I didn’t hate 2008’s Mirror’s Edge. Quite the contrary, I found it mercifully daring for its time: a first-person parkour game set in a futuristic quasi-utopia that was much different from most versions of the future we see in media. It was a breath of fresh air whose two glaring flaws were first the literal glare of the oppressively white buildings in the City of Glass and second the fact that it ran a bit longer than it took for the main gameplay loop to wear out its welcome. It went dark for 8 years and now EA DICE apparently decided to reboot the franchise and bring it to our current decade (more on that in just a bit) under the subtitle Catalyst.
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst: Windows PC [Reviewed], Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Developer: EA DICE
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 9 June 2016
Price: 59,99€ [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Developer/Publisher]
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst’s Edginess
The year is some time in the future and the City of Glass looks very clean. Everything is properly arranged and designed with perfection in mind. Everyone seems to have a purpose and a job, the streets are safe and society is thriving. On the surface. The truth is that a corporate coalition named The Conglomerate lead by several wealthy families is running the show like a sort of modern aristocracy. The City is under constant surveillance and the working class, the midCaste (colloquially “employs”) are pretty much coerced to contribute to society and are docile to a fault, trading comfort and security for freedom to the point where they have cibernetic implants that project a HUD constantly showing them their employment status and remaining funds. I’ve always admired this theme of capitalism gone dreadfully wrong, so gradually that we fail to even notice. It’s interesting both because of its plausibility and because it’s so rarely explored. I think the closest example would be Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel Brave New World or its masterpiece cinema adaptation Demolition Man, starring Sir Sylvester Stallone. It’s nice to see that not every single conceivable future looks, at least aesthetically, like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (or its critically acclaimed reimagining Judge Dredd, starring Sir Sylvester Stallone).
Of course, there are those who rebel and refuse to take part in the daily grind. Running from the authorities being most of what they do, they call themselves “runners” and make a living as illegal couriers. You once again take the role of Faith Connors in this reboot, immediately following her release from a juvenile prison. She reconnects with her old runner friends and is quickly sucked into troubles with the law, violent extremist resistance groups, high-level corporate conspiracies and power plays as her own troubled past comes back to haunt her. And so you start running.
AND SPEAKING OF RUNNING (clever segue) the game only runs on Origin. I have no problem with that, since Origin as a client and platform has come a long way, but I did play it on my TV with a controller and I missed the easy screenshot functionality that Steam had for my setup. Therefore, as opposed to my usual original screenshots with a bit of snark written underneath, we’ll be looking at some promotional pictures as part of this article. But anyway, back to the running. That’s most of what you’ll be doing in Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. The parkour system is much tighter than in its predecessor, but that’s to be expected seeing how far parkour in gaming has come in the past eight years. You are no longer able to pick up your opponent’s firearms, which I don’t miss, seeing that the shooting in the first game was bare-bones at best but the combat has received a few improvements, at least on paper.
While the parkour handles much better this time around and the traversal abilities are a lot more varied and refined, complete with a skill tree that you can buy abilities off of, the combat has received its fair share of improvements. It’s much easier to dispatch assailants while traversing your surroundings, jumping over obstacles and using your momentum to slam into them for massive damage, or sliding into their legs sweeping them off their feet. It’s a very nice system, in theory. However, because of how much the AI likes to be all up in your personal space and how the environments are laid out, it’s rare that you’ll get a chance to actually use these highly spectacular takedowns. In fact, it’s often not only more efficient, but in my opinion more fun to just run away from combat, evading gunfire and hiding from surveillance drones until you’re off the grid again. The game, however, loves to force you into combat during a few key moments during the story.
Perhaps the biggest overhaul in for Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is its transition to an open world environment. Whereas the first installment was just a series of consecutive missions, Catalyst spreads them out across a, frankly, very beautifully designed city. Your travels will take you from the roofs of regular downtown buildings, to the lofts and penthouses of the wealthy and even down to the ground across construction sites and further below as Faith makes friends and enemies alike. Of course, this being the current year, and Catalyst an open world game, you also have various things to collect, side missions to run, objectives to accomplish, not to mention engage in the asynchronous multiplayer marketed as “Social Play”. Certain side missions have time objectives which you can complete and check the leaderboards to see how you did compared to others, especially the asshole who cheated and completed a 30 second course in one. Additionally, you can create your own course and challenge others to it by running a route and recording your time. This course will then pop up in other players’ games or you can just share it with your friends.
City of Low-Grade Glass
I’m not entirely sure how to describe Catalysts’s graphics. On one hand the models are very well crafted and there is genuine attention to detail in the world design as you traverse the city. You can tell by your surroundings who lives beneath the rooftops you cross and what their lives are like. The main game also manages to maintain a steady 60 FPS (even on consoles, reportedly) which I would imagine is quite important for a game relying on literally breakneck first person speed. Transition between scenes and zones is seamless and all of the loading seems to be performed in the background. However, in order to pull this off it’s quite obvious that corners had to be cut. The overall texture quality (where it’s not monochrome) leaves something to be desired and the city’s skyline looks, from afar, like a cheap CAD rendering of a city on someone’s hard disk back in 1995.
The sound design is subtle but appropriate. The music is unassuming, and this bothered me for a while until I realized that I was far less distracted without a synthstep track (or whatever you kids are into these days) blaring in my ears. It’s the finer details that make Mirrors Edge immersive: the rythm of the footsteps, the sounds of impact as you land or fall and the increasing whooshing of wind past your ears as you hurtle faster and faster towards your top speed.
For all my swooning over the game’s setting and world-building, Faith’s adventure falls flat into mediocrity where story is concerned. That a bunch of characters whose sole purpose in life is running free, rejoicing in their uncompromising existence, characters I’d expect to be possessed of an unrelenting joie de vivre, boy is every single person in this game an unlikable, unsmiling, uninteresting cardboard figure… That I found the enigmatic criminal kingpin Dogen (Dogan? Drugen? Doggo?) to be the only character that actually showed some depth is somewhat disconcerting. The story itself is incredibly generic. At least I think so. It was very hard to pay attention to when the frame rate I praised just a few paragraphs before dropped to an abysmal level during most cutscenes, desyncing with the audio and making the plot nearly impossible to follow.
The open world aspect tries desperately to do what other open world games do, meaning to give depth to the setting and do some world building. But the few recordings you find are strictly linked to the key figures in the City of Glass and the delivery missions you can undertake that are supposed to give you insight into the employs’ lives are some of the most contrived pieces of content I’ve seen in a while: you pick up a fragile item and you need to deliver it from point A to point B without falling too much and within a time limit. The customer will tell you their life story and how important the item is to them and will leave out why it’s imperative that you deliver it within the allotted time.
At one point I was delivering a small statuette of some sentimental value from a lady to an old friend. As I was running, trying to meet my 50 second deadline she told me of the time they shared together and what the statue meant to them. I was two seconds away from my destination, I could see the guy just a scant five meters in front of me and the time ran out. At which point my customer stopped telling her story and just yelled that I “ruined everything” in the most obnoxious tone possible. That’s when I decided I was done with side missions. It’s a shame, really, because outside of the quality of the plot the main missions do have some rather thrilling moments and are overall engaging. And while making your way from mission to mission across the city without objectives or deadlines is fun in its own right, I do believe that Mirror’s Edge Catalyst does not benefit a lot from the open world formula. When your main gameplay loop is traversal, and your main missions are traversal you can’t have your side missions and rewards be more traversal but even less meaningful.
It is with a heavy heart that I deem Mirror’s Edge Catalyst to be merely “alright” as a game. All the pieces are there. It stands firm as a solid foundation both from a mechanic and a setting perspective to be not only a fun experience, but a meaningful piece of social commentary as well. It’s as if the developers just ran out of imagination halfway and padded the rest of the game with whatever they could find in the generic bucket. Will you like it? Maybe. Did you like the first game? Catalyst is better in most respects. Do you enjoy collecting endless items in UbiSoft games? Did you get all the Riddler Trophies in the Arkham games? You’ll probably enjoy Mirror’s Edge Catalyst as well. I’ve had some undeniable fun with it but it’s definitely not something I’d recommend without at least a few caveats.