Mirror's Edge: Catalyst

Year: 2016
Platform: PlayStation 4
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: DICE
Genre: Action
Review Date: 7/16/16
Rating: ****

The original "Mirror's Edge" (2008) was a wonderfully exhilarating game. The sense of speed, movement, and overall immersion was sublime, and the art direction was astounding. While critically acclaimed, it failed to find a large enough audience to make it commercially successful, and the originally planned trilogy was scrapped. Rumors of a sequel floated around for years, which were finally confirmed when the latest generation of gaming consoles from Sony and Microsoft came out. The game's release was preceded by a comic book mini-series that set the stage and brought players up to speed on Faith's backstory. The game's structure and tone resembles a prequel, but it's actually a reboot that completely disregards the original story. Having ended up in jail at the end of "Exordium", the game opens with Faith Connors being released back into society. She immediately falls in with her old gang (or cabal, if you prefer) and is back to breaking the law as a runner in no time. Her first big mission catches everyone's attention, as it involves stealing top secret plans for a controversial new technology. As a result, she ends up tangling with high powered corporations, crime lords, and underground terrorists. There's also some overly cliché family drama thrown into the mix, which feels forced and unnecessary.

While the core gameplay of precision running and jumping remains intact, the presentation is disappointing and the game suffers from poor design decisions throughout. The striking photo-realistic aesthetic of the original game has been replaced with futuristic architecture and bright saturated colors, which creates a surprisingly bland and unsophisticated atmosphere. However, the city looks absolutely stunning at sunrise and sunset. Similar to the first game, the story is weak and predictable, but the dialog is simply terrible. The voice acting is pretty good for the most part, and Faye Kingslee does a really good job portraying Faith. Unfortunately, nearly all of the characters in the game are unlikable and talk way too much, which is made worse by the fact that they endlessly repeat themselves. I see this a lot in games, and I wish that developers would keep track of what the player has already heard so that they don't have to listen to it over and over. The constant chatter also breaks the rhythm and spirit of the game. Remember how Zip and Alistair's endless commentary nearly ruined "Tomb Raider: Legend" (2006)? It's like that, only much worse. For Faith, running is an expression of freedom, where she can be alone with her thoughts and explore the city in complete solitude. But that serenity is constantly broken by people talking through her comm system.

Even Faith herself isn't particularly likable in this outing, which makes her hard to relate to. The runners already operate on the fringes of the law, but Faith has no problem with theft, breaking and entering, vandalism, sabotage, property destruction, and beating up law enforcers. In fact, she seems to actually enjoy being chased by the cops, as if it were just a game. The only time she shows a spark of conscience is when it comes to killing innocent people, which she refuses to do. Sure, she'll destroy an entire building without any thought of consequences, but not before she evacuates everyone in the area. Her character starts to soften towards the end, as she becomes motivated by a cause that's greater than her own personal amusement or her desire for revenge.

The story itself is a fairly typical take on a dystopian surveillance state, where rich mega-corporations rule the people with strict policies and enforced class barriers. Subtlety is not the game's strong suit, and in many ways the city of Glass reflects our own culture of wealth disparity, unsustainable living, class warfare, political corruption, invasion of privacy, and terrorism. At times it seems like an overly preachy political science lecture as well as a call to arms, blaming the fat and lazy middle class (i.e. the people actually playing the game) for allowing The Man to stay in power when so many others are oppressed, exploited, and suffering. The most resonant theme involves the underground Black November movement. They truly believe that bombing buildings and killing people is the way to incite revolution and promote positive change, when in fact it only ruins people's lives and results in increasingly severe retaliation. The escalating cycle of meaningless violence is truly a sad portrait of art imitating life. Another interesting takeaway is that I'm much more aware of security cameras in real life now, and my first reaction is the desire to destroy them since you spend so much time avoiding and disabling them in the game.

As far as gameplay goes, the game is divided into story missions that progress the narrative and affect the game world, and open world exploration. I've read complaints that the open world aspect kills the game's momentum and pacing, but I didn't find that to be a problem. In fact, I enjoyed the open world side missions and collectibles much more than the main story, but maybe that's because those didn't involve being bombarded with bad dialog and annoying characters. Most of the game involves simply getting from point A to point B by running, jumping, and climbing. This often involves dealing with obstacles, time limits, surveillance cameras, and security officers. The movement controls are fluid and responsive, but combat is a bit clunky. Combat was a sore spot in the original game as well, but this time Faith only has her fists and feet to rely on. The original game also offered you options to avoid fighting altogether, whereas this game forces you into it. The fighting sections are difficult and aggravating, and I nearly gave up at the game's big turning point. The difficulty ramps up sharply about halfway through the game when you have to take down nearly a dozen armed guards at once. This is one of the hardest challenges in the entire game, but it's worth overcoming because it opens up more of the city.

The open world activities involve finding and stealing various computer chips, tracking down grid leaks, running races, disrupting security, hacking billboards, and making timed delivery runs. The delivery runs are brutal and require split-second precision to complete. These involve lots of trial and error, so expect to fail a lot. While these runs can be fun and challenging (and often rage inducing), they seriously break down the suspension of disbelief in the game world. The Everdyne automated delivery systems are the worst offenders, as they'll be holding onto a package for who knows how long, and as soon as you show up, you only have a minute to get it to its destination. Who came up with this ridiculous system? These kiosks also try to incorporate a sarcastic sense of humor in the vein of "Portal's" GLaDOS, but it just comes across as stupid and annoying. The opportunity missions are also strange in that the various parties are always present in the world, which makes no sense. They should only appear when they actually have something to do. Instead, you often run into a situation where a woman in a cocktail dress is just inexplicably hanging out on a rooftop for no reason whatsoever. It's hilarious, distracting, and just a bit disconcerting.

For the most part, "Mirror's Edge: Catalyst" is a solid, smooth, and stable game. I only found myself stuck in the geometry a couple of times, and one time the game decided to kick me out of a mission and keep me trapped in an area that I couldn't leave. Thankfully, the game allowed me to return to a previous checkpoint so that I could restart the mission from the beginning. The game has a few visual glitches including blinking textures, pop-up textures, shifting textures, and enemies that sink into the ground. The biggest visual issue I ran into was that some missions take place in complete darkness. And that's not an exaggeration. The environment will be completely black, with the only details being your runner's vision and the muzzle flashes of guns that are shooting at you. Those sections are extremely frustrating and serve as an example of poor game design. Another design issue that tends to plague 3D games is jumping distance. It's not as bad in this game as it is in others, but Faith's jumping distance is noticeably inconsistent. Sometimes a 10' fall will kill her, while a 30' fall leaves her unscathed. Sometimes a 3' jump makes her stumble, while a 5' jump offers no resistance. Just expect to fail at a lot of jumps. Thankfully, if you fall to your death the game almost always respawns you at the same place so you can quickly try again. The weirdest jumping experience I had was trying to jump to an I-beam while clinging to a wall. If I jumped straight towards it (which is the shortest distance), I would come up short and plummet to my death. But if I jumped diagonally (which was nearly twice the distance), I could grab it and continue climbing.

It bears mentioning that one of the most annoying features of the game is its insistence to go online. Every time you start, you get an error message saying that the game is offline and that network and social features are unavailable. This is downright absurd. It's a single player game. There's absolutely NO REASON WHATSOEVER for it to be online. In fact, the greatest benefit of playing a single player game is that it doesn't require anyone or anything else to be involved. That's the whole point. And just what are these "social features?" Again, it's not like you can play with anyone else, because there's no multi-player aspect. Is it just to upload scores to a leaderboard that nobody cares about? Or to chat with another runner who happens to be on "the beat?" "Hi everyone! Yeah, I'm playing this game again, by myself. Please don't bother or distract me." The whole thing is ridiculous. If anything, the online features should be an option, not the default.

Despite the fact that the game often stumbles on its poor design choices, when it hits its stride, it provides a euphoric experience of freedom, movement, and speed. The game ends on a high note with a satisfying showdown and a moving cinematic, and even though I continued to gripe about its relatively minor shortcomings, I still wanted to keep playing. The epilogue captures the sentiment well when Icarus says to Faith, "So, what are you going to do now?" With renewed spirit she looks at him and smiles for the first time. "I'm going to run." Let's hope that she does, and that this won't be the last time we see her.