Mirror's Edge Catalyst review

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Electronic Arts
Developer EA Digital Illusions CE
Release Date Jun 7, 2016

I don't think it's exaggerating to say I didn't expect Mirror's Edge Catalyst would happen.

Mirror's Edge was one of 2008's blackest sheep, a first-person game that discouraged shooting starring an Asian woman who performed acrobatic maneuvers through a neon primary-colored future police state as she delivered packages.

I'll give you a second to take all that in.

It was a deeply divisive game, one that arguably served better as a proof of concept for cool ideas than as something for the masses, full of serious flaws that often dragged it down. It also had fierce defenders, and though they were unable to make Mirror's Edge anything more than a middling sales disappointment, they kept hope alive that maybe, someday, developer DICE would be able to step away from the house it built with the Battlefield series to revisit Faith Connor's parkour-driven adventure.

Six years later, publisher Electronic Arts shocked those fans by announcing Mirror's Edge Catalyst, a "reimagining"/reboot of the series starring Faith in an open world. Eight years later, it's finally here. And while DICE hasn't quite managed to overcome all of the problems that Mirror's Edge's head-down charge forward often collided with, it turns out an open world is a pretty good space to allow the series to grow.

That isn't really why I signed up, though. Catalyst's setting is a more successful character than most of its human players, and its visual language remains stark and brightly colorful in direct contradiction of every other triple-A game out there. But it's the play that drew me into the original game, and it's here where Mirror's Edge Catalyst has the most to say.

The parkour gameplay from the original game makes a return mostly unaltered in form and spirit, though it does feel blessedly smoother and marginally more forgiving in Catalyst. The big change is one of venue. Where Mirror's Edge was a linear game, a set of levels to go through accompanied by some time trials, Catalyst is, ostensibly, a world. The City of Glass is a place where Faith is searching both for answers and a way to pay her old debts, and she can take jobs and side missions to do them both.

mirror's edge review screen 2

This is a great conceit for Faith as a gray-market messenger operating outside of the corporate-sanctioned laws of her world, and it opens up Mirror's Edge Catalyst in a way that the original game could never manage with its more finite spaces. In Mirror's Edge, you might spend 20 or even 30 seconds at a clip free-running along walls and across gaps. In Catalyst, you'll spend multiple minutes getting to missions and completing side activities, and even levels that are separated from the main game world are considerably larger than anything in the original.

This allows for a lot more of what made Mirror's Edge great in the first place, though it's not without some strange concessions to generic, open-world game design ideas that trip things up here and there. For example, some incredibly important basic parkour abilities are locked behind an upgrade tree — namely, the 180-degree turn, an ability that is literally required to complete the game, as well as the double wall-run, which, while not required, is profoundly helpful.

Once you have those things, Catalyst does very well at providing a world full of environments and objects to style off of. It's a game whose best reward is playing it, where fast travel is the road less taken, because getting there is not half the fun — it's most of it. When DICE's level design and mechanics are working, which is a pretty good amount of the time, Catalyst is a singular open-world experience. No one moves like Faith — there's a simultaneous flow and heft to everything she does.

This isn't new; it was all in place in Mirror's Edge (the first), but it is considerably refined here, and lots of small details make Faith feel more rooted in her environment. My favorite is rocketing across gaps, and, just before making a life-saving roll upon impact, seeing my shadow cast on the ground, growing larger. Largely due to much-improved tech, Faith is reflected in much of the world as she reacts in it. These visual cues signal a grace that serves as a stronger glue this time around, and more effectively made me feel like I was doing all of the amazing shit that Catalyst encourages you do.

That is, when it's not busy getting in its own way.

mirror's edge review screen 3

Take the time trial mechanics, for example. Mirror's Edge Catalyst offers a multiplayer-oriented ghost function that will allow your friends to see your runs and compete against them, which is great! It's a racing game conceit that translates to Catalyst perfectly. But it translates almost too well, because time trials support all the speed and traversal upgrades you can unlock as you progress — meaning that until you and your friends all have your skill trees maxed out, perfecting your times on these courses is pointless. It's like racing a crappy car against a tuned machine.

Elsewhere, Mirror's Edge Catalyst can display a strange lack of confidence in its best self, and the game buries some of its coolest elements. My favorite sections of the game are the grid node puzzles, which are the purest platforming brain teasers the game has to offer. In a stroke of genius, there are two levels of challenge in these sections. Basic traversal is one — Faith must find a way to a platform through multiple levels of the very complicated catwalks and geometry of a server room not designed for human egress. This is Mirror's Edge 101 stuff, but it never stopped feeling cool.

But there's a second, optional mechanic in play in grid node sections, as security lasers are strategically placed throughout each environment. Crossing a beam sets off a security alert, which is generally not a thing you should be doing, though you won't instantly fail for screwing up. If you're like me, however, you will feel pretty badass threading jumps and slides and wall-runs just so, like some kind of parkour cat burglar.

Mirror's Edge Catalyst can display a strange lack of confidence in its best self

Only one of these missions is critical to finishing the game. The rest are optional tasks that open up fast travel options throughout Glass. And I'll be honest: This seems like a colossal waste. I'd have much rather gone through more and more intricate future heists than have had to beat up another room full of security forces using combat mechanics that still aren't very fun.

The City of Glass' security forces are usually nonlethally armed. Security officers with guns have advanced weapons that can only be used by their owner. Now let that breath out, because DICE still falls prey to far too frequent combat encounters that try to squeeze more out of Catalyst's fighting system than it's really capable of. Faith's martial arts prowess is absent the fluidity and grace of her high-speed navigation through the environment, and it feels frustratingly clunky by comparison.

I didn't particularly enjoy the combat in Mirror's Edge Catalyst, but there is at least a sense of satisfaction to the crunch of a roundhouse kick connecting with the helmet of a K-Sec officer. I felt a grim kind of accomplishment at beating the more elite troops every now and again.

mirror's edge catalyst review screen 1

But K-Sec and fistfights seem to be Mirror's Edge Catalyst's crutch when it can't think of anything else to do. Too many levels end with boring physical encounters; the last quarter of the game especially suffers from this, falling prey to standard action game conventions. Enemies that served as bosses appear in regular groups of enemies, and then there are two heavies. "Screw it," I imagine someone said — "let's just literally have a slapstick moment where Faith comes around a corner, and there are 15 dudes having some kind of team-building meeting in an executive apartment, and Faith is waiting for an elevator anyway, so ..."

You can fill in the ellipses with your fists. This is actually a thing that happens. There are minor moments of wave-based enemy survival in Mirror's Edge Catalyst, which seems about as far from the spirit of the rest of the game as anything I can imagine, shy a rocket launcher boss fight.

But this is also set against the backdrop of platforming that increasingly feels like a cheap death trap, rather than the smart problems to be solved elsewhere. Or, as often, Mirror's Edge Catalyst relies too much on standing in just the right place and tapping the MAG rope button to zip up to where you need to be. The last quarter of the game is a bad ribbon to tie on top of an otherwise mostly cool spin on the ideas of the original.

Wrap Up:

An open world gives Mirror's Edge Catalyst room to grow

But once the story is done, Mirror's Edge Catalyst still has all the stuff left to do that makes it unique. This is a review-unique scenario — I have to play the critical path, and most people will never finish the game. Instead, I imagine most players will happily bounce from side mission to delivery to grid node and back again, content to do what Mirror's Edge has always been best at: constantly moving forward and up. And once you can focus on that, Mirror's Edge Catalyst is a flawed, but often great breath of something different and exciting in an open-world landscape full of the same old thing.

Mirror's Edge Catalyst was reviewed using pre-release "retail" downloadable copies provided by Electronic Arts on Xbox One, PS4 and PC. Mirror's Edge Catalyst features several online components that were not tested prior to release, and this review will remain provisional until Polygon is able to further test these aspects of the game. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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