Mirror’s Edge Catalyst
Each time you die in Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, protagonist Faith lets out a final breath while the game reloads. It’s an exhalation that echoes your own exasperated sigh as you come to terms with yet another frustrating death resulting from either hectoring enemies, poorly signposted pathways or the game’s occasionally argumentative controls. In a world that offered so much potential, it’s crushing to find so much of it in disarray.
Catalyst is at its most confused when it comes to combat. DICE’s well-meaning attempt to avoid the turgid gunplay of the original game has resulted in a melee system that, while workable against one or two enemies, collapses in on itself when larger groups of aggressors come into play. A simple setup allows you to combine light and heavy attacks with directional inputs and locomotion to provide a range of moves with which to wrong-foot or down your opponents. Pushing left or right while swinging for an enemy will send them lurching off in that direction, allowing you to topple them into walls, each other or over balcony railings, while a simple multi-directional dash manoeuvre keeps you out of range of any retaliatory swings.
Bullets, meanwhile, can be dodged for as long as you keep moving, building a shield from your momentum that makes you invulnerable to projectiles if you don’t come to a halt or run into the business end of a baton. It’s usually advisable to avoid combat altogether if feasible, and light traversal attacks support this by allowing you to stagger enemies on the way past without breaking your flow. Reserved as a last resort in this way, hand-to-hand encounters can feel meaningful and, on the occasions when you kick a soldier’s head into the wall and shatter his helmet visor, genuinely enjoyable.
But for reasons we can’t fathom, DICE insists on sprinkling the campaign with inescapable fights in which you must kill every enemy before you’re allowed to move on. It’s in these moments that the piecemeal, attritional nature of the game’s combat system reveals itself. Fights break down into slapstick chases as you run around in circles trying to set up a convenient wall run from which to launch into a flying kick, all the while chipping away at some meaty health bars as enemies stumble into and over each other in response to your attacks – often clipping through the environment in the process. Once the Sentinels – aggressive enemies whose right hooks and roundhouses can catch you middodge, and who follow up their staggering thumps with a flurry of additional attacks before you can recover – arrive, you’ll be sighing long before you’re dead.
In a game so focused on momentum and freedom, it’s baffling to encounter such deliberate restrictions on your movement. Some scuffles later on in the game stay more in step with the spirit of free-running, allowing you to ignore the fight and attempt elaborate parkour escapes while under fire (one particularly enjoyable mission sees you outrunning mounted turrets as the building site around you splinters in the hail of bullets), but they can’t paper over the mechanical weaknesses exposed by more prescribed fights. It feels as if DICE, nervous about letting Catalyst’s idiosyncrasies speak for themselves, has deferred to traditional progress gating despite it being an inappropriate fit. The same is true of Faith’s upgrade tree, from which you can gain new and faster moves, combat advantages and additional gadget functionality. It’s a half-hearted inclusion in a game where a remarkable amount is unlocked from the start, making you feel like you’ve joined a game in progress and need to catch up on missed tutorials. You’ll acquire Faith’s new gadgets in short order, too, both of which allow you to access more of the city. The first, a Disruptor, shuts down fans so that you can pass through their blades unharmed, while a later upgrade allows you to overwhelm enemies with audio and visual noise, as well as destroy cameras which might alert reinforcements of your position. While its later uses are intriguing, if throwaway, the former option becomes an annoyance as you’re forced to disrupt certain fans every time you need to travel through them. The MAG rope fares slightly better, promising an exhilarating method of crossing larger gaps or zipping up a few storeys in seconds. Later, you can also use it to yank pieces of wood from blocked doorways. The MAG rope will only attach to a handful of predefined points in the city, however, and while using it to swing across multilane motorways is a rush, it ultimately feels like a cheap way to make areas inaccessible rather than another string to Faith’s bow.
But shorn of these fumbled components, Catalyst’s firstperson parkour can be joyful. Faith’s physical presence in the world is expertly communicated through DICE’s exemplary audio work and the rush of colour which saturates the screen whenever you’re in full flow. Wall runs, death-defying leaps and breathless slides down the angled facades of glimmering glass buildings feel as wonderful – and unusual – as they did the first time around, and the way you segue between considered route-planning and instinctual reactivity remains an intoxicating draw.
This interplay is fully showcased in the Gridnode runs which must be undertaken to unlock fast travel and additional safe houses in each area. Each one-off challenge tasks you with ascending a convoluted, dizzyingly tall server room in order to reach a console at the top, negotiating security lasers, precariously thin walkways and retracting server banks in order to reach your goal. They even make reasonable use of the MAG rope, by allowing you to pull out platforms (some of
DICE, nervous about Catalyst’s idiosyncrasies, has deferred to traditional progress gating despite it being inappropriate
which will retract after a time limit has expired) in order to continue your ascent. Essentially puzzleplatforming sections, Gridnode runs provide respite from the problems elsewhere and demonstrate that – focused level design permitting – Catalyst’s exploratory parkour would be more than capable of carrying a game on its own.
There are flashes of the same brilliance in the layout of DICE’s open-world reimagining of the City Of Glass, too. Certainly, when you’re first let loose in it, the metropolis is a wonder-filled playground as you scout out potential sequences of moves and thunder across its rooftops. But before long, over-familiarity takes its toll as you’re forced to traverse the bottlenecks which link the city’s hub areas over and over again, slowly climbing up long ladders and tall staircases that quickly become a chore. Since the appearance of Gridnode challenges is tied to your progress through the campaign, you’ll have a long old wait until all fast-travel options are available, but of more concern is the fact that a game all about the pleasure of locomotion should make us want to use them in the first place.
Your initial forays around the city are best attempted with Runner Vision switched on, which returns in upgraded form and provides an in-world GPS that highlights in red the jumps, pipes and obstacles along your route. But while this system is designed to help you maintain an unbroken flow, it’s somewhat unpicked by the game’s infuriating refusal to forgive even mildly inaccurate leaps: get your launch angle wrong by a few degrees and you’ll miss or overshoot whichever platform or handhold you were aiming for and instead plummet to your death. This problem also While this new take on the City Of Glass won’t inspire quite as many intakes of breath as the first game, it has its moments. Some of the later districts are undeniably beautiful, although everything feels sterile manifests itself when the game decides that you were attempting to scramble up a wall, rather than run along it, usually resulting in yet another embarrassing demise.
Such wobbles result in little more than a minor, if frustrating, setback during campaign missions, but they become ruinous when it comes to the timed side missions and dash runs. The City Of Glass’s rooftops are populated by a variety of citizens with too much time on their hands, all of whom have delivery missions to offer. Miss your goal by a split-second, even if you’re feet away from the recipient, and you fail. In one particularly galling instance, a fragile package we were delivering was damaged in the final seconds by bullets fired from a randomly generated patrol as we clambered up a drainpipe.
Even so, the game’s huge assortment of side missions and time trials, along with Gridnode runs, represent its most appealing offerings as you hone your route and – for the most part – focus on nothing but running. And this aspect is further supported by Catalyst’s distinguished asymmetrical online options which allow you to create time trial runs at the tap of a button and then upload them for friends or strangers to attempt. Explorers can also place Beat Location Emitters (LEs) in hard-to-reach places, setting them down like flags on top of a mountain, taunting players who haven’t yet figured out how to get to them.
It is in this more abstract form that Mirror’s Edge really comes alive, offering up a dazzling, vertigoinducing sandbox that demands agility, poise and skill. If only the rest of the game was as graceful.