I love video games, but it’s rare for me to play them right when they are first released. Normally it takes me a somewhere from a few months to a few years to get around to playing to a game. I’ve got a considerable backlog of games that I’ve been meaning to play and it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve been able to start chipping away at the list. With that in mind, I’ve created a series of posts called Late to the Party, wherein I discuss the games that came out in the preceding years that I’m finally getting around to experiencing. Today’s entry in the series is Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, referred to hereafter as just Catalyst.
I have been beating the drum for another Mirror’s Edge game ever since I played the original back in 2009. Mirror’s Edge was one of those games that had issues, but its foundational concept was strong enough that I really wanted it to have a second chance. I even wrote one of my very first video game-related writing pieces on this blog about Mirror’s Edge, and if you’re curious and have the time, you can read it here. In preparation for playing Catalyst and writing this post, I reread that old writing piece, just to make sure I was remembering the original game correctly and what it’s strengths and weaknesses were (I also found a few typos to correct). Throughout this commentary I’ll be making frequent comparisons to the original Mirror’s Edge game, which in the case of Catalyst I think is appropriate since it is a reboot, rather than a direct sequel. Seeing as how Catalyst came out just a few months ago, I’ll keep story spoilers to a minimum, but I will be discussing other aspects of the game in depth. As a final note before starting, let me also be clear that going forward whenever I say “Mirror’s Edge” I am specifically referring to the original Mirror’s Edge game, and not Catalyst.
After eight long years, we finally return
Catalyst puts you back in the role of Faith Connors, a young woman who lives in the futuristic city of Glass. The city is a utopia at first glance—every building is clean and pristine, crime and pollution are seemingly nonexistent, and everyone has jobs and housing. Underneath this glimmering facade, however, are ugly truths. Glass is run a group of corporations called the Conglomerate who rule with an iron fist. There are no personal liberties, social and economic advancement is a myth, the media is a pawn of the ruling class, and everyone is effectively a slave of the company they work for. Faith, however, does not play by the rules of Glass, and is part of a small group of individuals called Runners. She and the other Runners traverse Glass, covertly delivering packages and carrying out other tasks for citizens of Glass who want to keep their business flying under the radar. At the start of Catalyst, Faith has just been released from prison and rejoins the Runners to pick up her career where she left off. Not long after this, things start going awry when Faith unwittingly steals a data drive with the schematics for a new Conglomerate product called Reflection. At first it seems the Reflection blueprints are a fortuitous way for Faith to repay her debt to a local crime lord named Dogen, however it becomes clear that Faith and her associates are in way over their heads, as they find themselves hunted by KrugerSec, the company in charge of Glass’ security force. A desperate race thus ensues with Faith and her friends trying to uncover Reflection’s secrets and stop the Conglomerate from using it.
The story of the original Mirror’s Edge was passable, and I’m sad to say that while the story of Catalyst is better than that of its predecessor, its not much better. The premise of the game’s universe is good enough, but the story of Faith and the Runners never becomes anything truly memorable. You’ll see a lot of the plot twists coming, and the ending won’t have you screaming for more. Leaving that aside, if you played Mirror’s Edge like me, what might be most interesting are the adjustments to the story of Faith and her world. Catalyst is a reboot of Mirror’s Edge, and without getting into spoilers I can say that its story unmistakably cleans the slate and rewrites enough things to make the plot of the first game impossible. In both games Faith is already a Runner at the start, but in Catalyst she is a bit younger and the backstory of her childhood has a very important change. Both games also feature a conspiracy that Faith has to unravel, but in the original story everything revolved around Faith’s sister, who had been framed for murder. Catalyst’s Conglomerate gives us an actual face to the system ruling the city, as opposed to the nameless police state in Mirror’s Edge, and Glass itself is more futuristic than how it appeared last time. As you would expect from a reboot, the entire cast of the Catalyst, other than Faith, is comprised of new characters, and in my opinion the new characters are generally an improvement over the old ones, even though that’s a very low hurdle to jump. Out of the entire group, Dogen is the standout, with him having both the best dialogue in the game and being in some of Catalyst’s few meaningful character moments.
Lots of games have you running around in first-person, but Mirror’s Edge and its successor Catalyst are among the few games to capture the exhilaration of bounding around an urban landscape. Catalyst takes the Mirror’s Edge formula of traversing the city and adds a few new tricks to Faith’s arsenal, so now in addition to sprinting, jumping, climbing, sliding, rolling, vaulting, and wall running, you’ll also be swinging across large gaps, quickly ascending great heights, and ripping obstacles out of the way. Also new to Catalyst is a skill tree to unlock various abilities. For the most part I was fine with this, but it was weird that a few traversal moves like the Skill Roll had to be unlocked, rather than being available from the start of the game. Should you fall to your death, and you will, a generous checkpoint system will put you back a very short distance from where you messed up, allowing you to quickly try again. As a side note related to falling, I couldn’t help but notice that in Catalyst you no longer get the disturbing splattering sound from the first game when Faith came to a sudden stop after a long drop, and instead the screen fades to white moments before impact. To aid your trek from point A to point B, Runner’s Vision is back but with significant improvements. In Mirror’s Edge you would see objects highlighted red to indicate the path forward and with the push of a button the camera would look in the direction you needed to go, but in Catalyst you now get, in addition to the red objects, a pulsing river of red that flows across a suggested route for you to take. This red river is a direct route to your waypoint, but it’s not the only way to get there, and you can find your own path if you so desire. You can even turn Runner’s Vision off if you consider it to be too big of a crutch, but it’s a very convenient way to navigate the city and keeping Faith moving forward at top speed, so I used it for the vast majority of the game and I suspect most other people will too. Gaining and maintaining momentum is what movement in Catalyst is all about, and there’s nothing quite like the thrill of perfectly nailing an extended run across the city. Catalyst makes parkour look fun and exciting, and if I was athletically inclined and ignorant of the long-term consequences of putting that much strain and impact upon the human body, I might give it a try myself.
Whereas traversal in Catalyst is great, hand-to-hand combat is a mixed bag. There are moments where you feel like a martial arts savant, deftly outmaneuvering your opponents and striking them down with finesse, but a lot of others where you feel more like a deranged drunkard, desperately flailing your arms and legs about and hoping to land some blows. As a Runner you can use the environment to your advantage, kicking foes over railings, pushing them into objects or each other to stumble them, or doing your best impression of The Matrix by running along walls before doing a jump kick. At the same time, however, probably the best move in your repertoire is the simple sidestep, which works on any foe and allows you to get alongside or behind them and land a single heavy strike. You can rinse and repeat this process endlessly until an opponent goes down. Fighting KrugerSec is usually a tense affair, but can also be strangely comical, like when you knock a guard back and see him appear to hurl himself over whatever he runs into. I don’t think this was meant to be funny, but it is. When you go into combat you’ll see that the enemies have health bars that appear above their heads. At first I thought this looked odd, but after awhile I came to appreciate it, especially when facing larger groups of KrugerSec, as I could see which foe was closest to defeat and prioritize him to quickly thin the herd. Gunplay and disarms have been completely removed from Catalyst, and that’s probably for the best considering how bad they were in Mirror’s Edge. But just because Faith can’t use guns doesn’t mean KrugerSec can’t use them. One of the five enemy classes in Catalyst is armed with SMGs, and these guns must come with armor-piercing ammo, as they can somehow shoot through many environmental objects (even walls). When facing them, you need to either attack aggressively or run away. Speaking of which, you do have the option in many situations to simply run from combat, at which point KrugerSec will give chase until you outrun them. The exception to this are a number of instances in the story and certain side missions where you are forced to fight, which I wouldn’t mind if the combat worked just a bit better. Overall, combat in Catalyst is better than it was in Mirror’s Edge, but there are still some problems plaguing it.
A look at the skill tree (top) and the world map (bottom)
The city of Glass is once again Faith’s playground and obstacle course, but Catalyst transformed it into an open-world environment, thus fulfilling one of my biggest hopes for a new Mirror’s Edge game. Whereas its predecessor was just a series of linear story missions with only one way forward, Catalyst now allows you to freely move about the rooftops of the city and offers multiple routes to reach any given destination. Main story missions still have a single path in some sections, but outside of these you often can find your own way. In addition to the story missions, Glass is peppered with side quests and collectibles, which give you a good incentive to explore the city and check out all it has to offer. These bonus activities vary in quality, with some being more fun than others. I enjoyed the Gridnode puzzles, missions for side characters, and some of the dashes, but other things like the distraction assignments and certain delivery missions I did not like at all. On top of opening up the city, Catalyst also improved on Mirror’s Edge by giving its world the appearance of being more alive. In Mirror’s Edge the city could feel strangely empty, with nobody else (except guards) in the areas you were traversing, and when you looked down from the rooftops you’d see empty streets. In Catalyst you’ll see traffic and pedestrians below you, drones and planes above, and there are even civilians that you’ll pass by as you run around. Sadly, these civilians are completely oblivious to your presence, and you cannot interact with them in any way. I’m thankful that they at least are there, but it would have been nice if you’d see them be startled or react in some way whenever Faith came bounding by.
Bring it down
Catalyst stays true to the distinctive art style of Mirror’s Edge, but with a new game engine and an eight years gap between the titles, Catalyst unsurprisingly looks much better than its predecessor. The color white is once again everywhere across Glass, helping to emphasize the clean but sterile feel of the city. Breaking up all that white are deep blue windows and the blue sky above, as well as the colors that are used to differentiate different areas in the city. When you’re in construction zones you’ll see a lot of yellow, the interior of labs and financial buildings are often green, and down by the harbor pink and purple are the dominant colors. The only place in Glass where this color scheme is broken is the underground tunnels, which are dark, dirty, and in disrepair. I’m guessing this dichotomy in appearance between the aboveground and underground is intentional and meant to be symbolic of the society of Glass, in that it looks good on the surface but is rotten underneath. Elsewhere on the graphical front, Catalyst does a mostly good job with its visuals, but does have a few scattered issues. A lot of NPCs look pretty bad close up, like they came out of a game from the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 generation, and during my playthrough I encountered scattered instances of framerate stuttering while running around and small bits of screen tearing during hand-to-hand combat. None of these issues broke my experience, but Catalyst clearly could have used just a touch more polish before its release. On a much more positive note, I was very pleased to see that Catalyst has full-fledged CG cutscenes, as opposed to the animated ones in Mirror’s Edge that looked like old Esurance commercials.
Just In Time Delivery
Much like its looks, the sound of Catalyst follows the pattern set by Mirror’s Edge. Minimalistic ambient tunes, which pair very well with Catalyst’s aesthetic, are again supplied by Solar Fields, and play during most of the game. The tempo and volume of the game’s audio rises appropriately during combat and other dramatic sequences, and when you’re being pursued the audio really goes up a notch, giving you a genuine thrill while trying to escape KrugerSec. Because there’s not a lot of background noises in much of the game, the main things you hear when playing Catalyst are the sounds of Faith herself as she runs from one part of the city to the next, which I think is a smart design choice, as it goes a long way to building immersion and selling the experience of traversing a city in first-person. The only real problem I had with Catalyst’s sound design is that there are slight audio sync issues in some of the game’s cutscenes, but these are not common.
When I finished Catalyst, I was originally going to be a little harsher in my writing about it than what you read in the paragraphs above, but after a lot of thought and rereading my writing piece on Mirror’s Edge a second time, I realized that doing so would be unfair. Though, like its predecessor, Catalyst’s story is forgettable, in most other departments it is a step up from Mirror’s Edge. Faith has more abilities for traversal, Glass is now open world with lots of things to do outside the main story, Runner’s Vision navigation is easier, visuals have taken a leap forward, and even combat, with its previously stated problems, is undeniably better in Catalyst than Mirror’s Edge. Catalyst may not be quite what I was hoping for as a successor to Mirror’s Edge, but it did do a lot of the things I wanted, and I have to give it credit for that. Is Catalyst a great game? No, but it’s an improvement, and I’m glad that developer DICE took a chance on making a new game, thus introducing the world of Mirror’s Edge to a new generation of players as well as giving returning veterans like me the opportunity to once again run free.
It’s good to be back