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Why Open World Design Will Fix Mirror’s Edge
Ever since EA announced the DICE-developed first person action game Mirrors Edge, I had a fantasy about what the game would be like to play.
I imagined finding routes across rooftops. Exploring large areas and using the environment to improvise, to circumvent foes. Knowing that my objective was across the city, and setting off, making my own route across the metropolis to get to my destination.
But as the release date drew closer and closer, it became clear that it wasn’t a game like that. Despite the insane amount of mobile freedom the player would be given, there would be very little actual freedom of where you could move to. To me, that ruined a lot of the point in having such mobility. Would Assassin’s Creed have been so rated if we were playing a linear sequence of funneled levels? Indeed, when the game came out, its controls and mechanics were praised, but its short length and player-confinement weren’t.
Now, whenever talk of Mirrors Edge arises, and how much of a unique, spot-on free running experience it was, I take to a comments section and state the same thing every time. I always stated that almost all of Mirrors Edge’s problems would have been fixed if it was an open world- or at least a more open- game. People complain that too many games now are open-world, but I don’t believe this is the case. And sports games have notoriously moved towards open worlds recently to great success, as seen from Skate., Test Drive, Need For Speed, Burnout…
And thankfully, to my absolute excitement, the next Mirrors Edge game is open world.
Yet as much as I laud this decision, it always seems to get a retort. And it’s always the same retort: “But if you make it more open we’ll lose the controlled, precise, flowing free running grace which Mirrors Edge so perfectly captured!”
I believe that this is a facetious statement. If a developer designed an open world Mirrors Edge properly, the world we play in would be littered with routes to learn, master and innovate upon. If anything, the seamless movement and speed would flow even more, as there would be no stop gaps of beginning or end- you could just run forever, or snap back to retry certain routes.
Hopefully DICE will still create a tight experience comparable to Mirrors Edge; just one with more lateral mobility. It’s been proven that this is possible from games like Batman: Arkham City, which presented open worlds to the player, but retained the tight perfection of design and precision. And possibly more importantly, objective and missions systems perfected in games like GTA or Just Cause would work to a tee: getting from wherever you stand initially, to your objective, then from the completion of your objective to safety, would see increased immersion and skill requirement if you had more lateral and vertical space to play with in a Mirrors Edge game.
The big problem with conceptualising just how good Mirrors Edge could be as an open world experience, and how much of an improvement over the original it would be, is that it takes a ton of imagination to think through how gameplay would roll out differently. From that standpoint, let’s imagine some of the most iconic moments from Mirrors Edge, but if they were in the context and design of an open world game.
Escaping the police:
This is what we spend most of our time in Mirrors Edge doing. Running away. But in the confines of a small areas and corridors, often this was one of the most frustrating aspects of the original game. You were forced to confront police or awkwardly try to evade them in closed areas. Even worse, the game often made you fight bad guys, by giving you no way out without dying unless they were neutralized.
Mirrors Edge actually handled escaping from the police awfully. For speed freaks who were only interested in speed runs and quick times, this was a minor bother, but for people who wanted to play the game their own way, to use freedom and mobility to their own ends, it was a dealbreaker.
Think back to that first level, Flight. You make your way to a skyscraper. You use an elevator (of all things, in a partly climbing-focused game) to get to the top. At the top you meet your sister. Then the cops come. You flee to the bottom of the skyscraper; sliding down glass skylights, vaulting obstacles and sliding under closing fence-gates, cops popping up everywhere. Then you zip-slide off a monorail line through some glass, the cops hot on your tail into the subway…
Then what happens?
Fade to black.
The game doesn’t actually let you escape. You just meet your colleague, who says “are you okay?!” You both start running away (you’re still running away at this point) and the camera fades out. You don’t actually get to escape the cops in the original Mirrors Edge. The game decides for you when you have escaped, you’re denied the thrill of standing there having escaped the cops off your own ability, standing there free after an intense bout of parkour improvisation (or using routes you found by yourself previously).
Now imagine this scenario in an open world version of the game. Imagine the scenario in Mirrors Edge 2. To imagine this, it helps to think of open world crime games like Grand Theft Auto V.
In GTAV, when a mission ends, the player is simply given control in the city, and given the objective “Escape the cops,” in order to complete the mission. You can go anywhere you want to escape. You can use any route or method. You can even try fighting them- though this hopefully won’t apply to Mirrors Edge.
Imagine this level and mission design transplanted into Mirrors Edge:
The mission ends, and you get off the skyscraper down to street level. Cops are popping up everywhere. It is now your objective to make your own path out of the situation ala GTAV. Decide to sprint past them? To go for the subway, to lose them with windy corner-spinning acrobatics? Go for it. Want to make your way out of the square, find a route onto a rooftop, and lose them in high speed, high altitude leaps of faith? Go ahead. Want to make a flight onto the streets, use traffic and car rooftops to escape? Be my guest.
In this situation, in an open world Mirror’s Edge, the player’s skills of free running and finding the quickest route would be left entirely intact. In fact, they would be put to the test more than ever before. Hopefully DICE’s next effort with Faith’s origin story will make a big deal of escaping the police. Flight could be Mirrors Edge 2’s best mechanic.
The jump from train to train:
Remember the part at the end of Mirrors Edge’s second level, where you jump off a subway railing onto the roof of a train? Then you had to jump from one moving train onto another?
It was a thrilling scene. DICE did a good job of making it feel real, and dangerous. And made the mechanic of being on a moving vehicle very rewarding: dodging the overhanging signs and wall-mounted signals was great fun to do. However, when I experienced the scene, due to control funks, I died repeatedly while trying to do it. And even worse? It was over in a bout one minute, then the train stopped.
In an open world version of the game, the impact and fun of this scene wouldn’t be reduced due to short level constraints. In the emergent, ambient open world,you would be able to run into the subway, find a way on top of a train, and use this thrilling, fast paced position as a mode of transport. Imagine being crouched upon a subway train roof, and staying squatted in that position for several high-octane stops before you reach your destination and leap off the train into the subway platform crouds (who are baffled.) Or imagine the tunnels zipping by, then the subway going topside onto a monorail, and you’re given a ton of opportunities so jump off the train to land on rooftops or street level to continue running. I’m hoping that Mirrors Edge 2 will embrace this sort of potential.
(As an aside: a slightly contrived mechanic, which I think would have to be perfect for an open world Mirror’s Edge, would be something lifted from the brilliant extreme sports series Skate. Skate. had a great mechanic where you could set your current position as a respawn point, so that if you failed a route or a trick you could reset to your starting position with a button press. Imagine having this ability in Mirrors Edge while off mission- it would provide a perfect mechanic for perfecting routes and finding your own quick ways of escaping the cops.)
In Mirrors Edge, when you were told to get into a building or location, you are given a straight line route into it. Sometimes, indeed, that straight line consists of several rooftops which you have to navigate, or some indoors or, rarely a stretch of street level. Then, once you reach your destination, there’s only ever one way in. A garage; a ventilation system; an elevator (the most common offender).
If the game was made using open world level design, a building or location which you have to infiltrate would be a whole, complete object. There would have to be multiple ways in, and each location would need to be one that we would have to find our own way into. If you wanted a chase and high-octane action, or want cops on your tail, then go ahead, jump the metal detectors beyond the front door, in broad daylight and try to sprint to your objective. But if, like me, you prefer ninja-play, you’d have to find a way to climb up onto the building. Exploration would become more important, and with Mirrors Edge’s incredible level navigation mechanics, exploration for the purposes of stealth and open-plan problem solving would make the game ten times better.
I imagine a big obstacle for this would be disc space. To maintain high quality textures and simulation, it would take a ton more disc space to also simulate the interiors of buildings as well as a whole city. Which leads me to talk about…
Obviously it would be a logistical nightmare to design an open world Mirrors Edge. We’re going to have to hold out on hope that DICE pull it off with Mirrors Edge 2. A big problem would be the huge strain on resources: the level of lighting, texture and resolution fidelity in Mirrors Edge occasionally borders on real life, I found. Constructing that across a huge open city would be a daunting task.
But with the next generation of consoles at hand, and Mirrors Edge 2 on the cards as an open world title… I think this is entirely possible. Not to mention DICE being one of EA’s most successful developers. If they pull it off, we could definitely be seeing an infinitely improved Mirror’s Edge game. Indeed, I think we could have the experience which was promised with those first Mirrors Edge trailers; with this open world, Mirrors Edge’s real potential could be realized.