Mirror’s Edge Catalyst Review (Xbox One)
Eight years is an eternity in video games, and perhaps that's why it feels like it's been longer than that since the first time we booted up Mirror's Edge. The ambitious first-person parkour experience was one of two games that defined EA's 2008 --- the other being Dead Space --- and while that survival horror franchise went on to spawn two sequels proper (and a rail shooter), a potential follow-up to Mirror's Edge has languished in development forever. It almost seemed like we would never see Faith again, but then DICE surprised the gaming world by announcing a follow-up (technically a remake) for a new generation. Now, Mirror's Edge Catalyst is here with nearly a decade of hype and hope to live up to. While it doesn't quite shatter the mold, Catalyst is a welcome return to a once-forgotten world championed by a dedicated few.
It's been eight years since Faith ran across any rooftops, and rather than pick up any threads from the first Mirror's Edge, Catalyst revises the history to provide a new origin for our hero and her world. The City of Glass is run by a conglomerate of corporations, all protected by KrugerSec, a massive security force that ensures outside influences. They're there to ensure Faith and the runners, or the terrorist organization Black November, don't challenge the conventions that keep the elites elite. Many of the core concepts return (the runners working outside the law, a massive corporate/government conspiracy, family secrets), so if you're a longtime fan of the series, much of Catalyst will seem immediately familiar. If you haven't been sitting idly by for the past 2900 days waiting for the return of this franchise, you won't be out of the loop.
DICE's work on revamping the story makes sense since it's been so long since the original release of Mirror's Edge. The narrative picks up with Faith having spent the past two years of her life in juvenile detention, and gives her a relatively clean slate to start again. It's also a somewhat clever wink at the long gap between entries in the franchise. Faith is even more at the center of a larger conspiracy this time around, which has more than its fair share of dramatic twists and turns. Not every story beat connects with the expected impact, but Catalyst provides a richer, though slightly more convoluted, version of Faith's futuristic world than the original game.
Like the story, much of Mirror's Edge Catalyst's core mechanics remain intact from its predecessor. The free-running that made the first entry such a cult favorite returns with some new twists, adding some spice to the more standard parkour elements. Running and jumping across the rooftops of Glass (the city where Catalyst takes place) feels just as liberating as it did all those years ago, and DICE does a nice job easing new and returning players into the scheme of things.
Rather than having all of Faith's possible running skills available right away, players are given a decent offering of her potential moves at the start with the option to unlock more as you progress through the game and level Faith up. While it may initially frustrate runner veterans who won't even be able to attempt certain classic moves until they're unlocked, the progression tree ties smoothly into the story to introduce new elements as needed without overburdening newcomers with a litany of commands from the get-go. It does feel more natural to actually master some of the basics like wall running and springboarding before getting into more complex combinations. Though you will need Faith's full arsenal to complete her adventure, you only need to be adequate to advance. Mastery is meant for those with the need to hoist themselves to the top of the optional Dash leaderboards.
The default button layout is simple and smart, with jumping/sliding mapped to the left button and trigger and quick turns/quick boosts (called Shift) tied to the right side. Coupled with the way DICE slowly introduces new mechanics like 180 degree mid-air turns, it makes getting a hold of controlling Faith a breeze. The only time it starts to get a bit convoluted is when Faith is forced into combat. Faith is exclusively a hand-to-hand fighter, and uses her agility and speed to get the upper hand on KrugerSec's goons. Combat in the original game was never anything to be excited about, and despite DICE's best efforts to make fisticuffs in Catalyst more engaging, fighting is just not where Mirror's Edge shines.
The face buttons handle all the combat and interactions, with Faith getting a heavy and light attack to mix things up. These two attack buttons can be combined with jumps, wall runs, slides and Shifts to give fighting some variation, but it's not very cohesive and often rather jumbled. Despite your best efforts in timing attacks and dodges, any time there is more than one enemy to fight, combat devolves into a sloppy slugfest. Even when upgrading Faith's combat skills through the progression system, there is little that DICE does this time around to make fighting any more enjoyable than it was eight years ago. The good news is, there are times where you can just circumvent combat and keep on running. The bad news is you will be forced into a number of situations where you can't just run away.
Outside of the story, there will still be plenty of running to do. The first Mirror's Edge offered just a handful of time trial races for players to try their hands at alongside the option to find some hidden runner bags in the world. The Dashes in the original were all set on maps from the in-game world, but were only playable in a different mode. This time, all of the optional quests, including Dashes, billboard hacks, deliveries and diversions, take place right in the world as you're exploring. While Catalyst isn't a fully open world, it does have huge open areas to explore, and many of these optional missions will take you through areas you might otherwise not have checked out.
Diversions are easily the least fun and possibly the most frustrating. They require you to aid another runner by distracting KrugerSec security across a given area. You'll have a limited time to make it from one squadron to the next, all the while not actually engaging in combat. The checkpoint system for these mad runs away from KrugerSec don't populate fast enough and you run out of time and patience for these quickly as a result.
Curiously, in making the Dashes part of the open world this time around, DICE decided to remove the Echoes --- ghosts of other players trying the same race. You used to be able to view one Echo at a time to see how a particular runner was capable of achieving a time better than yours, but now that's largely left up to you to figure out on your own. It's not a deterrent in the least, but when you see times that are five, six seconds faster than yours, the competitor in you just wants to know how someone did it, even if you won't be able to replicate it exactly.
Oh, but how joyous it is to find a new path to the finish line and shave tenths or hundredths of seconds of your time. There is no better feeling than seeing your times move up the leaderboard, even if you did just beat your own personal best. This is when Mirror's Edge is at its absolute best, and as you unlock more races and abilities further into the game, you'll constantly want to go back and do better. Even when you're running to the next mission, you might come across a dash you previously completed, but have since learned a few new tricks. It's never a bad time to jump into a Dash and prove to the world (or just your friends list) you are the fastest Faith alive.
Additionally, once you progress far enough into the story, new asynchronous multiplayer challenges appear in the form of user-created time trials and Beat LEs. You'll find these icons scattered throughout the game's world, and can jump in just as easily as you do Dashes or other side missions. Time Trials are gated races that do show a player's Echo, and you can make them rather easily yourself, too. There's not as much competitive fire for these as the path is always rather straightforward and isn't open to improvisation due to the gates, but finding a good spot in the city to make some of your own to challenge others can be a bit satisfying. Beat LEs are basically geocaches you can place or find in the game world. There's no time to beat in finding these, but you can make locating them a challenge to scale a large building. They're rather superfluous, but take such little effort to place, you might find yourself slapping a few down as you explore Glass.
Exploring Glass in itself can prove to be just as liberating as competing in any number of the runs or missions in Catalyst. The city is gorgeous, and each district's distinct design gives the world personality despite each area being such clean, bright world. This is especially true at night, when Glass' districts come alive in colors that shine just a bit brighter against the darkened sky than they do the porcelain daytime. Of course, the crystalline beauty comes at a price --- your ability to navigate clearly. You're going to fall off buildings and leap to your death a number of times. There's no getting around it. It's just a tad bit frustrating though when it happens because you can't clearly discern distances between buildings or where to go next because everything looks so shiny. Depth is hard to judge when running at full speed, and where you think there might be a ledge to land might just end up being a quick trip to the cold pavement below.
Still, Catalyst is a gorgeous game in a wonderfully realized world. Glass is just remarkable to take in, even in its most frustrating moments. That beauty is amplified by the sound design. From the score carrying over the spirit of the first game (which makes sense given its the same composer/artist, Solar Fields) and the diegetic effects which give life to Glass while you rip through it at high speed, Catalyst is an aural spectacle as much as it is a visual one. There are times you might even just want to dial back all the exterior noise and let the score do its thing as you leap from building to building with no safety net beneath you.
The wait for a follow-up to Mirror's Edge was certainly a long one, but now that Catalyst is finally here, we can say the wait has so been worth it. DICE has expanded on the formula developed in the original game to not just make this sequel feel necessary, but also just as fresh as it was nearly a decade ago. Yes, it has some padding in its optional missions, some of which just aren't very fun, but when you are free to just run with nothing else on your mind, Mirror's Edge Catalyst reminds you why you fell in love with the concept in the first game, and illuminates why so many people have revered this series for so long.
This review was completed with a download of Mirror's Edge Catalyst provided by the publisher for Xbox One.