Review: Mirror’s Edge Catalyst

It’s easy to go back and look at the first Mirror’s Edge with rose-colored glasses, but if you’ve played it recently, you know that it had some pretty major flaws. First and foremost, its story, which was told through Esurance-style cartoon cutscenes, was forgettable at best and awkward at worst. The parkour that made it a cult-hit often tunneled the player into a single path, often forgoing any sense of experimentation to focus on sheer mastery. Oh, and its combat was universally considered to be clunky, with every fight dragging down the pace of the five-to-six hour adventure. This isn’t to say that Mirror’s Edge was a bad game, but a segment of the gaming population often seems to look at its awesome world-building, unique traversal system and killer art-style and think of it as some sort of classic. When you take a look at the sales numbers and combine them with a number of obvious flaws, however, it’s not outrageous to suggest that its reputation isn’t necessarily representative of its actual quality.

Fast forward eight years into the future and it still seems unbelievable that another Mirror’s Edge game is hitting the market. A clear labor of love from the folks at DICE, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is largely superior to its predecessor in every way. While it doesn’t have all the makings of a modern masterpiece, Catalyst includes a number of smart design choices ranging from the inclusion of a full open world to a combat system that’s actually functional. This isn’t going to be a game that will be vying for Game of the Year awards come December, but it’s a solid offering that is worth the price of admission. Hardcore fans might argue that it lacks the punishing difficulty of the original, but the combination of slightly more forgiving gameplay and the same potential for high-level play make Mirror’s Edge Catalyst a realization of DICE’s original franchise vision.

If you’ve been paying attention to the marketing for Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, you’ll know that it’s neither a prequel nor a sequel. Essentially a reboot of the franchise, Catalyst dives into Faith’s backstory, beginning with her release from juvenile hall. While the actual events that put her in juvie are not explained (numerous loading screen messages let you know that you’ll have to read the Mirror’s Edge Exordium comic for this), flashbacks give a fair amount of insight into what turned her into the strong, yet impulsive runner she is. Taking place in the city of Glass, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst strays away from the original tale of Robert Pope and Project Icarus, instead focusing on the nefarious deeds of the Conglomerate, a group of corporations that has banded together to control the city. At the center of the Conglomerate is Gabriel Kruger, CEO of Kruger Holding firm and the central antagonist of Catalyst. Kruger’s goal is to control the emotions of the public through the Reflection virus, a synthetic infection that allows the Conglomerate to tap into the consciousness of anyone infected by it. Faith ends up falling headfirst into the Reflection conspiracy within an hour of the start of the campaign, as she inadvertently steals the entire blueprint to Reflection during an unrelated mission.

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While Mirror’s Edge Catalyst‘s central narrative doesn’t do much to distinguish itself in quality from standard video game stories, it’s worlds better than that of the original Mirror’s Edge. Despite the fact that the big twist, which occurs about two-thirds of the way through, is about as predictable as it gets, there isn’t anything cringe-worthy that ruins the entire experience. First and foremost, those awkward Esurance-style cutscenes from the original title are gone, with full in-engine cutscenes replacing them. Players are presented with more than enough motivation to move forward, and it isn’t nearly as bare-boned as similar open-world titles like Just Cause 3 and Mad Max, which works in Catalyst‘s favor. It’s a bummer that a great deal of narrative content is gated behind a comic that takes place entirely outside of the core story itself, as Exordium feels like it would fit in perfectly as an open-world collectible. Still, outside of the more trope-heavy characters like the Runner leader Noah, the arrogant new Runner Icarus and the militant leader of the Black November rebels Rebecca, there are some interesting personalities on display here. Faith, despite her impulsiveness and inability to ever say no, displays a genuine internal conflict throughout the entire campaign. The real star of the show, however, is Dogen, Glass’s resident crime lord. His cold, calculated demeanor makes every scene with him tense, though it is a shame he only shows up a handful of times.

Story beats aside, this wouldn’t be a Mirror’s Edge game without a strong emphasis on gameplay and Catalyst doesn’t disappoint there. The parkour techniques from the original Mirror’s Edge are back in full force here and largely feel the same, albeit with some of the clunk removed. From the get-go, Faith has the ability to vault over objects, run on walls and slide under smaller barriers, and all of these techniques are used to move from point A to point B as quickly and fluidly as possible. As with its predecessor, there is a bit of a learning curve to the proceedings here, though without strictly linear paths, it’s a lot easier for low-level players to feel like they’re powerful.

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Thanks to an all new progression system, players can upgrade elements of Faith’s movement skills, combat abilities and gear, which creates an added bit of motivation outside of standard story and open-world completion. It is a bit strange that three of the most important movement techniques in the franchise are locked behind this progression system. It’s nearly impossible to be a fluid parkour expert without being able to roll at the end of long drops, lift your legs to jump over small barriers and do a 180-degree quick-turn when running up walls, but unlocking these skills isn’t necessarily all that difficult. Once you have Faith’s full skill-set unlocked, it’s easy to see why fans of the franchise enjoy its gameplay so much, as there’s nothing more satisfying in all of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst than moving around the environment without stopping. Combine this with the MAG Launcher, a new environment-triggered zipline-like item that allows Faith to swing across gaps, pull down barriers and rapidly accelerate up walls, and Mirror’s Edge Catalyst feels incredibly modern in its traversal. It would have been nice to have a bit more emphasis placed on the MAG launcher, as it can only be used on specific points scattered throughout the city, as every instance in which you use it is nothing short of a blast.

Easily the biggest difference between Mirror’s Edge and Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is the latter’s inclusion of an open-world. Anyone who has spent time with games in the Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and Arkham franchises will immediately feel right at home here, as the open-world activities in Catalyst fall directly into that checkbox-style camp. Because every story mission unlocks more activities in specific sections of the overworld, so the first half of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst feels surprisingly empty, all things considered. While recent games like Dying Light and Infamous: Second Son have illustrated how an open-world can make for some fun improvisational traversal, this particular open-world isn’t necessarily populated with enjoyable side activities. If you’re a fan of time trials and collectibles, then you’re going to love clearing out this massive map. It’s definitely awesome to be able to create your own path by ignoring the guiding mist set by Faith’s Runner Vision, and this wouldn’t be possible without a massive sandbox, but nearly every side activity feels a bit uninspired. What’s more, nearly every side activity seems to assume that you have all of Faith’s movement abilities unlocked, as it’s basically impossible to achieve acceptable times without being able to roll, coil and quick-turn. For this reason, it’s preferable to mainline the story and then go back and clear out the map if you’re looking to experience more than eight-to-ten hours of content. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst‘s multiplayer functionality focuses around user-created challenges, hints and leaderboards, which can be found scattered throughout the map. Without a heavily-populated friends list, this content is going to be largely forgettable, but it’s still nice to be able to prove that you are a better player than your peers.

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Anyone who has played the original Mirror’s Edge knows that its combat was hands-down its weakest feature. From clunky gunplay to awkward animations, the worst part of any sequence in DICE’s original first-person parkour title was when you inenvitably had to throw a punch. While Mirror’s Edge Catalyst boasts a relatively average combat system, it’s still worlds better than that of its predecessor, which ends up making it more enjoyable. Whenever an enemy is in Faith’s path during a parkour segment, she has the ability to combine her traversal maneuvers with an attack that will almost always knock a foe out completely. Nothing in Mirror’s Edge Catalyst makes the player feel more badass than these first-person aerial attacks, and using them not only strikes that ever-important cool factor, but it also allows Faith to maintain her Focus Shield (a damage barrier directly tied to movement fluidity). Things get a bit dodgier when you have to slow down to take out enemies, as these encounters largely revolve around mashing the right trigger to dash around while throwing the occasional punch or kick. Higher-level enemies almost always counter light attacks, which ends up slowing down combat to a point where you are just running around kicking them in the back. There’s still a bit of clunk to the combat system in Catalyst, but it’s playable, which prevents it from hindering the experience entirely.

From a technical perspective, DICE has clearly put more of an emphasis on framerate over sheer visual fidelity. The Xbox One version sports a 720p resolution and a fair amount of background blurring, which seems to be a concession made in order to maintain a sixty frames-per-second benchmark. While there are some gamers out there who are going to be disappointed by a console game in 2016 sporting a sub-1080p resolution, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst would not be half the game it was if it didn’t run smoothly. Being able to chain together parkour combos feels infinitely more satisfying now, especially if you hop back into the original 2008 console version. Still, considering that Halo 5: Guardians was able to use some creative unlocked resolution techniques to maintain framerate, it would have been nice to see DICE take a page out of 343’s book for CatalystMirror’s Edge Catalyst is not without its technical flaws, as during our playthrough, we experienced a pretty staggering amount of texture pop-in and slow texture-streaming. A great deal of this is masked by its sterile art-style, and considering that the occasional framerate dip only results in a handful of frames dropping during chaotic scenes. We also experienced a crash to dashboard and a complete system lock, but this is the type of issue that will hopefully be solved in an early patch.

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Closing Comments:

For hardcore Mirror’s Edge fans, Catalyst is a wonderful love letter from DICE that rewards the passion of this relatively small group. It’s still shocking to live in a world where Mirror’s Edge Catalyst actually exists, considering that the original release, as unique as it was, saw both an underwhelming critical and commercial performance. Bringing this franchise to an open-world could have gone horribly wrong, but it’s safe to say that DICE and EA have succeeded in bringing new life into an IP that many assumed was dead on arrival. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is not going to blow anyone’s mind, but it’s a solid offering with a fair amount of passion put behind it, which is enough to meet expectations. An improvement in every way over the original, Catalyst is a solid offering that fills a major gap in EA’s portfolio, considering that the major publisher isn’t necessarily known for its open-world games. Bringing an IP back from the dead is always a risky proposition, but Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a good example of how to mitigate that risk with an enjoyable title that succeeds in more ways than it fails.

Summary
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Mirror’s Edge
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