Be Careful What You Wish For
It would be safe to say that there’s a bit of a cult following around the 2008 action-adventure game, Mirror’s Edge. As one of the most unique, exhilarating, and bold releases by a major studio during the previous generation of consoles, many fans have been clamoring for a follow-up ever since. It’s been almost eight years and no other developer has really nailed that same parkour gameplay—certainly not from a first-person perspective—like EA DICE did back when the original IP debuted.
And while the wabi-sabi quality of Mirror’s Edge is probably what helped endear many of us to it, it’s hard to argue that, despite its modest success, the game’s mechanics couldn’t be improved upon all these years later.
Well, good news, everyone! DICE has decided to put down its modern military arsenal for a second (but not really) to put you back into Faith’s running shoes. The bad news? Two steps forward and one step back is a good way to fall on your face when you’re sprinting across rooftops. Allow me to explain.
Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst is a reimagined version of the original game’s story, but what’s more important is that traversal now takes place in a large open world. There’s an onslaught of side activities, time trials, and user-generated events to go along with the main objectives this time. What this means is that this is the most “Mirror’s Edge” that’s ever been shoved into a video game.
Though that initially sounds like a good thing provided the gameplay is as fresh and fun as you remember it, these new activities only serve to slow Faith down—a faux pas if there ever was one for this type of experience.
Catalyst adopts the rinse-and-repeat structure of other open world titles. Similar to contemporaries such as Crackdown, Infamous, and Assassin’s Creed, there are now collectible orbs for our protagonist to jump into, breaker boxes to steal chips from, and repetitive courier missions scattered throughout the environment.
Finding collectibles and completing these rudimentary activities provide Faith with extra experience points that can be used to upgrade her movement, combat skills, or gear. These upgrades make traversal a little bit more robust, combat (only slightly) less clumsy, and her survival more likely as you dash across Glass’s skyline.
While attempts to broaden gameplay are a mixed bag (to put it lightly), the platforming is every bit as good, and even better than the original game in a few areas. Whatever magic EA DICE summoned to make a task as simple as running and jumping so compelling in a first-person perspective is still present in Catalyst, and now with improvements to controller inputs.
There’s a real sense of speed as you chain moves together and build up momentum as you wall-run, slide, and even zip-line on the city’s rooftops. This is a case where more is in fact better, because the joy found in Faith’s movement demands a playground to hone your parkour skills. What’s unfortunate, though, is how uninspired, cumbersome, and downright tedious this open world structure can be at times.
Putting aside the fact that some side missions are as ludicrous as delivering a vial of oysters to another character within a set time limit, most optional courier objectives make the game feel bloated. Rather than trying to strike a lean balance, Catalyst instead copies and pastes its mission structure repeatedly in order to litter its map with as many things to do as possible.
During my first few hours with the game, this didn’t bother me much since these lesser objectives were unobtrusive, minor distractions. But as the map expanded and story missions became further apart from one another, I felt the need to earn experience points in order to level-up Faith’s abilities during these long, vacuous sprints across town.
Catalyst never made me want to engage in these missions, and I suppose I really never had to, but it also somehow lured me into them because aimlessly wandering to the next waypoint eventually became too mundane to tolerate. Curiosity killed the cat.
Worse yet is that many of the story missions themselves are rather forgettable, at least until they become infuriating. There are a couple of instances in the campaign where Faith loses most, if not all of her momentum. These scenarios, where she’s basically forced to stand still and fight completely ignore what made Mirror’s Edge special in the first place. I almost wish that DICE hadn’t taken out the sloppy gun combat of the original so these scenarios could have ended more quickly. Why the developers thought bringing Faith to a full stop was a good idea, especially when movement is so key to a parkour game’s success, is truly baffling.
Don’t get me wrong, when movement and combat are combined during an escape sequence, for instance, Catalyst is often as thrilling as game’s get. Delivering a kick during a wall-run or landing a flying elbow is always satisfying. These moments only serve to highlight the tedium of fights not featuring any momentum. Mirror’s Edge is about giving chase to or fleeing from enemies, not clumsily kicking foes into one another until their life bars deplete.
So, herein lies the problem with Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst. If the game isn’t moving, challenging players to find routes and precisely platform as they adapt to mounting threats, it’s not very much fun to play. And sure, this complaint could have also been waged against the original Mirror’s Edge, but that was a case where I’d argue those people losing momentum weren’t exactly good at playing the game either.
In Catalyst the loss of momentum is actually built into the level design, collectibles, and certain side activities, and I want to shake the person silly who thought this was a good idea. It’s the equivalent of cooking a filet mignon to a perfect medium rare, and then dousing it in ketchup. Why? Why would you do that?
The game’s story is also a real nuisance at times. Characters are about as charming as the comment section of a YouTube video. I wanted to see most of Faith’s so-called friends miscalculate a leap between buildings and plummet to the streets below so I would never have to hear from their stupid faces again. I did enjoy Faith, though, even though her character could slip into some dour self-seriousness at times too.
Say what you want about the Esurance ad-like quality of the original Mirror’s Edge’s cutscenes, but I found the tone of the first game far more tolerable and refreshingly different than what Catalyst puts on display. Sure, it was all just as forgettable, but at least it never made me cringe this hard or regularly.
Glass itself is a fascinating city, but again, the open world structure makes its unique, sterile quality just feel empty now. 2008’s Mirror’s Edge didn’t feature a particularly lively city either, but it did use color to inject a bit of flavor into its art style. Since Catalyst has far more ground to cover, the plastic sheen of the city just sort of makes everything feel monotonous and dull.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love the look and vibe of the game, it’s just that there isn’t enough differentiation between Glass’s districts to garner a real sense of place. Without the map or the extremely useful suggested paths guiding me to my next waypoint I would have been completely lost amongst the indistinguishable architecture, I’m sure.
All in all, Catalyst will probably satiate fans dying for more first-person parkour. It’s just too bad the distinct vision of Mirror’s Edge has been largely diminished with this most recent release, if not completely impeded by its open world. In theory, this sounds like a great direction for a parkour game to go in, but the execution often hinders the flow of the gameplay. Catalyst no longer feels like a game that’s sincerely going for it, pushing the first person perspective to new heights. Instead it seems as though DICE has settled by putting its unique gameplay mechanics in a world designed like so many others that have come before it.
Speaking only for myself, I would have taken quality over quantity in this scenario, but I suppose I’m glad we got anything at all to begin with. Thanks?
- Gameplay mechanics as fresh as ever
- Beautiful dystopian setting
- Runner’s line, suggested paths
- Sense of speed
- Fight sequences
- Monotony in missions, areas
- Being forced to come to a full stop(.)
- Less is more, but more is better than nothing