Like all game reviews on this blog, this one assumes you’ve played the game in question, and so it will contain spoilers for Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. If you want to view my playthrough of the game, you can do so here.
For all its uniqueness, the original Mirror’s Edge was a product of its time. Released in 2008, just a year after Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, it was a first-person action game with linear levels, shooting, and setpieces. Similarly, the sequel/prequel/reboot, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is also a product of its time. It’s an open-world game stuffed to the gills with side activities, featuring a character progression system and online leaderboards.
I point this out because people often attribute the series’ failings to its tendency to follow trends. It’s a sensible narrative, and it allows gamers to pin the blame for them on the clueless behemoth that they believe EA to be. But, as I’ve pointed out before, the reality is a lot more nuanced than that when it comes to the original Mirror’s Edge, and the same is true of the sequel.
Right off the bat, let’s get this out of the way: Catalyst’s central mechanics, its parkour systems, are excellent. Running up walls, sliding under pipes, and leaping off buildings is as exhilarating as ever. It’s hard to describe the dizzying joy I feel when chain together a bunch of sweet moves dozens of feet above the ground, as if I’m spitting in the very face of gravity.
And really, I could end the review right there. On its most fundamental level, Catalyst works. Go play it. You’ll enjoy it. (Wait, didn’t I say that this review assumes you’ve played the game? Oh well.) However, Catalyst is a modern AAA game with side activities and combat and light RPG mechanics and a story. (Oh yes, it has a story. More on that in a bit.) And it’s in these bits, on the periphery of the game, that things can get a little – or in the case of the story, very – problematic.
But let’s start with the good stuff: moving to an open world was for the most part beneficial for Mirror’s Edge. I was originally skeptical about this move, and the first third or so of the game, when most of the map hasn’t yet been unlocked, doesn’t do a great job of selling the open world to the player. Before I unlocked fast travel, all I could do was run over the same paths over and over again. It got boring. However, once the map opened up – especially once the construction site was reached – the world turned into a wonderful, liberating playground. Races were great fun, as were the puzzle-like GridNode missions. The delivery missions were much less fun, for a reason I’ll get to in a few paragraphs, but overall, navigating through the game’s pristine white world was a joy.
The main missions were also well constructed, though they occasionally felt a little on the short side. Using the game’s mechanics in a structured linear environment felt very much like the original Mirror’s Edge, and that’s a feeling I welcomed. (One level that didn’t feel like the feel like the original Mirror’s Edge was the final level, and that’s because of its irritating pipe platforming sections and its overuse of the grappling hook. Climbing and Mirror’s Edge don’t mesh well.) There was enough variation in the levels’ environments to keep me interested and engaged throughout.
Unfortunately, the main missions had one key failing, and that’s the game’s combat. In principle, I actually like the game’s basic combat mechanics. Combat is all about kicking, stunning, and circle-strafing out of the way. It’s an elegant but flexible system on paper. In practice, though, it only works when you’re facing no more than two enemies at a time. Any more than that and you’re constantly being kicked around with no way to recover or escape. For some reason, Catalyst likes to lock you in arenas and have you face off against a half-dozen enemies at a time, some of whom have firearms. There’s no way to dodge fire, so you have to build up your focus shield, which is impossible to do in a tight room with enemies punching you. So you basically have to get lucky and hope that the guards have bad aim. (Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t.) And even if they do, you’ll still make it through by the skin of your teeth; the later levels are impossible without getting all the health upgrades. That means some character builds are essentially unviable, and giving the freedom to the player to allocate experience points as they wish is a mistake.
Even when the game isn’t locking you in arenas, it likes to throw multiple enemies at you. Here, in theory, you’re supposed to use traversal attacks to run right through them. In practice, however, traversal attacks only work when enemies are in an ideal position, and if the guards have guns, the only way you can build up enough focus shield not to be injured by their attacks is if you execute your run perfectly. You can do this if you turn on the normal Runner’s Vision, but then you’re being led by the nose; the classic Runner’s Vision is necessary to preserve the way the original game required you to figure things out on the fly. So you have to trade off having fun parkouring with easily making it through the combat, and if it’s up to me, I’ll choose fun parkouring every time.
The delivery side missions also suffer from this problem. They simply can’t be completed in the allotted time unless you know exactly where to go in advance, and this is impossible with classic Runner’s Vision. Building challenges off a dumbing-down of mechanics is simply poor game design.
Overall, though, its flaws notwithstanding, I still enjoyed Catalyst’s gameplay loop. With its rock-solid first-person platforming mechanics, running through Catalyst’s world will never not be satisfying. What a shame that this gameplay loop is interrupted by such a shitty story.
There’s no way around it: Mirror’s Edge has one of the most abysmal stories of any big-budget game I’ve ever played. It’s dreadful, it’s difficult to follow, and it’s tonally at odds with everything else about the game. It’s a generic-ass tale of dystopia and revolutionary struggle with clichéd dialogue and not a single interesting or likable character. While the gameplay evokes feelings of joy and liberation, and the art direction and soundtrack – both of which are stellar, by the way – evoke feelings of wonder and discovery, the story is dour and po-faced, yet littered with melodrama and telegraphed twists. When a melodramatic story takes itself so seriously, the voice acting can go two ways: 1) It can be top-notch and played straight, so that the dialogue is really sold; or 2) It can be totally campy and over-the-top. Catalyst does neither. The voice acting is merely mediocre, so the story neither works as straight drama nor as camp.
Every character seems to be in a foul mood, which is odd, because they spend their days running across rooftops. You’d think they’d show a little joy from time to time. The Runners aren’t even convincing as freedom fighters. You’d think they’d show splashes of colour and jagged lines to contrast the game’s pristine white and right angles; instead, they blend right in. Moreover, none of the characters’ motivations are ever clear. The game ends with the player knowing no more about them than at the start, which indicates a massive failure of storytelling.
And you know what the worst part is? You could rip out the story and replace it with a different one, complete with entirely different dialogue, and it would work just as well, if not better. The story is so peripheral to the gameplay that I can talk about them as separate entities. That’s really the most damning thing I can say about Catalyst: its story doesn’t matter. I could have skipped through every cutscene, and I would have been just fine.
In the end, Catalyst is a successful parkour simulator. Actually, “successful” is damning it with faint praise; it’s an excellent, awe-inspiring parkour simulator. But as a complete experience, it falls well short of greatness. Bad writing and some poor design decisions – not the move to an open world – prevent the game from being the worthy successor to the original Mirror’s Edge that it should have been.