Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a game I was eagerly looking forward to playing for no reason other than the flawed original’s immensely enjoyable gameplay; the first game offered something interesting and different, a first-person acrobatic platforming game which offered minimal combat. It was not perfect, and felt underdeveloped, but the sequel seemed to offer a fuller and more developed experience. I am thoroughly enjoying Catalyst as a game; its mechanics are more polished, it has a large amount of missions to complete and its aesthetics are excellent (and Solar Fields’ soundtrack, readily available to purchase online, is well worth buying for any fans of ambient music). But it is a game I am enjoying despite a lot of flaws; while there is a well-made game there, it is dressed up in a lot of superfluous and questionable design decisions.
Note: This review discusses in some detail the plot of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst.
The most obvious issue, I found, was the game’s writing; loading screens encouraged me to read supplementary material to understand the events leading up to the game’s story, which is a conflicting decision; on the one hand, it prevented lengthy exposition and allowed the story to begin straight away. On the other hand, not providing even a precis of the background in optionally readable material outside of buying another product – and having advertisements for secondary merchandising in-game – annoyed me slightly. The game credits Christofer Emgård as Narrative Director and Fredrik Westlund as Scripter, and it would be uncharitable to ignore what aspects of their work are effective. Broadly speaking it is hard to condemn Catalyst‘s intent; it is an earnest, almost to the point of worthiness, effort to write a computer game about being a socialist revolutionary in a capitalist dystopia. The future depicted is aesthetically excellent, the city cosmopolitan and multicultural in believable fashion and it is, generally, an attempt to be a progressive and activist piece of fiction.
The problem is its depiction of activism and its exploration of those themes is, charitably put, simplistic and lacking any form of nuance or character. It is important to realise when I talk about nuance I am not requiring some nebulous “balance” in debate, for a story about corporate dystopia to be sympathetic to the corporations to play devil’s advocate. It is fine for the “Conglomerate” and the Kruger company to be shown as evil because this is cyberpunk fiction; resistance against corporate overreach is a key theme of it. My issue is that the hero may as well be a cipher for the player put into an “activist” world of people with good fashion sense living in squatted apartments talking vaguely about a “cause” in cliches, juxtaposed with the evil Black November group who live in a damp hole in the ground, blow up shopping centres and read Guardian editorials to the player over the radio. Much of the script’s efforts to make a political point fall prey to the biggest failing of political science-fiction; characters who exist mostly to read editorials from the writer’s newspaper of choice aloud. In one mid-game mission, as you climb a tower to bug a radio mast, Rebecca, the leader of the radical resistance movement, delivers a monologue about how the bourgeoisie are complacent and thus complicit in systemic inequality and so are fair prey for terror attacks etcetera which is all well and good, but poor writing.
A world has been created where until the hero comes along, resistance against the dystopia was either an ill-defined “runner” culture of delivering small parcels, running foot-races and graffiting billboards run by snazzily-dressed hipsters living in attics, or blowing things up, wearing heavy eye makeup and black leather and living in a hole. There is an unwillingness to show much actual activism outside of this; the narration makes a point early on that these “runners”, supposedly the countercultural frontline, are such a non-entity to the authorities they are very rarely troubled by them (until such a point as the gameplay dictates the hero needs to blow up radio towers). The major problem, I guess, is the need to create a safe status quo for the early game and make the player feel more powerful. More generally, and related to this, is the dialogue itself; I have mentioned the editorial-esque voice of the longer sections of speech as a problem but even in incidental exchanges the issue is very much that a lot of the script feels unnatural and awkward – often veering into cliché, especially with the character of Dogen whose actor delivers cod-mystical cliches about perfection being in imperfection with remarkable restraint. That the game is content to advertise supplementary story material thus feels more alienating; it is clearly being promoted as having a strong, worthy narrative (and indeed with a little better writing and perhaps some gameplay changes to accommodate this it could be an interesting socialist sci-fi story) but the experience of playing it feels like being lectured to in banal activist soundbites by a progression of caricatures. My issue is not that it is a political game, not is my issue with the specific politics being espoused – my issue is that it makes the mistakes second-rate political fiction does in substituting interesting characterisation for repetition of the opinions the reader is expected to approve of.
Yet for all this complaining about the writing the game is quite hands-off with it (indeed, this is part of the problem; the characters are at their most vocal during missions when they are just a voice on the radio talking at you) and it can safely be ignored as amiable, well-intentioned background noise. My other main criticism of the game is the way in which the open-world gameplay is integrated. I like that the game is open-world. It makes sense narratively, it sets missions in a physical, geographical context, and it allows for some excellent aesthetic design as the player moves from one district to another and sees the rooftop landscape shift. Catalyst is a beautiful game. I also like (despite their narrative incongruity and frequent unbelievable and inconsistent difficulty) the races and delivery missions as ways to learn shortcuts. They add a gamist element that makes it fun to play. The problem is the need for an experience and levelling system which feels underdeveloped and incomplete; most of the abilities are gated by game progression, and even the seemingly optional ones are in fact necessary to complete the missions. It feels like it would have been better to either give the player the full suite of abilities in one go, or remove the illusion of choice and simply dish them out at story progression moments when they are needed (and not provide side-missions that need them until they have been taught).
Thus I am conflicted about Mirror’s Edge Catalyst; it is a game with good intentions, that is trying to tell a decent sort of story and has created an excellently-designed and soundscaped world in which to do so. The gameplay is fun and a good refinement of the original. And yet the need to include an unlock system, and the often clumsy and unconvincing dialogue drag it down. Either there should have been a greater linearity and more strongly-depicted narrative with the open-world racing and suchlike a secondary side-game, or an even more hands-off narrative that better showed that the player was one of many revolutionaries all working in different ways (not simply “peaceful or terrorist”) to contribute to a credible countercultural movement.