Forget the city, and focus on the lines
Out in the open, away from the perplexing chokepoints that link its hubs, the City Of Glass is a masterclass in environmental sandbox design. This gleaming, towering metropolis has been hand built to showcase Faith’s parkour move set, offering a multitude of potential routes in any direction you choose to set out. But while it’s a remarkably accommodating space, it fails to be a believable one. It’s a surprising regression from Glass, the setting for the first Mirror’s Edge, which feels considerably more convincing as a city. Despite its sparsely populated rooftops and streets, Glass feels lived in and constructed for daily life in a way that City Of Glass, in all its grandeur, simply can’t replicate.
But it’s not for want of trying. DICE seeds the city with eavesdropping encounters in which you’ll happen across a pair discussing some pressing matter in a house or glassy corridor. There are dozens of potential customers hanging out, oddly, on roofs waiting for you to deliver a package for them. You’ll bump into fellow runners near the bases you frequent. And you’ll even occasionally encounter a crowd of revellers, albeit from a distance. But this relative surge of activity only serves to highlight the empty sterility of the world. It feels like the buildings only exist as facades on a movie set.
Take Ocean Glass View, one of the city’s five overground districts. A shimmering playground for the rich, it’s tinted pink and purple by blossom trees and grape-coloured paint. Here you’ll gain access to the penthouses and rooftop domiciles of the area’s affluent residents, and move through rooms decked out in what must be award-winning interior design. Rather than a movie set, here buildings feel like show homes for the kind of people who never smile or eat anything that might break into crumbs. But while it’s one of the hollowest locations in terms of its sense of humanity, it’s one of the more enjoyable playgrounds to gad about in thanks to a series of spectacular balconies, pompous garden structures, and plenty of opportunities to taunt other players with some awkward-to-reach Beat LEs.
An early mission in the Downtown-based Elysium Labs makes good use of the game’s disquieting sense of an abandoned city as you break into the building in the evening and work your way through its remarkably inefficiently laid-out interior. There’s a certain thrill to silently navigating the nearly empty building after even the cleaners have left, but when every space in the city you enter feels similarly closed for business irrespective of the time of day, this early impact is undermined. Almost every location is a fun climbing frame, sure, but they rarely feel like anything more.
Of course, the game’s fiction depicts a humourless conglomerate in the process of remodelling a city after its own austerity, and DICE intends there to be an air of detachment in the culture hinted at by its barely noticeable brush strokes. But it forgets the humanity needed to make the city feel like a real place, and so undermines your investment in it – even your passionately rebellious co-conspirators live in a manner that would appease a Habitat catalogue photographer. The one place where the city does feel real is Development Zone G, an area the ruling conglomerate is yet to cover with shiny new skyscrapers. Disassembled, the district exudes more character and, like the afterhours Elysium building, thrives on the shortfall of life. The district plays host to two of the game’s most enjoyable set-pieces, and navigating the remnants of the Old City in a state of transition feels like peeking behind the broken panels of a malfunctioning wall in Portal, offering a glimpse into the outside world long since forgotten by the city’s supposed residents.
But all of this only matters if you invest in the story in the first place, an effort that, despite some strong central performances, there’s little reason to commit to. Better, then, to let Catalyst’s bold, minimalist design soften into abstraction as any pretensions of a functioning city melt away to reveal only potential paths through its geometry. And it’s in these moments, underpinned by the Runner’s Vision’s shimmering red path-marking, that DICE’s creation reveals its majesty.
It’s telling that the first game’s most celebrated component was its Pure Time Trials DLC, which dispensed with storylines and urban textures in favour of brightly coloured, abstract obstacle courses. And it’s no surprise to discover that Catalyst’s best moments coincide with the times it sets aside world building and yarn spinning and instead focuses on the simple purity of movement. The game’s self-contained Gridnode runs are a particular highlight, offering Portal- esque platforming challenges, which take place in nondescript rooms wrapped in white panels and server banks, and in which it’s possible to forget about everything but the task at hand. Similarly, tackling the game’s time trials or creating your own shifts your focus to nothing other than your path through the world, and we’ve lost several hours to perfecting our lines through the challenges.
The concept behind the Mirror’s Edge series’ utopian dystopia is laced with potential, but DICE has now missed the mark twice when it comes to doing it justice. Along with Catalyst’s unfortunate compulsory battles and awkward environmental gating, the studio is still shackled by a desire to shore up its groundbreaking mechanics with more recognisable, heavyset design traditions. The result is that it weighs down what could be an exceptional game under a city’s worth of clutter.
It’s no surprise Catalyst’s best moments coincide with the times it focuses on the simple purity of movement