With its clean lines, sharp features and abundant lens flare, the City of Glass beckons. It’s a playground for the athletic and fearless, promising notoriety to those that can master its rooftops, and certain death to those that can’t. As a Runner you live your life on the edge of a concrete precipice where the slightest misstep can leave you at the mercy of the Kruger Security forces, but can also give you freedom and liberty that you can’t find anywhere else. This is the world of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, a place that’s designed to inspire momentum, urgency and movement as you traverse the cityscape, yet manages to stall whenever it comes to telling the actual story.
Not strictly billed as a reboot, but not really a follow on from the 2008 cult game, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst has Faith return as the rooftop savvy Runner after a stint in Juvie (or Juvenile detention for those of us that speak properly), for reasons that aren’t properly explained unless you read the comic book, which the game urges in most loading screens. Hooking up with her old mentor, trying to not fall foul a local crime boss, and avoiding the K-Sec guards are all part and parcel of gaining her freedom, as well as meeting and proving herself to the cocky upstarts that have joined the crew since she went away. It’s a bland and generic story all the way through that’s not told particularly well, doesn’t have you invested in the characters or situation, and is something you’ll largely forget five minutes after switching the game off. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just not particularly interesting, and it definitely doesn’t provide the context for why you’re dashing like a loon, risking life and limb for nicely rendered yet ultimately irrelevant people. It should be a warning sign that the opening section that gives cause and motivation to your actions is not explained unless you invest money and time outside of the game… or maybe the developers just lost interest themselves and forgot to program it?
Fortunately, the story is largely irrelevant to the fun to be had in Cascadia, because this is first person movement at its finest and simplest – using the left stick for direction and just one button to jump, and one button to duck. Combinations of these are what propel you through the environment, and the challenge is to keep it all together in one fluid run. The city is open world and you can move through most places in whatever manner you please, only the unlocking of certain gadgets through levelling up prevents access to all areas from the beginning. However, in effect it is really a giant hub to link the main and side missions together. Getting from your current position to the mission marker by any route you fancy can be exhilarating if you nail every single tuck jump and wall run just right, managing to keep your flow and speed up from start to finish. It’s also easy to get distracted by collectibles that look out of reach, yet simply require a few moments for you to figure out the right combo of moves to snag them. In these moments, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst delivers on its promise – true parkour freedom that’s only limited by your own skills.
When you hit the mission structure though, things get quite linear and deja vu can kick in. Climb, scale, leap and avoid the K-Sec patrols unsuccessfully along a straight path to the objective and exit. Whilst the traversal is very well executed, combat is still a lesson in frustration. Variety of guards gives you some tactical decisions to make, but the big watchouts are guns. You can’t use them, but you can get shot with pinpoint accuracy from distance, and through walls as well, it feels like at times. The main issue with it is simply that trying to combine punching someone in the face with running up a wall to maintain your focus shield, which prevents you from getting shot, doesn’t really work. One-on-one is manageable, two-on-one OK as well, beyond this you spend more time figuring out where people are than you do throwing punches. Using the momentum of the parkour gives more powerful takedown moves… if the enemies are anywhere near an object you can use to build the attack. They tend to cluster in groups away from walls, fences and desks, then pick you off with ranged weapons when you try to get close. In the open world there’s more opportunity to use flair and style to take them down quickly, yet the indoor sections are where you’ll encounter security the most.
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a prime example of the “gotta collect ’em all” mentality of open world games, with multiple things to pick up on your travels. The downside is they’re all the same end goal regardless of what the mechanism is – run from one place to another in under the time limit. Time trials are all well and good, and actually provide some decent competitive elements in the leaderboard, though the other collect and deliver missions just end up being annoying. Oh, you wanted that fragile non-specific object delivering in under 35 seconds and if I fail you’ll mouth off like a condescending dick? Do it yourself then… especially as reloading means waiting on a screen for up to a minute whilst the entire world is built back up. Grabbing data leaks (seen as glowing gold orbs) isn’t too bad, even if there are more of them than citizens in the city, and they do add nicely to your XP score which is the well known way of upgrading your equipment, combat and traversal abilities. A multiplayer element exists in two forms, one great and one I really struggled to see the point in. The first is a straightforward race – leg it through a route setting checkpoints on the way and upload it to challenge others, it can be a lot of fun. Second is simply setting a marker in the world so that people have to reach the same point as you. With no incentive you largely ignore them.
Having that hit and miss with the social elements sums up the overall game. Parts of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst are great to play, and I never got bored of linking moves to get from point-to-point on my own terms in the open world. I did get frustrated with the combat again, and the insistence on having guns against a character in Lycra isn’t going to make it any better. I couldn’t get invested in the story because all the main characters outside Faith are either unremarkable or unlikeable, and for once I kinda felt for the bad guy. He’s just trying to build a better society, making things easy for the population, even if it does involve controlling them with nanomachines (yep, nanomachines are to blame again). Where do the small contingent of Runners get off on deciding what’s right for the working people of the city? Bear in mind, nanomachine master plan aside, the Runners have had this mindset for a long time and claim to be “off grid”, yet most use the tech available, and from what you glean, most of the city’s citizens seem quite happy with the slick, clean and efficient place they live in. This really doesn’t help you get behind the rebel element, when up until halfway through the game they don’t even have much to rebel against.
It’s with a heavy heart that I finished Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. Not because it tugged at my emotions, or that it came to an end when I wanted it to continue. No, I left with disappointment that despite how smooth the movement is and how good looking the environments are, and even how well some of the paths have been laid out, the game is actually quite dull. There’s a space for first person parkour games, and this should have been the definitive game for the genre, sadly it doesn’t deliver on the promise. If it manages another outing, ditch the combat, it’ll make things far more interesting.