Let’s Review: Mirror’s Edge Catalyst

June 14, 2016


The first Mirror’s Edge game was short, unpolished, based on the highly questionable premise of first-person platforming and yet, almost immediately after its release in 2008, it became one of my favorite games of all time. For me, at least, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, released June 7th, was an extremely anticipated sequel prequel reboot thing.

Mechanically, Catalyst is stronger than its predecessor. Movement is smoother, it’s easier to string movements together with the changes made to the control scheme and combat has been vastly, vastly improved to make use of Faith’s strengths rather than plop you in front of a group of heavily armored SWAT troops and tell you to get right up close to them in the hope that your reaction speed is good enough for the very unforgiving disarm mechanic. This time, the player is given tools to dance around your much slower enemies, actually using Faith’s speed to her advantage. Additionally, the player is now expected to use their environment to their advantage in combat, rewarding them for knocking enemies into each other or into environmental objects, such as over railings. Or the edges of roofs. It’s like someone on the Catalyst development team saw that moment in the original where you got to punt a guy off of some scaffolding and actually recognized that it was awesome. It probably shouldn’t have counted towards the Pacifist achievement. But it was awesome.

Unfortunately, despite all the improvements made to the combat, the development team doesn’t seem to actually understand what made combat in the first game so horrible to begin with. Sure, guns in the first game slowed you down and therefore were pretty much antithetical to the whole point of it all, but they still weren’t the real problem. The real problem with Mirror’s Edge combat was the game’s tendency to insist that the best option is more often than not running away from enemies but then immediately turning around and creating situations where combat was unavoidable. Catalyst actually does somewhat handle this, by allowing Faith to use her light attacks while at speed to push past enemies in her way without taking a hit to her momentum. It also seems to not be bothering to kid itself this time around in regards to combat being avoidable. You’re advised multiple times that sometimes the best way through enemies is to just ignore them and run for it, but more often than not the voice in your ear is pretty honest about how many people you’re about to be forced to punch off of roofs.

Oh, and the reason Faith can’t use guns is because every gun in this universe is biometrically linked to its owner. If you ask me a better explanation would be that Faith just up and doesn’t know how to fire a gun properly and a life or death situation probably isn’t the best time to learn when she could be doing something she’s perfectly comfortable with instead; running away. Actually, if you honestly tried to tell me that a city with such a seemingly large criminal underworld as Glass somehow doesn’t have a black market for ‘jailbroken’ firearms I’d probably tell you that Faith secretly being Batman would be a more plausible explanation for why she can’t use guns.

And that’s just part of a huge problem that Catalyst has: overthinking. Faith can’t use guns because all guns in Cascadia have the realistic future of DRM on them. Runner Vision isn’t a kind of spidey-sense you develop from years of rooftop navigation, but an app you run on your fancy contact lens. Time trials are actually a thing in universe created using echoes that can be recorded and rewatched on the same contacts, because creating a digital trail of your illegal running activities is apparently a good idea as long as you can turn it into a contest with other criminals. The reason you’re doing all of your delivery side missions around the city always comes back to secret rebellion against the Conglomerate and saving the lives of poor people because I guess no one in Glass just ever wants to buy some damned weed.

Related to the overthoughtness of just about everything in the setting of Cascadia, Catalyst suffers from the same illness that affects hundreds of innocent science fiction works every year: neologisms.

It’s not the internet, it’s The Grid. Poor people aren’t just poor, they’re loCaste (tip: your criticism of capitalism isn’t as subtle as you think it is if you give it a literal caste system). Money is now called ‘scrip’ because I guess ‘credits’ is where we cross the scifi cliche line in Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. And then you have the employs. Employ is a word for the average citizen of Glass, those who follow all of the oppressive rules imposed on the populace and who work for one of the megacorporations who quite literally control the entire country. It is used with derision by the runners and is used in official announcements in places where you might see the word ‘citizen’ in other settings. And it’s fucking stupid.

The so-Capitalist-we’ve-given-up-on-subtlety government referring to its citizens as ‘employees’ might be cheesy and over the top but at least that has its own charm in its total lack of subtlety and blatant evilness. But Dice had to take that one step further and chop the last two letters off the end because a word that actually exists in the English language just wasn’t cyberpunk enough I guess. So now we have ‘employ’, which is actually pretty hard to even say in a flowing conversation (I’ve been trying) and even the voice actors seem to have trouble with carrying from it to the next word in the sentence. Every time the runners use it in conversation they might as well be saying ‘normie’ instead because it has the exact same connotation and is just as embarrassing to hear said aloud.

More than anything about Glass, I’m just disappointed in how the developers seemed to look at what they accomplished with The City in Mirror’s Edge and apparently think it wasn’t obvious enough. Nothing in Glass has any subtlety. ME’s City might have been in the United States but we were never made certain, and had a corrupt municipal government who were under heavy influence from corporations like Pirandello-Kruger. The entire plot of Mirror’s Edge (as stunted and rushed as it felt at times) was about uncovering a conspiracy wherein the current mayor planned to give a private security company an increasing amount of power over The City’s law enforcement. The City was clean, sterile and very subtly controlled by capitalism. The small news reports you see on the screens in elevators were mixed with advertisements in such a way that it became hard to tell which was which. Levels were set up so you always saw more advertisements than people. The mall level was named New Eden. It was a dystopia but in a believable way. The setting stuck with technology that we already had and the whole thing had a very realistic “this could be us twenty minutes into the future” vibe.

It certainly had its problems, including the entire premise of the game, which is the fact that people would much rather pay teenagers to transport private information to one-another over the rooftops rather than using encryption like normal people. But, for the most part, the setting was pretty realistic interpretation of well-loved cyberpunk tropes.

Catalyst took a look at the first Mirror’s Edge and thought, “ok, but what if we thought our audience was too stupid to understand subtlety?”. Glass isn’t a city governed by corrupt election officials in the pockets of large corporations, it is ruled by large corporations. The people here aren’t drawn into a heavily work-consume lifestyle by how the system has been set up. Instead, your very citizenship is determined by whether or not you work for one of the acceptable companies and if you don’t you get sent to the ‘Greylands’ to do manual labor for the rest of your life. There’s a caste system. Literally. Depending on your wealth or employment situation or something. I never quite gathered. Everyone has a chip in their hands that connects you to the magical fantasy internet and it’s illegal or something to take it out. It causes interference with the contact lenses that also connect you to the magical fantasy internet. There are drones everywhere and they even have their own sky ‘roads’ (think Coruscant, but mini), which would be a really cool idea if it didn’t just serve to remind us that this world isn’t anything close to our world and that makes it hard to relate to the struggles that come with living in it.

The shopping mall is called Bauble for chrissake. Do you get it? DO YOU GET IT?

And the fact that the setting of Glass is so fundamentally stupid sucks, because the main story itself is actually interesting. And the sections of the world that go along with the main plot are also really well designed. I actually kind of think that the game would do better if it weren’t open world, but instead a linear collection of those levels and some more like them.

Freerunning on an open world map is fun and I’m almost certain that this is the best way to use freerunning mechanics like those in the Mirror’s Edge games. But it also feels like Dice had trouble filling the map with… anything. Like nearly every open world game (that isn’t an RPG) there are plenty of sets of samey collectibles to pick up, including, rather hilariously, data that’s been hacked off of your boss’s server and is now floating around the city in the form of glowing orange balls. You’d think a company that makes online games would understand that this is exactly how the internet doesn’t work. But there you go. With all the data and bags and chips and documents out there to collect one could probably play Mirror’s Edge Catalyst for a hundred or more hours before being close to done with it all. But that would be goddamn boring.

You also have delivery missions which finally help build up the setting by giving us a taste of what runners actually do when they’re not uncovering conspiracies. But they’re pretty boring too. You’re not expected just to get from point A to point B, you’re expected to get there in a very tight time limit. Very short. It’s actually pretty challenging which I am quite pleased with. I don’t know why that lady needs her keepsake delivered to her mate within the next forty seconds but god damn it I’m going to get it there in that time. Honestly, I’m still pretty sure that some of these missions, even the ones that unlock early in the game, are designed so that they can only be done when you have certain upgrades, rather than having the upgrades just be bonuses that make already possible content easier.

Oh, also there’s upgrades. You get experience from doing missions and then use it to buy upgrades, such as doing more damage against certain enemies or being able to do a simple skill roll. Because character progression in right now I guess.

With how well the story-related areas are designed compared to everything else, I feel like Catalyst was originally intended to be a linear game like the first, but then someone important came in and asked why it wasn’t an open world instead because that’s what the kids these days love. The world is fun to explore for a while but then everything starts to get samey, which is probably a side effect of the game’s visual style emphasizing oppressive uniformity. You actually do get to see people hanging around, but if you haven’t unlocked whatever side mission they’re there for yet, they just stand there. Forever. Not reacting to anything. They have some had tracking, which just makes them creepy. I threw a guy off of a roof right in front of this one lady and she just continued to stare at me, disinterestedly.

I feel like that highlighted the problem with the world design; everything is there, but it’s all separate. It’s not a living world like a newer Elder Scrolls or Fallout game, where NPCs AI is designed so that it looks like they have a life outside of their interactions with the player character. They have schedules, they have passing conversations with other NPCs and many of them generally only exist to give more life to the world. NPCs in Catalyst don’t do any of that. The only people you see who aren’t plot important are permanent fixtures, standing in the same place until they become important for a side mission, not reacting to anything. You can beat up some cops and get shot at, and the civilian standing on the roof trying to find a runner for her delivery will just stand there peacefully ignoring the whole thing until she’s needed to start some side mission.

There are little dead drops with cute robot voices scattered around the city that also offer the player delivery missions. I prefer those because they cause me far less existential terror.

The world map is effectively useless for navigation though because everything looks the same and has no detail, so it’s much easier to just set a waypoint using the map and let Runner Vision do all the thinking for you.

Visually, the game is pretty well designed. All of the architecture seems to be designed to scream “HEY LOOK IT’S THE FUTURE” but so does everything else in Glass so it kind of works. The strong ‘white + splashes of colour’ aesthetic is back from the first game but watered down a lot more so some areas look rather generic and as if they could have come from any other game.

Graphically, however, the game seems to have a lot of issues. Textures take a long time to load, which is pretty awful performance for a game where moving forward as fast as possible is almost always the goal. The game runs at a solid 60fps at high settings on my machine yet for some reason the pre-rendered cutscenes stutter about when they’re first starting. And only the pre-rendered ones. I’m honestly not quite sure how Dice managed to accomplish that. I don’t expect PC performance to be perfect because of the huge range of hardware combinations available for the platform, but shouldn’t pre-rendered video be the one thing that doesn’t lag, regardless of specs?

To conclude, this shouldn’t have been an open world game. Dice didn’t seem to know what they should do with such a large map and most of it, its collectibles, time trials and side missions are pretty unnecessary. Honestly the open world content doesn’t really seem to serve a purpose other than allowing EA to inflate the number of ‘hours of gameplay’ they can advertise, which, let’s be honest, is the real purpose of 99% of open worlds in AAA games these past few years. Even just exploring the map to see it makes you feel how hollow it all its.

The setting feels like it was designed in the margins of a fifteen year old’s Citizenship workbook upon which a copy of The Hunger Games then threw up on. It still has a lot of the charm and aesthetic of the first game but even that’s been watered down a bit to make the game resemble half a dozen other open world games of the past few years.

However, the main mission is fun, there is actually intrigue in the story despite the fact that it’s set against such a boring, cliched background and both the freerunning and combat mechanics are vastly improved from the previous game. The open world was a good idea and I’d like to see more open world freerunning games in the future, but it really felt like the developers got bored of the map before they got around to making it do anything interesting.

All in all, I am having fun, but I doubt I’ll do much more with the game than the main storyline. I’m a little sad to see a series that started so promising take the turn into becoming so similar to the rest of the AAA fare we’re seeing in 2016. Mirror’s Edge hit 2008 with a bright colour palette and varied gameplay mechanics, something which was a breath of fresh air in the era of the washed-out brown military FPS. Seeing it do away with fresh ideas in its sequel and fall in line with what the rest of the AAA industry is doing is disappointing.

PS – This reveiw was going to have more pictures but I’m going on holiday tomorrow and with all the stress stemming from the events of these past few days I haven’t yet found the time to resize and crop screenshots to my liking.