Reading critical responses to Mirror’s Edge is quite enlightening, in the sense that they reveal more about the players than the game itself. The most vehement complaints are directed at the clunky combat. Red flags explode in my head when anyone complains about a game’s difficulty. These are the gamers that will die several times to a boss in Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden just to learn its patterns. These are the same players that will spend hours on a single level of Halo on legendary just to memorize where all the enemies spawn. These gamers have done that before, and liked it, so what makes Mirror’s Edge different?
This… might have something to do with it.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I fully acknowledge that challenge can be good or bad, but there’s something more suspicious here than just poorly implemented challenge. As with religion and politics, the problem here is conventional thinking. There are a number of control and gameplay styles with which the first-person genre is generally associated – controls and gameplay that first-person gamers expect. Experienced players bring all that baggage with them when they play Mirror’s Edge, which causes a conflict between what’s expected and what’s delivered.
Spend thirty seconds with the game and you’ll know that Mirror’s Edge is not a normal FPS game. Kinesthetically, Faith just doesn’t move like characters in first-person games. She accelerates slowly and has a differently sized collision box with the environment. For instance, a ledge can pass farther “under” the player before the player will fall in Mirror’s Edge than in other games like Quake or Halo.
The average FPS player that sits down with Mirror’s Edge sees the deceptively familiar tropes of the first-person genre and expects to be immediately awesome. “I’ve played Call of Duty 4,” this person thinks. “Hell, I own nerds left and right at Call of Duty. It’s about time to get to owning immediately in this new and identical game.” Unfortunately, the subtle changes make this player feel clumsy and inept. Instead of recognizing that the game is fundamentally different, and thus they shouldn’t already be awesome at the controls, the knee-jerk response is to just blame the game.
Something similar happens with combat. In any FPS game, any enemies require evisceration both immediate and grotesque. A level is populated with baddies specifically so the player can empty their pubescent rage. In Mirror’s Edge, the enemies press the tension of the level. Confrontation with the “Blues,” or police, in the game is really just a way to get a kiss from a rifle stock. Gamers with confrontational conditioning want to attack the problem, shoot the enemy, find the blue key, and have sex with the princess. When the tension is high, they want to confront the enemy and gain control over the flow of the game, as opposed to the presence of enemies dictating the pace. This is just not how Mirror’s Edge works, which leads to many confrontational deaths when simply running is the best option.
Postulating about the root of the problem is only half the issue, though. Even if the core of the problem lies with players’ predispositions, what do you do? Perhaps display a warning screen before the game, saying something to the effect of: WARNING: You will be bad at this game until you learn how to play it so please be cool with that. As evidenced by warning labels on cigarettes and knives (Warning: this is sharp), such things rarely work. Instead, I’ll detail a few different options that would tweak the experience in Mirror’s Edge, and the effect it would have on the game, for better or worse.
Guess I can’t use it for prostate exams like I was planning, damn.
What this means: Remove all combat from the game; no Blues, no nothing. Each level would be point-to-point travel, perhaps still retaining narrative voice-over that can reveal story updates as the player arrives at specific locations.
How it would change the game: Removing all the guards would certainly make the game less stressful, almost to the Prince-of-Persia-you-can’t-lose level. The only conditions for failure would be jump-missing or prolonged electric fence-rubbing. Players would control the pace of progress, which would make them feel more empowered, and thus reduce forced trial-and-error situations. However, this would also remove any tension from the game. The excitement gained from pursuit and gunfire would be sacrificed in favor of less challenging gameplay. The narrative would also need re-working to explain why Faith is never hassled by Johnny Law.
Make guards inaccessible
What this means: This is a refinement of the above idea. Blues would be in the game, but the player would never be allowed to reach or interact with them. They would always be behind a fence or on an unreachable building, providing the illusion of danger and pressure, but without the immediate and real threat of failure. Alternatively, Blues could be placed within accessible terrain but kill the player instantly if they get too close.
How it would change the game: This would work well initially, but players would soon learn through experience the lack of a real threat the blues present. Without the ability to enforce failure upon the player, they would essentially become your boss – something harmless that always makes an annoying racket before going away. Notifying the player of Blue placement would be a huge headache as well, as the designers would have to ensure that the player is always looking at the right spot when a guard is placed so they know where not to go. This would probably result in a bunch of narrow hallways to guarantee the player’s attention in one direction.
Make combat easier
What this means: Tweak the mechanics to ease confrontation with guards. Make attacks more predictable, give the player more health, and open up the timing windows on the quick-disarm counter moves.
How it would change the game: If combat is the easiest option to get through any particular challenge, then players will take it (especially if they have been preconditioned to do it). Once the confrontation precedent is set, players would attack every blue they see and kill any enemy that might hinder their progress. This would make the player feel much more empowered, but would also change the feel of the game dramatically. Faith is supposed to be agile but fragile (isn’t it weird how those are very close to the same word?). Allowing players to plow through well-armed police would not only change the gameplay style of the game, but completely wreck the underdog fight-the-man theme the game creates.
Through negative feedback, DICE wanted to direct players towards running and acrobatics as opposed to plowing headfirst into every challenge like normal FPS games. Players were supposed to learn their lesson after running headfirst at a Blue and tasting pavement. Unfortunately, (and I am as guilty of this as anyone) some gamers will blame any failure on the game instead of stepping back and thinking “Am I approaching this challenge incorrectly?”
No problem guys, I got this.
I started playing Mirror’s Edge trying to drop every Blue I saw. The curses I spat upon whiffing yet another disarm counter or getting knocked out of a flying kick were quite impressive. However, around the point that I slammed my mouse against my mousepad so hard that the battery popped out, I realized I had to be doing something wrong. At that point, I started just blazing by any enemies I saw. When conflict was unavoidable, I’d give them the ol’ foot to the groin and continue on my merry way. I won’t lie; leaving a challenge unresolved is very counter-intuitive. However, unlike pretty much any other game, that’s what this particular experience calls for. Next time a game frustrates you, just take a step back and think, “Am I even playing the right way?”