When Mirror's Edge Catalyst was unveiled to the world at EA's E3 2015 press conference earlier this week, two things stood out to fans of the first game. One was the lack of gun combat, which EA later confirmed to Polygon is gone for good. The other was the idea that this Mirror's Edge takes place in an open world. What does that mean and can it work?
As it turns out, it absolutely can.
"We're building a city," says Sara Jansson, the senior producer of Mirror's Edge Catalyst. "It's a city; it's not a bunch of different levels. It's a city. You move seamlessly through it. As you play, though, you'll unlock more and more areas to free roam. But you'll be able to move seamlessly through them without any loading screens or ever stopping. You can move in and out of buildings and between different areas. You can always move fluidly between them."
The reason this fluidity is so necessary to the game is obvious within moments of picking up the controller for a brief hands-on demo at E3. The original Mirror's Edge was at its best when it focused on movement, but for Mirror's Edge Catalyst, movement is everything.
There's no run button; Faith is always running by default
A new combat system rewards skillful movement by turning Faith invincible for as long as she's in the middle of an uninterrupted combo of moves. What this means is that you always want to be running in Mirror's Edge Catalyst. You always want to be pushing forward, bouncing off of walls and using your momentum to rocket you toward and away from enemies.
The importance of momentum is the most obvious in a courier side mission in my hands-on demo, where Faith is tasked with delivering an important file from one drop location to another. The rooftops between these two spots are peppered with heavily armored thugs, and I have to use a flurry of graceful moves to take them out.
For as impressive as Faith's wall runs and massive leaps are, the game's controls are actually quite simple. There's no run button; Faith is always running by default, and she picks up speed the longer you hold forward without breaking. If you want to do a lower body movement such as a crouch, a slide, or rolling out of a big jump, you tap the right trigger. If you want to do an upward movement — a jump, a wall run, climbing a pipe and so on — you tap the left button on top of the controller.
In combat this translates into Faith doing an uppercut out of a slide to knock out an unsuspecting guard or a beautiful (if slightly disorienting) spin kick as she runs up to another enemy. When Jansson tells me that the combat is now more of "an extension of the movement," she's not blowing smoke. Even when I'm taking out enemies, I never feel like my goal of figuring out a fun urban navigation puzzle has changed.
The courier mission is only one of many side mission types that will populate the open world of Mirror's Edge Catalyst. I accept one that involves figuring out how to navigate up to a high-rise digital billboard so Faith can hack into it and replace some corporate propaganda with her version of graffiti. In another, I race from point to point attempting to beat the fastest time of Icarus, another runner who will play a major part in the story.
While the idea of an open world full of dozens of these kinds of side missions might strike you as a little played out by this point, all of the activities in Mirror's Edge Catalyst share a singular focus: that movement. While they may be distractions from the critical path of the story, none of them felt like they distracted from the reason I wanted to play the game.
"There are a lot of things we had to adjust to make sure that the fluidity of the movement works in a city where you can explore and not just traverse the area in one direction," Jansson says when I ask her about the difficulty of designing an open world versus mostly linear, one-shot levels. "It's a complicated thing when you develop it but also makes it more exciting to play."
Jansson is also hoping that Mirror's Edge Catalyst's story will also make it more exciting to play. The plot of the first game never got much praise, and the team took that to heart, going back to the drawing board for this follow-up. The result is something that Jansson is careful to clarify as neither a reboot nor a prequel.
"We wanted to make the best story possible," she says. "We wanted to make sure that Faith had actual character development throughout the story. She's not the same person when the game starts as when it ends. And we want to put her in the center of an important national conflict. We are not building up to the storyline of the first game; we're building up the character of Faith."
One interesting note about the plot of Mirror's Edge Catalyst that some fans have picked up on is how the game seemingly critiques giant corporations ... but is created by a team that's part of a giant corporation. For her part, Jansson says she's never felt any real conflict about this.
"We take inspiration from the real world, but it's a parallel universe," she says. "We wanted to twist it a little bit and imagine if all the big corporations in our world today became evil and started using all that they have for evil. It's more of a 'what would happen' story."
Elsewhere on the internet, people took note of the fact that Mirror's Edge Catalyst antagonist Gabriel Kruger bears a startling resemblance to Electronic Arts CEO Andrew Wilson. Jansson laughs at the tweet I show her and promises it's a coincidence:
"We actually made the concept for Gabriel Kruger before Andrew Wilson became CEO. There is another image that's actually the inspiration for him, but I cannot say what it is. But it's another famous image and a famous character, and that's not Andrew Wilson. It's a pretty fun meme, though."
Seriously, the dictatorial bad guy of Mirror's Edge 2 is the boss of EA pic.twitter.com/YaXDjb0YGd— Mark Brown (@britishgaming) June 15, 2015
More than anything, my time with Jansson and the Mirror's Edge Catalyst E3 demo leaves me believing that the game is on the right track. She talks about how for as much as it's spoken of as not-quite-a-success, the original Mirror's Edge has actually sold quite well over the seven years since its launch. That makes Mirror's Edge Catalyst a good business decision, but it's also one born of passion.
"To me, personally, this is a game that deserves to be made," Jansson says. "It's different, it's unique, and I think we can do even better than the first time."