What do Mirror’s Edge and Tomb Raider: Underworld have most in common? Both games are 3D platformers, both feature a beautiful kick-ass heroine and indeed both feature Chris Barrie as a fussing English butler. OK, that last one is only true of Tomb Raider…the movie, anyway. The real correct answer is that despite being decent games, both are arguably guilty of shoehorning combat in when it wasn’t required. So, whilst Lara and Faith do kick butt, did they need to kick actual butt?
Mirror’s Edge may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but few will argue against it paving the way for future first-person action games. The protagonist is Faith, a girl on the run since she’s constantly being hounded by the bad guys. She leaps and bounds across the heights of a bright minimalist backdrop, and all the while you watch through her eyes as she speeds, slides and jumps over the obstacles of the dystopian city’s rooftops. The result is an exhilarating experience that’s one of the most unique this year. Yes, it’s full of thrills, and indeed spills, but also some incongruous kills. Either developer DICE, or more likely publisher EA, felt it was necessary to periodically include combat in the form of guns, fighting, and weapon disarmament. It’s somewhat understandable. After all, Mirror’s Edge is a brand new and very risky IP, so why not make it more relatable with some shooting? Also, since it’s in first-person view, it’s not hard to superimpose FPS technicalities. The problem is that the immersive free-running Faith employs was more than enough, and the gunners you have to directly deal with felt like great big barriers stopping you from staying within that adrenaline-pumping buzz. In short, the fighting felt superfluous. Sure, DICE gently push you towards the idea of shunning a brawl by including an achievement/trophy for avoiding killing throughout the main campaign. Indeed there are some points when trying to get into a fight will KO you within seconds. Still, given the gaming industry’s bad rep for focusing on violence, wouldn’t it have been a bolder statement to have excluded combat from the game altogether? In fact, would that have made for a better game?
In contrast, Tomb Raider: Underworld is a far more pedestrian affair. That’s not to say it’s boring; far from it. There’s just no pressure to do things quickly or on impulse. Instead, Lara relies on her wits, her perseverance and her other-worldly acrobatic skills. She patiently negotiates the ledges, jumps and swings off of gigantic, gorgeous, and absolutely awe-inspiring structures in her search for answers, and more importantly, treasure. If that still bores you, then you can always just sit back and watch her since she’s more droolworthy than ever before. Props, though, must be given to Crystal Dynamics for having finally made Tomb Raider platforming an uncomplicated joy whilst still keeping it reminiscent of the franchises’ beginnings. Underworld has rightly received bucketloads of praise, but none of those good words have been reserved for its combat. It’s a sporadic and simplistic lock-on affair with no skill involved, and it makes GTA IV’s shooting look pretty sophisticated in comparison. If Mirror’s Edge’s fighting was superfluous then Underworld’s is utterly redundant. At least DICE could defend their fighting by pointing towards the refined disarming and melee mechanics. There is none of that with Lara, and whilst the term "shoehorning" may be harsh in relation to shooting in Mirror’s Edge, with Underworld it feels generous. So why did Crystal Dynamics and publisher Eidos include it? Well, since when has Ms. Croft been without her trusty hip holsters? It would be a bold departure for the series, and one that would push the game more towards the less commercially appealing tag of puzzle game rather than an action one. Again, like Mirror’s Edge, the decision is understandable, if not advisable.
In my opinion, both games would have been better without including combat. Mirror’s Edge would have been more fluid, whilst Underworld had enough in its own arsenal to not include token shooting that begs comparison to rival Uncharted’s far superior cover-based shooting. So, in that respect, the decision to include fighting was an incorrect one. Is it really as simple as that, though? After all, most action plots involve conflict and adversity, so how do you translate that into the gameplay without including violence?
This is an issue that relates not just to these two titles, but to the entire games industry. It has from the moment we first pulled the trigger or drew blood with our thumbs. The finger has been pointed at videogames ever since, their reliance on bloodshed and the potential influence they have on an impressionable audience. Whether you believe this stigma is right or wrong, the fact is that a vast number of games include violence in one form or another. Just look at the big hitters that came out in November, the month Underworld and Mirror’s Edge were released, and work out which ones have combat. Only include the ones primarily focused on combat and the number won’t have dropped significantly. Wouldn’t it be good for the industry’s reputation, the developers and publishers involved, and the reputation of the franchises themselves if these games eschewed their tacked-on violence?
Then again, there’s a reason these big hitters sell. The core gamers who are usually responsible for a franchise’s long-term success can often be a stubborn lot, resistant to change and new ideas. Mirror’s Edge, for example, put off a lot of people because of its novel nature, with vocal cynics expecting it to fail without having given it a chance. True, this is the case for most new releases, but why fuel the fire by exclaiming your game has no combat whatsoever? This also harks back to the games industry’s history of violence. It’s now something we’re used to, and when it’s not present it can make an experience feel foreign. Even last year’s Portal, which felt like it had nothing to do with fighting, included some basic shooting. Admittedly it was against robots rather than humans, but it still felt inconsistent with the rest of the game. Developers don’t like to drop combat unless it’s an established feature of that genre, and that’s certainly not the case for the action-adventure genre. By including combat, even if it’s surplus to requirements, you’re keeping it relevant to the typical gamer. By minimising it to the extent found in Mirror’s Edge and Underworld, you’re keeping it away from unwanted scrutiny. Everybody wins.
Nonetheless, I still believe the fighting in both games should not have been included. After all, it’s my job to critically appraise videogames, and both of these games undoubtedly suffered as a result of their combat. I believe there’s an argument for slightly different approaches for how to improve on this flaw, and one that allows for both games to retain their identities and gameplay without too much sacrifice.
Underworld could do without all shooting, all the little nasties and goons Lara had to deal with along the way. However, there were a couple of larger foes blocking the way which required the young lass to flip some switches and alter the foundations of surrounding structures to escape from. It was a pretty fun and non-violent way of resolving the conflict. The game also introduced slow-mo moments, reminiscent of a QTE but minus the ’Simon Says’ nature because the game left you in control of Lara. Examples include avoiding magic bolts launched at you whilst climbing up a gargantuan pillar by timing and choosing the right jump. It’s not an entirely original concept and yet it still felt quite fresh and it made for some compelling set pieces. In fact, it just wasn’t included enough, and it was far more enjoyable than any of the lock-on shooting involved. Admittedly, combat is technically still involved, given that someone or something is taking shots at you. Now, let’s not get too philosophical about this, but my argument is that to deny the existence of external evil in the world and in these situations is pretty damn stupid. However, there is something to be said for avoiding violence when someone is violent towards you. After all, old-school Batman never killed anyone for whatever reason (no philosophy and definitely no Batman philosophy). You’re keeping the action but you’re not making the player respond violently to it. Is that too uncool a concept?
The thing about Mirror’s Edge, though, is that it does subtly point you in the way of avoiding conflict. Like I said, when there’s a bunch of gunmen in your way, the best and sometimes only option is to turn around and run away from them as fast as you can. I don’t really have a problem with the concept of avoiding fire because it adds to the thrill of the chase. What stopped the flow was having to deal with soldiers, trying desperately to disarm them or line them up for a tricky on-the-run shot, or in fact just stopping and taking pot shots at them. Maybe all Mirror’s Edge 2 has to do is ditch the shooting (say Faith has a Batman complex) and make the disarmaments more hit-and-run. That would be an improvement, but I don’t think players are going to like the idea of picking up a gun and then ditching the potentially useful device. The question is, then, what benefit did the disarmament elements really hold? Sure, they provided some cool-looking mini cut scenes, but they were the fundamental reason the game slowed down. So why not avoid situations where Faith has to take them on at all? There is so much visual signposting in the game anyway, why not just suggest the enemies themselves are a form of signposting too?
To close, it’s best I clarify where I’m coming from. It’s not that I’m a peace-loving hippie who abhors violent videogames. Far from it; I like me a good FPS or fighting game as much as the next testerone-fueled man. I just don’t like violence for violence’s sake, especially when it’s directly hindering the game experience. That was the case for both Mirror’s Edge and Tomb Raider: Underworld, and that’s the main reason I’m suggesting that the exclusion of combat in both games would have been of benefit. It’s foolish, though, to ignore the larger significance. I also believe both titles had enough in their respective gameplay to keep people interested despite excluding combat, and I don’t think it would have affected sales. Actually, I think there’s an argument that the positive rep would have done the games, and the industry, some good. I almost feel like EA and Eidos have missed an opportunity here. Then again, both games have done pretty well despite all that so maybe I’m the one who’s just missing the point. Still, if I am, I don’t think I’m the only one.