Not-so free running.
Developer: EA DICE
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Released: June 7, 2016
Most open world games feature a series of side objectives that take the form of time trials or races. It’s an easy way to bolster content and throw in some optional challenge for those who like to run across rooftops or speed through the streets. In these games, said races will be included as part of a series of varied optional missions.
In Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, however, they make up the bulk of the content.
Almost every side mission in Catalyst is a race against nothing as Faith dashes her way around Glass City with arbitrary and highly restrictive time limits. It’s almost as if DICE had this intuitive parkour system and no imagination to do anything with it. Side missions take many guises – enemy distraction, deliveries, hacking jobs – but no matter the conceit, they all boil down to timed races.
I’ve never been less inclined to stray from the main mission path in an open world game before, so derivative are the offered distractions. Outside of some arbitrary collect-a-thon quests, there’s really nothing diverse on offer. Just race after race, a total bankruptcy of creativity.
Similarly, Catalyst‘s “open world” is a big empty wasteland. Most other human life is kept behind glass walls, seen but never interacted with, and those that do exist outside of a cage are perpetually stood in one single spot, never moving, behaving like animatronic models as opposed to people.
The clinical white rooftops of Glass City are beautiful to behold at first, but soon echo the lifelessness of Catalyst as a whole. Everything looks fake and plastic, and while this is an aesthetic decision on the part of DICE, it doesn’t make the surroundings well suited for open world play. It’s a contrived world that punishes bold exploration with instant death-drops, and forces players to run through the same old paths over and over to reach mission objectives.
Mirror’s Edge‘s free running should be exhilarating but it’s disappointingly dreary in an empty world devoid of personality. Sprinting back and forth through the same environments, or environments so visually homogenous they may as well be the same isn’t particularly exciting at all.
Stuck among the rooftops with its deadly drops and winding walkways, Catalyst‘s world is not really very open. The whole game would have been better if it had just stuck to a traditional level structure with better crafted courses played sequentially.
In fact, Catalyst is at its best during main story missions built to facilitate that idea.
There are several quest areas that have been intricately designed as true running courses, and they’re exciting to play. Unfortunately, they make up a tiny sliver of the content offered and it’s not long before players are shunted back out into a plastic world of limiting roofs and deceptively linear pathways.
It doesn’t help that parkour has come a long way since the original Mirror’s Edge wowed critics with its flawed but inventive gameplay. Games like Assassin’s Creed and Dying Light have been improving on the formula Mirror’s Edge laid out, and DICE has had to play catch-up.
Faith’s movements are mostly fluid and performed with a single contextual button press. An enhanced “Runner Vision” mode clearly highlights the direction she’s supposed to move and allows for swift traversal – though sometimes it can be misleading and actively send the player off the edge of a building.
DICE did an acceptable job of making Faith’s controls intuitive and contextual, but it’s far from fantastic and it does little to stand out from games offering similar experiences. Faith is also prone to getting confused at regular intervals, careering off to the side when jumping without provocation, or missing important ledges. At one point I had her stuck to the wall like Spider-man, unable to do anything but move up and far away from the mission area until I inevitably died.
Catalyst is a sterile game, and I’m not just referring to the overly clean art style.
The whole world is overbearingly strict about where you can go, while most missions offer very little in the way of flexibility. Despite all her parkouring skills, Faith can’t really do much. Before you’ve even reached the halfway point, you’ll have seen the extent of what Mirror’s Edge can offer you. The rest of your experience will just be near-identical reruns of the same content.
Hell, even the final “battle” of the game is against two stock enemies (the twist is usually you only encounter one of these enemies at a time. Gasp!)
Combat is basically terrible, appearing at preordained moments in the game. Faith’s KrugerSec enemies come with minimal variety and are mostly defeated by spamming a few buttons.
The game wants you to constantly flip off the walls or jump from high places to attack opponents at all angles, but the environment isn’t well suited to such stunts and it’s an inconvenience to try. In order to make the game’s combat more impressive, you have to go out of your way and do impractical things for very little tactical gain.
Instead, smart combat mostly revolves around using the “Switch Places” maneuver which has Faith pull an enemy around to expose his back, and then spamming the strong attack button.
Once that maneuver’s been unlocked (you have to unlock a few very basic things as “skills” via the game’s uninspired leveling system) you won’t need anything else. Trying to be inventive just leads you into trouble, thanks to Faith’s awful dodge move and tendency to have her other attacks easily countered.
Catalyst is a game that constantly promotes variety with its in-game text and tutorials, but best rewards the spamming of a single move in actuality.
There are some cool moments and enjoyable setpieces, to be fair. Looking out across the city can be breathtaking at times, and during the game’s handful of well designed free-running missions, that expected exhilaration can genuinely be felt. It’s just a shame the bulk of the experience is so unforgivably boring.
Don’t even get me started on the story. There’s not a likable person in the whole plot, mostly consisting of generic stock characters with nebulous and contrary motivations. Faith herself has very little personality, and her KrugerSec antagonist may as well be called Yet Another Generally Evil Corporation Ltd.
Most of the narrative went over my head – not because it was particularly complicated, but because it was so vague and insipidly written I could barely make myself pay attention.
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst was an answer to intense fan demand for a new game, and that seems to be all it is. Catalyst has nothing to say and less than nothing to add to its genre. Unimaginative and repetitive, with a story that goes absolutely nowhere, Catalyst serves only as a way to waste some time if there’s nothing better to play.
It’s not offensive, and it’s not an actively bad time, but it’s so very bland and uneventful. I can’t really speak for the developers, but Catalyst certainly gives the impression that they’d rather be working on literally anything else.