Mirror’s Edge was never a smash hit for EA. It wasn’t much of a critical darling either, getting good, but not astonishing scores across the board. Despite this, it was what DICE’s little game that could represented that helped it reach an audience. It was a big-budget, first-person action game with an emphasis on something other than wreaking havoc. That was novel and exciting, and while it had some warts, from the clumsy gunplay to the questionable narrative, the concept and stylish execution earned it a loyal following.
It was most likely that following that gave EA enough confidence to try and release a soft reboot eight years later. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst serves as a sort-of prequel to the first title, while retconning and retooling different bits of the canon as it sees fit.
Players once again take the role of courier and parkour extraordinaire Faith Connors, but she’s a very different character this go-round. Faith is a part of a rogue group of couriers/peaceful rebels called The Cabal who plan out acts of rebellion against the sinister Conglomerate. Before she knows it, however, Faith is swept up in the violent terrorist faction Black November and starts waging war directly against the corporation that dominates the City of Glass.
The narrative here is leaps and bounds better than the first game’s, especially after the rough first hour or two. There’s a memorable cast—like endearingly awkward hacker Plastic and the sinister Dogen—who get their own sets of side missions that flesh them out as characters. There’s also a palpable and interesting threat this time, with a substance that strips people of their free will threatening to dominate the world. Without a doubt, this is a more narratively compelling game than the last.
That said? It’s still a significant cut below many offerings currently on the market. Concepts are brought up and dropped without a second mention. Characters just sort of appear and disappear as the narrative sees fit. Plot threads go unresolved for no reason. It may be superior to the first game in the storytelling department, but that wasn’t exactly a high bar to begin with. When all is said and done, Catalyst has a halfway compelling story weighed down by bouts of incoherence and an overreliance on impenetrable technobabble.
As much as I would like to say that the game’s saving grace is its gameplay, that excuse just doesn’t fly this time. The core parkour system is rock solid, yes, and the staunch commitment to not implementing firearms is admirable. Yet, the whole thing feels like a proof-of-concept as opposed to a fleshed out experience.
The open world is lifeless and cramped, not to mention pointless. The combat is half engaging, half clumsy and disorienting. New mechanics like the grappling hook feel like excuses for contextual actions as opposed to genuine tools for traversing the environment. Catalyst is a game with fantastic ideas that work half of the time, then spend the remainder falling flat on their faces. Weird collision detection issues, occasional slowdown and instances of clipping through the scenery don’t exactly help either.
While Mirror’s Edge felt like a burst of energy in a stagnant market, Catalyst turns out feeling oddly soulless. The structure of the game is derivative of other AAA games, and the mechanics feel uninspired and generic. Not to mention that it’s significantly easier and more handholding than its predecessor.
This isn’t to say Catalyst is an especially bad game, because it isn’t. There’s a lot of fun to be had here, and fans of the original will find things to love. But that love will come in fits and starts, because the whole package feels at war with itself. DICE wants to deliver a game that pleases the fanbase, while trying to cling to relevance in a very different gaming landscape than the one that existed in 2008. The end result is a middle ground between creativity and conformity.
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst represents a compromised vision. It’s one part exhilarating first-person platformer, one part bland open-world title. In a year crowded with great releases, not to mention last year’s Dying Light representing a much better open-world parkour experience, that’s a vision many people won’t want to put their money on the line for.