When the temperature rises in New York, I start to look for teens on the roof across from my apartment — sitting on the crumbling cement, smoking joints, talking late into the night. The rooftop seems like a natural environment for them, a place that exists outside the normal architecture of the city. And while I will never make the perilous real-world leap from my world to theirs, I feel like I’ve done something similar when I trip along the edges of skyscrapers in Mirror’s Edge Catalyst.
At its core, Catalyst, a very loose prequel to the cult free-running video game Mirror’s Edge, is joyously adolescent. But it’s not the bloodthirsty, sociopathic fantasy that we tend to mean when we deride certain games as power trips for teenage boys. Instead, it’s marked by a combination of high energy, moral simplicity, and earnest anti-consumerist cynicism — a desire to ditch the dull business of a respectable life not to imagine something greater, but simply to revel in freedom of movement at its margins.
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is set an unknown number of years into the future, in a glistening metropolis dubbed the City of Glass. Where most video game cyberpunk revels in grime and neon, the City is dystopia by way of Ikea: a sprawling landscape of tasteful porcelain blocks, their interiors all decorated in the same flat colors and hyper-minimalist quasi-furniture, like low-budget coworking facilities or trendy hostel lobbies. It’s a world designed purely for ease of running, not any kind of realistic human occupation — the ultimate evolution of global "supermodern" architecture, in which buildings become ahistorical spaces not to live in, but to move through.
The first Mirror’s Edge subscribed to a kind of mall-punk politics that treated making a city too clean as self-evidently evil, barely bothering to explain its characters’ motivations. Catalyst presents a more detailed and coherent world, but it’s still one where you could replace many of the actual mission goals with "stick it to the man" and lose little in the process. Faith Connors is an orphan recently out of a juvenile detention facility, attempting to reclaim her place in a gang of couriers known as "the Cabal." Her compatriots, who wouldn’t look out of place in a suburban skate park, have names like "Icarus" and "Plastic." She’s mentored by aging countercultural agitators who run groups like "Black November," an underground militia that missed its true calling as an opening act for My Chemical Romance. Despite their disagreements, they’re all allied against the "families," a handful of dynastic corporations who rule the city’s easily pacified masses.
You could replace many of the mission goals with 'Stick it to the Man'
Making Faith and her friends feel like a bunch of idealistic but slightly petulant kids is the right move for this game, where the solution to every problem is either petty vandalism (you can rip apart municipal electronics for a boy who spends his time painting "YOU ARE SLAVES" on city walls in ‘90s bubble letters) or breaking and entering. It makes it easier to simply accept them as sympathetic anti-establishmentarians and get on with the fun of free-running, the thing Mirror’s Edge does best.
Parkour-esque mechanics like wall-running have never been unique to Mirror’s Edge, but the series makes them a main event in a way that few other games — especially first-person games — do. As in the original, almost everything you do in Catalyst is a context-sensitive combination of running, jumping, and sliding. Vault onto a low box, and it will propel you upward; leap into a wall, and you’ll briefly defy gravity as you race along it. The combinations feel a little easier to pull off than in the original game, and unlike some platforming games, it usually won’t kill you to miss a beat. But precisely timing your button presses is the difference between stumbling over a fence versus effortlessly vaulting it, or slamming into the ground after a jump versus executing a quick roll that preserves your momentum. The ultimate goal of a Mirror’s Edge game is achieving a perfect flow — and you’ll definitely feel it when it happens.
The original Mirror’s Edge helped mark paths with something called "runner vision," which painted important objects bright red. In Catalyst, there’s also a red streak that directly traces a route in front of you. Though you can turn this off, the new method is there to deal with the fact that Catalyst isn’t the series of linear racetracks that its predecessor was. It’s a moderately sized open world that, alongside its fairly substantive main quest, features a number of optional challenge courses and collectible objects secreted away in difficult-to-reach locations. Some are straightforward races, while others have you acting as a decoy for other runners or making deliveries. (These are both more narratively satisfying and frequently hilarious, because the strict time limits will have characters berating you for missing a delivery by half a second as you stand a few feet away from the intended recipient’s outstretched hands.)
The most important change in Catalyst is that Faith simply seems stickier than she did in the last game — there are fewer times when you’ll leap for something and miss by an inch. Beyond that, there’s the kind of upgrade system you’ll find in most open world games. While Catalyst makes you unlock a few features that were standard in the first Mirror’s Edge, you can do this so quickly that it barely makes a difference. The most dubious decision is the choice to give Faith a grappling hook, something that has spread into practically every 3D action franchise, from Batman: Arkham Asylum to Uncharted 4. At times, it feels unnecessary: having to yank down retracted ladders and pull debris away from windows is filler that adds little to the levels, and its existence dilutes the game’s unique style of motion. But its use is carefully controlled, and being able to swing across ledges or zip far into the air is exhilarating, especially when it’s employed in the game’s final section.
The fights can still be frustrating, but the shooting is blessedly gone
The guiding ethos of all this is something like "Mirror’s Edge, but more so." It’s adding elements that everyone looked for in the short original game, while letting players choose to challenge themselves as much or as little as they want. There’s also an interesting sandbox feature that lets you create and publish your own courses by placing checkpoints around the world. Many people probably won’t bother with these, but for those who are deeply invested in the skill set that Mirror’s Edge builds, it’s a nice touch.
But Catalyst also started with a huge problem to solve: having to update its predecessor’s clunky, widely hated fight scenes. The developers have completely stripped out its difficult and unsatisfying gunplay, explaining that the city’s weapons are now all biometrically coded to their owners, but Faith will still have to fight her share of private security forces. The fisticuffs in Catalyst are mostly just punches combined with a jump or directional motion, which makes them feel reasonably intuitive. Instead of memorizing combos, you’re encouraged to use the environment — throw one enemy into another to knock them both off balance, for example, or come at them straight out of a wall-run. But the defense system, which involves staying in motion to build "focus" that protects against punches and bullets, turns a couple of excruciating pitched battles into long, repetitive circular sprints. Fortunately, running away is still usually the best option, and elbowing goons out of your way in the process is strangely satisfying.
No video game franchise ever ends, so it’s always evident that nothing you do will have much narrative impact in the long run. The city will be just as dystopian at the end as the beginning, ready for the start of the next story. But like a parkour run, the point isn’t really figuring out what lies past the finish line — it’s getting there with style.
Mirror's Edge will be released on June 7th in North America and June 9th in Europe for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.