Staying current is hard. There’s so much to keep track of – what’s in, what’s new. You can’t say “radical” anymore, you know? Addressing your friends as “peeps” is out; “fam” is in. (Last I checked, but I’m 30 and that’ll probably be outdated by the time this gets published.)
So I understand when a game series feels it needs a reboot, something drastic to shake things up. Usually it’s done with sequels. The Assassin’s Creed series has changed a lot since its inception ten years ago. (Wait… Google… yep, ten. Wow.) Gaming today isn’t what it was in 2007, and the series has successfully updated with the times to stay current, riding the trends – for better or for worse – to remain at the forefront of gaming. And they were able to do it bit by bit, piece by piece, as each game released.
Then there’s Mirror’s Edge. The original game stood out from its contemporaries in 2008 with a bright color palette and de-emphasizing guns, instead encouraging movement to avoid some fights entirely. (My biggest criticism is when it gave into the pressure of shooters at the time to force some combat encounters.) They didn’t come out with a game every year or two to gradually update the game mechanics, though, so the prospect of a new game in 2016 meant a pretty major overhaul – one that’d be too jarring as a straight sequel. So they decided on a reboot, and in mid-2016 we got Mirror’s Edge Catalyst.
Welcome back to Boter Reviews Something, where I adopt a “better late than never” policy when trying to bring you some of the latest and greatest. This time around we’re looking at last June’s Mirror’s Edge Catalyst.
As I said in my beta test preview, there’s a lot in this game that had me skeptical. I don’t want to spend too much time harping on it, but overall I felt that the original game was a much stronger outing than Catalyst was. The linear, focused level design – while still providing alternatives and options for free-running and corner-cutting – was the hidden gem that made the game work.
One of the biggest changes to Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is the move to an open world map. Aside from specific story missions, everything plays out on the overworld map, from running between missions to the various sidequests, timed runs, and collectible hunts. And frankly I believe that this is also Catalyst’s biggest downfall. Without a linear level, flow is harder to find. You can attain a few natural moves in a row… then plummet from a rooftop because it felt like there should be more. I can’t count the number of times I made a turn only to run out of rooftop. You can count, if you’d like; my Let’s Play series of the entire game, still being released, will be embedded at the bottom of the article.
“He knows there’s fast travel, right?” This is what one of my sister’s friends said, who had played the game, while watching some of the earlier episodes. And this is problematic, to say the least. Mirror’s Edge has always been about movement, it is in fact the very central tenet of its gameplay. To get so frustrated with the movement from place to place in the open world, such that simply skipping to fast travel locations around the map is preferable, is anathema to what the game should do. A good open world game should never find fast travel to be a more tempting option, especially a game based on some sort of movement. Need For Speed: Most Wanted (2005). Any Grand Theft Auto. Mad Max. There should be just as much joy in traversing and exploring the open world as there is in doing missions. And Mirror’s Edge Catalyst lacks that.
He also asked, “Is he blind?” as I continued to miss pipes meant for climbing. But that’s, um, not important. The answer is yes, but instead of owning up to it I’m going to deflect it with the issue of how Runner Vision works in this installment. In the original game it helped you through, highlighting objects early on to help you on your way and waning you off of it. So you’d still miss things, yes, but not nearly as much as I did in Catalyst. Though, again, that might just be me. The new game has two modes of Runner Vision (aside from “off”, which I have dubbed “you’re a *** **** idiot”) – Full and Classic. “Full” highlights objects and gives you a red trail periodically to follow. I switched to classic, which only highlighted objects on your route, but it was a weird mix of not highlighting enough, and still at times feeling like it was railroading me. I’d enter a rooftop and, if I was paying attention (…big if), I’d see a red railing and know that my destination lay in that direction. And all too often I’d click the thumbstick to send a red line out there anyway.
There are other things that Catalyst has done to stay current. It has a skill tree – spend experience to get more health, get a damage bonus, unlock new moves and abilities. I didn’t like that movement skills were unlockable (to skillroll from a drop to take no damage, to quickturn off a wall, that sort of thing), but did like that supplemental gear (helping you climb faster, something to extend the distance of your slides) and combat skills (more damage against specific enemies, a reversal ability) were locked – or, at least, I didn’t mind as much.
Then there’s the story. At the beginning I liked what they were doing. I liked the new characters and the way they played off against one another. I wasn’t sure that it was worth ditching the possibility of a Faith/Kate team-up after the first game but I was along for the ride. The setting was a more futuristic sci-fi “utopia” rather than present-day or near-future, and again it worked. The plot hinged on it actually, being a bit more sci-fi (leaning towards mind control) than present-day (the main plot of the original was private contractors taking over the city’s law enforcement and, by extension, the city itself).I was looking forward to what these characters would do in this setting, it was set up quite well to have engaging arcs.
But… it kind of fell apart. After a while I stopped caring about the remaining characters, who mostly never evolved from their strong initial impressions. This one’s our charismatic mentor; that one’s adversarial to our mentor; this other one’s adversarial to Faith and will either be evil or our closest ally by the end, but either way will have the most progress made in his character arc than anyone, including Faith. There are a few neat surprises along the way (the actual identity of Isabelle Kruger!) but they’re so loudly telegraphed (the fact that she has an “actual” identity at all!) so as to take all wind out of the sails (I called that one I think two episodes before the game revealed it). But towards the end I stopped caring as much; I wasn’t invested, I was just sort of along for the ride. And sure, I enjoyed it, but it also left a lot of things unresolved. An adversarial character has no resolution to her plot arc. There’s a major background plot point that is never fully explained. And as one big bad is eliminated, another takes their pla- oh my God they’re setting up for a sequel.
Can you do that? Can you reboot a series after just one, self-contained entry and then leave a bunch of dangling sequel hooks? It’s super presumptuous and expressly because of how quick they chose to reboot instead of continue (“quick”, we are talking eight years to be honest), and how we had to wait for even that, I don’t feel confident that we’ll ever see the sequel. Especially as, in this day and age, I find I’m getting more and more disappointed by promising first entries that never get followed up.
It’s more Mirror’s Edge, so big plus there. Format surprisingly doesn’t lend itself to open world and skill trees are a mixed bag. Actual focused running sections and location-specific puzzles are as tight as ever. New setting is used well, new characters are introduced well but then are mostly left alone. Keeps the gorgeous visual style and Solar Fields as the composer. Has no memorable theme music; come on, could have just reused Still Alive.
Will hopefully be better in retrospect if sequels get the opportunity to pick up where it left off.
At the end of the day, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is just that – promising. For all of its faults with the open world and any other nitpicks I might find, it still has a future. But it has a ways to go and I’m not confident that it’ll ever get that chance. I hope it does, I think it deserves it. In the meantime, I’ll just do what I was doing for the eight years prior – slowly refreshing DICE’s social media accounts, and crossing my fingers.
I’ve been doing a Let’s Play of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst for the past half year on my YouTube channel. The finale episode comes out next Friday. Feel free to catch up and subscribe!