapped sibling; Double Dragon-style justifications don't seem appropriate turning up at the centre of a game that otherwise seems to transcend cobwebbed tradition.
Parkour, bullet-time, and the kind of premise that, while refreshing for games, could still fit rather snugly into one of those more introspective episodes of Star Trek: such is the grace and self-assurance of Mirror's Edge's presentation, that it comes as a slight shock to eventually realise not many of its components are actually that new. But at the centre of the game, the ambition for the broadening of first-person play is a charmingly risky agenda, and the potential rewards could reinvigorate at least two aging genres.
It's the risks which make it easy to understand why EA seems a little nervous about Mirror's Edge: failures like Breakdown have proved that people tend to expect a healthy does of "S" along with their "FP", and the strengths of this title - its style and quirky approach - mark it out from the crowd in a way that is probably already making focus testers feel sick in the mornings.
But DICE at least seems confident in what it's doing: little details show their enthusiasm, such as the placeholder text in the hint screens that reads, "If you can dream it, you can do it", and suggests a team that has a serious devotion to the task at hand. Mirror's Edge may have a lot to prove, but there are a couple of things that it's already got right: it understands that if you're going to spend most of your time in action games moving, then moving should be an interesting activity in itself, and it also tries to take its players somewhere different. Until we've played it for ourselves, we can't yet tell what that's going to be like when we finally get there, but it should be fascinating finding out.
Mirror's Edge is due out on PC, PS3 and 360 later this year.