How’s the new Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst looking? Glad you asked. Our own Seth Marlin had an opportunity to sit down and play the closed beta, and has collected his thoughts here for your benefit. Read on! -Ed
I picked up the first Mirror’s Edge upon its initial release back in 2008. At the time, I was enthralled by what Swedish developer DICE had managed to create: a world of first-person parkour action, playing out across the rooftops of a totalitarian, near-future city. The gameplay felt fresh and unique, and the bright, sun-drenched art direction was a welcome change from the drab shooters that otherwise dominated the market (including DICE’s very own Battlefield: Bad Company). I beat the game within days of purchasing it, and went on to replay it frequently over the years that followed.
At the same time, for all the game’s innovative properties, it was near-impossible for many players to overlook its flaws. Weak storytelling, awkward combat, inconsistent level design, and a runtime of perhaps three hours limited the game’s commercial and critical success. Still, the game quickly drew a cult following, and even as DICE chose to focus their energies elsewhere, a vocal contingent of gamers continued to call for a follow-up. These calls were finally answered in 2013, when DICE revealed a teaser for Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst at E3. Since that time, the new creative team overseeing Catalyst – headed up by senior producer Sara Jansson – has teased us with promises of open-world gameplay and a reboot to the series’ narrative. Now, with the title nearing commercial release, DICE have made the closed beta available for final play-testing and tweaks. I managed to get my hands on a beta key for the Playstation 4, and having played through the main story and side-quests twice now, I’m extremely impressed.
For those unfamiliar, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst represents a complete overhaul of the original game’s world and storyline. We still play as Faith Connors, a black-market courier (or Runner) specializing in contraband goods and information. This time, however, we get more of a look into her origins, with a young Faith having been recently released from a two-year stint in juvenile detention. As indicated by the title, Faith’s return to the City of Glass comes at a time of intense political upheaval, and our heroine soon finds herself at the forefront of a growing movement for change.
It’s been a few years now since I played the first game, and I find that the transition to an open world was just what the franchise needed. It is a singular joy to sprint and vault across DICE’s urban high-rise playground, and with players now freed from the linearity of the original game’s level design, the series’ initial promise truly shines through. Swedish musician Magnus Birgersson, stage name Solar Fields, is once again composing the game’s soundtrack, and as in the series’ previous entry, his minimalist electronic scores pair beautifully with the whitewashed cityscapes of Glass. The main storyline in Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst shows off a strong few opening chapters, and the side-missions – which focus chiefly on delivering packages, vandalizing corporate billboards, and accepting race challenges from other players – give a greater sense of just how Runners function within this world. Given the Runners’ decidedly low-tech business approach – literally beating feet from one place to another – it also lends a satisfyingly tactile connection to the city itself, one supported nicely by the game’s mechanics.
In an era of government surveillance and changing ideas about privacy, the City of Glass’ consumerist dystopia feels as relevant now as it did back in 2008. The story and world are much more fleshed out this go-round, and the writing and voice acting (save a few minor exceptions) are handled with remarkable subtlety. Gone are characters like Mercury and Jackknife, replaced by a more rounded and diverse cast representing a range of the city’s factions. Faith herself is also a more developed character than previously – reckless and carefree at the story’s outset, she is portrayed as brash and overconfident in a way that causes friction with her peers and frequently puts her into dangerous situations. Her journey from impulsive young outlaw to heroic resistance-figure has been long touted as a central hook of the game, and while I can’t speak to how that will play out in the final product, I’m encouraged so far by what I’ve seen.
One thing that sets “Catalyst” apart from its source material is the way that it focuses, far more than its predecessor, upon relationships. Faith is a character very much shaped by her community, and her relationships with the city and with those around her help to endear her to us, while also fleshing out the larger world. Of particular note is Faith’s newfound rivalry with fellow runner Icarus, whose contempt for Faith’s risk-taking behavior harkens back to the old Maverick vs. Iceman dynamic in Top Gun. Also enjoyable is witnessing Faith’s friendship with her handler and mentor, Noah – one early scene, depicting an emotional reunion between the two after Faith’s stint in prison, feels genuine and affecting, and the pair’s attempts to deflect through lighthearted ribbing illustrates their shared history nicely.
As far as the gameplay itself, the results so far show remarkable polish. Jansson and the team at DICE have put great care into developing the franchise’s untapped potential – refining what worked in the previous game, while discarding what didn’t. The controls will be largely familiar for those who played the first title, and the few changes – mostly to the combat system – feel intuitive and satisfying. Gunplay has been discarded in favor of brutal, efficient martial-arts takedowns, and the developers have done a solid job of making sure the emphasis always stays upon movement. You aren’t meant to be a complete unstoppable badass here – you’re encouraged to take out the city’s security forces on the fly, all while minimizing the loss to your own momentum. Dealing with a few hired goons isn’t your focus; rather, it is to speed along to the next run, and thus to your next payday.
If I have any complaints so far, they would mostly be that controls can still feel a bit floaty, especially in combat, and that DICE’s depiction of the city still feels a touch sterile. Given that Faith and her fellow Runners mainly inhabit the world high above the city’s streets, this is somewhat to be expected, but many of the games’ minor quest-giving NPCs also lack the level of detail put into other elements of the game. These characters’ blocky models and stilted animations feel at odds with the game’s otherwise stunning graphics, and the resulting discrepancy, while minor, still feels jarring. Some players have also taken issue with DICE’s decision to lock certain advanced moves behind a skill-tree system, though having been away for a few years I didn’t find this all that bothersome.
All in all, I’m excited for Catalyst’s full release. The series’ stylized hybrid of extreme sports and dystopian-future storytelling, with its focus on first-person combat and online multiplayer racing, feels fully realized for the first time since the series’ inception, and I for one feel fully confident putting in a pre-order. This is the game that series fans deserved the first time around, and I can’t wait to explore it more fully.
Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst will arrive in the US on June 7th.