First person is a perspective, not a genre. It’s a mistake that’s easy to forgive, given that 99.9% of the games that use the up-close-and-personal vantage point are built around the same simple, genre-defining mechanic: shooting. Despite the trend toward supplementing traditional action with complementary gameplay features like puzzle-solving, squad mechanics and RPG elements, first-person shooters still for the most part limit the player’s interaction with the environment to, as Epic’s Cliffy B once put it, “Painting the world with bullets.” The talent at DICE knows all about these limitations, having worked with and around them over the course of the award-winning Battlefield franchise. Now they’ve grown sick and tired of those limits, and on the first eve of GDC they demonstrated the game that’s going to break them. Mirror’s Edge underscores the person in first person by abandoning the long-standing focus on artillery and concentrating instead on communicating a tangible feeling of movement and physicality within the game world.
What a world it is. The moment Owen O’Brien booted up the walkthrough we were immediately struck by the gorgeous landscape before us, a sprawling contemporary cityscape that stretched beyond the horizon, composed almost exclusively of jagged, gleaming glass monoliths. The environment was pristine, awash with white and blue hues, reflections, and splashes of primary color, all baking under an endless azure blue sky. The architecture was stylized but not devoid of detail, the shapes of buildings rarely repeated, and ran the gamut from traditional modern design to less practical but far more interesting ultramodern contours. The rooftops were adorned with pipes, vents, radio towers and generators, the sides of the towers played host to similar structures as well as fire escapes and window washing platforms. The action isn’t confined to the skyscrapers however â€“ players are perfectly able to enter buildings, explore street level, even go down further into the subways. The grime and grit, the browns and grays that characterize most first-person shooters, hell most games period these days, were nowhere to be found. It would be paradise, were it not for the vague discomfort that the sterile sheen of the city bore in the pits of our stomach. The city was too perfect. It begged to be explored, for the rot underneath the idyllic exterior to be found and exposed.
It’s a city of tall, gleaming skyscrapers and clean, crime-free streets, but this comfortable life has come at a price,” explains O’Brien. “Gradually, over the years, people have been giving up more and more of their personal freedoms.” The correlations to current policies and the anxiety surrounding them aren’t difficult to see, O’Brien and company have simply forecasted the expansion and advancement of such policies to the next sinister level. The people of this city have given up their freedom in exchange for security. The streets are safe to walk at night, thanks to the ruthless efficiency of the paramilitary police that patrol at all hours. Terrorist attacks are non-existent; no doubt a by-product of the fact that the telephone and email communications of every citizen are actively monitored and analyzed. Traffic and pollution are non-existent, thanks to emission licensing programs that only the super-rich can afford. This is the culture that bore the game’s protagonist Faith, a beautiful, headstrong woman living on the fringes of this “perfect” society. Her parents killed in a violent protest and her sister framed by the government for a crime she didn’t commit, Faith no longer trusts the system to keep her safe and fights to regain the freedom that her city traded away. Faith is a ‘runner’, a messenger hired by those who need information delivered outside the prying eyes of digital probes and taps. The rooftops are her mail route.
The problem with the first-person perspective, the reason why so many developers have avoided doing anything with it other than handing players weapons, is that for all of its immersive benefits the perspective fosters a huge sense of detachment from the player’s character. Moving a character through the average first-person shooter feels less like controlling a person and more like flying a floating gun â€“ there’s no sense of where the character’s feet, legs, torso or arms are in relation to the gun, which makes anything but the most basic movements â€“ running, jumping, strafing â€“ feel irritatingly unreliable and ultimately frustrating. What was the last first-person jumping puzzle anyone enjoyed? With Mirror’s Edge, DICE is attempting to resolve this feeling of detachment by giving players more audio/visual feedback to create a stronger sense of presence in the game world and more accurately convey the impact and strain of physical contact with the environment. As we watched Faith run through the rooftop environment through her own eyes, the first thing we noticed was how much more dynamic and immersive DICE’s first-person camera was. Most person shooters offer some mild head bob, but for the most part unremitting stability of the camera gave the impression of watching the action through a steady cam instead of experiencing the action first hand. The camera in Mirror’s Edge feels much more like Faith’s eye line, it moves organically, jostling on impact, swaying at different speeds depending on her gait, her view accelerating and decelerating in a realistic manner. At first we wondered if motion sickness would be a problem, of even after watching a full level, we felt fine, and no one in the room had exited stage right to run for the bathroom. Of course, it makes sense that it would feel fine â€“ we’ve been using the same viewpoint to run, jump, and fall since we were born.
The new camera system is only half of the equation; the other half is Faith’s body, pieces of which will emerge in the player’s cone of vision while performing any of the athletic moves at Faith’s disposal. Forget the more advanced techniques for a moment, though, and just think about walking. Look down while walking in most first-person shooters and a pair of feet will be skating haphazardly over the floor, if there are even feet there to begin with. Simply walking, running and strafing in Mirror’s Edge looks and feels remarkable, each step feels weighty and gripping, as though actually generating the necessary force to push the body forward. Pick up speed and the increased sway of the camera is matched by the sight of Faith’s arms swinging out in front of her, her legs stretched out for more powerful strides. The sounds of Faith’s deep breaths, her shoes pounding the pavement only add to the sense of motion and physicality. Somersault and her legs will appear tucked in over her head, land hard and she’ll drop to a kneel, her front knee bent at a right angle, her opposite arm strained against the ground as she forces herself up to continue running. Crouch while sprinting to initiate a baseball slide and see her entire lower torso scrape across the ground, grinding to a gradual halt. DICE has nailed the sensation of acceleration and deceleration, both immediate and gradual, and thereby imbued the world with a sense of friction and substantiality that is missing from so many other games.
DICE is putting a greater emphasis on exploration and puzzle-solving than gunplay. The central tenet of the gameplay is building speed and maintaining momentum while traversing the environments. Faith can’t burst into a sprint out of a nowhere, she has to build up speed first, and then once she’s amassed some momentum she can use it to carry herself over longer jumps and through falls, barge through doors, slide under obstacles and wall-run across gaps, all of which can be pulled off in one fluid motion without slowing down to give any pursuers the chance to catch up or adjust their line. The controls are simple â€“ the sticks control movement, while one button controls all upwards movement like climbing and another controls all downwards movement like sliding or rolling. Pulling off one cool looking maneuver is easy; it’s the act of stringing them together for maximum speed and efficiency that will separate novice runners from experts. In the demo we saw Faith make a long jump from one rooftop to the next, parachute roll through the landing to keep her momentum, sprint towards a fence and vault over it, slide under some pipes, and tight-rope walk a thin pipe to the next building without ever breaking a stride. Faith grabs edges and ledges automatically, so players can spend more time putting together their route. The environments are open for players to explore, with multiple paths through the metropolis as a whole, and separate routes over, through, and between each of the individual buildings. The parkour platforming reminded us of Assassin’s Creed, but the use of DICE’s new first-person presentation took the thrill to a whole new level.
The problem with offering gamers a huge world to explore and the freedom to explore it as they choose is that invariably some gamers will get lost or screw up, leading to bouts of trial-and-error until they realize where they went wrong. On the other hand, holding the player’s hand too tightly hurts the point of creating a huge open world to explore in the first place. It’s a difficult balancing act, but DICE has devised a clever way of nudging players in the right direction without turning the entire affair into Simon-says. Drawing comparisons to Jason Bourne, Owen O’Brien explains that as an experienced runner, Faith looks at the world different than the rest of us. Just as Bourne enters a room and immediately identifies the exits, potential threats, and what items can be used as weapons, routes through the environment have a tendency to ‘pop out’ at Faith. To the player, this manifests in a red hue that gradually overtakes important structures as Faith approaches them, while the rest of the color palette drops out, eventually highlighting a path from point to point, such as a crane overhanging a street and series of pipes crawling up the outside wall of the building across the way. It’s not quite the crutch it sounds like â€“ the red hue will tell players where to go, but not how to get there. In one puzzle, vent toward the ceiling of a room was tinged red. Faith had to bounce to and shimmy across several objects to get there. Players don’t have to follow these routes, they’re perfectly capable of ignoring the red hue and finding another way through the environment. In fact, like the compass in Burnout Paradise, the red road may be competent direct route, but it won’t be the fastest. There is one perfect route through each area, the fastest and most efficient line possible, but using that route will require a lot of skill and consistent momentum in order to use.
Finally, for those that just can’t get their head around the idea of “first person” without the “shooter” latched on, Mirror’s Edge will feature combat and gunplay. Be warned: attempting to play through Mirror’s Edge with the same Rambo mindset as traditional first-person shooters will result in a quick death. Faith isn’t bullet proof, and as a nonconformist entity in an authoritarian state, she’ll often find herself completely outnumbered and outgunned. Faith’s best weapons are her agility and effective use of the environment to isolate enemies and take them out one-on-one. Once it’s a fair fight, Faith can pull out melee attacks â€“ punches, kicks, and throws to take down enemies, or use a very Bourne-like disarm maneuver to rob them of their weapon and finish them off with it. While holding a gun may feel powerful, they aren’t much use to Faith in the long run. Enemies have greater numbers and greater fire-power, so getting into gunfights at range is never a good idea â€“ better to empty the clip into a close-by enemy, throw the gun away, and start running before reinforcements appear on the scene. As the game progresses, enemies will start carrying heavier fire-power. Faith can steal those weapons just as well as she can steal a pistol, but besides still not being enough to overpower a squad of gun-wielding guards at range, the heavier weapons come with the added disadvantage of beingâ€¦well, heavier. The bigger the gun, the more it will weigh Faith down, hurting her speed and the range of her jumps. From what we witnessed, combat plays out like a puzzle in of itself. Players must find the most efficient means to take out or simply lose groups of enemies, mixing up parkour acrobatics with guerrilla tactics and melee attacks. All of the effects and camera work that make exploring the environment feel so visceral are at play in the midst of combat, and the fights look incredibly intense.
It’s been a long time since we saw a game that made us literally giddy with excitement. Mirror’s Edge is one of the most ambitious concepts we’ve seen put into production, and while there’s still a lot left to see, they could be well on their way to making the most important first-person game since Half-Life.