It’s hardly stating anything new to say it, but what a simultaneously brilliant and flawed game the original Mirror’s Edge was. For every joyous moment of free-flowing first-person parkour, there was an annoying one of janky combat, or of protagonist Faith not quite latching onto a drainpipe for the 9th time in a row. But overall, it was a promising platform on which to build. It was a start.
Now, some 8 (!) years later, we get DICE’s Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, the continuation of that start. And: it’s simultaneously brilliant and flawed. It reboots the original universe, but keeps the janky combat, and weirdly hews closely to the original story. Faith sums it up meta-accurately in the campaign’s final cutscene, during which she monologues on how nothing has really changed (perfect! That’s just what you look for in a satisfying story) before concluding “We’ve started something”. Wait, you’re still starting?! C’mon, Mirror’s Edge! We’re already two games in!
But perhaps we’re getting too harsh too soon. Plenty actually has changed in Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, and most of that change stems from taking the game open-world. In between story and side missions, Faith’s obstacle course is now the entire starkly futuristic City of Glass, its giant map overflowing with icons for collectibles and activities in a way that that might have Ubisoft upset about that recent legal ruling that you can’t copyright game mechanics.
The high-altitude world is one of roof spaces - there’s plenty of the ducting systems, railings, drain pipes, fans and lift shafts familiar from the first game – but with more real estate acreage, DICE’s level designers have expanded the environmental scope. Faith bolts through and over the neon slickness of commercial districts, the industrial grunge of the underground, and the soft pastel luxury and artificial yachting lakes of the future-wealthy, much of it gorgeous to look at. This isn’t due to technological deftness, though – on XB1 at least, some textures are fuzzy, and you'll notice pop-in and a shortish draw distance. Instead, it’s down to the majesty and cohesion of the art direction, which has been taken up a notch from the already-striking first game to the point where it may now be the IP’s best asset.
Catalyst's design excellence stands out against the rest of AAA gaming’s brown-and-grey colour palette, and you may occasionally stop running just to appreciate the art. But it eventually strikes you that Glass doesn’t make much sense as an urban space, and that (for example) a carefully colour-coordinated construction site is beyond ridiculous (“No, damnit, I said every single tarpaulin has to be yellow!”). But petty concerns about realistic urban planning tend to fall by the wayside when you’re running around drinking it all in.
Faith has a full bag of tricks with which to traverse the city at speed. With the “YouTube fail compilation” stage of parkour training obviously behind her, Faith is adept at vaulting, wall running, hand springing, sliding, forward-rolling (a giddy delight in first person), rope swinging, and leaping out into space 30 stories up. Almost every go-to move is tied to a single shoulder button - tap to jump, hold when approaching a box to spring, tap at a wall to wall run, and so on. It should be a recipe for disaster, but the game is reliable at deciphering your button presses in context to chain together your intended moves. Faith has also grown better at (automatically) catching ledges and drainpipes, so whenever she goes bungy jumping without a rope, you’ll feel like it’s because you got something wrong, and not because the game’s systems let you down. The soundly-implemented running system puts it all on you - when you’re humming along, taking every obstacle in your stride, you feel like a badass, and when you make a bone-jarring faceplant, you feel like an oaf. Checkpoints are also mercifully frequent, but the often 15 to 20 second loading time is a good incentive to avoid dying.
Out to ruin Faith's runner’s high are the forces of KrugerSec, the goons of Glass’s ruling elite. It seems like they have their own methods of fast travel, as most rooftops aren’t far away from a logo-marked door from which squads can spill out. The runner takes them on with attacks that are again context sensitive – hit Y as you’re moving left and Faith delivers a hook kick to the side of a head, but hit it as she’s wall running, and she’ll spring off for a flying kick. The combat keeps the player on the move and putting enemies in each other’s way, with enemies staggering into each other and obstacles. This philosophy is also evident in Faith’s “focus shield”, which charges up and lets her “dodge” bullets if she keeps her speed up – handy when KrugerSec gets annoyed enough to deploy VTOL gunships.
This system works perfectly (and thematically) when you’re simply out to get past and away – a wall kick here, a shoulder-drop there, and on we go over the next railing without looking back. But too often, the campaign missions insist on dropping Faith into open areas filled with enemies and saying “Here, clear these guys out”. Biometrically locked out of picking up anyone’s weapon, Faith’s reduced to charging into automatic gunfire and luring people into spaces where she can kick them continuously against a wall. Here the enemy stumbling and bumping gets comical – the ease with which KrugerSec personnel pitch head-first over waist-high railings, for example, suggests that most show up for work drunk. They still have guns and numbers, though, which means that the forced arena battles are often an exercise in the try-die-try-die frustration that's largely now been eliminated from the platforming.
Fortunately, the numerous side missions and activities largely keep the focus on running. Official time trial routes (with worldwide scoreboards) are scattered around the city, and players can also create their own, challenging the world to better their time. These shift Catalyst firmly into the racing game genre, so players uninterested in running routes repeatedly to bring their time down by a half a second may not be too fussed. But they can instead opt to tick off collectibles, add public check-in flags for other players to find, or take beat-the-clock delivery missions or “diversion” runs to keep KrugerSec distracted. Successful completions net experience points that players can put towards one of recent gaming’s more arbitrary character progression trees.
More interesting are the gridNode missions, reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood’s excellent hidden tombs, that challenge Faith to scale a gleaming computer installation to unlock fast travel to surrounding safe houses. Sadly though, the game only offers up 4 of these nifty puzzlers – it might have been nice to have more of them and fewer time trials and deliveries, which get samey when you’re running around rooftops all the time anyway.
The game’s most distinctive environments and challenges are saved for the campaign, which sends Faith off to vertigo-inducing construction sites, a secret underground installation, and an art museum, among other places. Catalyst's most impressive sights and runs are found here, but they’re all in ostensible service of a po-faced story at odds with the inherent joyousness of the gameplay. There’s an admirably diverse cast of characters, but any sense of humour has been surgically removed. Everyone grimaces their way through what amounts to 12 hours of “ready, set…” before frustratingly stopping at “go!” With decent, detailed world-building also in evidence, it can’t help but feel like a lost opportunity. Not to worry. Again being weirdly meta-thematic, Faith just keeps moving, segueing seamlessly out of the final cutscene into “let’s just keep doing what we’re doing!” – your cue to return to those neglected map icons.
As you pick up your umpteenth collectible, it all feels like we got exactly the “more Mirror’s Edge!” we wanted from Catalyst – and yet, we still somehow haven’t been satisfied. But look, I’m absolutely still hungry for what you’re serving up, DICE. We’ve had the soup and the appetiser; can we please bring out the main course?