Games 11/11/08: Mirror's Edge, James Bond: Quantum of Solace, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia

Mirror’s Edge
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Digital Illusions CE/EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, violence)

“Mirror’s Edge” is the most irritating, disappointing game that ever will knock your socks completely off.

As the iffy story explains, you star as a messenger who, while not much with a gun, sports some seriously impressive free running skills. You can leap rooftops, run along walls, fly over fences and more without ever breaking your stride.

Translating these acrobatics into video game form is tricky enough when a game takes place from a third-person viewpoint, so it’s all the more impressive that “Edge” nails it while doing one better and presenting the entire experience in the first person. The game never holds your hand as you string together moves that get you from points A to B, but it so expertly drops you into your character’s shoes that it never needs to. It’s hard to explain on paper, but “Edge” takes an extremely complicated (and heretofore unseen) control mechanic and just makes it feel perfectly right.

How bewildering, then, that en route to taking gaming to new frontiers, “Edge” forgets some of the cardinal rules that got us to where we already were.

There are moments in which “Edge” appears to offer multiple solutions to a single problem. Overwhelmingly, though, it isn’t. Windows that break in other parts of other levels suddenly don’t when breaking one would make sense. Poles you can climb elsewhere suddenly become unclimbable, ledges suddenly impossible to grab, objects magically immobile. Your acrobatic talents are tailor-made for riddles with multiple answers, but moments of creative freedom are stiflingly rare, and you’re often left to read the game’s mind and decipher which solution is the real one. A hint button exists, but it merely points to the exit, which is akin to someone pointing out the center of a hedge maze when you’re standing at the outset.

This would be less aggravating if “Edge” didn’t disobey its own interface as well. Occasionally, certain objects, walls and doors glow red to lead you in the right direction — but only occasionally. Just as it doesn’t make sense why some things don’t work sometimes, there exists no apparent science as to why certain key points glow bright red while points of equal importance practically camouflage themselves behind seemingly better solutions that simply don’t work.

The sum total of these issues results in a game so thick with trial and error, any attempt at immersion is undermined and continually shattered. That’s a serious shame, because during those fleeting moments where “Edge” gets it — particularly during the final leg — it absolutely lives up to its promise. Digital Illusions already has announced plans to take “Edge” down the trilogy route, so here’s hoping all this wonderful tech gets a game to match the second time around. This, sadly, isn’t even close.

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James Bond: Quantum of Solace
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: PC, Nintendo Wii, Playstation 2, Nintendo DS
From: Treyarch/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, mild language, violence)

This is November, which means one game-changing shooter after another is vying for your attention via any number of features you can’t find anywhere else.

“Quantum of Solace” is not one of those games, and if there’s one truly awful thing about it, it’s the timing of its release, which piggybacks the film of the same name but absolutely gets lost in the tidal wave of flashier, more impressive counterparts.

That’s slightly unfortunate, because taken on its own merits — as a meat-and-potatoes first-person shooter and little else — “Solace” is quite a lot of fun. The game runs on the same engine that powered last year’s “Call of Duty 4,” and the fundamental polish from that game — great controls, convincing gunplay and fast action that rarely gives way to lulls — is entirely apparent here.

The big addition to the engine is the inclusion of a cover system, which in turn reveals “Solace’s” most impressive strength. Several missions allow you to advance quietly using stealth or burst through with barrels blazing, and “Solace” is so equipped to handle either that it’s hard not to want to play both ways even if you normally prefer one method over the other. Bond occasionally gets stuck on cover, which can be punishing if it happens at the wrong time, but things work far more often than they don’t no matter how you approach the situation.

That’s a good thing, too, because there isn’t much more to “Solace” — which bounces between scenes from both “Solace” and “Casino Royale” — than that. There are no driving portions that you actually control, and the game handles hand-to-hand combat through uninspired interactive cutscenes that could scarcely be easier. The high-level gadgetry synonymous with the Bond brand doesn’t come into play beyond your cell phone interface and a lock-picking minigame. This is a pure (and fairly short) shooter with one mind, and while it does what it does awfully well, the singular focus certainly bears mentioning.

“Solace’s” adherence to traditional values is a bigger concern on the multiplayer front, where a lack of breakthrough features leaves it hard-pressed to keep up with all those flashier games that are building communities at the same time. Again, though, what it does, it does well. The engine keeps things exciting, the modes are designed around the Bond universe rather than vice versa, and a “COD4”-style experience system gives the mulitplayer some legs by doling credits you can redeem for weapon and armor upgrades.

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Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia
For: Nintendo DS
From: Konami
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, fantasy violence)

If you’re a “Castlevania” fan left jaded by the franchise’s excessive sequel prolificacy and excessive pandering to the timid, consider “Order of Ecclesia” your call to arms. This is, by miles, the most challenging “Castlevania” game since 2001’s “Circle of the Moon.”

In fact, even that game arguably cowers in comparison. Part of “Moon’s” difficulty was thanks to its appearing on the Game Boy Advance, which at that time was outfitted with an unlit screen that posed major visibility problems because of the game’s dark visuals.

The DS, in its backlit glory, doesn’t have that problem, and “Ecclesia” instead owes its difficulty to more classic factors. Common enemies, a joke in recent games, are considerably stronger and possess dramatically more sophisticated attack patterns. Boss enemies, meanwhile, are brutally strong and even smarter — so much so that the timid will cry foul and probably give up due to what they perceive as cheapness. As with “Moon,” grinding for experience points will help (tip: Look for the Frankenstein’s monster knockoff in Minera Prison Island for some quick gains.), but the increased toughness of those minions makes even this more of a challenge than it once was.

Whether that news is encouraging or frightening is up to you. But “Ecclesia” plays fair throughout, and beating it is a gratifying, stimulating challenge if you approach it with the right mindset.

“Ecclesia’s” other pleasant surprise is its successful remixing of conventions sorely in need of a fresh beginning. A large chunk of the game takes place outside of Dracula’s castle, and the mix of outdoor environments and townsfolk encounters harks all the way back to 1988’s “Castlevania II.” The weapons system, meanwhile, undergoes a complete reinvention: You now keep everything you pick up, and you can combine new and classic weapons to create some spectacular new attacks.

Fortunately, the stuff that carries over from recent games is the stiff that should remain. Even during the era of ease and sequel excess, every “Castlevania” came gifted with beautiful 2D graphics and hours of non-linear adventure and discovery. “Ecclesia” changes none of that, and its understanding of what works and willingness to fix what no longer did makes it one of the best games to bear the “Castlevania” name.