To say that Mirror's Edge Catalyst received a mixed reception would be disappointingly accurate. Initially, the most flattering tone of discussion for the game seemed to be "fine," "bland" or just not very good. As someone who loves the the original game enough to play it about twice a year at least, this wasn't enough to stop me picking the game up at launch. It did have me worried, though. I couldn't be more glad I ignored much of the backlash against what is a really stunning game. Here, I'll talk a little about where Mirror's Edge: Catalyst succeeds - an article in defense of the game to make myself feel like I'm helping create some cosmic balance to offset some of what I think is largely unfair criticism.
The story of the game has taken an unbelievable amount of flak. It is at times slightly predictable, but it still more than managed to keep me gripped for the game's length. The game made no secret that the plot is a retelling of the first game (released eight years ago), so people expecting to be truly shaken to their cores with twists may have set their hopes a little high. Despite this though, I found myself really wanting to know how the story would be retold. The introduction of Black November was an addition I found especially interesting. Black November are a well developed faction, taking every opportunity to make life difficult for the authorities and awaken employs (the excellent moniker given to citizens) to their subordination under their authoritarian masters. The interactions between Faith and this group were some of my favourite story beats.
The player gets the feeling that Black November is becoming less concerned with its image and more set on inciting a violent overthrow of the Conglomerate whatever the cost. The groups ideology is wedded closely to early Marxism and Black November's leader, Thane, appears as Glass' own Marx. The exploration of these themes is something that I always thoroughly enjoy (Bioshock 2 and Bioshock Infinite being the other examples). Catalyst does a good job of setting out the differences in the ideologies of its groups and making the player feel as through they're witnessing a wider, drawn-out conflict. Black November are not necessarily painted as evil, leaving it up to the player to decide whether the increasingly violent tactics they employ following a riot 20 years ago are justifiable. Whether or not the employs need a violent awakening is up to the player, while Thane makes an effort to convince Faith of the necessity of shattering the silent consent the employs provide through inaction. The story uses these clashes as background for Faith's own story, creating a believable world that was obviously well-thought out. It's well paced, sets its factions and characters out well and takes the player through some really interesting and gorgeous settings.
The setting of the game is one of my favourite things about the franchise (if one game and a reboot counts as a franchise). Glass is a beautiful place that the game does a great job of indicating a real darkness in how its maintained. Each of the game's districts looks and feels different, adding to the idea that different classes of people inhabit each. The game does a fantastic job of channelling its own idea of an all-controlling hyper-laissez-faire government, taking inspiration from Orwell's 1984. Looking out at the huge and mostly deserted vistas, the player really gets the sense that the militaristic Conglomerate is not the most trustworthy organisation. The early game spiel Faith endures at the prison of achievement through obedience and hard work immediately places the player in the sci-fi dystopia. Later conversations Faith can overhear and her encounters with other main characters continue to build this image.
New to Catalyst is the fleshed-out backstory for the world. Through interacting with the rebels Black November and collecting files, players can learn more about the game's world. I won't spoil this really interesting lore for those wanting to discover it in-game, but some of the audio notes and files really surprised me with the amount of detail provided. The divide between the Conglomerate and OmniStat is a well-developed history that discusses the rise of Kruger and what the wider world than Glass may be. That these are both all-powerful, all-controlling authoritarian governments but one being hyper-capitalist and the other believing in communism is an interesting take as opposed to casting one as good and one as bad. I really hope we get to learn more about the two different factions in future games. The new history discusses how Glass is run; what happened in the world to allow Glass to form as it is; and that the world houses different countries with differing worldviews. This was a real treat, especially for someone who was so invested in the world of the original game. I found this addition information really enthralling.
I believe the game succeeds in creating a really interesting and diverse group of characters. Diverse both in that the cast is varied in its gender/race makeup and also that they all have interesting personalities that left me wanting to learn more about them. Not enough games feature female leads interacting with other, developed female characters (which aren't just objects which inevitably die to be avenged or are romanced). Plastic tends to be the only character which earns any faint praise from reviews or discussions of the game so I won't spend a lot of time talking about how entertaining she is (she really is great, though). Rebecca Thane is my personal favourite. Thane is the determined leader of Black November, set on taking on the Conglomerate. Many of Thane's interactions with Faith seem to channel much of early Marxist and Gramscian ideology, focused on revolution and socialism as an end-goal along with waking people up to the oppression they are blind to. Audio logs further develop the harsh Thane players come to be familiar with into a more three-dimensional character struggling to juggle being a human and seeking to incite rebellion. Maybe I'm just a bit of a sucker for characters with a fondness for Leftist ideology (Bioshock 2's Sofia Lamb being another of my favourites), but Thane really intrigued me and I hope we get to revisit her and her organisation after Faith and the leader part ways.
Mirror's Edge: Catalyst builds on ideas set out in the original game. The addition I'm most thankful for is the expanded setting. The world that the game builds is so interesting its perhaps a shame much of the lore didn't get to feature more within the main game as opposed to collectable rewards. The engagement the game makes with the conflict of capitalism and communism is a tension I think games could talk to more. The ideological conflict that takes place around Faith is my favourite aspect of the game, something I hope will be expanded in future titles (if there are any). Catalyst takes the feel of the original game and develops it into an experience worthwhile in its own right; featuring interesting characters that I'm eager to see more of and gorgeous scenery which is a joy to traverse.
I got through that entire thing without a single Faith pun. I am proud.