Forget blue-skies-in-games, how about press-events-not-in-dungeons? The one we're in - some sort of trendy nightspot off Union Square in San Francisco - has comfy seats and plenty of Corona, but it's still a bit out of place, and particularly as it's host to Digital Illusions' new first-person action game, Mirror's Edge, whose gameplay is sprinkled delicately across a gleaming range of mountainous rooftops and endless glass under an azure sky.
It looks a bit like an openworld game, but the focus of the sections we see is restricted to rooftops packed with vents, pipes, wire-mesh fences, substations and radio masts, and the path you take is specific. You, in this case, being a young lady called Faith (as in "leap of", given her antics), whose job it is to deliver important messages and data through the city's maze of skyscrapers while Big Brother snaps at her ankles. "To understand Faith, you need to understand the city, because she's a product of the city," says senior producer Owen O'Brien, addressing the underground gloom. "It's a city of tall, gleaming skyscrapers and clean, crime-free streets, but this comfortable life has come at a price. Gradually, over the years, people have been giving up more and more of their personal freedoms."
In the game's back-story, Faith's parents were killed in violently suppressed protests, and she grew up on the street, taught not to trust modern forms of communication, eventually becoming a "runner". Runners are "not strictly speaking criminals", says O'Brien, "but the people they work for have been criminalised, rightly or wrongly." Events in the game inevitably conspire to give Faith more to do than just deliver parcels, moulding her into more of a heroine than a Postman Patricia. "She's a heroine in the way Ellen Ripley is in Alien, or John McClane in Die Hard is a hero; they're an ordinary person put into extraordinary situations and it's what they do in those situations that makes them a hero," says O'Brien.
We quickly tune out of what he's saying though, because Mirror's Edge is very absorbing to watch. First-person games are almost always about the gun rather than the person holding it, and DICE designed Mirror's Edge as a counterpoint to that. "The first thing we wanted to look at was just getting the feeling of movement and momentum, so walking, jogging and running," says O'Brien, winning our attention again. "Very simple things, but things that haven't really been done well in first-person shooters." You don't even have a gun - instead you're told to concentrate on moving quickly, maintaining momentum through tricky environments, much as we did during the freer-flowing parts of Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed. Controls are deliberately simple: movement and view-adjustment on the analogue sticks, and then context-sensitive "up" and "down" functions on a pair of buttons (presumably the triggers - did we mention it was dark?). "Up" can be jumping, climbing, wall-running, vaulting, or grabbing hold of something above you, like a zip-line, while "down" can be used to perform a power-slide under a low object, or to break your fall with a parachute roll. The only other control mentioned is Sixaxis tilting for balancing on beams on the PS3.
Fail to string these things together properly and you will lose momentum, and may fall off things or get shot if someone's chasing you. If our demo was anything to go by though, the main penalty is not enjoying yourself as much: it looked very good, especially as our DICE handlers navigated a busy rooftop in a fluid sequence of stylish manoeuvres clearly inspired by the best bits of the Bourne film series, the building site bit at the start of Casino Royale, and other recent examples of cinema's sudden fascination with parkour. One big problem when applying this sort of thing to games, though, is making it obvious where to go without simplifying or regimenting your options too much and without confusing you. DICE's answer to this is something called Runner Vision.
"Basically, when you move through this game very fast, we wanted the player to be able to understand very quickly when or where they could go or should go," says O'Brien. "The way I often describe it is that Jason Bourne sees the world differently to everyone else - he sees weapons where you see a pen - so in this case [the game] shows us a route...and this happens dynamically throughout."
In practice what you see is an object glowing bright red against the game's largely white and cool-blue palette (one of the first screenshots illustrates the concept). If there's a door you're meant to go through, it will turn red as you approach it, and then you can adjust your sprint or flight through the air to land and smash through it smoothly. It also highlights things like cranes and pipes suspended between buildings. Elsewhere, the other big problem with free-running is snagging, and although O'Brien didn't address it he didn't really need to - we saw no evidence of problems, although it will take a hands-on session to render any kind of judgement on that front.
Runner Vision - "TM!" jokes O'Brien - will need to be employed as guidance rather than a crutch for dumb players, but DICE seems to get this. The one puzzle we're shown is a simple movement puzzle in a cramped hallway, where Faith has to try and reach a highlighted vent near the ceiling, and the challenge is working out how to combine the various ledges and footholds around the room to get to the top rather than trying to work out where to go. O'Brien says to expect more complex puzzles later on, suggesting that for all the movement and momentum chatter the developer has worked to vary the pace.
As if to ram the point home, as soon as Faith drops out of the vent she's set upon by cops, who start chasing her. At this point the music goes a bit Half-Life 2, reminding us of Gordon Freeman's own flight across rooftops, and the player has to combine various manoeuvres quickly and effectively - using Runner Vision to guide Faith - to outpace her pursuers. As she takes the odd bullet, the colour starts to de-saturate to illustrate the loss of health. "We wanted to keep a very clean-looking game," says O'Brien, as we notice there's sod-all else on the screen. At the end of the chase, Faith has no choice but to tackle a pair of cops head on, doing something clever with her hands to disarm them and profiting to the tune of a gun. So guns do exist, but they're "kind of a temporary power-up", says O'Brien, lasting for as long as there are bullets in the clip, but slowing you down. You wouldn't be much good at parkour if you had an assault rifle on your back, after all.
Getting away from the rest of the cops involves breaking line of sight, says O'Brien, but in the meantime Faith has a bigger problem, which is that she's running out of rooftop. Fortunately there's a news helicopter swooping past. This gives our minders a chance to show off Reaction Time - "basically our version of Bullet Time" - which is accumulated by stringing together slick moves. It's used to slow down time and fine-tune big jumps, of which this is one, leaping Faith from roof edge to helicopter skid at the end of a sequence of ducks, dips and dives.
It's just one level of a game we probably won't get to play for some months, but it's bright and interesting, even if you do have a radio dispatcher talking into your earpiece called "Merc". The chaps at Electronic Arts hope that Mirror's Edge will be able to play the Assassin's Creed part in this year's hype parade, so look out for more carefully crafted reveals in the months ahead before they, and DICE, will finally let you have Faith.
Mirror's Edge is due out on PC, PS3 and 360 but its release date is currently TBA.