Can Mirror’s Edge Stay Mirror’s Edge?

JolFvy4

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is pretty high up on the list of games for which I’m cautiously optimistic but afraid of their AAA publishers ruining with formulaic AAA game stuff. The latest details on it (along with the delay) have got some people scared, but I still want to maintain hope. The things EA and DICE seem to be doing can still be done without compromising the core of the game, but it’s a question of what the execution is going to be like coming from a publisher like EA.

The original Mirror’s Edge was one of my favorite games back in 2008 because it took a really fresh spin on first person action, letting you do things you don’t normally do in the genre. It just turned out to also be a surprisingly challenging game, so after what happened to it commercially I was always afraid if it ever got a sequel EA would just command DICE to give it some kind of automatic Assassin’s Creed-style movement system along with more guns.

Now, Catalyst is getting things that are still putting fans of the first game on edge: an open world and abilities locked behind experience point gates. Honestly, these things don’t scare me quite as much as what I was originally afraid of, but they’re still cause for concern. DICE seems to know this however and has at least tried to explain its direction a bit.

On the open world, DICE told IGN that it actually won’t be an open world in the way a Grand Theft Auto game or a Ubisoft game might be where you have full run of the city from the beginning. Instead, it will apparently be split into sections gated by locked abilities. That doesn’t directly tell us much, but in my mind it offers some potential that I’m unsure if DICE has fulfilled.

I actually think the idea of an open-world Mirror’s Edge could be cool if designed around the premise of exploiting the environments to explore using the traversal system. For that to work the whole open world needs to feel like a tightly, deliberately designed web of places to run and jump all over in increasingly challenging and ingenious ways. The placement of every path, obstacle and secret needs to be carefully considered to create a good balance of curiosity and challenge. Rather than, maybe, a Skyrim, I’m thinking about the kind of level design you’d see in a Zelda game or a Metroid game. I just don’t know if DICE is capable of that. It’s very different from what it takes to design Battlefield games. To its credit, the first Mirror’s Edge was great partly because of its smart level design. I guess it’s just a question of whether DICE can translate those linear level design skills into something befitting a more open map.

The thing I’m more concerned with is the XP system. The reasoning DICE gave to GameSpot is that unlocking abilities later in the game encourages more players to use them, and it showed in testing. Technically that does make sense. The weird thing about the original game is that even though it has a full tutorial, you probably won’t fully understand how to take advantage of the movement system until you’ve just about finished the story. It was only on subsequent runs that people started getting really good at it. DICE seems to have chosen a slower roll-out of functions (and probably level design difficulty) to get people more acquainted with the system.

That works in theory, but I find myself wondering why DICE didn’t just automatically unlock abilities at specific points in the main story. With an XP system DICE can’t predict which abilities players will unlock when, so the main story will have to be designed with only the most  basic abilities in mind, limiting the scope of its levels. With more deliberately-placed unlocks, DICE could then design the main levels around when players will have what abilities.

I think the XP system is just in there to appeal to players who like to fill up bars and acquire numbers. It was probably one of the requirements in the deal for Catalyst to get greenlit in the first place. Coming from a publisher like EA I guess that’s inevitable, but if true it speaks of a game that’s trying to appeal to a lot of different people, like AAA games typically do, and I’m not sure Mirror’s Edge should even try to do that.

The first game was really something more in-line with the middle-budget games that were more common during the PS2 era — games with reasonable production values that still took creative risks in appealing to specific audiences. People like Mirror’s Edge in particular because the initial game turned out to have a surprisingly high skill ceiling for those who were willing to crack it. My biggest hope is that DICE doesn’t bring that ceiling down.

Really though, DICE just has to remember that the main selling point has always been the traversal, which feels direct and earned when the player properly executes it. Anything DICE adds to the game needs to be built on that truth.

BULLETS:

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