Thursday, July 16, 2009

On The Edge Of Control

Mirror's Edge is a game that polarized people. Gamers either loved it or hated it, and the result was a game that was spoken about on blogs and in forums for many different reasons. Understandably so, too; it's unique and quite different when compared to what we're currently used to in the industry. Despite the reactions on both sides of the spectrum, I'm glad developers DICE and publishing big-boys EA decided to take a risk with the concept. The game is also, as many people have pointed out, flawed, with the general consensus seeming to be that combat was largely unnecessary but otherwise it was a decent game with an interesting concept that has potential. For me, I don't sit on either end of the spectrum but rather directly in the middle; I absolutely love Mirror's Edge and I'm really glad I got the chance to play it, but at the same time I find it incredibly frustrating.

The thing that stands out to me is the game's controls, mostly when it comes to using them in the time trial mode. You may remember I recently spoke about time trials in racing games, mostly praising the mode for challenging players to be as precise and efficient as possible. Mirror's Edge is no different and uses time trials to challenge players to find the fastest possible route throughout a level. Obtaining a star from the mode's 3-star rating (per level) quickly becomes difficult as the faster time requirements essentially force you to analyse the rooftops in order to overcome the many obstacles surrounding a level. By stripping down the game's core mechanic -- that of free-running or parkour -- and focusing on the speed, flow and idea of seeing levels in the way that Faith does, the time trials are, arguably, the game's best asset. There's no bells and whistles to distract the player, it's just you experimenting with the mechanic and then taking advantage of what you have learned to achieve the best possible outcome, a flawless run and time. Only problem is, it's nearly impossible to achieve a flawless run.

As a completionist, I have been trying to obtain a three-star rating on all of the levels recently and I have found it to be frustrating. Part of that frustration is my own fault. As you would expect, some time trial runs are harder than others and as such, achieving an ideal time is going to be more difficult than my skill level may allow. It's only natural that I'd find the repeated trial and error on the way to success annoying. However, I also believe that the frustration stems from the game's controls and their inconsistency. Relying on context sensitivity and timing, it's quite common to see Faith do a maneuver that you weren't expecting or didn't intend to do, messing up your run. This can be both the player's and the game's fault. As you learn what Faith is capable of, it is then up to you to memorise her moves and time them correctly when you intend to use them. In theory, doing a maneuver that you weren't intending is, or should, be your fault. In reality, it's not always the case; more often than not Faith will do a move that you were not expecting regardless of when you timed it, again ruining your run. As this happens time and time again (combined with your own mistakes), the frustration sets in and it is very easy to lose your temper with the game. On some of the time trial levels, it's absolutely critical that you nail your intended moves while traversing the various obstacles, otherwise you miss out on that elusive third star and will need to retry. The unpredictable and inconsistent controls are an unnecessary factor that the player shouldn't need to think about. When pressing a button you expect the game to respond, so of course it will be annoying when it fails to do so. I think that the controls are inconsistent in this way because of the fact that most of Faith's moves are tied to the same buttons: the left bumper (360 controller) controls her jumping, wall-climbing, wall-running and vaulting; the left trigger controls her ducking and sliding and the right bumper allows you to quickly switch direction 180 degrees. By having the majority of her moves tied to these buttons, I believe the game can at times confuse your intended maneuver, a problem that could be fixed if some moves were located under another button altogether. I understand why DICE chose to use this control scheme but it does need refinement, something I hope we see in the sequel. In the meantime, obtaining the stars in the time trials is harder than is necessary and that's something that bothers me.

The other issue I have with Mirror's Edge is the conflict between the narrative and the game's levels. Don't get me wrong, I believe the narrative has potential, something I'll elaborate on in my other post. What I'm referring to here is how, because Mirror's Edge has a narrative, the game doesn't allow the player to study or discover the ideal routes throughout the twelve or so levels like they can in the time trial mode. This is because of the constant agency the story requires and the sense of urgency that surrounds the player while being chased by the game's enemies. By keeping you on the move, the game expects you to plan out your route on the fly and while this is aided by the 'Runner Vision' colour scheme, the speed in which you traverse the levels means you don't get to fully appreciate them. This is a disappointment because in my view, they are designed really well. There are heaps of ways to tackle the rooftops and the game can be astounding when you realise just how many potential routes there are. Not being able to study them and discover these paths because you're constantly being pushed along by the story is unfortunate and is something I hope to see rectified in the future.

Those are Mirror's Edge's flaws as I see it. Despite them causing frustration time and time again, I still keep coming back for more, both because of my completion desires and also because I really like the game. I'll be back in the next few days to explain why I find it so enjoyable and fresh to play.


CrashTranslation said...

I'd argue that the controls are generally consistent however they are tied very closely to your current speed. So approaching a wall at a slightly different velocity will lead to different results.

This presents some interesting problems because the specific movement performed is dependant not simply on location and timing but on the timing of previous movements. It makes an entire Time Trial akin to pulling off a complicated trick in something like Skate. You can't treat each obstacle as a separate entity as your ability to overcome it is influenced heavily by the manner in which you overcame previous obstacles and therefore your current speed.

As for the second problem this seems to be something common to a lot of recent games, though the nature of Mirror’s Edge does exacerbate it. Consider Prey, some of the level design in that can be utterly astonishing but the nature of the game means you are constantly moving forward and so never really feel you have the time to enjoy the scenery. So much time and effort goes into creating locations that players will see for many five minutes each, it’s no wonder more linear games are getting shorter when each location is taking longer to create. The type of games that avoid this sensation are those like Metroid Prime or BioShock where exploration is a key component of the experience so you naturally spend more time in each environment.

Matthew Kaplan said...

Great post. I agree with what was said, although (and I can only speak for the Playstation 3 version of the game) I would attribute many of the game's accuracy problems to the simple issue of responsiveness. There were many times at which I correctly pressed a button but it failed to register or lagged. I'm not sure this is something that couldn't be fixed with a minor tune-up for Mirror's Edge 2.

Jennifer said...

Apart from the controls (which take at least one more run-through of the tutorial level to get used to), my big problem with the game is once you fall, or collapse, the momentum for that level is lost. After that it just becomes a slow careful crawl through the rest of the level. Since it's me playing, this happens a lot.

I also take issue with the "Hurry, hurry, rush, no time to take in the pretty shiny city we've created."

Steven O'Dell said...

@CrashTranslation -- I agree about the momentum though I'd still argue that sometimes it's inconsistent. Perhaps it gets confused and chooses a move that's not your intended one, but was chosen because it thought you were going one speed while you thought (based on the game's visual and aural feedback such as motion blur) you were going another? I'm really not sure but as you say, momentum is indeed a defining factor for the approach to an obstacle (or all of them in succession) and yet it still sometimes seems to do the opposite of what you want it to regardless of how you prepared for it beforehand. It could just be me, though.

As for your second point, agreed entirely. Imagine what games like Prey would be like if we were able to explore them. It wouldn't necessarily have to be within the 'main' game either, but a mode that could be played afterwards that appeals to the Tourists (to use Mitch Krpata's taxonomy example) out there who would appreciate the level of detail put into these levels and worlds. Mirror's Edge in particular is stunning in places, especially the last level at night when you overlook the entire city. It all happens so fast though that you can't take that beauty in. Such a shame...

@Matthew -- You could be onto something actually. A slight delay between a button press and the action occurring on screen could explain the issues I was referring to with my complaint, which in turn would also apply to the inconsistency I mentioned. Perhaps the delay only happens sometimes, when you have done a whole bunch of technical moves within seconds or something along those lines. It's certainly a possibility so thanks for mentioning it.

@Jennifer (as in, CU's Jen?) -- Yeah, momentum is definitely integral to the experience and a player's enjoyment of such, for sure. Which is why something like the game's combat is such a cause of concern for many people out there, I think. It breaks up the flow that's so important to a game that is meant to be about parkour.

Thanks to all of you for dropping by and commenting, it's really appreciated.

Cary said...

I regret that I never finished Mirror's Edge. I remember I was so into it and then all of a sudden . . . I just didn't care. A big draw back for me personally was it was as if EA took all this time to craft this amazing new perspective and mechanic - and then forgot the actual environment. That city didn't make me feel anything, you know? As a result of my inability to care about the world, I stopped caring about Faith and her quest.

Immersion is a big factor for me in games and in the end that's what stopped me from finishing Mirror's Edge. Reading this though . . . it's making me reconsider.

Steven O'Dell said...

Cary -- Sorry for the late response here but if it means anything, I do believe Mirror's Edge is worth finishing, for reasons I'll mention in my upcoming post on it.

But yeah, finish it, it's not too long and the later levels can be quite intense.