Back when Mirror’s Edge was released in 2008, gamers I knew generally enjoyed
it, but nobody was blown away. Still, it seemed like a distinctive and polished
game, and I was convinced that I missed out on something special. I also knew
that it’s pretty short. Since my
present-day tolerance for long games is still unproven, I decided to give it a
The game’s least subtle trait is its visual style, so we’ll start there.
Mirror’s Edge gives you a gorgeous and unique perspective on a modern city. I
don’t even feel the need to qualify that with “for a game released 13 years
ago.” Of the handful of 10-year-old games I’ve played over the past year, this
one has aged the best. Partly, that’s because the developers played to their
strengths. You’re mostly looking at architecture–city skylines and empty
rooms. From volumetric lighting to specular highlights, the engine does some
good work making these subjects look their best. Color is applied starkly, and
not just in the game’s trademark “Runner Vision” which illuminates critical
objects in bright red. Many areas stick to limited palettes featuring solid
primary colors. Subtle it is not, but it works as a characteristic of an
orderly, clinical, and slightly-futuristic urban setting.
The game makes its age known whenever you approach a non-player character, who
can seem almost freakishly primitive in their pristine surroundings. The
setting necessarily limits close encounters, so these cases are pretty rare.
Some cinematic sequences necessarily require a lot of face time, but the game
sidesteps the engine’s weaknesses by presenting these with two-dimensional
animated shorts. These shorts don’t have nearly the same production quality of
the game itself, though, so they feel like a weak point.
Surprisingly, despite your limited exposure to people, the city still feels
lively. From cars crawling across distant roads, to street-level noises echoing
up alleyways, to the occasional passenger plane soaring across the skyline, you
definitely get the impression of an industrious population.
The game’s scored with a reserved electronic soundtrack. I’m listening to it
as I write this and finding it a
little generic, but as atmospheric background music, it hits the right notes
What’s Mirror’s Edge like to play, though? It’s generally about finding
clever ways to traverse physical space, but that can mean a couple different
things. There’s a kind of “frantic escape” style which ought to be familiar if
you’ve watched a trailer or two.
You’re regularly forced to flee from armed police whose willingness to fire at
an unarmed suspect is made survivable by horrendous aim. Balance is crucial for
sequences like these to be successful. If they’re too obvious, you’ll forget
them as soon as you’ve vacantly stepped through them. If they’re too
challenging, then you’ll have a tough time forgetting the frustration of being
forced to memorize each turn. Mirror’s Edge finds that balance. It’s
certainly enjoyable, but more than that, I was surprised to even feel some
adrenaline. Maybe a year spent indoors hiding from COVID-19 has lowered my
threshold for thrills, but there’s something invigorating about dashing across
rooftops, bullets ricocheting across HVAC systems, and no time to second-guess
your decisions or even turn to see your pursuers.
There’s also a more subtle puzzle-solving element. You often have to traverse
some distance without any pressure. These sections are occasionally complicated
by armed forces, but they feel more like obstacles (rather than active threats)
because they don’t chase you. These are frequently nonlinear, encouraging
experimentation. (In the context of the escape sequences, the same
experimentation would inevitably force you to restart and undermine their
essential feeling of novelty.) Now, nothing can compare to the exhuberance of
exploring playgrounds as a kid, but I was surprised that a video game could
evoke those feelings at all. It’s also impressive that these challenges can be
so consistently entertaining without the addition of new gameplay mechanics.
Whereas most games introduce new abilities or obstacles to keep things fresh,
Mirror’s Edge relies on geometry of the physical world alone. It’s a
testament to the engine (and the level design) that the simple directive, “get
yourself up there,” feels interesting throughout the entire game.
The sense of your body is stronger than any first-person game I’ve played.
Protagonist Faith Connors’ arms, legs, and torso are usually out of view, but
they appear during particularly dexterous moments. You’ll notice her legs if
you step too close to a ledge (and if you keep watching, you’ll appreciate how
her feet believably shuffle whenever you pivot). You’ll see her forearms
whenever you slam through a closed door (something you get to do pretty often,
and something that somehow never stops feeling cool). And you’ll hear her gasp
for breath whenever you’re forced to make a rough landing.
The game’s physicality also leads to one of its flaws. Faith’s abilities are
certainly idealized, and while this fits with the game’s dream-like aesthetic,
it can pose an unintended challenge. It’s hard to develop an intuition about
the extent of your abilities, so it’s not always clear that the intended path
is even a possibility. I got stuck a few times since I simply didn’t consider
attempting certain jumps.
Guns play a unique role in Mirror’s Edge. In close encounters, you can disarm
your opponents. Afterward, you’re free to use the weapon to defend yourself…
I think. I don’t know for sure because this was the first game I’ve played
where the “good path” (e.g. playing as a pacifist) also felt like the “badass
path.” I never fired a gun because it was so much more satisfying to
dismissively toss it away.
With its first-person perspective and focus on puzzle solving, Mirror’s Edge
can feel a little like 2007’s Portal. However, Portal’s sequence of “test
chambers” rejects the connection between gameplay and story. Mirror’s Edge
makes an effort to logically string challenges together. Its success in this
regard helps the game feel more cohesive, where you fluidly transition between
different settings and modes of play.
I should add that the game sneaks in a third kind of gameplay: dodging oncoming
obstacles. This is by no means innovative; reflexively ducking, jumping, and
sidestepping is the hallmark of so many casual mobile games. It’s not even
particularly substantial–the one and only sequence lasts five minutes, tops.
It’s worth mentioning because of naturally it fits into the engine.
Finally, there’s the story. This is another weak point; I can only say that
it’s passable. The setting is kind of vague, and the conflict isn’t deep enough
to support much intrigue or even empathy for that matter. The voice actors do a
good job (particularly Glenn Wrage as Mercury), but
they can’t make something out of nothing. I’m more tolerant of this than I used
to be because I generally put less value on storytelling in video games these
days, but I’m sure this could be a deal-breaker for some folks.
What Mirror’s Edge lacks in story, it makes up for in gameplay. It’s both
uniquely thrilling and uniquely beautiful, and if you give it a try, it’s sure
to stay with you long after you finish.