Mirror's Edge Catalyst - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team play through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
EA DICE released the original Mirror’s Edge game in 2008, which I had a lot of fun with at the time; the graphics were gorgeous, the mechanics worked really well, and the gameplay was fast-paced if a bit shallow. More importantly, freerunning and parkour had just about reached the zenith of mainstream popularity, from a scene in Bond’s Casino Royale to entire movies such as District 13.
I’ll be honest, a decade and a new console later I do struggle to remember certain details. While Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst booted up I jumped onto Google to remind myself what the original game was all about. I remember the adrenaline-fuelled freerunning experiences; sprinting and clambouring from one point to another across futuristic skylines, but so little of the plot or setting: I figure it might be time for a quick refresh. There was something about rooftop messengers and a helicopter here or there, but nothing with any meat left to it inside my head (apart from comparisons to ‘Prince of Persia in first person’). Helpfully, according to a sound-bite from one of the game’s producers on the Mirror’s Edge Wikipedia page, the game “asks how much of your personal freedom are you willing to give up for a comfortable life. It's not one girl against this police-state dictatorship. It's more subtle than that.”
Well bully for them, that’s pretty cool. A rallying cry against overzealous surveillance and the importance of individuality in a world spiralling towards mass censorship? I’ll buy that for a dollar.
Two Minutes In
Before I’ve even reached the main menu there’s a wall of legal text to get past. “EA DICE will use your data for…”, “You are not permitted to…”, “By installing this game you agree to…”. If you manage to scroll through all this and make it to the other side without hating yourself, you’re asked to sign in/up for an EA account if you want to use any of the online features the game has to offer. There’s no button prompt to encourage you, but if you mash the back button you can bypass this and arrive at the main menu, with just a few big red error messages as a result. So to answer the question from the Wikipedia page quoted above; How much freedom? A little. Just don’t make me sign up for anything. Please. I just want to play this game and be left alone as much as possible.
So that’s a curious swing and a miss for the game holding up to its own agenda, then.
Twenty Minutes In
I’m back in the familiar red shoes of Faith Connors, released from prison after an unknown transgression (purchase the tie-in comic book to find out the backstory, a loading screen message tells me gleefully). A mysterious youth called Icarus spirits me away from my parole officer to meet back up with Noah, Nomad, and the rest of my mytho-religiously named secret society of adrenaline junky, glorified courier service, crew. Next up is to run some basic training courses to prove you still have your chops after being stuck on the inside, which plays out nicely enough for the most part. Your jumps and slides are mapped to the shoulder buttons on the controller, and although you can change the control scheme through the options menu, the default settings become comfortable enough to wall-run and leap (the gap between) tall buildings in a single bound.
The combat is still gross though. The first-person perspective works really well for running and jumping, and the perspective really sits well to create the feeling of vertigo as you stare down from the tops of buildings and the importance of precise positioning — when it comes to hand-to-hand combat however, it feels so sloppy and jumbled. Your arms and legs flail out from around your vision, reducing you and your opponent to a confused mess of marionettes with their strings tangled together. The fact that the training section has forced a couple of these fighting scenarios in (whereas the original Mirror’s Edge encouraged fleeing from any and all signs of physical altercation) doesn’t bode well, if they’re leaning more heavily on the combat mechanics this time around.
Forty Minutes In
The world of Glass City looks incredible; far more vibrant and lived-in than the sterile minimalism of its last outing. Neon billboards and interesting architecture catch your eye from blocks away, and flying car traffic screams overhead. Freed from the opening scenes of hand-holding tutorials, I’m now let loose to explore the world and follow any missions I want to. The game is open world this time around, and whilst at any one time there are a few different story missions to embark upon, your map also drops markers for individuals with other challenges for you. I’ve tried a few of these now, and unfortunately they don’t amount to much more than timed package deliveries — imagine Crazy Taxi played on foot, and then minus the fun. It’s a nice idea to pack the game with more to do and not cut the world into progression-based levels, but there’s no distinction between side quest A and side quest Z, and no meaningful reward for each one. For me, these are tasks to be completed out of boredom or spite rather than enjoyment.
One Hour In
We’ve uncovered a plot by shadowy megacorporation Kruger, who want to… do something. I don’t know. If you’re playing for the actual storyline you’re not doing it right (see also: Serious Sam). It’s fine, I’m following who the good and bad guys are but I’m not sure I need much else. It’s also hard to pay attention in the cutscenes when they are a) distractingly good-looking, and b) filled with terrible ‘future-speak’. The first point: the graphics are incredible. In-game and in cutscenes, the Frostbite engine is fantastic. Characters are detailed and fully animated, with just the right amount of lens flare. I’d expected Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst to look a bit more dated — three years isn’t the biggest time difference, but it’s a good third of a generation’s projected lifespan. Compare graphics from the release of the PS3 to games from further down the line, and you’ll see how much more juice can be squeezed from the same systems as developers get a better handle on the hardware. Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst? I think it could go toe-to-toe with a good chunk of titles released today.
There’s no evil to see, but there’s enough to hear, and this comes through the corny sci-fi dialogue. Ninety percent of the vocabulary is recognisable, but it always circles back to words and phrases such as “scrip” (money) and “What’s the beat?” (an open-ended question which can mean “How are you”/”Where are we”/”What’s going on”/”Have you seen my red shoes?” The intuition of each character to always know which meaning is being used is impressive). It’s a toe-curlingly limp addition to amp up the futuristic nudges — in a game with it already dripping from every pore.
Two Hours In
I’m enjoying running around Glass City more and more as I go, and as I’ve upgraded Faith through the XP system I’ve unlocked new moves to add to the skill-set. I can wall-run, slide, pivot in mid-air, and top it off with a (slightly disorienting in first-person view) forward or backward roll to avoid fall damage. Tools and items are a new addition from the original title, and the acquisition of a magnetic grappling hook opens up new areas to explore and shortcuts to take advantage of as you swing from cranes. The spots you can swing from are easily highlighted, but it has made some of the backtracking fresher as older areas have a little bit of life breathed back into them.
Three Hours In
They were spaced out previously, but now there’s too many to ignore: combat situations where you’re locked in a room with a wave of security guards who you have to defeat to continue. After dying far too many times when trying to use the shoddy hand-to-hand mechanics, I’m resorting to cheesing as many of them as possible. Climbing a ledge and waiting for them to climb up and immediately knocking them back down is effective. Running around in circles and occasionally darting in for a glancing blow also works, but it takes forever to chip away at their health. These sequences are awful and the half-baked fighting just doesn’t work — not to mention it is killing any urgency left over from story missions leading up to them, where Faith is generally fleeing from a hail of gunfire and flicking switches before security protocols engage. Running away is not only the best part of the valour, but the best part of the game.
Five Hours In
Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst is still impressing in its story missions, as new parts of the cities are unlocked by way of an upgrade to your MagRope which lets you pull yourself up to the tops of unreachable ledges. The plot is still predictable as some old family skeletons are exhumed, but if it means I get to keep scaling these impossibly tall superstructures I’d accept “Your princess is in another castle” at this point. Some buildings you have to scale are what Far Cry’s towers should have been like — an actual terrain puzzle, rather than circling each floor to find the next ladder.
Six Hours In
I’m pretty sure I’m getting to the end of the game now, as the buildings are getting taller, the bad guys are more heavily armed, and Faith’s personal stakes are getting… something. Probably more exciting. Sorry.
Despite having all the authority of a ‘Keep off the Grass’ sign (unless you’re locked in a room with them), Kruger Security do impress with their uniform designs. Dressed in little more than a cycling helmet and a blue/white boilersuit, they still manage to look pretty good. I can see the business sense from EA to go with such a down to earth uniform — appeal to cosplayers on a budget by allowing them to recreate your characters with clothing you can easily pick up on the cheap. Same goes for Faith herself, really. Besides her white trousers and a black top, she only wears a single glove so you and a friend can split the cost of a pair when planning your costumes.
What’s the beat? Having finished the main game missions at around the eight-hour mark, I tried mopping up a few more of the time trial sidequests I mentioned earlier, but they still don’t work for me. The rest of the open world isn’t that appealing to explore when there aren’t any set pieces or explosions to scramble through. The traversal system is endlessly satisfying no matter how many times you’ve performed the same moves — and to have Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst’s unique selling point double up as its strongest feature is really positive. I’d love to see these mechanics pop up in more games in the future, the way Titanfall seems to have done (a game I haven’t played, but will look into sometime). Although the game is far from perfect, with uneven gameplay, a couple of clipping issues, and an open world that gets less exciting the more you look around, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst is a fun game like little else out there. I hope this will be a series rejuvenated again some time so that I can once more lace up those red running shoes and take in another ten hours of jumping, dashing, and rolling. Hey, that’s sort of catchy.
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