Version tested: Xbox 360
Well then, this is going to divide audiences down the middle. It's an ambitious game, but it manages to match its achievements with irritations at every turn; it's bold and forward-thinking, yet stilted and old-fashioned. Some will be able to overlook the gaping flaws, but others will never appreciate its moments of brilliance, and both positions are justifiable. Ultimately there's no right answer, but there are at least two things that prolonged exposure reveal: there are a handful of the crucial parts of a masterpiece here, and the end result still feels like a work in progress.
To start on a high point, you won't be mistaking Mirror's Edge for any other games until the inevitable clones emerge. Its world - huge blue skies, and massive bleached concrete vistas shot through with perfectly placed flashes of lurid colour - is beautiful, distinctive and inviting. Given the Swedish developer, we're already seeing Ikea jokes, but it's more of a city designed by Habitat: classy, solid, and perhaps gently self-involved. It's probably only a dystopia because the bed linen costs a fortune.
And the location is a powerful enough presence to make up for the story. Mirror's Edge tells of a gleaming CCTV hell where the only freedom lies with the Runners - sportswear renegades who dash about on rooftops screwing around with their clients' parcels, like Fed Ex run by Jason Bourne - and it's an intriguing idea, but the game is too breathless to explore it properly. Before you know it, someone's been framed for murder, someone else is upset about it, and you have damp shreds of a limp conspiracy to stitch together. The characters are forgettable, the plot points are so mindless you rarely notice what you're being sent off to do, and the voice acting is patchy. Faith, the strikingly designed lead, sounds like she's seconds away from offering you a timeshare with her anodyne Californian accent, and at least one other cast-member has been parachuted in from Top Cat.
Portal demonstrated what a decent narrative can add to an idiosyncratic game, so it's a shame, but it's a missed opportunity rather than a deal-breaker. What's important is all the opportunities to dash about on rooftops, because this is the true gem at the core of Mirror's Edge: its in-body perspective and quirky control scheme proves that first-person platforming is far from heretical; it can actually be exhilarating, inventive and stylish. Like the very best of its genre, movement itself is fun, and when it works and you're dashing across the skyline, sometimes in control, sometimes barely winging it, Mirror's Edge is brilliant.
The control scheme initially seems lopsided, with the dominant context-sensitive up and down movements on the left triggers, but as soon as you start to trust the connection between controls and environment (the up button really will work out, whether you want to wall-run or just grab a ledge, and down will slide or roll judiciously), the tucks and swings and lunges fall into place. To aid you in stringing moves together, Runner's Vision paints useful bits of scenery bright red, pulling you along the best path without upsetting the game's palette.
When it's all going well, you move like an urban ballerina. When it gets fiddly, however, you feel like the Elephant Man trying rollerblades for the first time, and for the first half-hour at least, the learning curve is a straight line that plummets over the edge of a rooftop into swift oblivion. This early confusion is mainly because Mirror's Edge can feel like it's built from two conflicting impulses: the magic up/down triggers suggest that, as with Assassin's Creed, all the hard work will be done for you, but at the same time automatic course-correction for jumps and runs is absent. Unlike Tomb Raider or old-days Banjo-Kazooie, DICE rarely cheats on your behalf by nudging you that extra millimetre to the left to grab a drainpipe, or pulling you up short before you accidentally step into empty space. Even as you master the controls and learn the game's peculiarities, you're still going to spend a lot of time in Mirror's Edge falling off things and waiting through the (mercifully brief) reload.
While movement really just takes a bit of practice, combat is more of a mix-up. Hand-to-hand fighting's fun, with a pleasant timing element to disarming enemy coppers. Yet, oddly given DICE's Battlefield lineage, the shooting is drab, with sluggish aiming and a forgettable arsenal. Even though gunplay isn't the point - every weapon is an encumbrance that limits your movement, built to be used and quickly discarded - there's no reason to drive that home with half-hearted shooting.
But a more serious stumble is the indoor bits. In the open air, with huge chunks of freshly scrubbed city stacked around you, Mirror's Edge recalls all the right memories of Jet Set Radio, but inside it struggles. The muddled layouts lack direction, with few useful indicators of where to go next and an unhelpful smattering of red herrings. Equally, the hint button, which works fine outside when you've got nothing but horizon, often directs you straight towards your target when you're indoors, rather than at the path you need to take to reach it. Sometimes it just points at the floor, for example, or at a blank wall, rather than explaining you need to pull off a string of handsprings and wall-runs in the opposite direction to get round it. The best linear videogame levels guide you without letting you know it; the ones in Mirror's Edge often blindfold you, spin you around a couple of times, and then let you wobble off down a nearby manhole.
Like everything else with the game, there's an element of acclimatisation to this: as you progress, you get better at working out where you're meant to be going indoors, even if the game doesn't get better at giving you clues. But the propensity for asset repetition can be disastrously confusing in claustrophobic interiors, and it's not helpful that it's at exactly these moments your Runner's Vision often takes a sabbatical. Throw some armed pursuers and nasty falls into the mix, as DICE often does, and you become conscious that you can only work out how to do something right by first doing it wrong and being sent back to the (very occasionally sadistic) last checkpoint.
These problems are inevitable given the kind of experience Mirror's Edge is trying to provide - a parkour game where you didn't end up as a puddle now and then would be like a driving game without crash barriers - but while it's a resounding victory that the first-person viewpoint is almost never responsible for your demise, the trial-and-error approach the game requires to challenge you can put fatal breaks in the sense of flow - and that flow is the very best thing about Mirror's Edge.
Even on the rooftops, in the game's safety zone, some may find this a very linear experience, with a scant handful of routes to uncover. It's not repetitive - despite the endless white skyscrapers, and iPod-colour interiors, the game finds time to take you from the top of the city to the bottom, from penthouses to storm drains, via subway tunnels, dockyards, shopping malls, and offices - but it is a funnel more than a sandbox. And while the world is filled with chic details, it's devoid of a human presence other your pursuers. There are no office workers, no pedestrians, not even a stray window-cleaner. Perhaps the people, like the promise of a looser, rangier environment, would simply get in the way: Mirror's Edge may be a platformer at heart, but it has a racing line that rivals Forza.
Linearity isn't the only thing that's going to frustrate. Mirror's Edge is sweet, but short - I got through it in two evenings, so while I didn't want to stop, after seven or so hours I had to, because I'd run out of game. There's speed-running and leaderboards, collectables and those secret paths, but if that isn't in your genetics you're going to feel slightly short-changed. And while the visuals are great, the performance isn't always up to task. There are some weak textures up-close (a problem in a game where you spend a lot of time looking at things while squashed against them), and, while the frame-rate is blessedly unwavering, there's a lot of screen-tearing. Playing on a PS3 and testing both standard and HDTVs, I couldn't improve the performance or locate a v-sync option.
Perhaps, then, Mirror's Edge is a game that's easier to love than like. After all, love is the most subjective emotion, and if you're being objective, it's full of little annoyances. It's not surprising that people are comparing it to Assassin's Creed, but in reality it's almost an opposite: it's dynamic, punishing and too short, rather than repetitive, forgiving, and drawn out, and each game's take on gameplay (and on parkour) couldn't be more different.
What both share, however, is that ability to polarise. It's irritating that a game gets so much right while getting so much wrong at the same time. Previews promised something you hadn't seen before, but on closer inspection DICE has brought huge chunks of the tired and familiar along too, in the game's constant restarts, its railroading, and its fondness for making you crawl through air vents; the result is a postcard from the future, rather than a one-way trip.
There's something broken thematically, deep within Mirror's Edge: it tells you a rambling story about freedom even as it confines you to the tight squares of its own personal hopscotch court, and for many that will be one wrong-footing too many. But for those who can shrug off the contradictions and the limitations, ignore the tearing cityscape and lingering qualms about value for money, this will shove you so deeply into the experience of being in someone else's body, and taking it on a terrifying, breakneck joyride, that nothing else will matter.
If you're still undecided, I suggest a leap of faith: after all, you may be one of us who end up loving it.
8 / 10