It's one step forward and two steps back in this rebooted prequel of Mirror's Edge
2008's Mirror's Edge feels like, love it or hate it, a game that turned heads. DICE, better known for their work on Battlefield, releasing a parkour-focused first-person platformer was already a wild idea. It being released during a banner year for EA, following up on games like Burnout Paradise and Dead Space made the idea seem shaky. While Mirror's Edge was certainly not as universally acclaimed or commercially successful as other headline games that year, it's one that people still hold a reverence for, warts and all.
Eight years later, DICE and EA provided a sequel/reboot/prequel/followup-of-some-description in the open world Mirror's Edge Catalyst, a game that does improve on its predecessor in some realms, while feeling like a major step back in others.
At its core, the movement and platforming still feels as fresh and fun as it did eight years ago. Traceuse Faith Connors still flies across the rooftops of the city of Glass with the greatest of ease, simply controlled with basically an “upward” action button and “downward” action button. A wrist-mounted grappling hook acquired after a few hours gives some variety to getting around the open world and allows for some breathtaking swings, but is fairly limited.
Gone is the questionable gunplay from the first game (unnecessarily hand-waved away by the mention of ID tagged weaponry, which is more amusing than it should be), replaced by doubling down on a greatly improved hand-to-hand combat system. Faith can now use momentum off of any movement ability, such as a wallrun or a vault to add extra oomph behind her attacks, or use the extra momentum to plow straight through someone and keep running. The new combat shift mechanic, a radial dodge around an enemy, also keeps the ducking and weaving fast and fun.
Unfortunately, not everything shines as brightly as the gameplay does, starting with the change in visual style. Don't get me wrong: Mirror's Edge Catalyst looks incredible, and I don't think at this point it's possible for EA's Frostbite engine to make something look bad. The environments are densely packed, as expected of a modern open world game, but in doing so it loses part of what made the original game stand out.
The original Mirror's Edge is a fantastic example of utilizing some of the limitations of last generation development and turning them into strengths. Without boring too many people by going too deep in the technical side of things, part of the look of Mirror's Edge is derived from using high-resolution normal maps, which add the bumps and grooves of the texture to an object, and low-resolution diffuse maps, which provide color to an object, at a time where most games did the opposite. The end result was the unnervingly clean, starkly contrasted world of Mirror's Edge.
Mirror's Edge Catalyst isn't a clean-looking game. Most of its visual cues and designs honestly look like they would fit more at home in the world of 2010's Syndicate reboot than the original Mirror's Edge game, with hard bloom effects, scattered debris on the roofs of most buildings, and electronic wiring schemes. This can rarely even intrude into gameplay, where some jumps or interactable objects can be difficult to spot in the field of “next-generation” debris.
You may be thinking “But in the first game, didn't Faith have 'Runner Vision,' that thing that, based on the fact that Faith had done this parkour thing before, dyed all the parkour objects in the environment red, so that me, someone probably not trained in parkour could spot them?”
To which I would say “Sure did.”
The logical followup to that would be “Is it gone in this game?”
To which I would again reply “No, it's still there.”
“So what happened to it?” you might say.
And the answer to that lies the brunt of the rest of the problems with this game, it's just straight-up poorly written. That's not to hold the original Mirror's Edge up as some paragon of fiction writing, but to point at it and say that it's not that high a bar to clear, and yet Catalyst manages to run face-first into said bar.
Just in terms of world-building, Mirror's Edge Catalyst has this irritating problem of dramatically over-explaining things. The fact that Faith saw certain things as red in the first game was explained away as saying it was experience casting a light on objects that would stick out to her, even if not necessarily to you. That explanation is fantastic: it's simple, it ascribes an ability to the character, and it allows the player to infer “Oh, she must be pretty good at this stuff.”
In Catalyst, the red imagery is now given to Faith in the introduction to the game in the form of a red computer chip of some description that she attaches to herself and now the computer knows all the parkour objects in the environment. That explanation is terrible: it's complicated, it makes Faith seem less capable, giving an ability she had innately to some external force, and it doesn't allow the player to reach any conclusions about Faith as a character themselves. The only purpose for this change seems to be that in some assorted story missions and challenge areas, the game decides to turn the effect off, but only temporarily. If you just stand around for a bit the game will give you the option to turn the effect back on. So the entire change just feels both unnecessary and slightly detrimental to Faith's character.
This may seem like a real anal-retentive thing to rag on about, but it's a piece of writing in the game that shows up within the first five minutes and really sets the tone for the writing quality for the rest of the game. The story could be boiled down to something incredibly simple: “Evil corporate overlord has created nanomachine-Skynet and wants to rule even more than he already does. You should stop that.” Yet the game meanders around so much, cramming in as many 1984-esque wordSlams because that's the dystopian futureStyle as they can, while doing things like introducing a rebel group that really doesn't matter, a crime boss who hates you but does nothing but nice things for you the entire story, and your rival-turned-friend. Even though there are some bumps in the road on the path of “You should stop that,” they seem meaningless and just dropped in, because more time is spent with unecessary rebel group, or mean/nice crime boss, or friendly rival.
Mirror's Edge Catalyst, for all its improvements, stumbles a bit more than its predecessor. While both games play fantastically, neither hold anything to write home about in their narrative. Mirror's Edge at least had a strong sense of visual identity to fall back on, while Catalyst muddles it in its attempts to bring the franchise to the next generation. There's absolutely a masterpiece in this franchise waiting to be created, scaling back the visual complexity, keeping the kinetic hand-to-hand combat, and knowing when to step back and let Faith leap across stark white rooftops. Mirror's Edge Catalyst isn't it.