Mirror's Edge came out for the PlayStation 3 in 2008 and it is literally the only PlayStation 3 game I own. I bought the console in 2011 because it was a top-of-the-line Blu-ray player and I guess Mirror's Edge was the only game for the console I had any interest in playing. I wrote a belated post-mortem of the game in 2012 and concluded that it had unique strengths and significant, fixable flaws, and pleaded for a sequel.
That sequel, Mirror's Edge: Catalyst, finally appeared in 2016. Last year (2021) I got back into gaming after a lengthy hiatus and this year I finally got around to playing it. So. What's different? Anything?
Let's start with length. Mirror's Edge was structured in a relatively old-school story-based action game way, with a sequence of nine linear levels leading to a conclusion. The game was over too quickly, and it wasn't long enough to ever properly school you in the mechanics.
Catalyst's story missions, taken together, run a little longer than the original, but what's more important is the open game world structure linking them together. Between story missions, you spend about the same amount of time again just traversing the rooftops of the city. Following runner routes, practicing those fundamental manoeuvres, getting good at the basics of the controls, getting the mobility down. If you incorporate a healthy dose of optional side missions, the playing time to the end of the main story goes up again. So, there's time and opportunity to get good before the story is over. And then, like any open world game now, there's plenty of secondary content after it's over. That's a great start. I'll call this flaw totally fixed.
The original game was almost entirely linear. You had no opportunity to experiment with alternate routes through levels, unless you felt like going back and playing the game all over again. And, being honest, even on replay, most of the levels were still very linear. There simply was no experimentation to be done. Catalyst has much, much better level design, lots of small- and medium-sized routing choices to make, lots of semi-obvious shortcuts to consider, lots of tradeoffs. You also traverse the whole city multiple times during the main story, and when you do, you find yourself visiting the same main runner "thoroughfares" multiple times. So, you do now get that opportunity to experiment.
And, at every turn in Catalyst, there are diverting little side missions like deliveries and timed dashes, which challenge you to optimise your movement from a set point A to point B. Here, strategising about efficient routes is actually part of the challenge — you can't get to point B fast enough unless you think about routing. Better yet, some of those challenges take place partly on main thoroughfares. This means that when you inevitably come back that way, you remember the optimisations you learned, and you can use them to get where you're going faster. These are great, passive, organic rewards.
Runner vision is subtly altered for Catalyst and thereby massively improved. Mirror's Edge had a button you could press to point yourself at your next objective, but it was mostly up to you to figure out how to traverse the level to get there. In a lot of levels, this broke flow, because traversal was non-obvious, and fiddly, and took time to figure out. Catalyst ditches that mechanic and instead nearly always gives you a virtual red runner "ghost" which traces your suggested route forward at high speed. So, almost instinctively, you follow it. It doesn't always take the fastest possible route, which is intentional and part of the challenge, but it also means you very seldom get stalled.
Replacing those unfortunate areas of slowdown, Catalyst adds straight-up navigation puzzles. There are hackable billboards, where most of the challenge is figuring out how to get up to them to hack them, and secret messenger bags, dropped in seemingly inaccessible places and signposted with nearby graffiti. Runner vision doesn't lead you to these destinations. These challenges deliberately, explicitly test your ability to explore, to think about the environment, and to apply the movement techniques you have at your disposal. Again: the game is training you, and rewarding you for learning. Instead of being a detriment, these challenges make for a welcome change of pace from the relatively frantic timed delivery missions and dashes. Explicitly separating these two game modes is another really smart, subtle piece of game design, and another totally fixed flaw.
Mirror's Edge had some serious jank: finicky controls, and some severe issues with parts of its game world. Dodgy collision on pipes and flagpoles, timed disarms where the correct timing never actually lined up with the prompt... I distinctly remember the final helicopter set-piece, which as far as I could discern was completely random whether it worked or not, a coin flip, with no logic to it at all. Catalyst is much better-implemented, much more precise and predictable in its behaviour. The addition of a dedicated button for boosting off the starting line is incredibly valuable.
Performance: Mirror's Edge was riddled with disguised loading triggers. Elevators. Long, winding ventilation ducts. Slow areas where you had to shimmy carefully along ledges or through narrow passages. Heavy valves you had to turn to open doors or shut off water. And all of those disguises weren't even enough; the game frequently just had to pause gameplay while it streamed data from the Blu-ray. Catalyst exists in a time of much improved hardware and better masking techniques. There are some obvious choke points between major areas of the city, linear sections meant to hide loading, but they're long, and you move through them at high speed, and so the game never actually visibly slows down to load, unless you fast travel to a new area.
Combat! Both games emphasise the totally logical point that the player character, Faith, is weak and incapable and no good in a fight, and her best option is usually to run from attackers. And both games go on to make the same baffling mistake of occasionally forcing the player into combat with armed, armoured security in order to progress. Catalyst's combat is at least marginally more forgiving. The enemies' weapons don't do as much damage, damage is easier to recover from, Faith has a better repertoire of attacks, and once you learn how to use the environment, you can take down even well-armoured enemies relatively efficiently. But come on. There is still work to do here.
Visuals and atmosphere: Mirror's Edge looked amazing at the time and still, in my opinion, holds up exceptionally well. Catalyst... looks nice, but despite eight years of graphical advancement, I don't think it actually looks nicer. That said, I did enjoy the slow passage of time in the game. The game world's Sun sets and rises over the course of a real-time hour or so, so you get the whole day-night cycle, and the city looks amazing at all times of day and night.
My next couple of points are more subjective.
Catalyst has the same problem as Mirror's Edge where large tracts of the game world don't stand up to scrutiny as habitable spaces. It's weird to me that this is something I have a problem with and I don't know if it qualifies as valid criticism. But it is, for reasons I find difficult to articulate, important to me that the game world be credible as a real place.
In the original game, there were special time trial stages taking place in ethereal spaces made of abstract geometric shapes. Running those time trials was something I found incredibly dissatisfying and I never spent more than a few minutes in total in that game mode. Catalyst wisely has no such abstractions and takes place entirely in a single, nominally real city. Still, much of the Catalyst city rings the same way to me. Many areas of the city are so strangely structured that they feel abstract. Warrens of corridors to nowhere, purposeless empty rooms, meaningless networks of stairs and catwalks. Seemingly ordinary, functional rooms, with ducts routed directly across them at chest height. Why? Well, to vault across, obviously, but really, why?
In the upper-class residential district, nearly every staircase lacks a handrail. All the doors are standing wide open, allowing runners to pass through people's lavish, private residences unobstructed. (Well, allowing Faith, alone, to pass. No other runners are actually seen running in the game.) One mission had me trying to reach an upper floor of an apartment, so naturally I circled the lower floor, looking for stairs, but there were none. There was no space where stairs could even have been. This apartment's upper floor was literally inaccessible without wallclimbing. It felt alien to me.
And, although there are more people around than in the first game, the city is still achingly underpopulated. In the first game, you could maybe catch an exceedingly brief glimpse of a few civilians on one level — rapidly fleeing, to avoid giving away the fact that the developers hadn't had time to properly model and texture them. (Mirror's Edge was clearly crunched. Many of its more obvious gaffes and shortcomings can be attributed to a lack of time for proper polish.) Catalyst has more people, people you can overhear having casual conversations behind glass, meetings in offices, parties here and there... but still, far, far too few. Huge construction sites and office buildings just standing empty. Entire residential districts with no families in the homes.
So it doesn't feel lived-in. Although the game does intend to present a real, functional city, and the game directly states district-level population figures in the thousands, there is definitely a suspiciously Neom-esque atmosphere to this place. As if the city was this worthless bauble which was built to look nice, not to truly function, by people with insane excesses of money — and is now, inescapably, failing.
The setting of Catalyst is much better fleshed out than Mirror's Edge. For one thing, the city finally has a name now, "Glass". For another, we finally get to meet some of the people we run for, and find out what some of the deliveries actually contain. These were all intensely glaring omissions from the first game. (Although, it is quite funny in Catalyst whenever a client hands Faith some illegal contraband and tells her that it's illegal contraband and she needs to deliver it quickly because of how illegal it is. Maybe that last omission was kind of defensible.)
Not only does Glass have a name, it also has a country (Cascadia), some established politics and history (ruling families, the Conglomerate, the loCaste/hiCaste/noCaste system) and some geopolitics (a neighbouring nation called OmniStat which sends agents). Having these background details in place, it's kind of... comforting. It's reassuring that the game has a decent foundation to build its story on. The story actually has some interesting unanswered questions. Exactly why was OmniStat trying to interfere with the Reflection project?
The voice acting in the game is much improved. Faith's previous voice actor, in particular, was dreadful, and her new voice actor is totally fine. The writing and characterisation are all two or three notches better. Literally every character from the original game other than Faith is ditched, including her family, and it's seemingly a completely new continuity. Dogen, Rebecca Thane and Noah are all kind of likeable people, although none of them are earth-shatteringly inventive or dynamic personalities. Dialogue feels pleasantly organic. Every now and then the game gets close to having a memorable line or a memorable moment.
Cutscenes are no longer animated 2D but motion-captured 3D, very conventional, but they work. The story is still a little predictable and rather clichéd, which admittedly are not necessarily faults. The story is also inconclusive. Unfortunately I think a lot of games of this ilk have to be inconclusive, because the game needs you to be able to continue playing it indefinitely after the main story's conclusion. If Faith totally overthrew the Kruger dynasty and shut the city down, if she effected any meaningful change, you wouldn't be able to do that, would you?
It's also a pity the whole relationship with Icarus never goes anywhere substantial. For a teenage (??) dystopian heroine laden with angst and responsibility and personal familial tragedy, who just spent two years in prison, Faith sure seems to have no romantic interests. I think this thing could have benefited from a good, solid love triangle.
Spoilers in the preceding few paragraphs.
Was that everything?
I have a strange relationship with these games. For some reason they carry some significance to me despite their mediocrity. I don't think they're underrated, or overrated. I can't say I disagree with the popular consensus that they are mixed bags.
These are games which I admire more for what they try to do than for what they achieve. There is something here which has value, a formula which hasn't been perfected yet, but still can be. Catalyst was a huge step closer to that point, but I feel that there is something else, something more fundamental, which needs to change here before we will see the true, popular, breakthrough mainstream parkour game.
I think DICE, the original developers on the original game, were crushed for time, and made the best game they could given their circumstances. I think EA, though, made exactly the game they intended to make; Catalyst has all of EA's fingerprints, and little indication of higher aspirations. This was a successful execution of their vision and I don't think their vision is the vision.
In short, although I like this universe and I think the Faith Connors character has momentum and potential, I don't think EA can do what needs to be done here. Someone else, please, must leapfrog this franchise, and go far beyond it, and do it right.