MIRROR’S EDGE CATALYST Game Review: Catalyse This

EA’s sequel gets lost in its open world.

What is Mirror’s Edge about?

To anyone who’s played a title in the series, the answer is easy: it’s about free-running over rooftops like you’re in a French action film. Simple! But EA and developer DICE struggled with that question in the first Mirror’s Edge: thrilling as it was, it was let down by poorly-tuned shooting and combat sequences that killed protagonist Faith’s pacing and the game’s pacing in general. First-person parkour promised so much, yet that first game failed to deliver.

In true video game sequel fashion, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst promises to correct the mistakes of the original, while expanding into an open world with a bigger story. But while the reboot achieves its goals, its course corrections create new issues and reveal others we just didn’t notice before.

Catalyst drops players into a bright, futuristic city that evokes a Silicon Valley dream, like Blade Runner art-directed by Apple’s Jonathan Ive. The city even shares its name - Glass - with both a Google product and a Microsoft one, while every object, place, and abstract concept bears a CamelCase moniker. Like fanfic by a kid who just discovered cyberpunk, the world-building is painfully on the nose. Class is a big issue in the Mirror’s Edge future: the city is stratified into “loCaste,” “midCaste,” and “hiCaste,” the latter of which shops at someplace called the Bauble Mall. The Bauble Mall! Could there be a more obvious name for a place of upper-class retail worship?

Sadly, Glass is never really fleshed out beyond its beautiful, glittering architecture. Despite the overcrowding presumably plaguing this skyscraper-strewn future, architects apparently throw office space around willy-nilly, building lobbies the size of football fields for office buildings that never seem to contain people. Glass makes no architectural or municipal sense at all. It could only exist inside a video game. But maybe that doesn’t matter - after all, it’s designed to be experienced at speed. There’s no time for detail. Faith’s domain is the rooftops, not living spaces, and at the centre of the city is her lair, filled with runners (free-running freedom fighters) constantly performing parkour displays hilariously reminiscent of Punisher: War Zone.

It’s those runners who send Faith on missions and drive the narrative. DICE has poured more effort (and money) into storytelling this time around, with cutscenes sporting high-budget motion capture and lots of dialogue, all of it telling and little of it showing. For an ostensible reboot, it hardly does anything new, sticking to a creaky tale of military-industrial surveillance and computer warfare. The few instances when Catalyst deigns to get personal with its characters are mired in cliche, with most emoting via dour iciness, cookie-cutter video game sarcasm, or not at all. Even the one interesting character - a black, autistic hacker who builds cute robot companions for herself - gets little development beyond her laudably diverse demographic makeup. Catalyst’s dour soullessness makes you yearn for a story as light on its feet as its parkour. EA currently has plans to make a TV series of Mirror’s Edge. It has precious little to go on.

Good news: the free-running soars. Running in Mirror’s Edge is athletic, not destructive; svelte, not brutish. It’s the perfect game mechanic, in that running nimbly enough to make Tom Cruise jealous is an intrinsic reward beyond any in-game achievement. At its best, Mirror’s Edge is a nonstop stunt sequence, its lithe, badass heroine laser-focused on the vertigo-inducing path ahead of her. Faith has gotten better at guessing what the player wants her to do; where previously she would fall flailing to her death, now the game cheats her reach that little bit further to catch ledges or railings. The world design, too, is smartly designed to facilitate thrilling chases and breezy morning jaunts over rooftops.  Only actually dying (and the subsequent load times) can interrupt Faith’s flow. Outside of the odd stupid jump into the abyss, death comes almost solely at the hands of her enemies.

The first Mirror’s Edge caught flak for poor shooting that didn’t mesh with its parkour. Rather than alter the gunplay or build the two mechanics into each other, DICE removed gunplay from Catalyst altogether. In the fiction of the game, weapons are handprint-coded to their owners, forcing Faith to concentrate on melee combat and avoidance. The melee is relatively deep, with context-sensitive attacks, speed-assisted takedowns, and generous hitboxes. Even the glitches work in Faith’s favour: those hitboxes result in enemies hilariously throwing themselves at each other or over ledges. But Catalyst’s combat reveals that the problem with Mirror’s Edge wasn’t the gunplay; it was forced combat, period.

The core gameplay philosophy of Mirror’s Edge would have Faith simply run away from confrontations. Instead, she’s forced to clear out waves upon waves of enemies at times, often running directly into gunfire just to get close enough to land a punch. Armed enemies are awful to deal with, and worse still are enemies whose attacks can stun-lock Faith into an endless succession of takedowns until she dies a death less painful than infuriating. And thanks to inconsistent checkpointing, dying in a lengthy combat sequence often teleports you right back to the beginning. I'm reminded of nothing more than Bungie’s Oni - and that game came out fifteen years ago.

What’s firmly rooted in 2016 AAA video game design, though, is Catalyst’s open-world structure. Predictably, the city map is littered with side activities. It’s all standard fare - deliver this, steal that - and unless you’re into time trials and leaderboards, barely any of it is worth doing. You can create your own races or challenges, and if you’re amongst friends, that adds some extra competitive gameplay. Strangers’ courses, on the other hand, are just more icons in a map already full of them. The rare exceptions - there are four - are the computer centres that unlock fast travel nodes, whose pure platforming challenges are a joy to jump through.

The open-world content in Catalyst ultimately feels as redundant as its XP system, which unlocks movement abilities so regularly they might as well be tied to missions. Perhaps the Ubisoft open-world model wasn’t the best choice for this franchise. Mirror’s Edge has always felt out of place in the AAA world, and it still hasn’t found a format that works for it. Maybe DICE could try the skating-game paradigm, where the parkour itself is the reward. I don’t know. The parkour is too good not to do something with.

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is supposedly a game about breaking free of corporate shackles, but aside from its outstanding free-running, it’s depressingly middle-of-the-road. If only the freewheeling, go-anywhere spirit of its parkour manifested itself elsewhere, it’d reach the same heights its main character does. And those are some dizzying heights.