With time to reflect, Mirror’s Edge was worth revisiting after all.
Whether or not you liked Mirror’s Edge, there’s no question that it was extraordinary. For its strikingly clean visual design as much as its parkour-inspired gameplay, it has enjoyed a celebrated cult status for the best part of a decade. Yet it was undermined by a few clumsy steps: the misjudged inclusion of firearms and the linear structure of missions each railed against the free running ethos, while its story-telling felt as two dimensional as the reflections in its skyscrapers.
Disappointing sales seemed to put paid to any chance for a second try. Defying the odds, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst returns us to the city of Glass, hoping to put the franchise on a surer footing. Faith Connors resumes her role as protagonist, though this is an origin story that resembles more reboot than sequel. The major criticisms are addressed, delivering the experience that Mirror’s Edge perhaps should always have been.
We join Faith at the point that she’s released from juvenile detention, although freedom seems to be the last thing on offer. Glass is ruled by the Conglomerate; a cabal of 13 corporations that ostensibly competes, yet functionally colludes to present the illusion of choice. Faith can work for any of them, but pick one she must – failure to do so will see her promptly incarcerated. It’s a utopian ideal gone too far, where everyone has the chance of a good life, only not by their own definition of what that might mean. So Faith retreats to the rooftops, re-joining her runner friends on the edge of society.
What follows is a deeper exploration of Faith’s character and her relationships, from the family she lost as a child, to the one she found among the gangs atop Glass’s skyline. In comparison to the roughly drawn story boards that underlined the original’s story, Catalyst’s beautifully rendered CGI cut-scenes do much more to realise the people that inhabit this world. But in many ways it’s all surface detail – Faith’s interactions feel flat, even during a supposedly emotional twist in which she fails to elicit anything beyond cool, matter-of-fact acceptance.
It’s characterisation that, for better or worse, resembles the game’s clinically stark architecture. Shimmering white glass besets every quadrant of the city, each with its own subtle motif that forms part of a coherent vision. This is a city built by committee, unnervingly pristine to the point of unreality. It’s a deliberate choice to enable Faith to be painted as an outsider, a blotch on the veneer of this perfect landscape – unfortunately she doesn’t always keep up her end of the bargain in providing that contrasting personality.
However, that architectural design is inspired by function as well as form. Every wall, every pipe, every ledge feels made for Faith’s free running abilities, coalescing as a grand playground to be leapt, careened and plummeted through. A pull of the right trigger shifts Faith into a sudden dash, starting an impetus that engenders her principle strength – at peak momentum, dodging attacks from the Krugersec security forces (even their bullets) becomes possible. The trick is to find the path of least resistance, vaulting from platforms and rolling into landings to keep going. With practice it feels natural, empowering and unlike anything else.
While the original offered glimpses of this freedom, Catalyst is a fully realised open world. As a free running experience it feels so clear that, of course, it should always have been this way. The flexibility to choose your route and find more efficient paths makes enjoyment of the journey, almost tempting the player to forego the unlockable fast travel feature between each zone’s safe house. Almost, because the grid node missions to unlock them are a joy in themselves, offering vertical ascents through shafts of laser grids that feel like a Crystal Maze assault course.
If that doesn’t seem to make much narrative sense, that’s a common issue with Catalyst’s side missions. Iridescent “Grid Leak” orbs dot the horizon, seemingly to capitalise on Crackdown 3’s continued absence. Delivery missions (because Faith is a courier) strike an odd tone, with the strict time limits required of speed runs forcing peculiar narrative explanations – deliver this ingredient in 52 seconds, or the meal will be ruined. Eh? Billboard hacking and secret courier bag location feel more natural, but the general rule is to play it as a game and don’t sweat the logic.
The campaign itself is as efficiently expedient as you would expect from a game so streamlined in visual and functional design. 15 missions, some mere minutes in length, are bespoke enough to offer the kind of exciting set pieces often lacking in open worlds. From sewers to aerial gardens, there is no corner untouched in this intelligently paced (if emotionally subdued) adventure. Missions can also be replayed to seek out missed collectibles, complementing the ad hoc structure of Catalyst’s other activities.
Despite some tone deaf delivery, it’s interesting to see that Mirror’s Edge still resonates with contemporary cultural fears. Speaking to Kruger, the city’s corporate overlord who has the population in his thrall, Faith says of them that they “just want the pretty lie you’re offering, not the ugly truth.” With some stronger scripting and acting left wanting, there is nonetheless a relevant story being told beneath the lustrous gloss.
With DICE tied up with Battlefield and Star Wars (along with the rest of EA, apparently), Catalyst’s optimistic conclusion for further adventures with Faith may yet come to nought. But whatever becomes of Mirror’s Edge, Catalyst is a qualified success in what it sets out to achieve. The running is better than ever. The combat is successfully side-lined. Faith herself does just enough to tell us who she is. Optimistically forward looking, though still a true reflection of its origins, there’s no longer any reason to keep looking back.
Mirrors Edge: Catalyst was reviewed via a download code of the Xbox One edition, provided by Xbox.