The original Mirror’s Edge was an impressive AAA anomaly for its time. A single player game set in an oppressive, yet beautiful future, focused on running and parkour and all from a studio that was almost entirely known for competitive online shooters. It was flawed but still impressive and there was nothing like it at the time or since until recently. It’s still one of my most memorable games of the last decade. Unfortunately, like every AAA game that takes a creative risk, few showed up to buy it and it was a sales failure.
EA surprised everyone a couple of E3s ago by saying that DICE was being given another crack at Mirror’s Edge. They were rebooting the story–even though there was only one of them–and going open world with it. I instantly wanted to play it but grew concerned when they released it right around E3 this year and with very little marketing. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst clearly has the kernel of a grand vision but if feels unrealised and more concerningly, unfinished.
Faith, the rebellious yet tortured protagonist is back again with a new traumatic backstory that gives a glimpse into the origins of the corporate “beautiful dystopia” she’s in as well as her reasons for being a Runner, a group of couriers who operate off the grid and outside the law but which the corporate overlords tolerate. There’s some pretty blunt “evil 1%” political messaging in this, not that I disagree with it. You start the game fresh from a stint in prison and not more than 30 seconds out the door, you’re right back with your crew. The rest of the story has a few twists and turns but like everything else in the game, feels half-baked and rushed, ending in a cookie-cutter cliffhanger where you’ve ultimately achieved pretty much nothing. It’s clear the team wanted to setup a sequel in the hopes EA would let them make it but if that doesn’t happen–and it probably won’t–most of what happens in Catalyst is pointless. There aren’t many characters, none of them are particularly likable and the interactions with them are so few and blandly written, you never get to know anyone well enough to care about them. Even Faith herself comes off as bratty, bullheaded and self-centered, taking stupid risks, regardless of how they may harm those around her. I never grew to like her.
The original Mirror’s Edge was a linear experience but a solid, tightly designed one. Catalyst makes things an open world which on paper, seems like the perfect evolution for this type of game. Unfortunately, it’s a largely lifeless world with nothing to do in it. To stay off the grid, the Runners operate on the rooftops. You never get to street level so you don’t see much actually happening in the city. You get around by running, jumping, sliding and scaling your way over and between buildings. When you bring up the map, you see a huge metropolis that gives you the impression there’s tons to see and do. Then as you progress, you realise that only about half of that map ever becomes available to you the game is way smaller than you thought.
You get the standard open world compliment of main missions, side story missions and icon barf of optional activities. The problem is, almost all of these are basically the same thing, either delivering something or running a course, always with an arbitrary time limit that usually makes no contextual sense. There’s no variety and the time limits are often so strict that one slight mistake in a 2+ minute run means doing it all over again, as these are the only times in the game that you aren’t generously checkpointed. Some of the delivery missions come from in-world characters who essentially give you their life story over the radio as you make the run. This is intended to make you empathise with the oppressed of the world but all it does is distract you and provides no value to the fiction. Most of the time, I just wanted them to shut up and let me run. There are a ton of different collectables in the world which yield tiny bonuses but are obviously just there as padding for obsessive open world players. I know that in a game focused almost exclusively around running, there’s only so much you can do but surely DICE could have come up with more than this. It renders the whole point of making this an open world game moot.
By default, your augmented reality system known as The Beat, provides you a virtual in-world line to show you the way to your next objective and it’ll also highlight objects you should scale as part of that route. It’s not always the fastest route, just the least difficult one and for some of the tougher side missions, following it actually means you won’t succeed. The problem is because you’re in an open world, disabling it makes it really easy to lose your bearings and get turned around. It’s definitely possible to complete the game without it but you’ll be making things way harder on yourself. Still, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of when you get a good flow up and have been running and parkouring for a long stretch without a gap, though some of this comes down to how easily this flow can be interrupted.
When you’re not running, you will occasionally have to fight. In the first Mirror’s Edge, it was possible to take guns from enemy soldiers and use them against them but there was also an achievement for beating the game without killing anyone, which I got. In Catalyst’s world, all the guns are coded to the soldiers so Faith has to beat everyone in close quarters melee combat. She still has no conscience about murder though as she has some brutal finishing moves and I regularly kicked guys off buildings. You never see blood but you’ll hear lots of things crack and snap. Like most elements of Catalyst, the combat also feels clumsy and unrefined. You have a few different moves but never get new ones and there’s no combo system. Combat usually comes down to just spamming different moves until everyone’s down. Parkouring well and mixing up your moves rewards you with Focus, a meter that allows you to automatically dodge bullets but instantly drains away when you stop moving. Again, a cool idea but one that doesn’t make a lot of sense when you think about it. If you stir up enough trouble, VTOL aircraft will be summoned that can drop additional soldiers and also shoot at you. When this happens, you have to outrun its scanners and hide for a bit until it gives up, which rewards bonus experience depending on how many soldiers you took out and how long the chase lasts.
The dead giveaway that Mirror’s Edge Catalyst was rushed is the progression system. By earning experience, you can upgrade Faith’s parkour and combat abilities, as well as some pieces of equipment to help you get around. The thing is, you start with a third of these upgrades already unlocked. I’m not kidding. I did the story and narrative side missions and maybe 15% of the optional missions and this was all it took to earn every upgrade. Other than going for 100% completion, there’s no reason to do the optional content after this. I don’t know of any other way to interpret this other than a whole whack of stuff was cut from the game to make a deadline. There’s no explanation given for it and frankly, it feels like DICE went out of their way to showcase it. I know in the world of corporate AAA development, there’s probably too many layers of management involved for this to be a not-so-subtle statement from the team on the kinds of pressures they were under but it sure feels like it. Regardless of the development realities, this was a full priced release and to not only have so little content but to not even hide it is frankly pretty insulting to those who shelled out money for it. They basically told me that I spent $60US on what is in many ways, an Early Access title and that’s not cool.
The original Mirror’s Edge had some gorgeous production values and at least those are still here in Catalyst. The game runs great on PC and while the frame rate hitches on consoles, it does target 60 which is a rare pleasure. The city basically looks like a giant Apple store with lots of white and bright, unblended colours as well as digital billboards everywhere. It does a good job of feeling like a dystopia where the people in charge don’t want you to know that. There’s lots of talk about “The Graylands”, a bleak and unforgiving place where the lowest classes of people are relegated but you never see it and it’s left to your imagination. DICE are experts at audio design and they do a great job here too, with sounds that are believable and subtle audio cues that aid in the flow of your parkour. Swedish ambient musician Solar Fields did the score for the previous game and his work there made me into a big fan of his. He returns again for Catalyst and his tracks once again fit the world well, though I feel his work last time was more memorable.
Both Mirror’s Edge games feel like passion projects from a studio that’s desperate to make things other than Battlefield. I didn’t think we’d see another after the first one flopped but the passion of its small fanbase and DICE’s huge success otherwise managed to convince EA to give them another shot. Indeed, when you look at the core team credits for Catalyst, it’s quite small compared to what we normally see for AAA releases these days. However, either they weren’t given enough time or the team wasn’t able to capitalise on the time they had and we got a full price release that’s pretty and has its core mechanic down but is short on story and full to the brim with boring padding. I didn’t want the first Mirror’s Edge to end but half way through Catalyst, I was wanting it to be over. If this was the best EA was willing to let DICE give us for a sequel, they should have just not bothered. At best, I’d only recommend this at 50% off and only if you either like parkour games or really wanted more time in the Mirror’s Edge world. Even then, you’re probably better off just playing the first game again. I doubt we’ll ever see another one of these but if we do, I hope we get a complete game next time.