[Originally published June 8, 2016]
Hey fans – we made it. Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst is finally here. The sequel to one of the most distinctive titles of the aughts. Mirror’s Edge was different from anything else on the market, with its first-person freerunning and its female Asian protagonist, Faith. It’s been a part of gaming’s cultural heritage; it’s that one time that a AAA studio made a flawed but unique game – one that no one’s recreated since. We waited 8 years to play more Mirror’s Edge, screaming from the rooftops, writing EA, pleading with DICE that – please sirs – we want some more. They say to be careful what you wish for, but – this time around – I think it was worth the risk.
Catalyst takes place within the dystopian City of Glass – a capitalist’s wet dream. The city no longer refers to its people as ‘citizens,’ but as ‘employs’ instead. Faith and her network of underground contacts are among the few folks who aren’t linked in to ‘The Grid.’ A constant struggle between the uber-rich and the ‘locaste’ punctuates the overall tone of the game. Boy howdy, I hope you’re liking this jargon, because Catalyst is full of it. There are definitely interesting ideas behind the barrage of goofy terminology – a caste system in a capitalist nation, a society where unemployment is a felony, an always-online world – but one of the greatest disappointments of Catalyst is its complete disinterest in exploring these ideas with any sort of nuance. Instead, it would rather shout ‘CORPORATIONS ARE BAD’ louder than anyone else. Catalyst’s heart is in the right place, but it often reads like someone who just started listening to The Joe Rogan Experience for the first time. There is literally a point in the game where a character goes on a highschool-level tirade against the evils of profit and the purity of community.
There’s some worthwhile meat on these narrative bones – a few likable characters, interesting side stories, and strong visual world building – but Catalyst wastes its diverse cast and unique setting on writing straight out of ‘The Stay Woke Manifesto.’
The story isn’t great, but that’s fine. You know why we’re all really here – first-person parkour – and holy lord is it good. Every jump, every wallrun, every springboard has a muscular weight to it. You can practically feel Faith’s burning thighs as she rockets forward, overflowing with momentum and strength. She moves in ways you or I never could, and it’s relentlessly exhilarating. DICE nailed the feel. Abso-lutely crushed it. Hard falls rock you to your core. Perfectly executed routes leave you with as much adrenaline in your system if you’d actually physically performed them. Falling to your death is terrifying – hearing the roar of blood and wind in your ears as you tumble downwards, almost drowning out Faith’s panicked gasps. Though you’re never really looking down at your virtual bod, you never lose track of its place in the world. You’re highly aware of your spatial relationship with the surroundings, which are all part of Catalyst’s biggest step forward – the open world.
Gone is the linear design of the original Mirror’s Edge, and I say good riddance. Catalyst’s world is a structural triumph of first-person platforming level design, full of varied routes for the player to discover and perfect. Parkour’s core conceit – traveling from points A to B as fast as your legs allow – flourishes within the potential of this world. There are also – for those so inclined – several linear story and side missions that are equally astounding, full of some decent-to-breathtaking set pieces and damn near the best first person platforming I’ve ever played in a video game.
As a result of this distinctive design, players will also experience the satisfaction that comes from familiarizing themselves with the layout of the city. As with other iconic open worlds – Liberty City, Los Santos, or post-apocalyptic DC – navigating Catalyst’s City of Glass becomes second nature. At a certain point, I realized I no longer needed to check the map when an NPC told me which district to head towards. The striking aesthetic of Glass also contributes to this sense of familiarity. It’s bright, blocky, neon colors come together to form sharply memorable areas. My personal favorite was the Construction Zone, an area consisting of dirty, pukey yellows and browns.
Each of these areas – true to modern open-world form – are littered with collectibles. Documents, recordings, ‘GridLeaks,’ etc. Your standard fair. Normally, this isn’t my jam, but – in a game about movement – picking up collectibles becomes a joyous exercise in spatial reasoning. These visual puzzles utilize Catalyst’s mechanics in a way that pushes players to expand their understanding and mastery of Faith’s movements, as well as their ability to read the environments and understand the pitch-perfect visual language of the game.
The design of the world communicates goals through color with gentle clarity. There’s never any ‘follow’ icon hovering over an NPC. Rookie players can utilize a mode of Runner Vision wherein a red wisp guides the way. Fans of the classic style can change it so that the only guidance they receive is the neon-red glow of highlighted objects. Experienced masters can shut off this vision entirely, if they so choose. You also have the option to shut off the entire UI – a small choice, yes, but one I appreciate. It suggests that DICE really understands what people liked about the first game, and want to provide any options they can in pursuit of that OG Mirror’s Edge joy.
It’s not all sugar and roses, however, as we have to tackle That Great Beast – combat. Don’t worry folks, no guns this time around. You’d think that meant DICE got the message, but it seems they just can’t help themselves. Welcome to the flaw in the prayer rug – Faith and her fisticuffs.
Now, it’s not all bad. I actually find myself in the minority of people who genuinely enjoyed the combat, but the problem isn’t the satisfying crack of a helmet shattering from the impact of Faith’s killer round kicks. The problem isn’t the cry of an officer you’ve just booted off of a ledge. The problem isn’t the sleek, cat-like way you can dart in and around enemies in a sly dance of violence. These are all strengths that – when mastered – give the combat a fun energy and flow. The problem – one of the most egregious oversights within this game – is the regular, unavoidable overincorporation of combat within the game’s critical path.
Hey, welcome to hell. Statan’s J. chillin’ over there, hanging with Mephistopheles and Barabus. Cool guys. Now, come to your torture chamber, where you’ll be playing through forced arena combat stages in games that are not – in any way, shape, or form – designed around the combat. Yes, for all of eternity. I’ve been your server, Countess Elizabeth Báthory, and I’m contractually obligated to tell you that we cannot receive tips, as this is hell. Thank you.
I seriously don’t think I’ve been so frustrated by a game in quite some time. There is – I kid you not – at least four or five sections devoted to arena combat. They are relentless, they are unskippable, and They. Are. Garbage. They have some of the worst checkpoints in the entire game too, by the way. I spent 40 minutes on a particularly brutal section – one that I’m sure many other players will come to revile. The game even closes with a boss fight. A boss fight. In a parkour video game. In 2016.
As I’ve mentioned, I actually enjoyed the combat. Liked it quite a bit. That being said – if I had this negative of a reaction to these sequences, I can’t even imagine what it was like for someone who didn’t enjoy the fighting. Take that into account before you buy.
One hot pro tip for those wary of combat – but still interested in purchasing – is to upgrade your combat abilities first. Yes, there are upgrades in Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, and – quite frankly – I’m still not sure how to feel about them. Upgrades for combat or pieces of gear are fine. They make sense. There’s no leveling curve – only 1,000 XP per level, which is less than it sounds like – so it’s not like you have to waste your life-minutes farming XP by grabbing collectibles. Some upgrades are frustrating, and strange, however. The 180-degree turn, for instance. The double wallrun. The air-tuck. You actually have to buy some of these in order to complete certain story missions and time trials, which totally sucks the fun out of them if you come across this content too early. It’s by no means a death blow to the overall experience, but it’s a decent-sized hump you’ll have to mount in order to experience the full scope of what Catalyst has to offer.
At the end of the day, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst is a lot like its predecessor. Beautiful, but flawed. It’s an improvement over the original – to be sure. Better combat, fewer gunman, more routes. At its worst, the game is briefly disappointing. At its best – and it’s almost always at its best – Catalyst is one of the most gorgeous, entertaining games you’ll play all year. It’s currently my favorite game of 2016, and I think it could be yours too.