Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
It turns out that if you start talking about Mirror’s Edge in the Future offices, pretty soon a small crowd gathers to weigh in. In a group of editors and writers – one who gave it nine out of ten and another who thinks five was too high – it turns out we mostly agree. We all love to run, and we all get angry when we’re stopped by something difficult.
Most of my suggestions for the combat with cops would make it less difficult, and hopefully less awkward. But it can’t get so easy that you don’t feel threatened, and the grander issue is that it needs to be more avoidable. So this is about that.
The police choppers already work well as a propulsive force for the chase sequences that doesn’t often lead to death or frustration. But I’d like to change each of the three types of ground enemies, and how they’re used.
Cops: Not allowed to fire until they’ve issued two verbal warnings (“Freeze!” – “Stop or I will shoot!”) giving you a window to take one out or escape. Obviously once you’ve attacked one, others in the area can open fire. When they do hit, damage is much more serious – two hits kill – but they’re still wildly inaccurate. It becomes more of a tactical puzzle about how not to get shot, and the way forward never depends on turning a slow valve, climbing a slow pipe or working out where to head.
SWAT: Armoured and with two-handed weapons, these guys can’t be disarmed. But they’re only ever sent after you, so you never have to get past them to progress. They can be killed with stolen cop weapons, knocked out if you drop on them, or pushed into danger by a melee attack.
Chasers: Right now these guys have tazers, which are just kind of annoying. I think they should have mace. They should be knocked back by any melee move – to their death if they’re on a ledge – but if they get right up to you, they grab you and spray a blinding teargas in your eyes, sending your vision haywire and making you scream. You can try to flee while blinded, but if you don’t get away your third macing incapacitates you, and it’s game over.
Being chased was the perfect way to escalate Mirror’s Edge, but the Pursuit Cops are just so lame in combat; dancing about, tickling you with electricity and mild punching. I want to be freaking terrified of these guys. It would help if they didn’t look like dorks.
So one set is easy to deal with, another is hard to deal with but easy to avoid, and the last is hard to deal with or avoid – so do whichever you’re best at. I found lots of fun ways to lure Chasers into positions where I could knock them off a building, but bizarre rules meant that more often than not, I was the one knocked back by the crucial blow.
I was saying the other day that no matter how often the game explicitly tells you to stop and fight, the player still tries to run right past. Replaying the early sections at lunch today, I realised there’s actually a forced pop-up message in the prologue chapter that says “Always try to get away from enemies.” It couldn’t feel more like two different games that were code-merged at the last minute.
Having played it through three times in English and once in Italian, it’s starting to look like I might be obsessed with Mirror’s Edge. This is my fifth post about it, and not my last. But even I think the combat is weirdly bad, and so easily fixable that you start to wonder what went on in DICE’s offices. There’s no way they had a roomful of testers play this and everyone said “Yep, seems fine.”
The three parts of it suck in different ways, and my proposed fixes are of equal obviosity.
Like Tuesdays, the melee combat in Mirror’s Edge has no feel. Despite loading-screen guff about run-ups giving your flying kicks more damage, every blow bounces off every enemy, triggering a fake ‘stagger’ animation. Nothing is physical, everything is the result of abstract rules.
If I, an unarmed action hero, manage to run at a firing gunman and flying-kick him in the face before he kills me, it has to knock him down. Look into your hearts, DICE, you know this to be true. It’s a fundamental axiom of awesome, like glass breaking when I dive through it. The same goes for slide-kicks to the groin, which should lift your victim momentarily from the ground as he’s propelled backwards onto his ass.
Punches should be weak, of course, which is precisely why there shouldn’t be any. You’re a slim woman with unprotected hands, it’s just not wise to hit someone wearing full body armour. If you’re sprinting when you collide with them, the impact should make them stagger. If you’re stationary, Attack should do the same as Disarm – recall that the Disarm button is actually the “Beat them up and disarm them” button.
Waiting for an enemy’s weapon to flash red during a specific frame of the same nonsensical shoulder-nudge they each perform is preposterous. I feel like I’m standing there as a favour to the game’s animators, because they only know how to show me grabbing a wrist in one particular position. It’s a terrible challenge, relying either on using slow-mo so slow that the wait becomes boring, or learning the animations by rote to anticipate the absurdly brief red flash.
Design tip! You’re supposed to hide – not force me to study – ridiculous conceits like canned animations.
Disarming should always work – slowly if they’re firing at you when you initiate it, quickly if they’re staggered or prone. Enemies shouldn’t try to nudge you with their weapons in close combat: you’re still in front of their gun, there’s no reason for them to stop firing. Instead they should start to run backwards as you approach, trying to keep you at a distance.
I love all the different words reviewers have found for this: loose, hollow, shaky, weak, fuzzy, bland. Obviously to make an unprecedented free-running game you can’t devote the time and budget it would take to make a really punchy shooter too. I wish DICE had seen the bright side of this, though: they didn’t have to! Shooting doesn’t have to take up the player’s time or be their source of fun. You can just have guns outright fucking kill people, the way they actually would.
Hitman’s the closest model of what I’m talking about: it doesn’t make a great shooter and it doesn’t have to. You spend most of your time in situations where you can’t viably open fire, so enemies don’t have to be tough and interesting challenges when you do. They can just die.
Once you’ve got hold of a gun in Mirror’s Edge, it should make a lot of noise, have a lot of kick, miss a lot at range, but kill when it hits.
If some of this sounds like it would make the combat too easy, that might be because I think the combat should be easy. But I also think it should be used in a completely different way, and I think I’m going to have to make that post number 6.
PC Gamer’s wildly inaccurate review of Mirror’s Edge went up recently, in which Graham Smith criminally under-rates the game at 83%. My own review, for PC Format, gives it the score it so obviously deserves – 84%. Unfortunately they don’t put their reviews online, so run-don’t-walk to your local newsagents – or to the United Kingdom if you’re not already there.
The colours in Mirror’s Edge look like the cordial from which normal hues are diluted. They’ve found a new way of rendering them that dazzles, almost glows. Even when it’s just a warehouse or factory you’re clambering through, every surface has that fresh paint smell, newly dried matte too smooth and lustrous to have ever been touched. There’s the sad sense of a city gleamingly maintained but otherwise unused.
But beyond that, the design of the place constantly excites me. It’s the burden of level artists that they can’t just be level artists, they have to be architects, interior decorators, graphic designers, key grips, feng shui consultants and engineers. The buildings of Mirror’s Edge suggest its level artists actually are architects, interior decorators and graphic designers, moonlighting at DICE for some extra cash. If there are real offices that look this hip, I’m applying.
The game’s acceleration-based first-person parkour movement system does scratch the N itch, as I’d hoped. The second time through, with the route-highlighting Runner Vision off, is a new experience. This time you speak the language of the levels, and can pronounce your responses with new and fluid verbs. What I appreciate most about it, over third-person platformers, is the freedom of direction when launching myself from whatever wall I’m clung to, running along or flipping from – it gives scope for an elegance that isn’t pre-orchestrated like Prince of Persia’s.
I’m not keenly interested in major shortcuts – the fastest possible routes skip large chunks of the levels, but they’re large chunks I like. For me the finesse is in corner-cutting on a smaller scale: jumping to the center of a high-beam instead of tip-toeing its whole length, tucking to clear a huge jump fully rather than hauling yourself over the threshold, wallspringing to avoid a slow pipe clamber.
Strung together, flourishes like this surf the game’s acceleration mechanic and cannon you into a hurtling pelt. The little thrill of extra speed you get for vaulting an obstacle is a subtle but satisfying pat on the back for mastering the game’s unique nuances of environmental interaction.
The main thing wrong with the platforming is the grabbing logic – it’s inconsistent, and it can’t afford to be. Some objects, like bars, can be grasped when your hands are more than a foot away, other ledges I’ve physically hit and still wasn’t able to hang onto. The platforming was never too difficult, to me, but every time I died without knowing why my character didn’t grab the ledge to which I’d propelled her, the irritation was vast.
Of course, that’s not the main thing wrong with Mirror’s Edge. Find out what is in my next post: The Combat In Mirror’s Edge And Why It Fucking Sucks.
P.S. If you hear any drilling, notice any scaffolds or strange new constructions around here, it’s because I’m tinkering behind the scenes a bit. James 2.7 will, I think, go up bit by bit over the course of this week. It’s too hard to prototype most of this stuff offline.
Just put some of my Mirror’s Edge shots up, and it turns out they make a rather nice slideshow. I’ll have another post or two about it this week.
Update! Fishbro points out that watching this slideshow whilst listening to the game’s theme song, Still Alive (!), quote “Felt good.” I therefore embed it here, that you might stream it in the background while opening the slideshow (which has expanded a fair bit) in a new tab and watching it full-screen. GOOD DAY.
They’re time-trial levels, where you can race against your own or presumably other people’s ghosts to complete them as quickly as possible. That’s where they evidently think the longevity will be, rather than in extending the plot episodically. But I’m not sure speed-running is for me.
The main basis for my excitement over Mirror’s Edge, apart from the fantastic art, is N. It’s absurdly difficult and endlessly frustrating, but you can retry quickly and there’s enormous scope for finesse. It seems like Mirror’s Edge has a similar process, but I hope speed isn’t the only type of finesse it permits. I never enjoyed trying to maximise my time remaining in N, or speed-run any other game. It was purely about elegance and style.
I tried a speed-run of the first level of Deus Ex once. It went so badly that I actually lost my left leg before I got inside the statue, and I still beat the contemporary fastest time on the Speed Demo Archive.
The bar’s risen quite a bit since then, thankfully, and there’s now a magnificently clever 43 minute run. It turns out grenade-jumping in Deus Ex doesn’t mean what it means in other games, and nano-augmented bunny-hopping is a thing of curious elegance.
This guy has a spectacular way of exiting Maggie Chow’s penthouse suite at maximum speed, never bothers to get his Kill Switch removed, gasses most of UNATCO to get them to open doors for him in their panic, stabs Tracer Tong to shut him up, assassinates Tiffany Savage to save time rescuing her, and pulls off the most laughably improbable escape from the swiftly scuttled Wallcloud. Deus Ex had scope for finesse.
Update: He also survives the most awkward lift ride ever, and there’s something of a surprise ending. I accidentally the whole thing.
Hupdate: Direct download of the super-crisp high quality version of that Mirror’s Edge clip for aesthetes.
I don’t often dribble about unreleased games here, except when they’re by Valve or a cool part of them has just been released or I’ve played them and can’t tell you anything useful. But I am in love with Mirror’s Edge.
The first trailer is a thing of wordless and tinglingly scored beauty. The DICE team have shown only hints of this artistic muscle before – both of the last Battlefield games were crisply depicted, but even 2142 only had a few properly striking scenes. Mirror’s Edge is fearlessly clear in its art direction, dazzingly stark and bleach-clean throughout. Like only the best oppressive dystopias, I want to live there.
It makes me laugh, and then feel sad, when people say that Gears of War 2 looks good. It looks like an ashtray.
GameTrailers did an uncharacteristically excellent recut of that first footage, halting to extrapolate the implications of every detail shown. I hope they eventually do the same for the new Leap of Faith footage (which isn’t the same as the stuff shown in the developer talkthrough).
Together, the three suggest an energetically tactile, flexible and powerful mode of movement. I love, love the notion of being able to cling onto something, then look freely around behind me and leap in the direction of my choice. It’s the antithesis of the hopelessly vague dictionary of airy, hands-free movement verbs we have access to in every other first-person game.
All three show combat in some form, and for the most part I really like the quick, linked series of light blows you can use to disarm or incapacitate people. But I don’t see how you get to them. In the demos, the player simply lets herself get shot to hell – they’ve got God mode on, so it has no effect, but it raises a pretty big question.
My answer to it, which they clearly haven’t gone for, would be a system of automatically triggered bullet-time. For the most part, you’re dashing around in real-time and bullets ping around you – your enemies should have Stormtrooper Aiming Syndrome, of course.
But whenever a bullet is fired that’s on track to hit you, extreme slow-mo is activated and a line of air-ripples shows the path the bullet is on. The more accurate the shot, and the closer the range, the further you’ve got to move your body in the shorter the space of time. Realtime resumes the second you’ve moved yourself out of danger.
It would be redundant to argue that the game would be better off without a plot; no-one could put that argument more eloquently or forcefully than the first trailer itself – especially in light of the groan-worthy second. Look at her:
She doesn’t have a sister. She’s too cool to be born.