Before I got a chance to play Mirror's Edge on my PS3, I whet my curiosity for the game by playing the 2D version. After playing the 2D version, I discussed a few things with its creator Brad Borne. At that time I made some predictions as to what I thought would be the design features, or lack thereof, that would hold back the next-gen version of Mirror's Edge from greatness. Since then, I've played and beaten Mirror's Edge as well as dabbled in its time trial mode.
After spending over a week writing over 7.7k words for my feature 2D + 2D = 3D, I decided to take this great opportunity to compare and repair the game design between the 2D and 3D versions of Mirror's Edge. I will cover each game in the first two parts and then move on to the repair in the 3rd.
The 3D Mirror's Edge (3DME) is a fairly unique video game. From the main character, the graphics, the story, to the first person actions actions at the player's command, this game has carved out a unique space for itself. Unfortunately, the final product reflects the rushed culmination of a collection of neat ideas that were not tailored to each other. Somewhere between the obvious first person shooter design and the lack of quality platforming game design, 3DME ends up providing a hazy and fragmented gameplay experience that occasionally manages to focus on what little quality design it has.
Thinking of gameplay systems in layers is the best way to comprehend the complex dynamics that are at work. Since interactivity is at the heart of the video game medium, starting with the player mechanics is the best way to get to the heart of the matter. From there, we look at the core elements of the game that make up the building blocks for challenges. Next, we consider the level design and/or the specific ways the elements are arranged to make the game challenges. And finally, we analyze a game's design elements that work to mix up and freshen the gameplay (level design, challenges, contrary motion, etc). This layer includes elements of transformation, suspension, power ups, and bonus influences.
The next-gen, 3D Mirror's Edge is a game that is built up from weaker and weaker layers design wise. More specifically, the core mechanics are mostly solid, the level elements less so, the enemies even less so, and finally the level design is the worst. Let's start with a close up of the core mechanics.
Primary Mechanics: UPACTION, DOWNACTION,
Secondary Mechanics: TURN (90/180), ATTACK, REACTION TIME, HINT
Tertiary Mechanics: INTERACT, PICKUP/DROP
The look and feel of the core mechanics are what most people appreciate most about 3DME. For the most part, UPACTION and DOWNACTION provide contextual platforming moves that smoothly transition between previous actions/states. Momentum is a key element of the player's motion, and the first person perspective of 3DME gives even a relatively simple action like running a fresh feel. Unlike other first person games, Faith's arms and legs are rendered accurately and convincingly.
The ATTACK mechanic is simple and is mainly used to beat up enemies and knock open doors. The mechanic suffers from a bit of ba3D making it difficult to judge if Faith's punches will reach a target in front of her or how much Faith's attacks missed by. This is espeically true for the sliding kick.
The INTERACT mechanic is surprisingly undynamic when it comes to disarms. 3DME is designed so that you can only disarm enemies during a small window of time when they strike at you. This means, when an enemy is stunned and doubled over in pain, the game doesn't allow you to take their guns away from them.
Overall, there are a few quirks with the mechanics of 3DME. The drawbacks aren't too substantial. From this point, it's up to the rest of the design layers to shape the gameplay experience to focus on what Faith does best and avoid the trouble areas in the design of the player mechanics.
3DME is a game where players interact directly with the various elements of architecture. Edges can be grabbed and climbed over. Pipes can be climbed. Poles can be swung on. Walls can be kicked off of. Small boxes can be vaulted over. Glass can be smashed. Chords function like tight ropes or zip lines. The list goes on.
The biggest problem I have with the level elements is that they aren't very dynamic or variable. Aside from the glass and perhaps the doors, the stage elements can't move, bend, or break. The exact way the developers have designed the elements to be used is how they can be used. In Mario bricks can be broken. In Sonic walls can be smashed. In Spelunky most objects can be bombed through. And in Jumpman the levels can be rotated. A little transformation can go a long way. 3DME has far to little. And what little it does have isn't incorporated into the level challenges/dynamics.
There are not a lot of enemy elements in 3DME. Aside from the occasional spinning fan, helicopters, exploding barrels, and the moving trains, all of the other enemy elements in 3DME are human. Unfortunately, most of these human enemies use firearms to attack Faith. As I've explained before, guns are very powerful weapons that can have damaging effects on a game's gameplay. In 3DME, kike in first person shooter games, it's hard to determine where enemies shoot you from because guns are long range weapons that can target you from different heights and positions in a 3D environment. Because guns fire projectiles that fly fairly straight at high speeds, the enemies are constantly engaging the player in a functionally 2D space while the player must maneuver through a 3D space. The result is like playing an FPS like Halo where everyone else is shooting you with Battle Rifles and you can only move around and melee attack.
The gun wielding enemies (Patrol Cop, Riot Cop, Swat Cop, Sniper, and Swat Support) put the same stress on the design of 3DME that first person shooters face. When you don't have a gun to engage a gunman, you're probably going to get shot. The more enemies with guns around, the more likely you are to be shot to death. In Resident Evil 4, when engaging in contextual counter moves against enemy zombies, the player becomes completely invincible throughout the duration of the fixed animations. In 3DME, when the player disarms a cop, during the fixed animation other enemies can pepper you with bullets and even kill the you. The AI/abilities of the enemies are too effective. The game never finds the balance between the enemies being too good or too dumb when you overcome them most likely after many deaths.
Though the enemies don't layer well with the player mechanics and level elements, which I'll talk about in the level design section, the enemies do provide an interesting source for poweups an element of suspension that effectively turns the tables on Faith's ability to maneuver through the environment and attack enemies. Instead of running from enemies through 3D space, players can use an acquired gun to dispense of enemies in a functionally 2D space. The limited ammo for acquired weapons is an element of decay meaning whatever advantages you gain from using a gun won't last forever. Beyond this restrictive design element, Faith's platforming abilities are significantly reduced when holding a gun putting a limit on how far players can carry a gun away from its source. There's a lot more potential in this gun powerup design, which I'll cover in the repair in part 3.
Here is where all the potential Mirror's Edge has stored in its mechanics and level/enemy elements is unfortunately lost. Overall, the levels are either linear or alternate path. Though I love the pristine, almost sterile graphical style and the architecture of the game world, the form comes at a cost to the function. By making all of the environments look interesting and somewhat realistic, the functional visual fidelity of the game drops off somewhat. In other words, though the levels are composed of a variety of level elements there are a lot of objects in the environment that players can't interact with as expected according to how these objects look. The result is a game world that is design first around looks and then around play.
All of the levels/areas in 3DME can be broken down into four types: explore, chase/escape, puzzle, battle.
- The explore sections aren't designed to pressure the player with timers or enemy elements. The environment is spread out around you and you simply must make it to some target destination. These sections usually have alternate paths that give the player the ability to test their curiosity and increase their difficulty.
- The chase/escape levels put the pressure on the player as he/she must maneuver through an obstacle course that generally doesn't feature a lot of alternate paths. In these sections, you must either keep up with/chase down a moving target, or run away from oncoming armed forces. These sections are all about moving forward as quickly as possible.
- The puzzle areas are a lot like the explore areas. The player is put into an environment without pressure from timers or enemy elements. In general, the puzzle sections have less alterate paths. Instead, they force the player to figure out how to get from point A to point B by being observant and using more nuanced mechanics.
- The battle areas are all about taking on enemy units. It's their guns against your maneuvers. In these sections the level elements that were useful for maneuvering around can be even more useful for cover. All of the enemies patrol out in the open while Faith has the ability to leap up and over obstacles and run like the wind.
The problem with 3DME's level design is that each of the four types of levels aren't gone particularly well designed. The explore level design seems open and free until you realize that you're not making your own way through the environment. Without any type of level transformation or ability powerup, you're simply picking the paths the developers have made for you. Without elements of tension or contrary motion, there isn't much point of doing things one way or the other. There are no coins to collect for making trickier jumps, enemies you can avoid by taking a treacherous path, or a time limit to give context/purpose for the exploration.
The chase sections are surprisingly linear. When in a chase, players generally have to maneuver in the same ways as their targets. If you mess up or attempt to experiement and create a short cut, the target will most likely get too far away and the level will reset. The chase sectoins don't have a lot of variation or contrary motion to keep things interesting.
The puzzle sections push the the limits of 3DME's fire person core mechanics. Unlike Portal, a puzzle game that uses the limited first person perspective to enhance the core mechanic that creates bridges between two areas in 3D space, 3DME's puzzles are simply about moving through 3D space. The ba3D that comes from judging distances in the first person coupled with how the environment is mostly obscured from view in the first person perspective are what put too great of a stress on the puzzle platforming design. All of the environments in 3DME are like puzzles that force the player to look around and assemble a bigger picture of the space around him/her. But the puzzle areas specifcially take things too far with areas that are designed to be especially convoluted, cramped, and obscured.
Finally, the enemy units that populate the battle sections aren't designed to work with the dynamics of the player's primary mechanics or the dynamics of the level design. If 3DME were a platformer, the enemies should be designed around the dynamic of gravity and space: what goes up must come down. Instead of moving around in 3D space, most of the enemies move around along the flat surfaces. Instead of engaging the space, they simplify it with guns. Because of their accuracy and persistence, using the 3D environment as cover is somewhat diminished. In other words, even if you can climb and vault all over the rooftops, a bullet can hit you as simply as if you were walking around.
For these reasons 3DME is caught in an awkward place between trying to be like a shooter, and action game, and a platformer, yet it falls short of every goal. The infinite checkpoints and respawn penalty/difficulty system really held the game back from sustaining any high level of design. Instead of designing a game like Super Mario Brothers, where players can see every upcoming threat with enough time to make informed decisions and to use their player mechanics with a complete sense of contained control, 3DME design is filled with short cuts and holes that, when players fall through, are smoothed over with an easy "try again."
In 3DME gravity isn't a core element of the game's challenges. For this reason 3DME is more of an action game than a platformer. And as an action game, it uses roller coaster level design, which makes it more like Sonic Rush Adventure than Super Mario Brothers. The story is cheesy the quality of which I find more fitting for a "made for TV movie." The animated cut scenes are worse than the Esurance commercials. The time trials mode eliminates the gun issues and focuses the gameplay on moving through an environment and folding the level on itself by moving the checkpoints. While this is a good mode to have in the game, adding a time trials element to any challenge is a simple way of increasing its difficulty and appeal. After all, just about any task/challenge no matter how menial can become interesting when you challenge yourself to do it faster or more efficiently.
In conclusion, 3DME is like...
- Super Mario Brothers without the contrary motion of the enemy design, powerups, coins, suspension, or transformation
- LittleBigPlanet levels that use too much electric material and contain too many "free ride" or automatic level elements like spring pads and car rides.
- Sonic levels without powerups or rings, and that use too many spikes and pit falls making the game more trial and error than need be.
In part 2 I'll detail the 2D Mirror's Edge game.