Mirror’s Edge Catalyst: Free-running versus errand running

Hands-on with the first few hours of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst

I can’t remember a single character from the original Mirror’s Edge, a game I love a lot. DICE’s (Battlefield) unexpected cult hit, now eight years old, was laudable. The first-person perspective offered a refined, grounded feel when so many first-person games past failed miserably at occasionally and haphazardly injecting platforming elements into otherwise pew pew focused affairs. The music was dope. The minimalist aesthetic with splashes of red guiding your way popped nicely.

On the other hand, the story, told largely in Esurance-looking cutscenes, was a clear second fiddle to the parkour. And then there were the ill-advised, seemingly universally decried shooting sections that everyone feared EA would coax DICE into doubling down on, because EA is EA. Just look at Dead Space.

Jury’s still out on the rebooted story this time around, but I did play a few hours of the game that were blissfully light on combat, though that doesn’t mean other bits of mainstream, AAA ideology didn’t worm their way into the new Mirror’s Edge. It’s an open-world game, after all.

[This was originally published 4/14 and has been bumped as Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is now in closed beta]

Resident Mirror’s Edge expert Joe Parlock has a pretty extensive breakdown of how Catalyst feels different from the original on a granular level (from someone who’s dumped 300 hours into the latter). Indeed, the new ability to hold down jump and get extra air when bounding over obstacles is fundamentally different feeling, and does feel a bit more fantastical at the cost of some of that great grounding. I imagine the concession was made to accommodate the newly open-world of Glass.

Catalyst opens with Faith getting out of prison alongside some real gritty monologue about how not broken of a human she is, which, I’m assuming, means she is actually quite broken, in the Tomb Raider (2013) vein of characterization. But, hey, if you had dead parents and lived in a Fascist surveillance state (well, more than America already is/is tracking towards) you’d be a ‘lil brooding too.

And Faith-as-Batman plays pretty well against your first encounter with fellow runner Icarus (no ill portent there!), who is a massive toolbag. He looks like a worse version of Robin from Batman: Arkham Knight and he’s such a massive dick — that’s really about the extent of the story I’ve gotten so far. The few hours I played will be covered in closed beta (April 22-26); it includes several story missions, a few side missions, and some asynchronous multiplayer stuff (you can create courses that anyone can try to run).

For real, though. Icarus? He wears a sleeveless leather hoodie, forearm warmers, and wraparound sunglasses. Maybe once I recognize the secret reason for his outfit, I will feel ashamed of my words and deeds. Currently I am just wondering hopelessly if someone at DICE thinks this is a cool look. Maybe exposed biceps are “in” in Sweden. There’s also Faith’s mentor and head of the runners, Noah, who just looks like Nathan Drake, and a carrier pigeon trainer called Birdman (he is not covered in tattoos nor friends with Li Wayne).

But, ok, story — who knows! — and moment to moment running gameplay is still tight as hell. Excellent sound design helps bolster it, too, as you hear Faith’s kicks squeak on glass and kick up gravel. Oh, and there’s some of the best instances of staying in the first-person perspective in recent memory. There are guarded cell towers dotted across the rooftops and after dispatching enemies to dismantle them, there is a great animation of Faith sticking her hand right into the works (with the loud mechanical din enhancing the sense of danger) to shut them down. There is a lot of very good first-person-reaching-to-do-things in this and I love it.

So the rub, then, is not even necessarily a rub. Especially for those of you who like your Ubisoft games. I am not one of them, though, so I fundamentally don’t quite dig the giant open world littered with hundreds pockmarking the map thing. There are main missions, user-made time trials, developer time trials, a bunch of side missions, side questions. There are even floating collectible orbs contextualized as rogue data leaks or some such nonsense. It is, for better or worse, an open-world video game. We knew that going in, but it still feels like a bit of a let down, to see some genre staples get copy-pasted.

Because it is an open-world game relegated to the rooftops, though (because of the whole oppressive state thing), I feel like Glass is somewhat larger then it seems, as DICE is able to design and draw organic choke points and the like because you can only cross roof tops in so many places. So it’s not the linear tightness of the original, but it’s not gone full bore open. It still feel well-designed from the areas I roamed around in. Just kind of cluttered with a checklist of Things To Do.

I have a feeling I’ll still like Mirror’s Edge Catalyst a lot. Even the combat is refined to allow for more moves like mid-air kicks that will knock out, or even just briefly knock off balance enemies — long enough to keep running away. Things got a bit dicier when I had to knock fools out (being able to kick enemies into each other is helpful), which, at least in the early game, means a lot of circle-strafing. And I’m a bit worried about the maximum six health bar in the upgrade tree (also, an upgrade tree? Why? You have to unlock the quick turn, leg tuck, and roll!) aside from the typical open-world clutter. Still, the world is good, the game is beautiful, and it’s still a dream to play, almost like what we thought Sonic played like 20 years ago. Gotta go fast, with the elegance of dancer.

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Steven Hansen
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