“A shame in many departments, but a triumph in a few others … a mixed, yet enjoyable, package.”
2016 is eons ago. Long-gone seem the days which Overwatch genuinely reigned supreme, and where “open-world fatigue” was the most pressing buzz-term on the minds of players. The year in question brought us some cracking experiences (especially after the impenetrably solid catalogue of 2015 releases), with modern-classic arcade shooters DOOM and Titanfall 2 either reinvigorating their dormant sub-genre or pushing it forward, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End rounding off arguably the generation’s most defining third-person action franchise, and Pokemon Go managing to convince me of the underused potential of mobile gaming. Hell, even The Last Guardian and the Hitman reboot found their respective audiences.
The year was not short of controversy, though – even in retrospect. The No Man’s Sky fallout was felt even by those who weren’t that interested in the first place (raises hand), and many high-budget, single-player titles failed to find their footing. Where was the broader audience for Watch Dogs 2, Dishonored 2, or Deux Ex: Mankind Divided? In these games’ place, indies seemed to prevail; Firewatch, INSIDE, The Witness, Stardew Valley — titles that have since (to varying degrees) reached high positions in the public-opinion pantheon. This is not an uncommon phenomenon (see Shovel Knight or Undertale), but remains an interesting trend in the year’s full context, especially considering the continued dominance of a variety of AAA titles.
Part of the year’s spots of contention, at least in my bubble, was the mud surrounding Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. Many were disappointed with the sequel (the memory of IGN’s downcast review sticks), and, with seemingly such mixed reception, I refrained from picking it up on release. Only now have I gotten round to playing the thing, thanks to an extreme price reduction — and, contextually, it is fascinating.
Coming eight years before the eventual release of Catalyst, the original Mirror’s Edge is a total gem. It was one of the first gaming experiences that gave me that now-familiar ‘swept-up’ feeling; when I wasn’t playing it, I was probably thinking about it. It was bold and unique in its presentation, with a refreshing take on gameplay and a story that reflected the developers’ clear knowledge of what made the project interesting, functioning basically as an excuse for traversal set-pieces and micro world-building (which were executed to solid effect). The original has its standout problems — gun-play, combat/enemies, an overall tech-demo feel — but remains a highly enjoyable, streamlined linear experience that is held close to the hearts of many gamers, including myself, for good reason.
EA DICE’s approach to developing a sequel in Catalyst, then, was not to focused on the original’s issues and strengths and double-down on refining the formula already set-out, but instead to add twice as many features, and execute most of them to similarly so-so standards. Raycevick puts it best when he calls Catalyst “the same grade on a more complicated test,” referring to whether it really builds on its predecessor. As he notes, this is technically an improvement — but at the cost of something greater.
Catalyst is open-world, for some reason. I am more persuaded of this feature’s utility than others — I think that this is something that could be done well with the series if really done properly — but do concede its superfluousness. Gone is the sense that the developers really knew what they wanted to create here, replaced instead by the forced inclusion of prevailing trends in gaming. The open-world in Catalyst is poorly designed, the player never really experiencing the scope or feel of the setting due to isolated map segments, connected by a confusing bridge system that works to kneecap the gameplay by preventing the player from being able to mess about, or make their own way across the city. Instead, it is necessary to follow a little red line to show how to actually get to where you’d like to go (there is an option to turn this off, but it doesn’t really work without turning the free-roam into a head-scratching affair). There are linear story segments, sure, but these never quite reach the heights that they should thanks to being so far and few between. Climbing a skyscraper is all well and good, but has its excitement and sense of scale diminished when all the player has seen prior is the same rooftops, or various buildings’ interiors. Indeed, there is not enough narrative or general momentum thanks to a weak sense of pacing that can be pinned on the open-world, player-choice approach that is taken. The first game, as an entirely linear experience, controls the player’s journey down to fine details, and, as a result, has a far firmer grasp on its pacing and cultivation of player excitement and anticipation. This is the biggest sin of Catalyst, ignoring a key feature that made the chronology of the first so compelling and trading it for badly realised, unnecessary innovation.
It is a shame of the open-world. The game’s design seems intent on forcing the player away from experimenting or using it as a sandbox — I do not need to express how much of a missed opportunity this is for an open-world Mirror’s Edge game. The visuals are nearly brilliant, though, with bright neon dashing the builds and shimmering, clinical landscapes selling the player on the world’s futurism. I personally had some issues with some of the glass textures, sometimes even not seeing some obstacles or free-running objects due to their transparency’s combination with the aggressively shiny graphical style, but I’d soon forget about this and go back to ogling at the lens-flare sunset, or the stark, computerised blues of the Gridnode segments (one of the game’s more fun — and pretty! — side features). A large part of me misses the visual simplicity of the first game, but Catalyst reworks its optical philosophy with enough grace to be impressive.
The quality of the game’s story is worth noting. The characters are nearly all unlikable, unconvincingly acted and, clearly most importantly, badly dressed (what the hell is Icarus wearing?), and the narrative beats and story reveals are poorly paced, weak in conception and generally uninteresting. So much of the game is spent referencing events that came before (to which the player is not privy) that the emotional spine of the present story is damaged. It is way too twisted for its own good, and I stopped caring pretty quickly. However, I find this all quite forgivable — the best parts of Mirror’s Edge never lied in the storytelling; what DICE have given us here is fairly functional for the kind of experience that this series should grant. In summary: fine, whatever. In the place of a better-realised story portion, we are overloaded with side features as a part of the open-world. As would be hoped, the time trials (called dashes in this game) are the best feature, and show off the experience’s flashes of brilliance beautifully. Controlling Faith is an insane amount of fun; it feels amazing to build up speed, dodging and weaving through environments and trying to perfectly execute every little thing for the best possible time and score. While the dashes are initially weakened by an utterly pointless skill tree (I didn’t know whether I didn’t get the best time because there was a better route or because I didn’t have a certain ‘movement’ skill), these side missions are well timed and addictive; an effective in-and-out for those who majorly want to experiment with the game’s controls and feel. Better yet, there are a hell of a lot of them, with twenty-two separately challenging trials giving more than enough to chew on in this department.
The combat can be great. Dropping into a K-Sec patrol and dispatching of a group of enemies before having to quickly take-off to keep control of Faith’s free-running momentum is slick and well-realised. This is tapped into somewhat in a few of the game’s other open-world sides; also littering the map are the annoying Security Hub missions, in which having to escape from persistently spawned enemies by fleeing to a safe house is nowhere near as fun as it sounds, enjoyable “diversions,” which are essentially better versions of the Security Hub chases, and miscellaneous, short-burst deliveries, which are fine and fun but injured by load-times between restarts (which are frequent due to the missions’ tight time limits). I also really like the aforementioned Gridnode sections, where climbing the inside of huge data centres proves to be a highly rewarding piece of environmental puzzle design. The collectibles are pretty fun to grab, too, though the game features an intimidating amount for those shooting for 100%.
It should be clear that Catalyst‘s strengths lies in all the same places as its predecessor, only, this time, there is a much greater amount of bloating to pad the positives out — bloating that, though while regrettable, is not all that bad. Combat is hugely improved from the first game, and the general vision of the title does admittedly feel intact (not all successful, but at least united), avoiding continuing the pseudo-tech-demo feel for which the first iteration has been criticised. The sequel is a shame in many departments, but a triumph in a few others, with gameplay and certain elements of the open-world serving as genuinely compelling reasons to keep the experience going. Catalyst should be referred to as a letdown for a sequel, but it is not the dumpster-fire that I expected, nor the predecessor-ruining installment that I was led to believe it could be — instead, a mixed, yet enjoyable, package. I can’t be all that mad at the missed opportunity; we’ll always have that first game. A more complicated test, indeed.