Thursday 29 September 2016

Mirror's Edge Catalyst - hands on impressions

Daniel Anderson

Published 25/04/2016 | 15:47

mirrors edge
mirrors edge

Mirror's Edge Catalyst is the long awaited new game in the parkour driven series, and we've been playing the closed beta

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In case you don’t know, Catalyst is a follow up to a 2008 game called Mirror’s Edge which was about parkouring around a shiny futuristic city as an anti-establishment courier. Originally Catalyst was announced as a prequel to that game but honestly it’s not at all clear where this exists in the timeline, so let’s consider it to be a reboot.

The fairly lengthy beta kicked off with lead character Faith releasing from a long prison stay and being reintroduced to the world of Runners operating on the rooftops of the City of Glass. That means a tutorial to you and me, and it’s a pretty slick one for the most part – certainly more so the clunky trial and error which DICE came up with almost eight years ago.

You get a headset which includes Runner Vision (basically a map overlay) and lets you tap into the Beat – which is information about the city and data left behind by other players. That includes their Echo which is a hologram like version of a player which shows you moves in the tutorial and is at the heart of the games social elements.

Faith is still pretty nifty and you’ll soon be vaulting and sliding and wall running with relative ease. The interactions with the world have gotten a little more complicated (like flinging yourself around corners using handy horizontal pipes) and the controls have been streamlined at the same time.

So instead of having to double tap the bumper to vault (on the Xbox One) you now just press and hold. Likewise transitioning from a wall run to a jump is a little simpler, all making for a game that’s easier to get into from the first playthrough.

The world is different too, with a single massive level which you can traverse any way you see fit. There are almost always multiple ways to reach your destination and getting around adds a great sense of speed and momentum to the first person perspective.

The Catalyst beta delivers up a surprising amount of story content, much of which has been previously teased in gameplay videos or trailers. You’ll meet some old friends, get a hint of upcoming enemies and also see the first stirrings of a conspiracy plot which is likely to return big time in the full game.

Honestly, the story feels just like that of many other games, with little that stands out in terms of the writing or performances. There are stock characters aplenty and you can probably already guess where alliances will be formed and who might be a future threat.

It all unfolds in pretty gorgeous game engine cutscenes this time, rather than the crude animation of the original game. These scenes look great, with lifelike character animation and lip sync and strong production values.

In game, things are little less impressive. The levels do look great, and there’s a huge sense of scale as well as plenty of moments which suggest the wider world working around and beneath you. But there’s a lack of fine detail, with NPC character models particularly lacking.

It’s very likely these are placeholder graphics, after all this is a beta, and it was admirably stable all things considered. Frame rate was generally smooth, with DICE aiming for 60 frames per second and mostly hitting it. That frame rate definitely adds to the sense of movement through the levels and animation in general.

I loved that feeling of momentum in the first Mirror’s Edge and it’s definitely replicated here, though it doesn’t feel quite as punchy yet in terms of sound design – particularly when you plunge to your death after a mis-timed jump.

DICE has added a new mechanic called Focus which isn’t particularly well explained to begin with. Basically if you manage to hit a number of athletic moves in a row, or hold down the right trigger to run a little faster a meter will start to fill up. When it reaches the top you’ll enter a zenlike state where the wind whooshes by and you’re also happily invulnerable to melee strikes and also bullets.

It sounds daft but it’s actually a really good idea, nailing the way in which Faith can zip around rooftops and the wonderful feeling when you’re nailing combinations and flowing through the levels without a single mistake.

Which is great, when it works. Unfortunately it was rare enough that I managed to proceed without a mistake, though the game does mount a couple of set pieces with multiple easy enemies and handy jumping off points to make you feel like you’re a super cool person.

One area where Catalyst has definitely improved is combat. Faith has more moves for dodging around enemies now and a series of strikes, including easier use of combos from walls or higher platforms. You can also kick enemies into other foes for some slapstick humour and more easily toss them off a high roof to their bone-splintering death.

The game also wisely does away with gunplay, though there was something fairly appealing about just how crappy Faith was with firearms previously. Now she’s a flailing assassin with a nice array of takedowns, which is cool but a little less scrappily satisfying than finally beating an enemy back in 2008.

Catalyst is also trying to go big on social elements and they’re definitely… there. You can take part in timed races left by other players or hit their tag to check in (for some reason). You can also climb a lot to hack billboards with your customisable logo appearing in their game.

As multiplayer goes, it’s pretty basic, and easy to totally ignore. If you do choose to give them a go there’s a leaderboard and they can race against your times as well, competing with your fairly creepy Echo which can also be customised.

Online competitive types may get more mileage out of these mini events than I did but for now it all seems limited, though DICE will certainly be hoping to build a community of race creators and challengers in the months ahead.

The glimpse at the story mode here is more tantalising, especially the integration into a surprisingly large open world. The main story missions seem to give you plenty to do and there are a series of repetitive secondary tasks. Still it does a good job of keeping you constantly on the move, which is only right for a game based around the tenets of parkour.

Right now I’d say I’m cautiously optimistic about Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. The purity of the original has been somewhat dissipated by the move to an open world model, while the areas aren’t nearly as detailed as what you would find in a similar offering from Ubisoft.

Instead, DICE is looking to strike a balance between their unique take on first person action and a constantly shifting series of social and secondary tasks. It’s going to be difficult to keep both aspects entertaining, especially for resolute fans of the original, so we’ll have to wait and see how it all pans out.

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is coming to consoles and PC from the 7th of June 2016.

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