Mirror's Edge Catalyst Xbox One Review: Runner's Highs and Lows [Updated with Final Thoughts and Score!]
EA Dice's first-person parkour series returns after nearly a decade of absence. But was it worth the wait?
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Back in 2008, the original Mirror's Edge turned heads for being a rare splash of color in landscape of first-person-shootery greys, greens and browns. While it had its flaws, EA Dice's unique creation at least gave us some hope during those first few dismal years of the last console version.
It's funny, then, that the long-awaited return of Mirror's Edge feels so... establishment. While its debut amounted to a concise, linear adventure that wouldn't occupy more than a few afternoons, Mirror's Edge Catalyst has assumed the only identity a major release from a major publisher can take these days: that of the sprawling, open world game. And while it's funny a series about a bland, corporate dystopia would inevitably feel like a product from its fictional world, Mirror's Edge's original spark can still be spotted within this very well-trodden form of expression.
If you've played any open-world game in the past decade, Mirror's Edge Catalyst should feel extremely familiar. At its core, it's basically indistinguishable from The Ubisoft Model: Catalyst offers a large world, littered with dozens of variants on a half-dozen activities, as well as more intricately designed story missions that push the campaign forward. New abilities unlock as you complete more objectives, but, as expected, every player should end up with all of them unlocked by the end—you won't be shooting for any specific character build, here. Oh, and there are lots of collectibles strewn about, because what would an open world game be without any of those?
At its heart, Catalyst doesn't differ too much from the original. During its best moments, Mirror's Edge's sequel feels like a sort of first-person Prince of Persia, in which you use acrobatics, upper-body strength, and a strong resistance to motion sickness to parkour your way from Point A to Point B. Your interactions with the world basically consist of "run, "jump," and "slide," though the real challenge comes in stringing a succession of these moves together with split-second timing to cope with obstacles and ostensibly bottomless pits in your path. Oh yeah, and there's still some awkward fighting thrown in, but this time around, it's mercifully less awkward.
Since there aren't many notable landmarks within its Ikea-crafted world, Mirror's Edge Catalyst does its best to approximate protagonist Faith's sense of runner's intuition with some smart visual feedback. As with the 2008 debut, objects you should interact with begin to glow red as you approach them, but Catalyst builds on this feature a bit more to help players cope with its open-world nature. Clicking the right analog stick activates "Runner's Vision," which sends a faint red trail in front of Faith to reveal the route to her next objective. In theory, this choice may seem patronizing, but it actually helps maintain momentum by allowing players to keep moving without having to jump to a menu or divert their eyes to a mini-map to maintain their sense of direction. Plus, Catalyst often removes the Runner's Vision option entirely for missions and challenges that focus more on navigation puzzles than sheer speed.
Thankfully, the awkward, frustrating gunplay of the original has been omitted entirely. Encountering enemies still stands as the least exciting thing to do in Mirror's Edge, but Catalyst at least tries to spice it up by providing a host of melee options for Faith. Most of the combat involves mixing up your moves—since enemies tend to block the same successive attacks—and using directional attacks to knock them into one another. Encountering an enemy or two along your route feels completely manageable, but Catalyst's worst moments come when you're trapped in an arena and this formerly exhilarating parkour game becomes a dull, first-person brawler. Again, it's a huge improvement over what we saw in the last game, but combat still can't help but feel like a box to check on EA's "But Will This Sell?" list.
If the promise of yet another open-world game with thousands of things to do has you feeling less than enthused, it's actually easy to skip most of the chaff and focus on the main missions. Since many of these optional challenges don't send you off into an instanced version of the game's world, dipping into one of two of these while on your way to the next objective feels pretty organic. And while the long list of collectibles in every area may have you rolling your eyes when it fades in on the screen, you'll encounter a lot of them pretty naturally, even if you're taking a very direct route. Getting a extra boost in experience points here and there definitely comes in handy when some of those vital missions can't be accessed until you unlock one of Faith's abilities.
And, speaking of abilities, Catalyst adds a few new moves to Faith's repertoire that manage to avoid overcomplicating the action. After a certain point in the campaign, a grappling hook enters the equation as one more thing you'll have to consider in your attempt to reach the next destination ASAP. Sometimes you'll have to swing across a chasm, other times you'll have to pull yourself up to the top of something, and your hook can also pull debris away from vital passageways. Even if it feels a bit borrowed from the Arkham series—not that Batman is the only video game character with a grappling hook—the extra actions you perform with this tool mesh well with the basic interactions and don't slow down Faith's sense of momentum.
Unfortunately, this excellent sense of momentum completely falls apart whenever Catalyst feels the need to tell its story. Like many elements of the game, it's not especially bad; it's just there because it has to be. Catalyst tells its story with cutscenes, just like the first Mirror's Edge (albeit with CGI instead of stylish 2D assets), but even if the narrative does its best to stay out of the way, any time you're not moving in Catalyst is a bad time. Somewhere around the halfway point, I started skipping cutscenes and realized the voice-over fed to me during missions provided enough context for the things I was doing. But really, I didn't need much context. Mirror's Edge is ultimately about performing amazing physical feats our atrophied gamer bodies are incapable of, and a generic dystopian tale of badassery isn't at all necessary for motivation.
Mirror's Edge Catalyst also features some multiplayer options that come off little inspired, even if they still feel obligatory. Instead of playing against others directly, your actions effect their respective worlds in a system that feels a little inspired by the Souls series. You can lay down markers to fill others in on hidden collectibles and other secrets, and create (as well as undertake) time trials in which players are tasked with beating your fastest time in a given area. A perfectly acceptable concept in theory, but really, Mirror's Edge Catalyst has so much content, it's hard to imagine a scenario where you'd opt for a player-created challenge over one of the hundreds designed by developers who actually made the game.
Ultimately, Mirror's Edge Catalyst puts me in the awkward position of being a backseat game designer. It sets out to achieve some modest goals within the ubiquitous open-world formula, and mostly does—which is why it's too bad this type of experience has become such a dull prospect. Rather than having the focus of the first game, Catalyst instead opts for buffet-style content delivery system, if only for the sake of justifying a full-priced retail release. If EA had instead opted to make Catalyst a shorter and more refined game, my time with it would have been far less tedious—but EA doesn't really do small games. While it's great to see Mirror's Edge finally make a comeback after all these years, it seems the only way it can exist in the hands of a major publisher is to be just like everything else.
InterfaceThe use of red to draw your attention still works incredibly well, and Faith's "Runner's Vision" ability makes navigating the city a breeze.
Lasting AppealThere's certainly a whole lot of game here. Whether or not you'll want to play variant after variant of some very basic mission types is another story.
SoundThe sound design helps emphasize Faith's sense of speed, but doesn't really stand out in any other way.
VisualsThe use of the color red to draw your attention still works incredibly well, and Faith's "Runner's Vision" ability makes navigating the city a breeze.
ConclusionWhile Catalyst keeps up the great first-person parkour action of the first game, the awkward smashing of its parts into the ubiquitous, open-world model hasn't done Mirror's Edge any favors. The overall aesthetic and sense of momentum still have their charms, but it's disappointing to see EA Dice take such a safe, predictable approach with what once felt like a boldly unique property.