Release Date: June 7, 2016Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, PCDeveloper: DICEPublisher: Electronic ArtsGenre: Action-adventure
There was a moment in the original Mirror’s Edge when everything just kind of “clicked” for me. It wasn’t a moment designed by the developer, but rather one that resulted from a perfectly executed run through one of game’s tougher sections in which I cleared obstacles with the greatest of ease and left several enemies in my wake, all without breaking stride. It was the type of fluid experience that no other game could have ever provided at the time. It was the moment that made me say, “Oh, I get what makes this game special.”
However, it was ultimately only a singular instance that did little to rescue Mirror’s Edge from its tangled web of design confusion. While there were times when the game’s brilliant parkour controls allowed the player to fly across the city with an unrivaled grace that made the impossible feel common, too often the brilliance of its core mechanic was hindered by its poor combat, linear progression, and “shoulders shrugged” approach to narrative presentation.
You could easily classify Mirror’s Edge as a flawed masterpiece, and those are generally the types of games that warrant a sequel more than any other. Though it may have taken almost eight years for that sequel to arrive, developer EA DICE has finally decided to take another stab at perfecting the ideas that Mirror’s Edge innovated.
The first thing you’ll notice in Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is that the long-gap between entries has allowed DICE to overhaul the game’s graphic engine in a big way. Catalyst is a simply stunning game that immediately ranks among this generation’s very best in terms of raw graphical output. Though the dystopian “we are all one”-style future that the game presents make its world an inherently bleak—and sometimes dull—one, even the plainest surface in the game showcases the brilliance of the game’s bountiful engine. Then there are those special scenes, like watching the sunset across an advertisement-riddled skyline, that are capable of making your jaw drop.
So okay, Mirror’s Edge is better looking than ever. That’s great. However, does Catalyst actually address the larger issues with the original game?
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to answer that question without a handful of disclaimers. Take the combat, for instance. Combat in Catalyst is better than the combat in the original Mirror’s Edge largely due to DICE’s decision to remove the gunplay that clashed thematically and mechanically with the rest of the original title’s fast-paced gameplay. In its place is a greater emphasis on chaining melee moves together without breaking the stride of your run. So you might have a scenario in which you swing from a pipe, takedown a guard as you land, roll out of the move, dive through a window, and slam two other guards’ heads together without ever slowing down. Pretty cool, huh?
It is, but the problem is that the system never works as well in practice as it does in theory. Occasional detection issues will slow the progress of your run greatly by forcing you to miss an aerial maneuver and subsequently engage in a simplified melee system that boils down to you mashing the attack button until the enemy falls. Even when a technical glitch isn’t to blame, there are too many instances where the developers implemented action sequences that leave the player no other option besides repetitive combat. It still feels as if the developers feel obligated to implement combat, but aren’t quite sure how to make it compelling within this world.
This feeling of obligation extends to the game’s new open-world design. Ideally, an open-world Mirror’s Edge would allow the player to better utilize the game’s parkour running system in a freeform manner that encourages exploration through dazzling maneuvers. In reality, the game rarely allows you to explore beyond the same red paths used to indicate your optimal run. Too often, you’re simply bouncing between designated markers as opposed to really getting a chance to master the running mechanics across a city-wide playground. Again, it’s almost like DICE felt they should give the open-world design method a chance, even though they had no real interest in doing so.
You know what kind of game DICE is actually interested in making? The kind we get in Catalyst’s time trial mode. Here, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst drops everything that bogs the game down and simply presents the player with an obstacle course and a time to beat. This is Mirror’s Edge at its most pure. Unlike the main game, which either let’s you take the long way around if you fail or otherwise forces you to sit through a long loading screen in order to try again, this mode presents Mirror’s Edge as more of a twisted puzzle game much like we saw in Superhot. Just as in that title, the goal here is to attempt to master Mirror’s Edge’s brilliant mechanics in order to complete that fabled perfect run.
That perfect run should be the focus of Mirror’s Edge. Not open-world collect-a-thons, not the game’s awkward combat that breaks the pace, and certainly not the plot—which I’m sad to say remains as forgettable as ever. It’s quite possible that a more traditional game based around the incredible free-running in Mirror’s Edge can be achieved, but yet again, it’s those player-created moments of skilled maneuvering through great obstacles at a furious pace that serve as Catalyst’s highlights.
From a “should you buy or should you pass” perspective, this combination of improvements and returning flaws makes it easy enough to suggest that only Mirror’s Edge fans should consider buying this one. Yet, there is something depressingly simple about such a statement. It fails to take into consideration how close DICE comes to creating a more complete Mirror’s Edge experience, as well as how brilliant the game can be at its very best.
But the fact remains that Catalyst is not the Mirror’s Edge game that realizes the full potential of the series. Though I still hold out some hope that we may one day get that fully-realized experience, I’m slowly starting to realize that perhaps the Mirror’s Edge concept has already been perfected in those little moments that remain buried under the burden of needing to produce something more traditional.
Matthew Byrd is a freelance contributor.