Hardly any game before has been specifically catered to such a niche audience as the Mirror’s Edge series. Free running (parkour) along high-polished white skyscrapers surely is a gaming experience unlike any other. However the first installment had its shortcomings: a linear mission system, limited online capabilities and a not very city-like area to explore due to invisible walls and technical limitations. As the 2nd installment of the series “Mirror’s Edge Catalyst” does deliver a lot more than that, expanding the linear maps into an open sandbox area. Its predecessor was critically acclaimed for its uniqueness and loved by hardcore fans because of its difficult but rewarding gameplay. Unfortunately the game’s premise was so specific and the design so unique that it’s sales-figures couldn’t keep up with the bright futuristic cities being depicted. This resulted in a lot of fans worrying about the whereabouts for a much-requested sequel. And as people had almost given up hope, “Catalyst” was announced and eventually appeared in June 2016, continuing the story about Faith and her sister.
However there was a weird aftertaste about this release: EA hardly made any marketing efforts for this game, announcing barely more than a small press release. The game just…appeared! So the main question remains in the room: Is Mirror’s Edge Catalyst even any good?
Explore the city as we allow
Let’s start with the biggest strength of Catalyst, a feature that its first installment was clearly missing: an open world. The parkour aspect was begging for an open city to run around in. And the good news: Catalyst delivers on that aspect, giving you a lot of freedom on where to go next. Right from the beginning there are a lot of areas you can explore, with some others locked away from the player in a gated fashion. The way these areas are unlocked in Catalyst is done a bit better, albeit not too much of an improvement towards Mirror’s Edge. Instead of invisible walls and fences you will need certain gear or story elements to progress. And even in the end many city districts simply remain off-limits since you can just see buildings, but not run towards them due to wide streets and missing bridges across buildings. Overall the new “City of Glass” feels a lot more open than the previous “New Eden”, but still falls short on the open-world promise that we’d all liked to see in a sequel. After 4-6h of playtime you will be able to explore the full city, which is a lot of content, but the inner runner in me was still asking for more. It’s unclear if technical limitations or budget where then decision factors, but a residual disappointment of missed-out potential always remains.
This restriction for the sake of progress brings in a huge disadvantage of the game: The unlock system. Some of the gear you unlock – such as a grapnel device – bring a lot of new interesting moves to the table. This would be great as long as Faith wouldn’t be so limited as in where to use that gear and how she’s supposed to use it. Very much in the Metroidvania way you are only allowed to use your hook shot at certain areas, which in contrast is great fun and very fluent to use. As much as I can understand that the game has strict physical rules to adhere to the use of gear often feels a bit forced, not giving you the freedom to explore the city as free as you’d like. To some extend this unlock-mania gets ridiculous, such as when Faith has “unlearned” basic moves such as cutting corners and coil jumps. While that fact doesn’t make the game unplayable it still feels out-of-place and unnecessary, giving the game unnecessary lenghts just to reach your former set abilities.
Shake the world as we know
The whole “rebel against the system” part of Catalyst continues the legacy of its predecessor. Faith still fights against the authorities, which apparently didn’t always go so well as you literally start the game in prison. Once you escape the clutches of the omnipresent KrugerSec you soon resume your old “criminal” ways, running errands and beating up KrugerSec goons around almost every corner. The difficulty spike isn’t as high as in Mirror’s Edge 1 as you cannot (and will not) use any guns in Catalyst, which is a welcome change since it felt out of place. To compensate your lack of “bullet-retaliation” your enemies will often enough miss shots themselves, avoid injuring their mates and mostly resort to melee means to bring you down. You defend yourself with punches and kicks which you can throw out in rapid succession or tie in with the environment. Jumpkicks, wallruns, slide-kicks – all the old plus a few new moves and gadgets are at Faith’s disposal. The fighting overall feels OK, but lacks a finesse especially when compared with the fluidity of the Batman series or Remember Me. Combat still is a nice addition to the game, but never feels quite as polished as you’d want it to be. For that the enemy types and their AI simply are not diverse and smart enough.
However: You may always chose to avoid fights, the game even encourages you to do so. Encounters on the other hand are not punished either, sometimes unavoidable because of storyline reasons. But outside of those smaller “arenas” KrugerSec patrols can often enough be avoided, which is simple enough as the enemy “runners” from the previous installment are not around this time. Instead you get chased by helicopers and drones, something which I find rather disappointing. Hearing the breathing of an enemy runner quite literally in your back was one of the greatest experiences I had when playing Mirror’s Edge, and I therefore cannot understand why this feature has been cut from Catalyst instead of being improved upon. Due to this the feeling of danger is not as big as I remember it, mostly due to the “kinetic shield” mechanic that deflects shots from you as long as you remain a certain amount of movement. This gives Faith a bit of an “overpowered” character, as you can simply run towards enemies and smash their faces in head-on with very little risk to yourself. You can even abuse this mechanic as most enemies will not shoot at you as some of their teammates are in close proximity.
Show me the abyss below
With all that said death still remains around the corner in the “City of Glass” – quite literally, because one false turn or step can kill you. Unfortunately this is not always due to design intention but to minor engine or level shortcomings, resulting in Faith grabbing the wrong ledge, just leaving you with the option to fall to your death. The path-finding “runner vision” can keep you mostly safe from such false decisions, but also takes a lot away from the experience. Luckily the feature can be deactivated in favor of the red highlights you know from Mirror’s Edge or switched off completely, which can be beneficial when you want to optimize your route aside from the default path. However, small glitches and misunderstandings in the game’s physics always remain, making you drop to your death for reasons not always transparent. Fortunately the game keeps downtimes to a minimum, doing most of the file loading work before you even start running, but each death still results in 5-10 seconds wait time which can get bothersome on some trial-and-error sections. A big plus: once the game has started loading all files in the beginning you may explore the city freely without any interruptions – that’s praiseworthy and greatly helps with immersion!
And when the movement finally “clicks” you enjoy the better sides of the “City of Glass”. The area’s are very diverse and mostly fun to traverse though. There are construction sites, canals, residential areas, rooftops and even some computer cores to infiltrate, which give the game a very welcome touch of “Mission Impossible”. It’s unfortunate that there are not more of these high-quality challenges, but the developers were kind enough to implement a lot of breathtaking scenarios and areas that you want (and can) play over again as often as you like. Almost genre-typical the city is garnished with lots of side-missions, secrets and unlockable shown on a minimap, giving you more than enough fodder to work through long after the main storyline has been completed. Depending on your speed, skill and will to go through all the trial and error I assume you get around 8-12h of pure content out of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. This does not include the online features of the game, allowing users to define their own parcour routes to share with others, potentially stretching the game to indefinite re-play value if you want to hone your skills to perfection.