Parkour or “freerunning” was quite popular for a few years in the early 2000s. In fact, it’s probably out-of-fashion enough to justify me providing a definition. Without looking up something snappier, I’d describe it as a sport that involves using urban environments as obstacle courses. For the average freerunner this would be climbing up walls, jumping downstairs and doing flips off benches. The stakes were raised when it was featured in movies like James Bond and the Bourne trilogy, with stunt actors chasing each other up cranes and across rooftops. Enter Mirror's Edge Catalyst!
The Rise of Armchair Freerunning
In the video game world, we first got Assassin’s Creed, which grew into a series that has released games almost every year since 2007. A core part of the gameplay is using parkour to help the eponymous assassins chase their targets and run away from the law. This leads us to the game we’re discussing here, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. It’s the second game in the series, following the original Mirror’s Edge which came out in 2008. It got positive reviews, but unlike Assassin’s Creed, it didn’t bloom into an annual franchise. A sequel was teased over the years until a follow-up was eventually announced, leading to the release of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst in 2016.
Like the first game, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a first-person action game, set in a world where freerunning is more than just a hobby. Your character is Faith Connors, who works as a “Runner”. They’re parkour aficionados who use their skills to deliver goods and messages around a futuristic city ruled by an oppressive regime.
Catalyst For Change
Narratively Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a reboot, as they change some of the story elements from the original. I never completed the first one but even after reading the plot online, I don’t understand the overall story. The gameplay is so innovative and immersive that I don’t think this series needs a complex story, however, Catalyst decided to bring that element back.
I remember seeing the trailers for the original Mirror’s Edge and being impressed by the graphics, music and gameplay. With Assassin’s Creed having done so well the year before, it was cool to have a game even more focused on parkour. By making it first-person instead of third-person, it made it almost feel like a VR game, with attention to detail such as a shaky camera, and the fact that you can see your character’s body when you look down.
This sounds minor, but there’s something strange about most first-person shooter games where you’re essentially a floating pair of arms holding a gun. I appreciate the attention to detail that puts you firmly in your character’s funky free-running footwear.
Who Is The Fairest Of Them All?
Catalyst keeps a lot of the features that made Mirror’s Edge successful, so in some ways, this will be like a review of both games as a pair. First, let’s look at the looks. There’s a distinct visual style that includes bright lighting, bold colours and minimalistic patterns. The game takes place in a city called Glass, which could resemble a near-future version of any modern megacity that we’re familiar with.
You spend most of the time running over and jumping between high-rise buildings, beneath glorious blue skies. The buildings are largely white and glassy, punctuated with pipes, barriers and other features that are painted in an array of bright reds, oranges, greens and blues. It’s a cool creative choice, presenting you with a pretty city to contrast with the presumably miserable lives that the locals lead in this surveillance state. This makes a change from typical action games, which usually opt for dark and forboding atmosphere to match whatever threat you’re fighting against.
As mentioned earlier, there is a fairly complex story that I didn’t find very interesting. A large corporation is developing nanotechnology to control how the population think. I’m pretty sure it's the plot of a bunch of other sci-fi games and movies. In a game based on parkour, all we need is a vague background narrative to motivate our character to risk broken bones all day. However the story involved all sorts of twists, turns and character reveals, meaning I lost track of what was going on.
This doesn’t detract from the fun of the game itself though. There’s a little bit of a learning curve as you get used to the movement controls, which rely a lot on the shoulder buttons. Under my control, poor Faith plummeted to her death a lot, but it clicked soon enough after some trial and error. Also, you’re gradually introduced to a few new elements through a basic skill upgrade system.
Just getting from A to B is fun, and there are multiple routes to get where you need to. It can be tricky to get to specific objectives, and the map is strangely basic and not very helpful. Navigation can be made easier by tweaking some of the settings. There’s the option for a path to be marked out for you, consisting of flashing arrows showing specific places for you to climb and jump. I chose the more immersive option, which removes all markings, so you just have to learn what you can and can’t grab on to.
Make Parkour Not War
It’s not all just plain parkouring in Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. There are bad peeps who want to trip you up, and unfortunately, combat is not always avoidable. It’s my least favourite element, grinding things to a halt in a game that’s supposed to be all about maintaining momentum. It’s possible to combine freerunning with fighting, and this is where it’s more satisfying. Sometimes you can land on enemies after a jump, or slide into their legs and run away while they’re stumbling.
However, sometimes you’re forced to take down all the enemies in an area to progress. Your antagonists are the employees of a private security firm, who come in a variety of flavours. They’re all armoured with some carrying batons and others wielding guns, while you’re dressed like a yoga teacher and can’t use weapons.
You can punch and kick, but the enemies get progressively tougher and better at countering you. You can use a few other combat moves such as shoving enemies into walls and dodging to quickly move behind them, but fights with multiple enemies turn into a clumsy slogging match that feels like a drunken brawl.
Sun’s Out Guns Out
One major change from the first game is that Faith used to be able to disarm enemies and use their guns against them briefly. This was a cool feature that helped you end fights more quickly, so it’s a shame this was removed in Catalyst. The fighting can be fun in small doses, and it’s satisfying when you pull together the right chain of moves to take out a group of guards quickly. Overall it’s too much of a jarring change in pace from the parkour.
Music To My Jeers
I’ve been looking forward to talking about how good Mirror’s Edge Catalyst sounds ever since I agreed to write the review. The soundtrack for the first game was a big plus point, composed by electronica musician Solar Fields. There was also a great original song by Lisa Miskovsky called “Still Alive” which I’ve been listening to regularly ever since it was used in the game’s marketing campaign. They were able to get Solar Fields back to score Catalyst, and there’s a new original song called “Warning Call”, this time performed by Chvrches. They’re a great band and this is another banger.
The music used in the game is perfect, providing a haunting sci-fi ambience as you explore the city of Glass. I might just be an old man yelling at a cloud here, but I feel like music is underused in a lot of modern video games. If I hear a snippet of music from childhood games, I’m instantly transported back into happy memories. The music has lodged itself into my brain, to be forever associated with carefree days.
Possibly it’s because of the open-world nature of many games now, that developers feel that they wouldn’t get away with looping relatively short pieces of music. Instead, they opt for more low-key, sporadic use of score. I’d say they have two better options: just loop a few catchy notes and create those happy future memories for gamers, or hire Solar Fields to give you a great balance between good atmosphere and good tunes.
When writing a review it’s easy to get bogged down with all minor gripes. So, I need to take a mental step back to sum up my thoughts. Purely as a gaming experience, I had great fun with Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. We are spoiled with modern 3D action games because the technology and budget behind video games mean that some things are always done well. Graphics are objectively good because developers are able to make things look like what they’re supposed to. The music always sounds crisp and well-produced. Glitches can be removed via updates after a game has been released.
25 years ago when 3D games were first being released, game reviewers could have great fun having digs at blocky graphics and terrible attempts at creating celebrity likenesses (see Goldeneye on Nintendo 64). As companies experimented with this new dimension, there were horrific gameplay experiences to be had. The idea that you could one day make a game like Mirror’s Edge, where you can run and jump freely around a futuristic city seemed so close and yet so far.
So while I think the story is kind of lame, there’s a lot of fun to be had in Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. Aimlessly charging around the game map is great. There are also time trials and side missions to give you an incentive to be as slick as possible in your parkour-ing. The story can just be a means to an end to get all the upgrades, but also you and I are different people, so maybe you’ll love the story and think me a fool!
What does Mirror’s Edge actually mean? As far as I know, the phrase isn’t used in the games themselves. Perhaps a metaphor for...society being a reflection of...something? Or maybe it’s advice, to hold a mirror by its edge to prevent it from breaking and bringing you bad luck if you believe such things. Either way, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst was a catalyst for me to have a mostly good time. It can be for you too.