The Art of Mirror's Edge
One of my favourite games is Mirror's Edge (2008) because its art stands out above all else. I would not recommend it for its gameplay or story, but it has served as an inspiration for me in terms of environment art and level design.
This post takes a walk down memory lane into Mirror's Edge, with lossless 1440p screenshots taken straight from the Steam copy of the game (no processing). I also wanted an easy-accessible record of the level art for my own archives, since it's mostly a showcase of what great artists can achieve with standard rendering tech.
Probably one of the most iconic features of the game are the broad cityscapes. These typically consist of rooftops with a lot of verticality provided by ledges and HVAC systems.
One thing that really sells these scenes for me is the scale of everything - the low-poly distant buildings blend right in with the detailed foreground. In addition light and shadow plays a big role, with buildings obscuring sunlight and objects on rooftops casting massive shadows.
Continuing with the theme of scale, the below setpieces play a role at various points in the story, standing out due to their modern design and size. The storm drains are probably the most iconic setpieces from the game.
The game relies a lot on fog in places, which (looks like) a combination of PhysX-driven translucent sprites and old fashioned faked "god ray" meshes. This game was a big marketing drive for PhysX and Nvidia cards at launch.
Mirror's Edge has a lot of corridors, but I find the lighting makes them all really interesting. The typical case is overhead white light which flows down over the walls, with subtle specular highlights that pick out the normal maps.
One thing you find when you look at a folder of Mirror's Edge screenshots is: COLOUR! The game is wonderfully saturated with oranges, greens, blues, reds, yellows and whites. You don't see a lot of games leveraging that, and certainly at the time the industry as a whole was going through a drab greeny-gray phase. Mirror's Edge bucked that trend.
The game is not impressive rendering technique-wise, in fact I imagine this the vanilla Unreal Engine 3 renderer. It looks good because of the art, specifically because of the textures. I think the game showcases what can be achieved by artists with well-authored texture maps and standard (modern-ish) renderer.
From the simple things like a brush stroke normal map on paintings to the defined brickwork on walls, and the subtle (but not invisible) specular maps on all surfaces - it all helps to sell the scene and embed it in the art style.
The video above shows a really simple normal map-based animation technique, which makes a flat plane look like it is waving in the wind.
Light & Shadow
For the project EA/DICE licensed a different light-baking engine called Beast (other than Unreal Engine's Lightmass) to help with the high-quality bounce light and soft shadows.
The resulting light/shadow combinations really sell the scenes, and provide stunning lighting results. Everything feels grounded in the scene, and also feels like it's been there some time. It's worth noting too: this is all achieved with static lighting, a technique that doesn't seem to be going away any time soon.