"The flow is what keeps us running, what keeps us alive."
Think back to the first Mirror's Edge, released in late 2008. Think back to its opening moments. The first time you looked down, around, and then out across the landscape, brilliant white towers reaching for the sky; a sky splashed that same blue that drove you through so many SEGA titles past. It's an invitation to run, to leap and roll. The crane, vibrant red, your path to somewhere other in a medium overrun with experiences claiming to offer it. The thick piano keys and the buzz of a city switching on around you. "Financial District, 1.58pm."
"Just get the hell out of there."
Mirror's Edge was a raw diamond amongst a bounty of costume jewellery. Stockholm's EA DICE produced a folly of a kind, a game without precedent; a first-person platformer that primarily emphasised speed and elegance, combat avoidance over head-on collisions. From its outset, it underpinned its punishing performance demands with almost-certain death should your character, Faith, mistime a jump between rooftops. Guns weren't necessary, for the most part; the bad guys used them, and you weren't a bad guy.
It was a game designer's game, I dare say, in the same way that you might hear a challenging, or innovative record sometimes referred to as being made by an "artist's artist". (I already hate myself for writing that, but I hope you understand where I'm coming from.) It was a project, a product, which was effortless to appreciate for its ambition and aesthetics, its creative tenets; but less easy to love, given its pervasive pernicketiness and swiftly shattered suggestion of an "open world". Routes were predominantly linear, red lines streaked over sheets of white and veins of gold. The freedom that a game built on the foundations of cityscape parkour could have offered was never realised, albeit at least partially because of the limited hardware of the time. Nevertheless, it still felt special, different. Faith couldn't fight her way to the end, to her sister; it was running that kept her alive.
"You always were a fierce fighter, Faith."
The problems with the sequel cum reboot to Mirror's Edge, coming out in June, arrive early and leave an immediate bad taste in the mouth. Mirror's Edge Catalyst, again the work of EA DICE, resets what was to tell Faith's story again, and its recent closed beta introduces a protagonist who's just got out of some sort of youth detention centre. Before long, though, she's back in action as a runner, a stealthy delivery person and beneath-the-radar operative undertaking commissions and contracts in a city known only as Glass. Her old boss, Noah, welcomes her back to the fold. A supporting character who looks like he fell off the outtakes from the first Matrix, named Icarus, mocks Faith for being rusty at the old running and jumping, so it's off we go for a refresher.
This beta tutorial is set within internal environments, repetitive and grey, and sees Faith familiarise herself with wall running, swinging around conveniently protruding pipes and nailing ankle-preserving soft landings. As with the first game, the path of least resistance is always highlighted using red. Then there's the "echoes", hard-light drones that she has to attack. Forcefully kick one into another and they both stumble, losing health and buying you time to land a knockout blow, or simply run away from the encounter. I prefer to run, always. In Mirror's Edge, Faith was no fighter, and certainly not a cold-blooded murderer.
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Within minutes of Catalyst opening, I've swung across some scaffolding and kicked an unsuspecting guard through a pane of glass. He falls several stories. He's not walking that off. Not performing this move isn't an option; likewise a little later in the beta, where Faith must take out a string of KrugerSec guys – KrugerSec being the big evil corporation at the heart of whatever evil drives the plot – at speed. Now, the mission in question's objective is to deliver a package. Reconnaissance tells Faith that there is some resistance between A and B. I miss one of the enemies. The mission is a failure. Cue: a loading screen that lasts for way too long considering these delivery missions – some of which are optional – are on timers counting down in seconds, not minutes.
I'm not inherently against combat being a bigger factor of Catalyst than it was its previous-gen predecessor, but I don't agree with it being an absolute must, even at the training stage, and I definitely feel that it needs to be more exciting come the final, retail version of the game. Taking out two reasonably armoured opponents wielding batons is boring, with NPC AI decidedly ropey and the impact of high kick on protective helmet having no real feeling of physicality. Fistfights are hopelessly floaty, far from the balletic duels that I suspect DICE was aiming for with what is an ultimately overpowered dodge mechanic. Hopefully, tweaks will follow this beta test.
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Or, better yet, combat becomes a significantly less important aspect of Catalyst. I want to run, to fly. But the uncomfortable impression left by this beta's early moments, those within the bland insides of a nameless building, isn't refined into anything more impressive when this city finally reveals itself from a lofty perspective. Low-detail drones buzz in the sky, and futuristic cars bump awkwardly into each other on the roads below. The first vista we're presented with isn't a rush of crisp cobalt; it's a cloud-dotted sunset of oranges and purples, a skybox that looks pretty enough but, equally, is utterly unremarkable. Its more "realistic" design sees Catalyst lose that identity the first game gifted it – this isn't an escape into the unexpected, it's a slog through the suffocation of the already seen, in more routine first-person adventures.
Of course, this is all a first-impressions-only take on what Catalyst has to offer, a surface-level assessment, based on a small section of a much bigger game. And the beta is absolutely not the real deal when it comes to kinks that need straightening out. The stuttering I see in cutscenes, the broken bits of scenery that I get stuck on, the way that NPCs flail hilariously against one another when I brush by them – this needs to be fixed before the game goes gold. The traversal, the very base of this experience, needs some fine-tuning, too. That, or my own ineptitude is more concerning that I'd previously considered. Either way, my Faith fell to her doom more frequently than someone of her free-running expertise should. I'm not asking for invisible walls affording protection from fatal falls; but when I "miss" a platform by an inch, no more, it'd be great to see her reach out a hand and at least try to avoid becoming a squashed sack of splintered bones. Especially with these (re)loading times.
'Mirror's Edge Catalyst', story trailer
I accept a package, a small and fragile statue, from a woman hanging out around Noah's HQ. She wants it delivered to a man, a former lover from what I can make out, the same man I saw earlier standing around on a rooftop, all alone yet completely unresponsive to my every attempt to interact with him. Fuck knows how long he's been there for, but several minutes pass between my efforts to force a conversation, or at least a change in his facial expression, and my picking up of his post. He's clearly in no rush to be anywhere. Yet the woman demands that this statue be in his hands within 50 seconds. It's a tough ask of Faith – one wrong step and she'll not make it. I don't make it, and then a second time, and a third. I'm close, so close. I'm right there, on the same rooftop, in front of my target, but not close enough to hand it over. He can see me, unless he's blind I suppose. Every time I'm just a second too slow, my client erupts in a rage. "You've ruined everything," she froths. The loading screen reappears. My head is in my hands. I tap pause.
"Do you really want to abort the mission?"
Not just the mission, my friend. Not just the mission. I have further hang-ups with Catalyst based on its beta – "outCaste", really? – but I don't want to close on a total downer. I want to conclude with the optimistic statement of fact that this is just the beta, and what we get to play in June will almost certainly be improved. It has to be, because right now, the faith isn't flowing like it used to.
Mirror's Edge Catalyst is released for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on June the 9th (UK). More information is available at the game's official website.