Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst and open world level design

Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

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Initially, I was pretty okay with Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst. I’d played the little beta they put out a month or so back and enjoyed myself somewhat, especially since the game does FEEL like Mirror’s Edge. The free running aspect of Catalyst is still, for the most part, just as satisfying as the original game ever was. Running, jumping, climbing and the sense of speed are all intact in a way that bamboozles you into believing you’re about to have a good time with the Mirror’s Edge sequel / reboot / whatever that you always wanted. But then the open world aspect slowly rears its ugly head in a way that even I didn’t expect.

You start off in a small piece of the full city and more finger quotes districts open up over time as you complete story and side missions. The map does pack itself to the brim with hideous little icons to check off of a list like the worst Ubisoft open world offenders but I didn’t take much issue with it in Catalyst because I figured since it was fun traversing the city, that just happening across these activities naturally would be better than specifically beelining my way to them from the other end of the map. Sadly, the world is only deceptively open. The rooftops may as well be really giant hallways for how many options you have to get from one place to the next and, because of this, you’ll find yourself running back and forth across the same rooftops utilizing the same moves over and over again. For instance, there’s this rooftop near the runners’ hideout that has two horizontal vents several yards apart which you will traverse repeatedly. One is relatively high so you’ll slide under it and the other is lower to the ground so you’ll likely mantle over it on your way to pick up another uninteresting story mission. By my count, I completed these exact motions in this exact spot roughly 15 times in the first 3 or 4 hours of play because you have to return to the hideout so frequently and you don’t unlock fast traveling until several main story missions in.

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Then, to make matters worse, they decide to connect the finger quotes districts of the city together with literal actual hallways. Like, when going from the starter district to the second unlocked district, you free run through a maintenance hallway full of massive fans and shit, climb some stairs, and then you’re in this little art deco lobby thing where the developers try to pull this cute nonsense in which the window shades open themselves slowly as you run past, revealing the greater city beyond. Except, you know, we would have been able to see the city all along if we’d been actually running along the rooftops instead of being needlessly relegated to some cramped indoor space. And yes, the original Mirror’s Edge did constrain you to indoor environments far too frequently as well but at least you didn’t have to traverse the same environments multiple times. By my fourth time running through this same tunnel, I could feel my enjoyment of the game draining away.

The second district you end up in is admittedly quite different from the starting area but not exactly in a good way. Now, instead of rooftops, you kind of run between buildings using these open garden art deco things with fountains that are like, partway up the building and… It’s sort of hard to accurately describe. They’re like really huge futuristic balconies. It is, like the rest of the environments in the game, very nicely designed from an aesthetic perspective and an interesting concept but it doesn’t translate very well to a gameplay scenario.

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Picture yourself sprinting at max speed, which is when the game is at its best, running from Kruger Sec officers as they fire their weapons after you. The scene before you is bathed in a purple neon glow as you slip past office workers and other people just trying to go about their business. The sense of speed is impressive as you leap from building to building, mantle ventilation ducts and swing from pipes, and then you see it; a somewhat large gap between buildings. But you don’t doubt for a second that you’ll make it. You mantle a railing and then use it as a springboard by pushing yourself off of it to gain more height and distance at a quicker speed, but as you land you grind to a dead halt. Why? Because it turns out that the balcony you landed on is surrounded by floor to ceiling windows, with a single open one, that you couldn’t have possibly seen ahead of time due to the neon glow, the speed, and the fact that they don’t reflect any noticeable light until you’re standing right in front of them.

That, my friends, is frustrating because it breaks flow. Combine that with the number of times you’ll hit an area where the open world ‘ends’ by suddenly having no surfaces nearby to jump to for no real reason other than “We didn’t make this particular area a part of the game, so run around”.

It’s a shame because there’s clearly a solid attempt at a Mirror’s Edge game buried underneath all of the open world design concessions. The combat mechanics are vastly improved over the original and the decision to not allow the player to use guns at all solves the issues of unfair and frustrating encounter design from the first game by forcing every encounter to be completable by hand to hand combat only. The actual running mechanics are as solid as ever, too. Oh, and there’s a grappling hook, and grappling hooks are always dope. Sure, the original game was short, light on content and relatively rough around the edges, but at least its mechanics and levels felt well considered in a way that is lost in Catalyst’s open world structure. The flow is lost and, more importantly, the soul of the game is lost because the free running, easily the most interesting part of Mirror’s Edge, is made unfun by Catalyst’s hollow attempts at cashing in on the Mirror’s Edge brand.

Images courtesy of a google image search. I dunno, it was hard to find any good ones. Maybe I should just stop being lazy and start taking my own screenshots.

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