Mirror's Edge Catalyst review
If there are alternate universes, running parallel to our own - but with numerous differences - then I’m convinced that Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst is a popular yet terrible young-adult novel in most of them. There are probably whitewashed film adaptations currently in production in most of them, too.
Stop me if you’ve heard any of this before: in the bland futuristic city of Glass, life is controlled by the Conglomerate, which is made up of several big-bad corporations of vague intent. The game’s protagonist is Faith, a young woman who has recently been released from juvenile hall (the loading screens promise that her incarceration is explored in a spin-off comic book, because of course it is).
Faith returns to the secretive cabal of runners she works with, who seem to make up a good 90% of the city’s population. She proceeds to take on the Conglomerate and discover the secrets of her own past by running and jumping on a lot of things, occasionally stopping to press a computer screen. The writing is awful to the point of embarrassment, which wouldn’t matter so much if the game didn’t seem so desperately invested in its own narrative. These issues are indicative of Catalyst as a whole; it’s a game that never quite rises above being a good try, a well-intended but wrong-headed attempt to improve upon the original.
Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst sits somewhere between a prequel to and a reboot of 2008’s superior Mirror’s Edge, with gun combat replaced with kung-fu showdowns and the level structure ditched in favour of an open world. The controls for movement are very similar to the original, although a few techniques previously available from the outset now need to be unlocked, and there’s a ‘run slightly faster’ button, the use of which builds up a ridiculous bullet-dodging ‘focus shield’. Faith controls well, although it’s sometimes a bit hard to get a handle on what she can or can’t do – sometimes she’ll die from what seems like a very short fall, or make a jump that seems implausible, or glitch out a bit as she grabs onto something. The world’s sense of scale is off too - it feels like Faith shrinks in some instances, which can be disconcerting.
Faith remains as acrobatic as ever, but the game’s structure often makes traversal feel like busywork. Running across a wall to traverse a gap, then spring-boarding off a railing to grab onto the edge of a nearby roof is cool; running across that same wall, spring-boarding that same railing, traversing the same obstacles over and over again with no incentive beyond reaching the next mission grows dull quickly.
The sprawling game world also necessitates heavy use of ‘runner’s vision’ to navigate. By default, the game will show you an exact suggested route at all times; you’re under no obligation to follow it, but you’ll only ever really need to break from it during time-sensitive missions. This looks terrible, and I immediately switched over to ‘classic’ mode, which will highlight objects of importance in red to denote the best route forward…but then I found myself constantly needing to press R3, which shows you the exact route again. This would not be a problem if the game was a series of self-contained missions, as the first was, as plotting out your route and figuring out the best paths is part of the fun. When you’re navigating a world to reach the parts that are actually enjoyable, this lack of direction is irritating.
The open world allows for side quests and user-generated time trials, both of which are neat. But the real meat of the game is in the missions, which vary in quality. Every now and then, a mission will throw you into a particularly fun scenario (one ridiculous stage where you need to sprint around a tower under construction to shut down turrets as they fire at you comes to mind), but too many of them boil down to very basic exploration and repetitive actions. Your reactions and problem-solving skills are rarely tested, but the missions, at least, frequently ask you to do fundamentally cool things, like sliding down the sides of buildings or running and hopping your way up scaffolding, committing various acts of daring acrobatics.
But then the game also frequently throws you into mandatory combat encounters. When you’re on the run, you can often get around the bad guys with a swift kick or punch and keep moving, which feels great and adds an extra layer to Catalyst’s obstacle courses. But the game too frequently demands that you stop and beat down on some bad guys before you can progress, which is the exact thing that no one who played the original Mirror’s Edge was asking for. The developers have compensated for Faith’s inability to use guns by making most enemies and their weapons exceptionally weak – it takes a ludicrous number of bullets to kill Faith – and by frequently placing foes near long drops that they can be kicked right into. Stopping and kicking enemies in the face repeatedly is the absolute antithesis of what Mirror’s Edge is all about, but even that could be forgiven if the combat wasn’t so bland and repetitive.
The art style does the game no favours either. It’s initially impressive how consistent Catalyst is, but this is ultimately a pretty boring vision of the future sketched out in stark whites, blues and reds. This is an intentional design choice, meant to show a world drained of life and colour, but the game doesn’t have anything interesting enough to say about authoritarianism or class to justify this generic vision. There’s nothing here that hasn’t already been done better – even the original Mirror’s Edge was more interesting, even if it was working with lesser technology and the same basic ideas. Some environments are flat-out ugly, and sometimes crucial objects in the environment are difficult to discern.
Mirror’s Edge is a franchise that still could - I honestly believe - produce a truly great game. The original was most of the way there already, and remains interesting and enjoyable to this day. Catalyst may be ambitious, but it’s less interesting, less exciting, and more frustrating than the original, which benefited from a purity and focus in its design that this game can’t match. Unfortunately, Catalyst simply isn’t a great sequel, or prequel, or reboot, or whatever the hell it’s meant to be.
James O’Connor isn’t much of a runner himself, but he does like to run his mouth off. You can follow him on Twitter: @Jickle.