When the original Mirror’s Edge landed in 2008, it was defiantly original, a far cry from the shootin’-‘n’-‘splosions action of the hugely popular Battlefield series with which developer DICE had made a name for itself. Its focus was almost entirely on exhilarating first-person acrobatics, choosing to shy away from the guns and grenades and rocket launchers that permeate most games played from a first-person perspective. Before you say it: yes, there were guns, but I like to think no-one ever actually used them. We’re better than that, right?
Instead, Mirror’s Edge built its foundation around the disciplines of freerunning and parkour. Its wonderfully fluid traversal mechanics allowed for breathtaking freedom of movement. Wall-runs, zip-lines and death-defying leaps from rooftop to rooftop – they were all there and in action they felt brilliantly physical, smoothly turning the game into a first-person Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Naturally, Mirror’s Edge proved intensely divisive and the game’s modest sales figures reflected this. But as with all pioneering games, it gathered a cult following of fans eager to journey deeper into the world of Faith Connors.
Now, eight years later, we’ve got what we’ve been waiting for: a second game brandishing the Mirror’s Edge title. But even after spending upwards of 35 hours with it, I’m still not sure how I really feel about Mirror’s Edge Catalyst.
From the off, it’ll be instantly familiar to anyone who played the first game. The fundamental Mirror’s Edge experience is intact, but the movement and various mechanics have been tightened up in numerous ways. It still carries the same primary colour-infused visual style, presenting an aesthetic that’s stark, that’s clean, that’s really easy to spot in a crowd. Overall, Catalyst is an impressively focused game. DICE clearly understands what made the original so uniquely inviting, and they’ve pushed to capitalise on Mirror’s Edge‘s positive traits while smoothing out its rough edges. That said, while it’s remarkable that Catalyst has managed to squeeze so much mileage out of the series’ core concept, there are cracks in the experience that are difficult to miss.
First up, the story. It’s just kind of… there. The narrative’s definitely stronger than that of the original game and it provides more insight into the oppressive world of Mirror’s Edge and the totalitarian regime that governs it. It reveals more about Faith and her reasons for pushing back against the forces that threaten to snuff out the last vestiges of free will in Glass and beyond, and that’s great. It’s clear that there’s an interesting story lurking somewhere beneath the surface, but it’s flimsily presented and there’s hardly any reason to ever truly invest in it. Most of the characters come across as being completely superfluous and uncharismatic. Some are even downright unlikable, and not in a good way.
Thankfully, the only character that really matters in Catalyst is Glass, the fictional city in which the game unfolds. Catalyst‘s standout new feature is its open world. Glass is almost completely open for exploration, and this newfound freedom in what to do, where to go and how best to get there is perfectly suited to the spirit of Mirror’s Edge. The nature of the game means that Glass has had to be meticulously designed, and each of its different areas not only has a distinct look about it, but the acrobatic opportunities it presents have their own texture as well. The under-construction Rezoning District, for example, is full of low walls to vault over and open shipping containers to use as potential shortcuts, while in the oceanside area of Regatta Bay you’ll be dangerously hurling yourself from balcony to balcony as you race from one luxurious high-rise building to the next.
As with most open-world games, your map of the city is peppered with icons representing various activities, some created by DICE, some created and shared by other players. Almost all of these activities involve getting from point A to point B in as short a time as possible, with stuff like time trials and package deliveries dominating the assortment of distractions you can pursue when you’re not completing the well-designed, more linear story and side missions. They’re essentially races, and finding alternative routes to what’s suggested is key to ensuring you get the best possible time, grab the maximum reward and top the online leaderboards. The trouble here is that, while the various races are undoubtedly fun and fit the Mirror’s Edge theme of fast, fluid, ferocious mobility, I often find myself wishing there was more variety. You should also bear in mind that many of the fastest routes through these side events can only be accessed once you’ve got all of Faith’s new traversal gear (like the MAG Rope grappling hook), so often there’s very little point in attempting them until you know you’ve got your full bag of tricks with you.
Take the gridNode missions, for example, which unlock fast travel options when completed. These have almost nothing to do with speed, and can generally be completed at whatever pace you choose. They’re all about careful platforming, presenting a sort of puzzle room wherein you start at the bottom of a tower and must make your way to the top. Moving platforms and laser beams that set off alarms add to the challenge, as do numerous other obstacles. Unlocking the gridNodes and finding the correct route through them was by far my favourite tertiary pursuit, and yet there are precious few of them to play through. It should tell you a lot that not once did I use fast travel during my many hours with Catalyst, and yet I still felt perfectly incentivised to tackle the gridNodes. They’re a nice change from the repetition of the deliveries and dashes, and were there more activities like the gridNodes, Catalyst‘s optional endeavours would feel far more varied.
I do love moving through the city though. Charging across the rooftops and through the alleyways of Glass feels fantastic, and Catalyst‘s movement system is wonderfully weighty and physical. The reliance on momentum is thrilling, with a number of moves and tricks that aid you in maintaining it. It’s hugely immersive, and the brilliant audio helps to augment this as the wind rushes past your ears and your shoes squeak on polished surfaces. It’s not all roses – Glass often feels quite barren, with very few inhabitants roaming the city. It might be for the best, given that they’d probably just get in the way and generate frustration, but I wonder if some amount of NPC foot traffic would make things more interesting by making the world feel more alive and adding an extra layer of challenge. As for the combat, it’s not bad. Guns are out completely, placing melee combat at the fore. Momentum once again ties into it, because attacking while traversing not only helps keep you alive, but does far more damage. There are some really clever mechanics in there, like a shield that gradually builds up and protects you from attacks so long as you keep moving. The combat is disappointingly floaty and unsubstantial, however, and doesn’t pack nearly the same sense of physicality that the traversal abilities do. It’s not that it’s bad, but it feels weightless and insignificant, which becomes a problem in the latter stages of the game when forced skirmishes become more and more common.
I think my biggest issue with Catalyst is that, in the time since Mirror’s Edge, other games have come along that offer a similar experience. Mirror’s Edge was one of a kind, whereas Catalyst is dealing with being stuck in a crowd. The entire time I was playing it, I was constantly reminded of Dying Light, and Catalyst actually ended up giving me more of an appreciation for Techland’s zombie-bashing extravaganza. In many ways the two are similar, but in Dying Light there’s simply a lot more going on and the melee combat is far more meaty. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy Catalyst. I wouldn’t have sunk as much time into it as I did if I didn’t have a good time playing it, and the fact that it’ll provide dozens of hours of entertainment is a massive plus. It’s a beautifully crafted experience and I’m so glad it exists, because it still feels incredibly unique and dares to go where few games are willing to tread, commits itself to its ideals without compromising its distinctive personality. It feels like there could be more to it though, and that’s a difficult feeling to ignore.