Review: Mirror’s Edge Catalyst

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Do you ever hear new material from one of your favorite bands that just makes you want to listen to that album of theirs that you already know you love? That’s how Mirror’s Edge Catalyst was for me. Mirror’s Edge (PS3) is one of my top ten favorite games. It was incredibly unique, awesomely scored, and visually unforgettable. So of course my fandom made me excited for the sequel. But my play of Catalyst just ended up reminding me of my love for the original and made me want to re-play it.

Mirror’s Edge is a title that did not need a sequel at all. But generally any game that doesn’t suck gets a sequel these days. The eight years it took finally release another one speaks to the game’s popularity. Had this been Assassin’s Creed, there would have been a second within a year. But supposedly there was a fanbase out there, and with the next game they looked to resolve those fans’ criticisms. Catalyst makes some hefty changes to the formula in an attempt to make a “better” Mirror’s Edge game. Though they create a exciting new take on the idea, I felt a lot was left to be desired.

Free-roam

The biggest change made for Catalyst was implementing free-roam. The campaign of the original Mirror’s Edge was divided into missions, each mission receiving its own environment design – the traditional method of making games. The environment in Catalyst is designed to let the player run around wherever they want, and the missions often take place on commonly-treaded grounds within the open sections of the environment. So the player is often visiting the same places multiple times. This never happened in the original, so it’s quite a change of pace. But the way free-roam affects the experience is not something I think the developers would have predicted.

Imagine if the Gran Turismo series suddenly involved free-roam style of gameplay. It would likely be some large, metaphorical track on which to drive from race to race with the player vehicle. Instead of just clicking through the menu to start a race, you would have to travel to a certain place to start it – kind of like how the Super Mario 64 central hub worked, or kind of like how Need for Speed Underground works. But because Gran Turismo’s gameplay is so heavily focused on the fast-driving mechanics, the player ends up gravitating towards using them in all situations. This would mean that when driving from one race to the other in the free-roam platform, the player is still ends up “racing” (trying to navigate the road with optimal effectiveness and speed (…ie. Need for Speed Underground)). And because of that, the motivation to check out the environment and explore diminishes. As long as there’s a car right in front of me and I can make it go vroom and screech its tires whip around corners and feel the wind in my hair and all that, driving becomes a more immediate thought and never recedes from immediacy. Because of how this gameplay is so heavily in favor of vrooming, exploration becomes a moot point among my priorities while playing.

That’s how Catalyst is. The game naturally encourages you to run. Just simply lift up on the left joystick, and you’re already sprinting… When unleashed in this world, you’ll immediately see some wall to run on or fence to slide under. These things are so tempting that they will always take precedence over other things. You’ll tend to head in the direction of the nearest most exciting thing to jump on rather than thinking about where you are really going. The game tends to keep the player in motion – to the point where it feels wrong to stand and look at something. Exploring becomes an after-thought, and the fore-thought of running never stops demanding your attention. As a result, the environment kind of becomes a blur of colors and geometry with which I never got too familiar. I never developed that sense of direction that I would get from games like GTA, because I rarely stood still long enough to see where I was at! I was too busy looking at the shiny red things that light your path…

Mirrors Edge Catalyst

However, I don’t remember feeling that way with the original. Along with a sporting a unique environment, each mission was paced out nicely, and I didn’t feel the need to be constantly in motion. Some moments you could even describe as puzzle-based where you had to slow down in order to examine your surroundings and plan how to progress. Slowing down in Catalyst just feels like its killing your momentum. It doesn’t help that momentum is actually a gameplay element that they encourage you to use in Catalyst… There’s this meter that fills up as you go faster and faster and supposedly builds up a protective shield against bullet damage. The meter will drain the slower you go making you vulnerable to attacks. This is just another way Catalyst encourages constant motion.

Perhaps they wanted constant motion to take attention off all the game lacks. For a free roam game, there’s not really much incentive to roam freely. They try… They’ve placed little collectibles around the map and hidden some in dark corners and vents and such… but there’s not much incentive for these things either. You’ll get an achievement if you get them all. That’s not really enough is it? There’s also little side-quests that have zero plausibility. It’ll be something like ‘take this flower to my wife who’s standing on top of a roof somewhere, and you have to keep from damaging the flower, so don’t roll, and you have to do it in 50 seconds or she won’t love me anymore…’ It obviously is just an excuse for a time trial, so why not just call it a time trial and keep your dignity?

This open world doesn’t feel that open, anyway. There’s so many places you can’t go. It really just ends up feeling like that Gran Turismo metaphor again — free roam on a race track. It got to the point eventually where I was doing campaign missions just to discover new environments, because the open world environment got dull quick.

Graphics

I always thought the graphics of the original PS3 game was incredible, and I expected the same from Catalyst. But I found the graphics to just be plain odd in Catalyst. First of all, I feel a lack of direct lighting other than moments of painted-on sunlight. All the shadows in the game are just generic shadows not from any light source — objects like couches and tables have a weird dark fuzz around them that’s supposed to serve as a shadow. It’s freaking ugly. Most of the game has a flatness to it, like the way the object looks is more a product of its native color rather than the light of the environment acting on it. Everything ends up looking like a stylized, graphic interpretation of a city, rather than a city. Whatever was going on with the original’s graphics, I dug it, but this one is just visually awkward to me.

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Combat

Combat might have been the most heavily criticized aspect of the first Mirror’s Edge, but I disagree with those critics. I liked the combat in the first one, and I’ll tell you why. All the abilities and controls were laid out in front of you from the start. Yeah, pulling off cool attack moves was difficult and a little quirky, but I had respect for its design, and ultimately found it a thrilling challenge to try and make the best action scene I could. Because I knew that with the combat system they designed, it was possible to make something brilliant out of it. The only real problem with the combat is that the player didn’t get enough opportunity to practice it. There would be maybe one brief combat scene per mission, and even if you didn’t do very well, chances are you survived the encounter anyway, so you had to take initiative to actually improve your fighting skills.

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Catalyst’s combat has been overhauled and simplified. They’ve made it easier to pull off moves, and they’ve given the player more opportunities to fight. More opportunities is a good thing… but with easier mechanics, I don’t feel as satisfied when pulling off something cool. Plus, they’ve introduced this skill-tree for combat so you can unlock things like “do more damage to sentries”. What is the point of that?? That is strictly the opposite of letting us improve on our own. Any Dark Souls fan will tell you its better to actually work and become better at something than to unlock abilities that automatically make you better at it. It makes play more lazy, yet more accessible for general audiences.

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Catalyst introduces the skill-tree for movement and gear items too. In the really frustrating part is: most of the things you have to unlock in movement are “unlocked” by default in the original Mirror’s Edge. That feels like just a big slap in the face. The challenge behind Mirror’s Edge proper was to learn to utilize these things in the right, most satisfying way, not fight to unlock them. The developers have really forgotten what this idea was supposed to be about. Which brings me to my final point…

Performing the scene

Mirror’s Edge is at its best when you are in the heat of the action, you see something ahead of you that you will have to think on your feet about, you make it there, you press the perfect combination of buttons and your character whips and glides picturesquely through the turbulence… What’s fun and challenging about Mirror’s Edge is performing the scene to the best of your ability — not just making it to the finish. Survival is never really the thing were are trying and struggling for; threat of death is only there to add drama… What we are really interested in is how pretty we can make everything look. Mirror’s Edge is a constant, invigorating battle between the player and the buttons — not between Faith and the K-Sec officers. And I feel that this newest installment never got that message. It spends a lot of effort making the player jump through stupid hoops, when all we really want to do is run, jump, and fly… maybe with some spin-kicks in between.

Not that Catalyst doesn’t have that. It’s just unfocused and littered with stuff I don’t care about.

I haven’t mentioned the story yet, but honestly I don’t think it’s worth mentioning. It’s easily forgettable. I don’t expect story from Mirror’s Edge anyway.

Overall, I did have fun with this game, but I feel like I had to make it fun for myself by ignoring the parts that I wasn’t interested in like the cinematics, the time trials, and the awfully unlikable characters. Catalyst was at its best, for me, when I was flying through the air.

My rating for 2016’s Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst for PS4 is…

★★½

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