Mirror's Edge: Catalyst Hands-on – Faith free running through an open world

Mirror's Edge Catalyst Preview

Game PreviewApr 14, 2016 at 10:00a PSTby Kacper Pitala

Mirror's Edge: Catalyst Hands-on – Faith free running through an open world

We went to Sweden to take a look at the newest game in the Mirror’s Edge series, which is steadily approaching its release date. What has changed in this first-person parkour simulator in the last eight years?

It's been so long since the launch of Mirror's Edge that many of us may have forgotten how this game really looked. It’s pretty similar with games such as Baldur's Gate – we remember the overall experience, but no specific details. And many years later, while playing Pillars of Eternity, we come to a sudden conclusion that this game is exactly the same as the cult RPG, when in fact it’s not. The upcoming Mirror's Edge: Catalyst is a bit like that. At first glance, it seems very familiar. But coming back to its predecessor after only one long session with the new installment is enough to see that after the release of Catalyst this return may no longer make any sense.

Anyone who played the first game should feel at home right off the bat. The movement system, which is still the core of the whole game, works according to the same principles as it did eight years ago, the only difference being that... it's better. It's one of those elements that you don't really pay attention to at first. It's only after you return to the previous installment that you notice that the speed of running was less noticeable and the heroine's movements a little stiffer. At the same time, some maneuvers required too much precision, while others were too forgiving. In Catalyst these details have been improved, and that's why controlling the character is way more fun and easier to "feel".

Now add level design to the mix. While it's true that the open world concept is quite en vogue these days, we just have to admit that it fits Mirror's Edge like a glove. It brings a certain sense of awareness of being in a city without boundaries. There’s a feeling of freedom in the fact that at any given moment we can deviate from the route and run off anywhere we please, and the metropolis itself becomes something more than a decoration serving as the backdrop for the missions. Still, while the concept itself is great, the way it was implemented disappointed me a little. The map is filled with a variety of side quests and collectibles, which are painfully generic for this type of games. Recordings, documents, and glowing bubbles hidden in more or less visible places, amount to a set of over a hundred items to find and cross off the list. But what if the game allowed the player to visit the location of the mission before embarking on it? To carry out actual recon and plan an escape route, a little bit like it was done in the first Assassin's Creed? That’s just an idea. It all boils down to the fact that while I don't mind the collectibles themselves, it wouldn't hurt if the open world in the game was used in some more creative ways.

Then there's also the side quests. Or rather mini-missions, perhaps the closest to what Ubisoft did on the occasion of the PC launch of the first Assassin's Creed. In Catalyst we get a timed run and delivery of a package, as well as deactivation of hostile antennas (not time trialed).These are three types of missions, at least at the beginning of the game, which we can take on any time between the main quests. The only problem is that they are repetitive. It's especially noticeable in the case of missions that have multiple stages. “Deactivating an antenna” always boils down to defeating a group of enemies, turning off the device, and then escaping a helicopter. Completing a few of those in several hours can eventually become boring. Luckily, this doesn't mean that there's no fun in the process. A curious thing about Mirror's Edge: Catalyst is that even when we get tired of the form of a certain task, the joy derived from the movements alone is still there. That's why the repetitive missions and simple collectibles still deliver – each of these elements is merely a pretext to move from point A to point B, which usually brings along loads of fun.

The perfect situation is when the game gives us some freedom. For instance, timed runs are cleverly constructed; even though we come across arrows while running from start to finish, we find that they only represent a general direction that we need to take. The quickest path you have to find yourself, by trial and error, and it is at times like this that the open structure of Catalyst can really shine.That's not always the case, because, truth be told, most of the time we spend following the path the game chooses for us. Just like the original game, subsequent object we must jump over light up in red, and to avoid a situation where such an object could be easily overlooked, developers also added red streaks indicating further route. This change is really a positive one, because it is much easier to keep the pace this way. On the other hand, we tend to cling to the "one and only" true path even tighter. It is difficult to find a suitable compromise, because somewhere in all this the potential of the open world gets lost, and instead of choosing different paths, our decisions usually come down to whether we want to jump over the box on the right or over the rail on the left. In return, we get a very impressive game, and even if we start a mission for the first time, we have a good chance of completing it in a smooth and satisfying way.

Even character progression has made its way to Mirror's Edge! We gain experience points for executing tasks and collecting items, and among the abilities that we must unlock we can find those that were always available in the previous installment: rolling on the ground upon landing, a quick turn when running up a wall, or pulling up legs over obstacles. One of the advantages is certainly the fact that we get to know the more advanced movements gradually, and this makes us more aware of them. Important are also the skills related to combat, although a large chunk of them is simply about increasing damage or resistance. While it’s not an element that this game really needs, it certainly doesn't hurt.

The foundation of gameplay underwent one big change – it’s the combat system. In this installment its main focus is to serve the leading motive of the game, which is running. That's why opponents (especially in the major missions) are usually lined up so that they can be effectively disposed of without slowing down our pace. In fact, every movement Faith makes can be concluded with a blow: we have a kick crowning a run down a wall, sliding kick, jumping kick, and so on. In order to maintain the smoothness of the run, we even become bulletproof. So if you master the basic mechanics of the game, you don't have to worry about anything interrupting your fun. The combat system also has a more standard side to it, and sometimes you have to go face to face with a group of enemies. The concept is pretty good, because it is based on “dancing” with the opponents so as to be in the right place and kick someone towards a wal or a railing. Of course, you can pummel enemies in a more conventional way, but it is less effective. At times this system resulted in a pretty cool scene where I was able to smoothly finish everyone off with different types of punches, but it's not always that simple. Sometimes the fight unnecessarily drags on, while other times we start to notice its simplicity when only one person from a group of five attacks us. Overall, however, it is a much more pleasant and varied system than the one in the first part, where we had to stop in front of every opponent and disarm them with one button.

In Mirror's Edge, one of the things that raised some controversy was a certain type of puzzle – moments when we had to stop and think of a way to overcome a set of obstacles. In one of the main quests of Catalyst I've seen something very similar, but now there's no doubt left that it's one of those sequences. We get a message that the interface is disabled, so further route is no longer displayed, and we have a chance to stretch our brains a little bit. But from what I've seen, after a longer moment of being idle, the game offers reactivation of the prompts. So it seems that the puzzles are completely optional as we don't have to solve them ourselves.

All the mechanics of the game are most effectively combined within the main quests, and it’s there that we get to know the story of the game world and the protagonist. After the infamous problems with implementing the story in the first game, as well as rather mixed reception of the animated cut-scenes, DICE gave up the old plot, and tried to build the whole foundation from scratch. And this was a good decision – we don’t get the same thing once again, and the story can still surprise us. It’s hard to assess the overall quality of the plot after only a couple of hours, but the basics are clearly better: the characters are more vibrant, cut-scenes rendered by the game engine implemented without any dramatic failures, and the world creation is quite impressive. The dystopian cyberpunk city of the future, ruled by corporations monitoring anything and everything, is still here, but it’s far more detailed. We see how the police work and what kinds of systems were introduced to control the population. Though the plot lacked some more information about the reason for such a state of affairs, it’s certainly a progress, as compared to the original.

There’s no doubt that the universe looks a lot better. The characteristic color palette and sterility of the metropolis remain unchanged, but it’s beyond anything we’ve seen in the first game. The architecture is much more varied, there are many interesting structures off in the distance, and the guys at DICE manipulate the colors and the light in a more suggestive manner. The latter in particular: now we get to see the metropolis at night too, and that’s when lit-up streets full of neon lights are a sight to behold. Finally, there’s more life there, too; the cars and pedestrians are no longer merely suggested. The world of Catalyst is much richer, and I can only hope that the story will be able to maintain a similar level of quality, which in the case of the metropolis is really solid.

All these impressions and information seem to indicate that the first Mirror’s Edge doesn’t have anything unique to offer anymore. It’s pretty rare that you employ such care when developing a game that is simply meant to take the place of its predecessor; in this case, however, it seems like the right approach. I don’t think Catalyst is about “continuing things” or “making a comeback” as much as it is about complementing the first part, which was a decent game with a potential for greatness. I’m not sure if I’d like to see a third installment coming out, but I’m definitely eager to see the vision fully realized at least in Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst itself.