Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Mirror's Edge Catalyst - Review

Developer: EA DICE
Publisher: EA
Platforms: PS4 (version played), Xbox One, PC

2008 marked the year that, for a brief time, EA attempted to distance itself from being infamous for pumping out movie tie-ins and annual sports releases. Dead Space and Mirror's Edge were the two highlights of this new approach from the publisher. Whilst Dead Space got its slew of sequels, Mirror's Edge was left with nothing new. It was easily the more original concept; first-person platformers aren't exactly a saturated genre, but it's shocking when you consider that it's taken well over eight years to finally get a sequel.

Well...sequel isn't exactly correct. Mirror's Edge Catalyst, despite the contradictory murmurings over at EA, is a full-fledged reboot. The slate has been wiped clean. So whilst Faith returns and the core gameplay remains the same, this is clearly seen as a fresh start for the series; both in terms of its story and as a launch pad for a new franchise.

This is undoubtedly the best way to appreciate Mirror's Edge Catalyst; more than anything else it's a careful exercise in brand management. The isolated levels of the original game have been replaced with a typical open-world format full of races to run and odd-jobs to carry out. A rudimentary skill tree allows you to upgrade Faith's abilities every so often, but, as is usually the case in these open world games, the RPG elements don't particularly affect the way the game is played other than to give your character the vague sense of progression.

You might think that this would make Mirror's Edge Catalyst an underwhelming game. Another big-budget title that falls to the full-fat padding of modern AAA game development and bland, tacked on game mechanics. Catalyst manages to subvert some of its lazy design choices however, by having the core platforming be really damn fun.

A lot of that comes down to DICE having tightened up the platforming formula. The original game was refreshing in many ways, but suffered from a woeful collection of bugs, dodgy collision detection and crude trial-and-error gameplay segments. If there's one thing that Catalyst gets right its fixing these issues. The platforming is tighter and more responsive, no longer will Faith awkwardly flail at a wall without grabbing it because you weren't at the exact angle for the grab to register.

Meanwhile, the colour-coded environment returns, with climbable object highlighted in red, which serves as both a gameplay mechanic and as an aspect of the game's minimalist art style. DICE go one step further this time round too, with a red trail highlighting the most obvious route to your destination. It might smack of simplification but it's a welcome addition, avoiding the trial-and-error laden segments that plagued the original game and allowing you to focus on nailing those perfect jumps at top speed without worrying where you're going.

The platforming itself, other than the technical improvements, remains essentially unchanged. Most missions playing out like a first-person Prince of Persia, as you nail wall-running into a leap off of a balcony, before dropping into a forward roll to absorb your fall. It's a simple loop that plays out for most of the game's missions but remains far more addictive and fun than it has any right to. A lot of that comes down to the physicality of the gameplay. Landing has weight to it, mistiming a roll and landing flat out on the floor will have Faith gasp in pain, adding to the sense that you're controlling a real person and not just moving a camera through the environment.

The open world on the other hand leaves a lot to be desired. As with most open world games, post-2009, Mirror's Edge Catalyst stuffs its city with generic fetch quests and race challenges, all of which can be posted up on online leaderboards. There's also a gamut of random collectibles, such as shiny golden spheres (I've already forgotten what the games calls them) and data chips that need to be pulled out of security boxes.

The irony is that, despite being bland and predictable game design, the context of Mirror's Edge Catalyst's side missions means that they make far more sense, thematically. Whereas in other games side quests typically transform your world-conquering hero into nothing short of a delivery boy, (RPGs in particular fall prey to this problem), here it fits with the character. Faith's a runner, going from point A to point B is literally her job. Likewise, of course a band of parkour-obsessed cyberpunks and hackers are going to be competing with each other for the fastest times around the city. Whatever else you think of the side content, they at least make sense in the context of the game's world.

That doesn't make the these optional challenges any less bland however. The actual moment to moment traversal of the city is, admittedly, one of the games strengths. Similarly, Glass is a gorgeous city to look at, with DICE going for an interesting half-way house between cyberpunk and a futuristic Apple commercial. All of this is slightly undercut by the hollowed out nature of the city, however. Side quest vendors stand awkwardly outside empty high rise buildings with only the game's security guards to keep them company. For a game that plays on its world's aesthetic so much it's a shame that the whole thing regularly feels utterly lifeless.

In fact, Mirror's Edge Catalyst's biggest problem is finding something to marry with its enjoyable platforming. The original downplayed guns as much as possible, making avoiding combat just as enticing, and placing an emphasis on speeding past enemies. Catalyst instead drops guns entirely and half-heartedly introduces a melee combat system. Kruger-Sec guards will sometimes wield firearms but Faith's left with nothing but her punches and kicks to see her through.

Initially, this isn't a huge deal, many of the game's levels de-emphasize engaging enemies in much the same way that the first game did. However, later sequences dump you in awkward closed-off rooms and have you take out guard after guard. It's a sloppy, unrefined combat system with enemies frequently blocking your attacks from the ground and having to resort to spamming a jumping kick over and over again which they almost always seemed utterly helpless against. It's a tacked on system, and worse, it's completely unnecessary.

The open world is mediocre, and the combat system is a complete misfire, but it's the story that manages to almost undermine Mirror's Edge Catalyst's successes. Catalyst is the kind of game that could have benefited greatly from some good writing, adding depth to its sharp and minimalist game mechanics. There's plenty of potential too, Faith is a great female lead and the voice cast across the board give good performances.

The problem is they're given a hackneyed story that plays out like a bad 1984 meets The Hunger Games.  There's the impression, especially during the game's second half, that a good portion of material was cut as the plot launches from one random scenario to another. The central thrust of the game's story has Faith taking on the evil mega-corporation Kruger-Sec with her band of runners. There's the tired out clich├ęs, from the rival runner group that wants to use violence to get rid of the bad people, to the grinning evil corporate boss who's the game's main villain but doesn't turn up until the last third or so.

The kicker though is the terrible non-ending which has the entire story seem as if it were set up to tease a sequel, only to dump you back into the Glass as if nothing had happened, so that you can mop up the remaining side content. Needless to say, Mirror's Edge Catalyst isn't a game you play for the story, but worse, it was a massive missed opportunity.

Missed opportunity is the best way to describe Catalyst as a whole, too. The core platforming gameplay is incredibly fun but everything that DICE attempt to marry it with, be it the open-world, the rebooted storyline or the combat system are both weak and generic by comparison. For fans of the first game, this is well worth playing for that core platforming alone. However, as a relaunch for a potential series, this should have been a whole lot better.


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