Straight lines, bright lights and stark colours: at its best, the original Mirror's Edge of 2008 was elegant. Missions were simple; plot and context were delivered in brief. It had plenty of shortcomings – "brief" is certainly the kindest description for its generally lame, threadbare story – but nobody could accuse EA DICE's game of being cluttered. At less than six hours long, it was befittingly nimble. Like its lissom, free-running heroine Faith, Mirror's Edge, when it worked, flowed, unfettered.
Eight years later, and a product of gaming's ludicrous propensity for "value for money", its sequel/reboot Mirror's Edge Catalyst is flabby and maladroit. As a critic, I'm privileged to receive games for free – prior, I would buy maybe two or three full-priced boxed releases a year, and of course, I wanted to make sure my money was well-spent. At £50 each, you must feel as if you are getting something from a video game. But it's a dismal state of affairs, when quantity, seemingly in the minds of publishers, game-makers and players, has become indistinguishable from quality.
Straightforwardly, Mirror's Edge Catalyst would be better if it were not set in an open world, a free-to-roam City of Glass. In isolation, its running, climbing and combat mechanics are aptly graceful. The self-contained missions, wherein jumps and battles are specifically arranged – even more than the original Mirror's Edge – make one feel light-footed and skilled. Perhaps a game-maker's biggest challenge is to enable a player to both achieve, and feel as if they have achieved it through their own skill, a superhuman feat. And to that extent, Catalyst is very competent.
In its prime, Catalyst ingratiates a sense of athleticism and makes one feel as its lead character does. But such intricate work – and it is highly intricate work – is undone by the open-world environment the game sets itself within. The player will get lost. The player will regularly fall and die. Mirror's Edge Catalyst will become the story not of an incredible free-runner, but a klutz.
Inconsistencies like these we accept as "gameisms", because apparently it is below video games, even video games made by ostensibly the brightest industry talent, to worry about plot or even basic cohesion. But what of Catalyst's overarching tone? How can that all-important sense of precision and ability persist when the open world, by its nature, belies it?
There is no grace to an open-world game. An open-world game is cluttered. An open-world game is full of junk. An open-world game encourages players to think not in straight lines, but in jagged, rambling circles. This poisonous fixation players and game-makers have with size, exploration and "content" is the undoing of a game like Mirror's Edge. The characters talk about "flow"; one of the missions is named "Be Like Water". But without banks or conduits, water doesn't run – a static pool, filled with stuff, Catalyst is less a river, more a pond, still and stagnant.
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Paradoxically, a greater amount of space engenders a lesser sense of movement. When you hurtled through the narrow corridors of the original Mirror's Edge, or jumped between its carefully placed, occasional rooftops, you felt as if you were travelling: the smallness of its levels complemented your sense of pace.
In contrast, traversing Catalyst's open world is slow and mitigated. There are wrong turns, long walks, jumps that require you find the right launching and landing spot. Rather than free-running, it's perambulating. There is perhaps a greater amount of "freedom" but that shouldn't be confused with an increased sense of "momentum".
Since when were these things – freedom, exploration, sub-missions and collectibles – interesting? Why are "open", "big", and "customisable" synonymous, in gaming, with "good"? Finish ten optional courier missions. Collect 30 document pages. Listen to 15 voice recordings – especially after decades, literally decades of games like these, who cares? Is anyone genuinely captivated by the mullock in open-world games, or do they find it and finish it just because they feel like they ought, like since they paid good money, they should be playing long hours?
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There must be a different kind of open-world game waiting to be made, the quality – or "value" – of which won't defined by its size and bounty. There must be better things to do with the time I spend in video games. As games aspire to better writing, high art and – albeit ill defined – cultural legitimacy, open worlds, as they stand, pander to audience's ugliest and most primitive instincts, the desire to find and gather and petulant, teenage entitlement – their massaged and reaffirmed belief that allowing them to do what they want, at all times, is what quality video games should do.
Mirror's Edge Catalyst not only illustrates the trend. It demonstrates that dull, base sensibilities of open worlds come at the expense of greater creative achievements: the senses of elegance, cohesion and character belonging to its far superior predecessor.
Mirror's Edge Catalyst is released (in the UK) on June the 9th, for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Windows. Find more information at the game's official website.
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