The city of Glass is beautiful to behold, a monument to minimalist perfection with white buildings, strong primary colours, and an effortlessly futuristic look. Dig beneath this gleaming exterior though, and it’s clear that it’s rotten to the core. It’s utopia to the rich and powerful, but only because they can live off the dreary existence of those below them.
Even the opening few moments, with Faith being released from nearly two years in juvenile detention, show some of that corruption and the dark divide between classes in this culture. It’s the start of a story that cuts a lot deeper than in the original, with Mirror’s Edge Catalyst going further with its themes of totalitarian rule, government surveillance and the underworld that thrives in the shadows. Aside from Faith, almost all of the characters here are new creations for this game, but there’s more than a few nods and winks to characters, relationships and historical events that featured in the original. That said, not every note is struck cleanly, with some characters being rather weak and one dimensional and a few clumsy plot points.
Story was never really the big selling point of Mirror’s Edge, though. This was all about free running across rooftops, full of death defying leaps, and Catalyst loses none of this. There’s a fantastic sense of weight and impact as Faith scrambles up walls, vaults over railings, or tucks and rolls through a landing. Having the left shoulder button and trigger mapped to have Faith go over or under obstacles works just as well as before.
Faith has a few new moves to pick up over the course of the game. She comes out of juvie with more than enough to get around the city’s rooftops, but experience points earned from missions let you unlock the rolling landing, fast 90º and 180º turns, or give you more of an edge in melee combat. However, progressing through the story also sees Faith’s traversal augmented with a wrist mounted grappling hook, the MAG Rope, to swing on or zip line up to specific points in the world. Outside of a few notable moments, it’s used quite sparingly, with the focus still very much on free running, as opposed to Batman-esque freedom.
The open world is a triumph of design. It’s constantly expanding with new areas for you to run through as you complete story missions, each of which has its own visual identity thanks to the strong colours and tone of the area, but there’s more than enough reason to stay within an area afterwards, with a smattering of side missions, time trials and plenty of collectables. It’s only by doing these that you can start to get a real sense of the environment and start to learn some of the paths that you can take, gaining a sense of familiarity and ingraining the incrementally faster routes that you can take. This is especially true once you’ve unlocked new abilities and tools and you’re given more opportunities to diverge from the Runner’s Vision line.
It’s telling that the game’s speed runs give you a basic route to follow to your goal, but force you to diverge and take often vastly different routes in order to get a three star time. At the same time, a lot of the side missions and optional content have very strict time limits that can be onerous and punish you for minor mistakes, forcing you to learn them by trial and error.
In addition to all the missions and challenges built into the game, there’s a user created content system that lets you create and share a time trial that’s as short or as long as you like, or a ‘Beat L.E.’ that challenges others to reach a certain location. You simply have to reach a point and tap a face button in order to place a new checkpoint, which very simply shows off the breadth to the world design and Faith’s parkour skills.
It’s an unfortunate side effect of the open world that having the Runner’s Vision turned on is so very necessary. You can can revert to just having certain objects highlighted in red, as from the original game, or turn it off entirely – some self-contained puzzles and missions turn it off by default – but heading to a new part of the city will simply see you getting lost and pausing the game to check where you are all of the time, instead of getting the exhilarating rush of leaping from one rooftop to the next and finding your way through the unknown.
A number of problems do persist throughout the game, and these are similar to those which DICE grappled with in the original Mirror’s Edge. Put simply, the combat threatens to suck the life out of the game every time it rears its head. The whole point of Mirror’s Edge is to keep running, to keep moving and flowing through the area. To that end, any sort of momentum will build a shield that protects you from taking damage, and you can basically run past the vast majority of the guards that you come across, bop them on the side of the head if they block your path, or use the speed of traversal to land single hit takedowns, but there are points where you’re forced to stand and fight.
Thankfully, these instances are few and far between, but they stick out like a sore thumb when they do appear. Enemies can come at you with batons, pulse guns, SMGs, or be highly trained anti-Runner experts. They are stupid to a fault, often getting caught in indecision over how to get to you, but the tougher enemies take several hits to dispatch. The worst example was the final boss fight, pitting you against two of the toughest enemies in the game. I quite literally ran around in circles for 10 minutes, building up my Focus Shield each time, so that I could risk turning to land a punch and not lose health. This came after a torturous skyscraper ascent with platforms breaking underneath my feet, so that by this point, I actually wished for a gun just to get the fight over and done with.
The Frostbite engine and PlayStation 4 can also struggle to keep up with what DICE are trying to do. It generally runs smoothly at 60 frames per second, but there are hitches as it loads in a new area and some very noticeable pop in – you can run up to a billboard or an NPC and stand there for a good five seconds before the highest detail model or texture is loaded in. Standing still for so long only serves to expose the superficiality of some of the world to you, as though you were never expected to stop running. Those mission givers can endlessly cycle through their phrases every few seconds, and looking down at the streets below reveals some rather amusing traffic patterns, even if they’re much improved on the hilarious state they were in during the beta.
At its best, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a joyous flight across the rooftops of a gorgeous city, with a grace that belies the weight and impact of Faith’s movement, but DICE seem to forget this on a few occasions, dragging it down with combat that brings the free running to a halt. It’s a fantastic game at times, but just as with the utopian setting, there are problems that lie breath the surface.
Version tested: PlayStation 4