After many years I finally managed to complete Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. It was an infuriating game, but nevertheless with some brief flashes of what it could have been. So much of it dragged down the experience though, getting in its own way constantly with messy and poorly conceived design. This was a game I so wanted to like though, being a big fan of the original, which was clearly so ripe for improvement in a sequel. I even gave this game two chances, having tried it before a few years back, but previously gave up on it early on because of its multitude of problems that drove me up the wall. Because of that, on this run I decided to only focus on the main story, since one of the things that pushed me away before was the awful side content. I did give them a quick go this time around too, just to see if they were really as bad as I remembered. They were.
But bringing things back to my thoughts on this attempt, I have to give credit to the game for some of the things I do like about it. Visually, it is stunning. It really is beautiful, and I think it does do justice to the really clean and stylish look of the original, even surpassing it arguably. The city of Glass is amazing to look at, with brilliant abstract architecture, contrasting highlights of bold colour against the immaculate white concrete and blinding sunlight. The scenes of skylines it creates are really impressive too, showing they really thought about how this setting looks from virtually any angle. It captures what was great about the look of the original, and evolves it in a logical way that feels faithful to it. The soundtrack is similarly faithful in style to the original, and is nice enough, but it didn't really feel as prominent or iconic as in the original. I can't really pinpoint why that is though. It could be down to a number of issues including how it was used in the game, rather than the music itself.
Despite the intro having nothing on the original's, the title screen is very impressive.
It does also remain committed to the streamlined and focused traversal mechanics of the original too, which could have gone very awry. Despite there being three skill trees, and a new grappling hook tool, thankfully that doesn't overcomplicate or trivialize the parkour mechanics at all. Everything that was there before is intact, and the grappling hook is used in a minimal way which fits in well with the other mechanics, not feeling like it's taking away emphasis from your platforming abilities and just letting you press a button to let your tool to the job for you.
But here's where the problems start. Despite the mechanics having all the same features as they did in the first game, they are almost never able to create the same kinds of moments of flow and fluidity that made the first such a gem in the rough. They do happen very occasionally, but it's exceedingly infrequent. Much less than the original. The main problem is the level design. It is just awful, and it feels like it was not designed with care at all. Obstacles are placed very poorly, with it seeming like every other moment there's something that is just too close or too far that you can't help but bonk in to or miss. So every 15 seconds or so you are stopped in your tracks, stumbling over something that feels like it wasn't your fault for not being able to gracefully navigate. Often when you try to do something more complex to overcome that problem by looking for a less obvious way around, it makes the problem worse instead. So the vast majority of time playing is fumbling around knocking in to things, slowing you down and never really letting you apply your abilities properly. It's the complete opposite of what sort of experience the game should be about, and it's incredibly frustrating.
You'd think the open world structure of the game would be the culprit for why the level design is like this, but I don’t think it’s quite that clear cut. The open world in general was something that I tried to ignore as much as I could playing this time, instead only really traversing it between story chapters. So I could clearly see that a lot of the world is designed in a way that you are meant to be travelling through it in the same directions over and over. I don’t think this is a problem limited to playing like that either, as this problem still cropped up in the brief times I did try to aimlessly explore. The world is laid out in such a way that shows the designers expected you to be moving through it a certain way, in a limited number of directions. The world itself is also separated in to small chunks where there are only a few narrow paths connecting them. So it’s not really possible for you to approach an area in a way that wasn’t intended. You’re always funnelled through it by a small number of intended paths. Yet they still feel like they weren’t designed in a way that flowed naturally along them. And on top of that, the problem also persists in the totally linear story missions. So there they have even less excuse. The constrictive paths around the open world also bring up another issue, in that it has you going back and forth through the same sections over and over again, regardless of how much you decide to delve in to side content. It feels like unnecessary padding, and it gets very tiring fumbling over the same poorly placed fences and air ducts, that never seem to get any easier with practice.
The world goes through a day/night cycle that is dependent on story progress, and creates some nice visual variety.
The game also includes a togglable assist mechanic that shows you a red streak flying through the level in front of you to show you the way. At first I didn’t like this idea, as it sounded patronising, and I turned it off on my first attempt at this game. This time though I had it on, as it seems it’s rather necessary, despite the narrow paths you are running through. In fact they make it more needed in a way. Since the way to your destination is rarely ever in a straight line, it’s usually impossible to just follow the objective icon as the crow flies. Yet you’ll sometimes come to a crossroads where the way forward isn’t clear, so you’ll need this assist to tell you which is the right path. Except the streak doesn’t always show up on screen when you need it to, so you’ll just have to stop and wait for it to show up again, adding yet another pace-breaker to the gameplay.
Even though these issues aren’t necessarily caused by the game being open world, as it is clearly designed in a way that is trying to combat the problems one might expect would show up, it ends up making other problems anyway. And perhaps it would have been better if they just went with a fully linear game again where they could spend time properly honing the level design, and not having any part of it wear out its welcome.
The visual design can also be another huge problem, which adds a bit of a double-edged blade to the fantastic aesthetics. As the name suggests, the city of Glass is full of very reflective and transparent materials. As well as a lot of dramatic abstract geometric sculpture to gawk at. Unfortunately, this completely messes with any sense of depth perception in a lot of areas. It’s frequently hard to tell if something that looks like an open doorway actually is, or whether something is a reflective surface or merely behind a window. Add that to art installations that have no frame of reference for size, and it plays havoc with your judgement of how close something is or what route through it you can take.
This game also overhauls the combat mechanics, in a way that sounds good on paper, but in practice is yet another story of clunky awkwardness that just doesn’t come together. Gone is any ability to use guns, and instead combat is focused around hand-to-hand fights that emphasise movement and evasiveness. Sounds like an obvious change to make. But in reality it’s a sloppy feeling system which feels vague and unrefined. Your hits have very little feeling of impact, and inputs have an inconsistent response time, which are sometimes just dropped entirely. The dodge move is jarring and unreliable, and can get you very confused by turning you in a direction you didn’t intend, which can frequently be in to the attacks of an enemy coming from off-screen. So in that case you’d expect the answer to be not letting yourself get surrounded. Run around, hit enemies off jumps and wall runs, which the game does encourage. Except doing so means you have to take your eyes off the enemy, while they chase after you and thus move position, so you can’t set up an attack properly. You get a little radar on screen to show you what directions enemies are around you, but with no idea of distance it isn’t very helpful. Your more powerful parkour attacks also have a very inconsistent homing ability. So you might set up what you think has to be a good attack, only to face-plant like a fool and get surrounded. Even more than the general traversal mechanics, it’s an awful, clumsy, messy system that just doesn’t come together in a satisfying way at all.
The last area of the world you unlock is one of the prettiest, but also one of the worst for the depth perception problem.
The story is rather dull, but it has some strangely pointed moments to it, that it unfortunately fails to do anything worthwhile with. The central plot isn’t anything interesting, and feels like it’s going through the motions to get you to the next objective, despite the presentation looking like it’s aiming for something much higher than that. All the characters are either bland or unlikeable, so it doesn’t have any strong personalities to hold it up either. It does however have an oddly coherent and fleshed out anti-capitalist bent to it though, with some unexpectedly salient rhetoric and critique. Various aspects of the setting and background story details show a pretty intentional and interesting use of this setting for genuine criticism, if a little on-the-nose at points. Someone at DICE clearly knew what they were doing, and how something that might appear on the surface as a gleaming techno-paradise is actually a hypercapitalist dystopia, and how to use that to make points about our own society. But it predictably drops the ball when it introduces a character who is the leader of the underground resistance group. She’s one of the more unlikeable characters, and is portrayed as an abrasive fanatic who is willing to justify any horrific act as merely being for the good of “the collective”. Kind of like Bioshock Infinite, it’s very “both sides-y”, where it has little to no understanding of what people who oppose such a system actually want or what drives them. That does make the good points all the stranger though. How does one have such a thorough understanding of such criticisms, yet somehow thinks the person making them wants nothing more than to get away with wanton destruction and mayhem? While it may be true that the devs don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them, what is there seems like more than enough to sink the teeth in. Perhaps they are able to get away with it as long as they don’t dare to suggest that there might be some alternative.
Finally finishing this game is something that felt like it was a long time coming. Closing another chapter off in my backlog that I was meaning to get around to for years. Although I don’t think I would’ve felt particularly bad had I not done so. This wasn’t really a positive experience, despite flashes of potential. For a long time I had the impression I wasn’t missing out on much with this game, and now I finally have seen it for myself, that has been confirmed. Even though the original game means a lot to me, right from the start this one always seemed like there was something off about it. It took so long to come out that it long since missed its chance to strike while the iron was hot, and reviews seemed to reflect fears I had about it initially. Fears that were realised when I finally did get around to it many years after, and now years after that, proved beyond a doubt. It’s an aggravating mess of a game that fails to deliver on its promise, despite being visually arresting.