Sometimes, it comes down to a feeling, and what Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst gets fundamentally, massively right is replicating the feeling of free running, the exhilarating sense of flowing through an environment, utilising it as a high-speed aerial playground. Moreover, you never feel invincible, the knowledge always there that one misplaced jump could send you hurtling to Earth, the screen spinning around to replicate the distress of plummeting to your doom as the relentless forward movement that the game is built around comes to a shuddering halt. It is, of course, this feeling of toying with disaster that gives the game its power, delicately balancing on a beam or leaping from a skyscraper pumps the adrenaline precisely because of the player’s knowledge of the consequences of misjudging a jump or overshooting the mark. When Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst is at its best though, the almost zen-like feeling of mastery is incredible, with daring leaps, scrambles up walls, high-speed pipe climbing, hi-tech grappling hook swinging, and horizontal wall runs all forming part of one sustained run that simply flows until you reach your destination.
Fundamentally, this is the same pleasure that the original Mirror’s Edge offered eight years ago, albeit refined, polished, and given a few new tricks to show off. Produced by Swedish studio DICE, Mirror’s Edge always felt like an outlier, a passion project fuelled by the megabucks success of the Battlefield series and positioned in opposition to the perennial concerns of AAA titles (which, let’s face it, tend to be white men doing violent things to each other). In contrast, Mirror’s Edge‘s female protagonist and relatively pacifist nature (enemies are knocked out and avoided rather than gunned down with glee) felt revelatory and got the game a committed cult following. That this formula still feels fresh and exciting in 2016 is a neat reflection of the fact that while the mainstream games industry has made massive progress commercially in the intervening eight years, thematically it’s still pretty much in the same place it always was.
The protagonist of both Mirror’s Edge and Catalyst, a prequel in story terms, is Faith Connors, a girl who’s always felt refreshingly normal in the often extreme world of videogame characters. She’s neither sexualised nor superhuman, there’s no gravity-defying cleavage or miraculous ability to absorb bullets here. Instead, she’s a skilled athlete and a quick, dynamic hand to hand fighter but that’s pretty much it, a few blows from opposing forces can easily finish her off and she consequently has an atypical vulnerability that challenges the pervading power fantasy that so much of modern gaming is built upon. Catalyst is Faith’s origin story and opens with her release from an Orwellian juvenile detention facility upon which she meets fellow free runner (or just runner, as the game calls them) Icarus, who quickly guides her back to the runners that, it’s strongly implied, have become her surrogate family. The runners inhabit the rooftops and tunnels of the City of Glass, a gleaming network of pristine towers ruled by the Kruger Corporation, a company cum government that maintains its power through Krugersec, an army of grunts, mid-level fighters, and elite soldiers that are a constant threat throughout the game. Provided they stay where they’re supposed to, runners are just about tolerated by Krugersec and eke out a living from delivering packages and completing industrial espionage jobs, while waging a guerrilla warfare campaign against the ruling power.
The story plays out much as you would expect, with Faith gradually discovering the secrets of this dystopian tech utopia and various deaths, betrayals, and revelations ensuing as you progress. She herself, however, remains something of a cypher, on a fairly standard revenge mission that seems to leave no room for any sort of charm or charisma to shine through. Therefore, while the supporting cast generally consists of archetypes rather than individuals, they do at least add some colour to the proceedings with Noah, a mentor type figure who powers much of the game’s early narrative probably being the most important. The best character in the game, however, is undoubtedly Plastic, a teenage computer hacker who is clearly meant to have some form of autism and whose habit of taking things literally and logically injects some much needed humour and warmth into a game that can sometimes feel soulless, a technical exercise that’s more interested in polygons than personality. It’s not that her condition is played for laughs, rather that she’s one of the few characters who exhibits genuine personality and whose askance view of the world is by far the most interesting aspect of Catalyst‘s characterisation.
The game’s best missions are generally those involving extreme verticality, getting to the top of the almost Tower of Babel-like edifices that house Glass’s ruling elite, is an undeniable thrill, the wind whipping in your ears and the controller faintly vibrating as you look down on the partly shrouded city below. There’s also a voyeuristic excitement to industrial espionage assignments, creeping past any hard-working employs (as Mirror’s Edge refers to the proletariat that create the wealth for this particular society) burning the midnight oil and repurposing bland, functional architecture as a land of experimentation and play, reinforcing your status as a transgressive force in an otherwise tightly controlled world. However, there’s only a handful of such missions, the game more interested in Faith’s running battles with Krugersec than truly fleshing out its fiction. The story is also hampered by its status as a prequel to the original game, it’s not really able to fundamentally change anything and therefore sometimes feels anticlimactic and inconsequential.
The game’s combat has been heavily criticised in some quarters and few would pick it out as a highlight. It is, however, functional with fighting in first-person adding, at least initially, a pleasing novelty to the proceedings and blows landing with a satisfying crunch. The biggest problem is it all essentially boils down to avoid and attack, a somewhat limited formula that is repeated throughout the game. Aerial attacks make things a little more exciting, with kicks from wall runs and springboards able to take down some enemies in one hit but, given that every enemy in the game can be defeated using the same basic formula discussed above, players will need to make a conscious effort to use them.
Catalyst also marks the series’ transition to an open world, although this hasn’t quite had the transformative impact that one might have hoped for. While you do now have the freedom of the city’s rooftops, there’s not a great deal to discover, beyond delivery missions that all essentially boil down to the same thing (complete a near flawless run to meet what often feels like a pointlessly prohibitive time limit), compulsive collecting of memory sticks, security chips and gridleaks, and various time trials and dashes. If you’re the sort of person who loves replaying runs to find shortcuts and shave seconds off your best time, then it’s a set-up that will appeal greatly, particularly as the game allows players to create their own time trials and dashes in order to challenge other players. By far the best side missions are hackable billboards, which are generally located in hard to reach places and add a pleasing puzzle element to the game’s navigation. Once reached, billboards will be imprinted with your tag, which can be changed online or in the companion app (EA practically forcing players into these methods of engagement), allowing you to imprint your identity on the city.
Due to its conventional story, functional combat, and limited open world, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst is not a great game. It is, however, a very good one, with numerous strengths that for the most part overpower its failings. Vitally, there’s an undeniable physicality to everything Faith does, whether it’s hanging off a ladder, shimmying up a pipe, or using the game’s Mag Rope grappling hook to swing over a futuristic highway, there’s always a feeling of actually connecting with an environment, with the first-person perspective, sound and clever use of vibration combining to make the very act of navigation an immersive, kinetic experience. It also generally looks stunning, with white surfaces broken up by blocks of bold colour and runner vision, the game’s guiding hand, painting objects that need to be jumped off, swung on, or climbed in lurid orange while a similarly coloured path snakes its way ahead of you. Catalyst is, therefore, one of the most visually distinctive games on any platform and its bold design decisions are important, elevating the game to a unique and distinctive piece of work rather than just a gunshy rebel adventure.
Ultimately, it’s hard to deny that Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst has flaws, the story could undeniably go in a more interesting direction and be told with more flair, the combat could be more varied, and its open world could be fleshed out further. However, it gets the most important stuff massively right, perfectly replicating the adrenaline rush and experimentation that is the essence of free running and making you feel like you’re genuinely leaping from skyscraper to skyscraper rather than just pretending to in your living room. Ultimately, it’s one of the most unique play and visual experiences in gaming and its distinctive pleasures overcome conventional failings that could ruin less interesting games.
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: 9th June 2016