The original Mirror’s Edge, released way back in 2008, was the very definition of a cult classic, splitting audiences and critics into two polarised camps: those who viewed the game as a unique, unheralded work of iconic genius and those who focused solely on its shortcomings, its relatively short length, unfocused story and rough edges. Critically, the pro camp had the edge, with most reviews being positive and some practically gushing, but sales were disappointing, perhaps explaining why the long-awaited sequel, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, has taken eight years to emerge.
Personally, the original game left me with mixed feelings, there’s no doubt that it offered some of the most unique play experiences of the last generation, but I never finished it and have vague memories of it becoming repetitive and boring. I wasn’t therefore completely sold on the sequel, it was in the ‘maybe’ pile, intriguing but by no means a must-buy. After a few hours with the beta though, Catalyst has leapt to the top of my wish list; the shift to an open world perfectly matches the series’ gameplay, the story is genuinely compelling and the combat has been massively improved.
The plot continues to revolve around freerunner Faith Connors, a parkour master and one of a handful of rebels living off the grid and out of control in the gleaming futuristic metropolis that is the City of Glass. Catalyst is set before the events of the first game and opens with Faith being released from a prison that’s the usual pristine dystopian mix of 1984 and Blade Runner. After being subjected to the usual inspirational nonsense about personal advancement through hard work and some customary prison guard insults, you’re let onto the streets, and within a minute meet fellow runner Icarus. He cuts your gridLink, a communications device that keeps tabs on everyone in the City of Glass, and takes you to meet Noah, the leader of Faith’s group of rebels. Quite literally off the grid, Faith and her fellow rebels eke out a living on the fringes of this tech utopia, utilising their unique abilities to act as couriers and spies.
The opening tutorial missions follow a typical game structure, with Faith gradually displaying her skills so that, in storyline, she can prove she hasn’t lost a step and the player can gradually learn how to navigate the rooftops and ledges that are the freerunner’s natural habitat. Without giving away the specifics of the story, suffice it to say you’ll quickly be undertaking industrial espionage missions, tangling with corporate security forces and evading the seemingly all-seeing eyes of the authorities. However, while it may be hitting the same familiar beats as its predecessor, story improvements are immediately apparent, cutscenes are now well written and well-acted, bringing some much needed humanity to the game’s austere environments.
Combat was one of the main weak points in the original Mirror’s Edge, and it’s had a fundamental overhaul in Catalyst. Faith now has a choice of light and strong attacks and momentum is key, with light attacks now generally used to soften up enemies or simply attack them on the fly, disorienting rather than disabling them during frenetic escapes. Heavy attacks are generally used when running away simply isn’t an option as they ruin Faith’s flow, but can be extremely effective, especially when used to knock enemies into each other or off ledges and rooftops. Key to this revamped combat system is the new shift button, used not only to quickly accelerate up to top freerunning speed but also as an all-purpose fighting dodge. The key, therefore, is to circle around strong opponents in order to attack their rear. In the context of modern video games, this is hardly revelatory, but the first-person perspective gives this familiar manoeuvre a rarely seen dynamism and fluidity. Finally, attacks combined with freerunning are many times more powerful than standard attacks so always look for the opportunity to leap off something and connect with a flying kick or punch.
However, it’s the shift to an open world that, on this evidence at least, really elevates Catalyst above its predecessor. The world of Mirror’s Edge was always one that players were begging to simply be let loose in, but it was equally clear that accomplishing this would be a technical nightmare given that multiple freerunning routes had to be planned in across the whole of the game’s vertiginous environments. DICE, the game’s Swedish developers, have admitted that this was one of Catalyst’s greatest challenges, noting in a developer diary that every object in the game has needed to be placed by hand so that it fits the game’s unique navigation. As always, the power of an open world is in making you feel part of the game world, so in this case we feel a closer connection to Faith than ever before as we leap from rooftop to rooftop, not because we’ve been told to but just because we want to know what’s around the next corner or because that 20ft. jump looks like fun. Of course, there are collectibles and side missions to encourage this exploration, with a particularly strong example of the latter being courier missions with strict time limits, precious cargo and demanding clients.
For anyone who, like me, is a little worried by this prospect of endless choice, DICE have included a fantastic, upgraded form of the runner vision that characterised the first game. Simply set your target on the suitably futuristic map (it basically looks like it came straight out of Minority Report) and the game will give you a route to get there, with everything that needs to be leapt off, slid under and landed on appearing in bright orange as you play. It’s a system that can be turned off altogether by experienced players and also has a sensible limit, it gives a route but not the quickest route and you’ll generally be rewarded for veering off the beaten path.
Finally, Catalyst retains everything that was fantastic about the previous Mirror’s Edge, with the City of Glass still characterised by swathes of austere white punctuated by blocks of bold colour and first-person freerunning once again offering a heart-pounding intensity that few games can match. The power of the new console generation means that even these familiar aspects have a gleaming sheen, with light glinting off rooftops and textures approaching photo realism. It’s all fluid, seamless and a fantastic argument for the notion that first person games are infinitely more interesting when they’re not shooters.
Of course, all this is based on four or five hours with the game, but the signs are that DICE could be coming up with something really special, not just a fixed, bigger, shinier version of the first game but an immersive elevated world to get sucked into and truly care about.