Mirror’s Edge’s Lose-Lose Scenario

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I received a review copy of Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst four days before it released on store shelves. I’ve written a full review, but as of this writing, I don’t know when it’ll be published. Consider that my disclaimer, and also my reason for this piece. Also consider that I’m a fan of the first game, but I still recognize its faults.

However much a fan I am, I approached Catalyst with worry because I knew it might be an awful sequel that could potentially tarnish my love for it and squelch any chance we have at potentially getting a Mirror’s Edge 3 – even if, like Catalyst, that third game takes 8 years to get here. I don’t want to see Mirror’s Edge become a yearly release, but I don’t want the series to die with Catalyst either.

I consider the video-game space extremely lucky at all to even have a new Mirror’s Edge. The first game was much more of a great idea and an excellent practice of visual design than a well-executed game. It’s perhaps the first (correct me if I’m wrong) first-person parkour platformer. I’ve heard several people make comparisons to Prince of Persia, and that’s not far off except Mirror’s Edge is in first-person and features a futuristic city landscape – like if Apple and IKEA teamed up to build a whole city.

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Mirror’s Edge 1 told the story of Faith, a runner and information courier in a dystopian city. The visual design and running mechanics are what drew me to it and caused me to fall in love. However, the gameplay was occasionally a mess. Developer DICE included combat and optional use of guns, which slowed down the game’s goal momentum and provided unnecessary difficulty spikes. Combat in Mirror’s Edge was pretty universally panned.

Mirror’s Edge also featured a handful of platforming scenarios that were obtuse and difficult. I fell off rooftops to my death dozens of times. Between some bad platforming and the bad combat, I remember several sessions I played where I nearly tested how controller-resistant my apartment walls were.

I loved the idea and visual design of Mirror’s Edge, but I wanted to love it more. So when Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst finally came 8 years later, I knew it would be interesting to see where I landed on it – completely untainted because I hadn’t been exposed to any review impressions of the game yet. That’s one weird side note of getting review copies – your opinion forms without the musty smell of other game reviews stacking up before you play it.

I finished Catalyst and liked it an awful lot. What impressed me the most was how DICE seemed to take things everyone hated about he first game and flaunt how they could indeed make them better rather than cut them out completely. When DICE first showed the game off, its first trailer featured two of the worst aspects of the first game – combat and interior environments.

Great, I thought. Here they are trying to shoehorn in bad stuff from the first game again. I guess they haven’t learned their lessons.

However, when I finished the game, which does indeed feature a smattering of indoor environments and occasional combat, I liked all of those bits. The indoor areas are big enough to feel open and not like you’re running down tiny hallways. And the combat is good. Not great or amazing, but good.

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As I’ve been skimming reviews for Catalyst I see a lot of people calling out how hard and awkward the combat is. I don’t know if I’m just really good at the game or if I got lucky in my encounters or what, but I rarely – rarely – found the combat to be hard.

The first fix is that Faith’s use of guns is taken out of the equation entirely. And only one of the four enemy types Faith fights uses them. Because Faith has no guns, she has a light attack, a strong attack (which causes the enemy to stumble) and a dodge move. Press Dodge in conjunction with the left stick and Faith will dash that direction – kind of like in Titanfall.

Catalyst features an upgrade menu and most of the upgrades available in it are for combat use. They either make Faith do more damage to enemies, give her a pulse from her glove to disorient enemies, give her a move that pulls the enemy toward her (almost like a dance move) to shove them out of the way and expose his or her back, or they give her more health.

I’m the kind of gamer who saves up upgrade points until I feel like I need to use them to survive a situation. I rarely felt overpowered in Catalyst, so at some point when I had about 8 points available I gave in and bought a bunch of combat upgrades. Maybe this is why combat was easier for me than other people who reviewed the game? Maybe no one else bought the upgrades? I obviously can’t speak for someone else’s expertise on the game, but I personally never found the combat awkward or difficult.

I often made quick work of groups of enemies who were set up for intense fights. In one late level Faith turns down a dead-end hallway right into a group of about 8 enemies and immediately panics and calls her handler to open an elevator door nearby. Funny thing is, the game meant for me to turn and run into a nearby large lobby to fight all the enemies in a bigger, open space. Instead, I took them all out in the tiny hallway in a matter of seconds in one try. I laughed when Faith got back to the lobby and the game, not realizing I’d knocked out all the enemies seconds ago, made Faith do another panicked voiceover asking her handler to hurry with the door. Hah.

So, yeah, I don’t know what all the people playing this game are complaining about. Or maybe, like I said, I’m just better at it. After all, I don’t like the Dark Souls games because I’m bad it their combat. To each their own.

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The other thing I keep seeing people complain about is Catalyst’s new open-world design. This brings me to my biggest damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation.

The first Mirror’s Edge was all segmented missions, separated by cartoony cutscenes. Because the game’s main focus was on running and movement, the linear missions sometimes negated that quality. When I found out Catalyst would be open-world, I was elated. It just made sense. Now I could spend more time doing what the game does best — running and climbing around the environment — and not just for a mission’s sake.

I’ve seen reviewers complain that because Catalyst is open-world, it features too many side-things to do.

There are a lot of activities in the environment, that’s totally true — time trial dashes, multiple kinds of delivery missions, security antennae sabotaging, random items (security chips, information cloud leaks) to stop and pick up. There’s no shortage of stuff to keep Faith busy. And, honestly, the open-worldness does seem pretty well modeled after several other (successful) open-world games – Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto, Watch Dogs, Batman.

What I want to point out here is that all of that side stuff is optional. Normally (like I did in Watch Dogs) I would complain about a game being packed with so much pointless stuff to do, but because Mirror’s Edge maintains its identity quite strongly through its parkour gameplay and unique visual design, I don’t mind it. I felt like I was playing elements of other games, but never mistaking it for another game, if that makes sense. And all the side missions serve only to give Faith extra XP, which she can use for upgrades. In a game like Watch Dogs, several side quests awarded me with cars or guns that I didn’t want and never used.

The other side of the coin here is – if Mirror’s Edge had been open-world and none of those side quests had existed, people would’ve complained that the world were too open with nothing to do. Remember Mafia 2? That was an open-world game with no point in the open world other than to make players drive from one linear mission to the next to pad the game length out. And people came down hard on the developer’s decision to make it open-world.

The other option was for DICE to make Catalyst linear like the first game. Guess what would’ve happened if they did that? People would complain that it’s too short and linear with nothing to do outside the missions.

See what I mean? Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

If you want a linear Mirror’s Edge, go play the first one again because honestly the mechanics haven’t changed all that much. And maybe if you play the first one again you’ll realize your love for it is mostly nostalgia-based and you’ll discover that Catalyst is a bigger step forward than you originally thought.

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