Remember the good old days when people used to just jump in a vertical fashion? It was wonderful. A man (or woman once they got the vote) would be able to just leave the earth and escape gravity’s dickish hold on them for a few brief moments only to be sucked back to the ground. This process was not cool but it was functional and that’s all that matters really. This simple world of jumping was first tarnished by the ancient Greeks with their triple jumping nonsense and then some to add insult to injury some wise guy added a stick to the process and invented Pole-vaulting. Though out history jumping at speed had only been done so someone else could measure the distanced travelled and assign you a chunk of shiny metal. Over the last 30 or so years various young people started to run and jump for the hell of it. They would jump over bike racks and statues just because they could. This craze goes by many names but the most popular are Parkour or free running and as with most popular actives the media started to show it as something cool but dangerous activity that only bad boys did. The most famous example (I can think of, this is on the internet so doubtless there are thousands more examples) would be the opening chase in the Bond movie Casino Royale. But cinema isn’t the only one trying to get in on the free running craze Games are now one of the best places to do Parkour without the ever present threat of breaking your leg by tripping over a pigeon.
Assassins Creed, Infamous and the like have shown gamers there is a new, fast way of travelling around an open world without having to resort to carjacking. But is this new way of travelling just style over substance? Or is it really the future of traversing an open area? The first notable example of free running like motion maybe the Prince of Persia series whose main protagonist would be adept at acrobatic feats in order to get around a 2D level, as the series became more complex and the characters abilities had to grow with the environment around them so the basics of wall running, ledge grabbing and like became the norm to most platforming games. Prince of Persia was originally owned by Brodebund Software Inc but in 2001 Brodebund was in financial difficulties and sold the IP of Prince of Persia to Ubisoft who released their first version of it in 2003 of Prince with Sands of Time, it was Ubisofts Montreal studio that did the programming for the Prince and it clear this experience helped when coming to one of the biggest series of the last decade.
Assassins Creed came out in 2007 and totally changed the way a character travelled around the a open world setup. Previously in an open world you either grabbed a car or walked slowly as in the GTA series or you would be a superhero such as Spiderman and you would swing around skyscrapers or fly like the boy scout in tights that is Superman. In Assassins Creed your character was certainly mortal and his abilities while farfetched but it was possible to suspend your disbelief because it looked so cool. A large part of the game play was built around your acrobatic abilities either to infiltrate enemy strongholds or to run away from the enemy when said infiltration goes wrong. When Assassins Creed was being shown at various games expos in 2006-7 I remember watching the footage of Altair and being impressed by his animation quality but the audiences who were there at the live event they clapped and cheered because they could see how free Altair was in a beautiful open world that was breath taking at the time. But Assassins Creed wasn’t the only game of 2007 with touting the use of Parkour as a selling point. Free Running the game (Be honest you never heard of it) came out and was also made by Rebellion and published by Ubisoft. Free running the game was to most an embarrassment and in a sick and twisted way made AC look even better at what it was already doing pretty dam well.
In 2009 Assassin Creed 2 was published and improved even more on the formula but in the expo footage there was much less cheering, now why was that? Had the worlds gamers grown used to free running and were already expecting brilliance and were much less impressed when they were given it or had free running based games flooded the market? In the 2009 three more games containing free running were published; Mirror Edge, Infamous and Prototype. Mirrors Edge was a first person game with free running and was noted for its clinical and stylised art style and the use of the Parkour was pretty realistic and the character was only human which helped separate it clearly from the other two major free running releases of the year. Infamous was a visually impressive Ps3 exclusive that had a protagonist who’s travelled across the open world by a mixture of free running and electricity based moves. Prototype had a similar superhero premise but was far more over the top in its execution, with its parkour inspired movement that could have you jumping over entire city blocks. All these games were fun and enjoyable but do we have the issue now that most developing houses now want to emulate this style and having various degrees of success. For instance in 2011 Brink was released to mediocre reviews, getting a 68 on Metacritic. One of brinks main selling points that differed it from COD and Battlefield clones was the use of S.M.A.R.T (Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain) a system that was meant to reenergise the stale genre, it was a good idea with good thinking behind it but the develops forgot one rule of the genre; If you leave cover you die. For this article I’ve watched a lot of game play footage and I never found a player using the SMART all that often and when they did go for a good run they were gunned down before they got the pace going. Brink could be compared to Mirrors Edge for its first person perspective on free running but the key difference was that while Mirrors edge was a platformer first with light gunplay that could have been totally avoided, Brink was a shooter with platforming elements that could be totally avoided in all honesty.
Parkour based games are proving to titans at the tills with Infamous 1 being the best selling new IP for the PS3 and the Assassins Creed series selling over 20 million copies. The future of free running is surely bright with AC2 Revelations and Prototype 2 on the horizon. Mirrors edge fans will be left waiting a while for sequel as it appears to be in development limbo with EA being cagey about details of a sequel, which is certainly a bad thing with Mirrors edge leading the first person genre in Parkour which can only be a good thing once its execution is perfected.
As with my review of overlord this was first made for publication on the midlife gamer website