On the face of it, it should have been easy to make a sequel to 2008’s “Mirror’s Edge”, a gorgeous first-person parkour game set in a sparkling dystopian city. It fell short of perfection with several glaring flaws – mandatory torturous combat, dodgy collision detection, brain-dead plot – and surely all Mirror’s Edge 2 needed was to fix those and rake in the awards, right? Apparently so, since that’s what Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst (not a sequel, a reboot) started off by doing. I say “started off” because it was released fully eight years after the original, and for all of that time they just kept adding features: an open world, time trials, races, challenges, missions, a progression system: not all of it entirely welcome.
The conceit: it is The Future and Faith, a young free-runner/activist has just been let out of prison. She is met by Icarus, a new recruit to the free-runner group, and here the biggest flaw of Catalyst vaults happily to the fore: it’s terribly written. At first I thought Icarus was merely a dull edgelord, with his talk about The Conglomerate and The Families, and the despicable ordinary folk – “employs”, spat in the tones of “sheeple” – before more and more characters started weighing in, and I realized that this was the game’s position. Worse, it was the one I was expected to take too. This drivel continues throughout, with hamfisted neologisms like “foodDomes” “gridLinks” and “identChips” all happily thrown in. The outCaste live in the greylands, etc etc, and worst of all, this is all delivered with complete po-faced seriousness, as if they’re quoting Aldous Huxley instead of a bunch of shitty compoundWords. The original was cliche and unexciting, but this is so much worse, trading Noir influences and videogame tropes for a fifteen-year-old’s “dystopian” school project, complete with an abiding contempt for the “employs”. Many of us are starting to get a feel for what living in a dystopia might look like: it’s no longer really viable to talk quite such crap.
Surprisingly, some of the many minor characters are reasonably likable – i’m fond of Plastic, Faith’s hacker friend (played well by Ozioma Akagha, clearly channeling Steven Universe‘s Peridot). It’s worth nodding to the diversity – there are several key female characters and reasonable racial diversity, including Faith as the rare WOC protagonist. Plastic is also clearly autistic, though so much so that i can’t help wonder if the writing doesn’t stray into stereotyping, though I couldn’t claim to speak with authority. Points for trying, I guess?
If you can ignore the dodgy writing, there’s a lot to make up for it. It’s a gorgeous game, perhaps the most beautiful i’ve ever played. The linearity of the original has been swapped out for an open world of rooftops and balconies, and every inch of it is incredible. One would expect that having three to four times as much gameplay space as the original would lead to a decrease in quality, but overall there isn’t, from the golden yellow of the construction zones, to the blues and blacks of the commercial zones, to the soft purple spotting the high-class housing out by the regatta. The Frostbite engine has never been used to such rich effect before, with a day-night cycle, real-time shadows, and vast amounts of tiny details – drifting smoke, wafting flags, tinkling fountains.
Later in the game we see ruined environments (I’m going to be vague and unspoilery), and they’re gorgeous too, with falls of shattered glass and twisted metal, all set off against a brilliant blue sky. It’s mostly seamless, too – you can spot the occasional slow ladder or pipe to allow it to load the next area, but there are few of these, and i’ve never yet had to pause to let the game load (or opened a door onto an infinite un-loaded void, as happened a couple of times in the first game.) It’s set off by a gentle, shimmering soundtrack, which increases and decreases speed as you run, making it feel tailored to your movements. My only complaint with the environment is the lack of setpieces. I can remember beautiful specific moments from the original – the storm drains, the mall ambush, the crane jump, the snipers – and they only rarely seem to have equivalents. Even the colors are used more sparingly – remember the subway station in the original, where the entire walls would glow a rich, vibrant orange? Yes, Catalyst looks lovely, but i’m not sure I’ll remember any of it as clearly as the train-crash sequence eight years in the future when the next one comes out. Perhaps this is a function of the open world? I hope that’s not the case: I would hate to think our choice is between breadth and depth.
The gameplay is unchanged at it’s core. The parkour is stripped-down to almost two buttons – jump and crouch, used carefully in conjunction with the environment. With this you can practically dance through the city, leaping over obstacles and running along walls, and it’s easy to pick up and not hard to master. Soon you’ll be acting mostly on instinct, barely if ever stopping as you navigate over the rooftops, guided both by “runner vision” (a red sprite that passes along one possible route ahead of you) and some repeated props and overlays. This, to me, is what truly makes it a free-running game, (as opposed to similar contenders like Prince Of Persia which are really only 3D platformers with the minute-to-minute challenge being planning the route, not implementing it). The game does well to reward it’s own kineticism, with cameras and turrets that track you if you stay still too long, and the more linear mission levels are designed to promote this easy flow through. You can springboard leap from one balcony to the next, wallrun to the edge of the building, turn ninety degrees on a pipe and drop three storeys to land unscathed with a roll.
New tools augment Faith’s abilities, usually in fairly limited ways. A grappling hook sounds like a great way to miss the point of free-running, but it can only be used in a few specific places, and is the main way the game gates parts of the city off, with extra abilities – and extra chunks of world – tied to story progression in the usual manner. Much ado was made about Faith unlocking extra free-running abilities with XP, but in the end the progression system is limited and largely superfluous, with perhaps less than half a dozen actual parkour advances. Most are simply about keeping up flow – sliding further, climbing ladders faster – with only one actual useful move. The rest of the progression options are similarly ignorable, providing numerical bonuses like extra damage against certain enemies, increased health, or boosts to “focus” (all of which I’ll return to later.) The other big addition is the missions around the city, mostly focused upon getting from point A to B fairly quickly, or doing a difficult bit of climbing to reach a billboard. These eke out the runtime of the game a bunch, and provide challenges both in optimising your route and running it perfectly, even if the top places on the Time Trials always seem to be so ludicrously fast they can’t possibly be genuine. All of this extra stuff is unnecessary, yes, but doesn’t actively take away from the game, and you can usually ignore it. (Aside from the incongruity of the quest-givers, who hang around on rooftops in evening wear, standing sculpture-still next to the vents in the hope that someone will wander past and be willing to carry a message in the right direction.)
The combat is a major area of improvement from the original. No longer can you use guns and no longer are you limited to QTE takedowns or piling on rabbit-punches: instead you can make light or heavy attacks, the former preserving your momentum. Hits stagger and damage your opponents, with attacks from above or from a slide doing more of both. You can push enemies into each other to stagger both, can knock them against objects to do more damage, or shove them clean off the edge of buildings: Mouse2 dodges sideways around a chosen opponent, making it much easier to aim these environmental shoves. It’s still not perfect – at it’s best, you flow from enemy to enemy, slide-kicking them down or leaping onto their heads from a wall-run – but this doesn’t happen often, and always feels oddly scripted when you do. More often you run into groups of four enemies clustered together, and end up side-shifting and running backwards, trying to get a handy springboard between you and them, or move them close enough to a wall to try out your cool moves. Even worse are the Sentinels, who flawlessly counter any light attack, forcing you to hop in circles around them throwing heavy attack after heavy attack like a boxer, with the threat of a series of staggering, stunlocking counters hanging over your head. Faith can build “Focus” by running and building momentum, which allows her to dodge attacks, but in these drawn-out melees building focus is impossible, and it gets eaten away both by your own forced slowness and the swarm of incoming bullets.
Perhaps Catalyst will wipe the original Mirror’s Edge away: a smudge on a glass pane replaced by something gorgeous, and multifaceted, and only a little less smudged. I think that would be a shame, though: judging by the online reaction I might have been the Biggest Fan of the first, and I wouldn’t want to see it entirely superceded by a larger, more shiny replacement. If you felt the first game was flawed but brilliant, you should get Catalyst: the flaws are lessened, the brilliance only a little diminished. If you disliked the original, Catalyst isn’t for you: it doesn’t really change the formula enough. (If you haven’t played the original, I would suggest trying that out: it’s short, and cheap, and old enough to run smoothly on many machines.)
Overall, Catalyst is a great, enjoyable game – flawed, definitely, but beautiful and ambitious, like a diamond that wants to be a CEO. We should remember how ambitious and groundbreaking the first one also was, though – and, credit where it’s due, at least it didn’t insult our collectiveIntelligence by turning all it’s diaLogue into thisShite.
Very pretty, though.