Sometimes, in life, we try new things and they just don’t work out for us. This is especially noticeable in pop culture, where we hold successes up on pedestals and cry foul of the failures. Michael Jordan’s lousy baseball career would be forgotten if not for his three prior NBA championships. Battlestar Galactica’s “Black Market” would be an average piece of television if not compared to the thrilling highs of “33.” Without the first two heart-pounding seasons of Dexter, the eighth season would… still be really bad.
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, like Michael Jordan, Battlestar Galactica, and Dexter, tries to be something it’s not and suffers for it. A reboot of 2008’s Mirror’s Edge, Catalyst is a richly colored game of parkour and high-speed espionage in a future where massive corporations have taken control of everything—though mostly just law enforcement, as far as the story is concerned. Players step into the bright red trainers of Faith as she runs across rooftops delivering messages between various shifty characters, breaks into government complexes to press buttons people told her to press, and tries not to get shot too much in the process.
Despite the stronger focus on storytelling and character over the previous game, Catalyst’s plot is inconsequential. Part of this is because the game itself doesn’t seem to think its story is worth telling—for example, its load screens suggest players check out last year’s comic-book prequel to learn why the game opens with Faith in juvenile hall, rather than ever discussing this in-game. Mostly, it’s just every rote cliché from post-Philip K. Dick impressions of dystopian future city-states. Corporations want to control your thoughts, rival gangs compete for influence but ally against “the man,” and insultingly shallow portmanteaus are used to describe everything that’s at least slightly more advanced than our modern technology. Terms like “HiCaste,” “GridNode,” and “BeatLink” make one wonder how silly “wi-fi” would sound to somebody coming out of a 20-year coma today.
The story never mattered all that much in the previous Mirror’s Edge either. What’s important is the running; the sense of speed, momentum, and fluidity in movement. Being able to sprint across a rooftop, run along a wall, spring up to some scaffolding, and slide down a zip line, all without ever slowing down to look around and plot your next move—that was the game’s great appeal. Catalyst gets this mostly right. Running, jumping, and chaining movements together still feels effortless when it works, but Faith will sometimes get caught on the edge of a flower pot and come to a screeching halt, find her hands stuck inside a sheet of aluminum siding and unable to escape, or plummet to her death from a 2-foot drop as a result of the game’s arbitrarily unforgiving physics.
On several occasions, Faith finds herself locked in a room or enclosed court yard as waves of armed guards come to attack. With no means of escape, you must punch and kick your way through small armies until another character announces they’ve unlocked the door or the game decides to trigger a cutscene of Faith fleeing. So much of Mirror’s Edge is about avoiding conflict—getting away by the skin of your teeth and sticking your tongue out at the law because neener-neener-you-can’t-catch-me—that suddenly being trapped in a small space and forced to confront your aggressors directly feels like a massive disconnect.
These sections demonstrate a larger concern with Catalyst’s design: the “modernization” of Mirror’s Edge. Many aspects of 2008’s game have been altered to meet the standards of what a big-budget game is “supposed” to be in 2016. Instead of having all her skills from the start and training the player to use them over time, Faith now has a skill tree where she can purchase abilities such as rolling when she lands and turning around as she scrambles up a wall. The original game’s linear chapter-based story, which allowed for grandiose reveals and tense escapes, have been replaced with an open world for Faith to run back and forth across endlessly. Each of the safe houses across the map can be accessed via fast travel, a system of instantaneous transit that undercuts the game’s core conceit that running across rooftops is fun. And Faith has a grappling hook because, I don’t know, maybe parkour stopped being cool, so let’s just be Spider-Man for a minute?
During the extended breakaways where Mirror’s Edge Catalyst settles on what it wants to be, it’s an excellent and captivating game. Bounding across tightropes and high-rises as you explore the city is liberating. Catalyst tries to be all things for all people, though, and in the process compromises the things it gets right. By celebrating freedom, the game enables the player to marvel at the richness of its action. When that freedom is restricted, everything that goes with it—movement, agency, nuance—are muted to the point of being dull and dreary, a far cry from the saturated playground we’ve come to expect.
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst
Developer: EA DICE
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4