There appear to be two general philosophies to making a video game from scratch. Top-down design starts with a narrative, a theme, a concept, etc. and designs the video game around conveying that message; it prioritizes things like story and character, and the actual gameplay itself is secondary. Bottom-up design starts with a gameplay mechanic (or mechanics) that feel good and applies a post-hoc justification for that mechanic; the story of Super Mario Bros., for example, only exists to justify the jumping, stomping, and travelling through pipes, and thus is really thin.
I want to pretend that story trumps all, that the message is paramount. But in truth, it’s the gameplay loop that keeps me engaged. I’m willing to forgive lacklustre gameplay for a short game, but I turn off anything that stinks to play after a few hours. On the other hand, I can play a game with a mediocre story for hours and hours provided the game is actually fun to play (and isn’t, you know, bigoted).
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst has a mediocre narrative justification, but it feels fantastic to play, moment to moment.
In MEC, you play as Faith, a “runner” who, y’know, runs through a mostly pristine city called Glass (Paul Auster nod? Probably not). While the game is played in the first person, it is not a shooter like Call of Duty or something. Faith is essentially a cyberpunk courier who uses parkour to run across rooftops and deliver messages, packages, and so on. You never descend to the city streets, which gives MEC this really interesting detached feeling to it. The citizens are mostly just specks moving slowly across the asphalt far below.
As an expert in parkour, you wallrun, jump, climb, vault, slide, scrabble, and roll your way through Glass. It’s difficult to describe how visceral and fun the whole experience is. Because the game plays in first person, with your line of sight the same as your character’s eyeballs, there’s a real immersion to the experience. Every roll makes your stomach lurch a little, every run up a wall makes you lean your head, and every accidental fall off a building hitches your breath. This feeling of being embedded in the environment and your character’s actions is strengthened by responsive controls that make you acknowledge every fault, every death, and every mistake as your own. It’s fantastically satisfying to scale a wall, spin 180 degrees, leap to a pipe, swing over a fence, and transition from a roll back into a sprint. The world itself functions as a playground for you to explore and leap off.
As the game progresses, extra features are added, like a light grappling hook mechanic, or the ability to stun drones and cameras. These are fine but can’t possibly compare to the satisfaction of chaining together parkour moves as you dash through a beautiful-looking urban environment. Notably, one feature is never added: shooting. Faith has to rely on hand-to-hand combat or, often better, running away whenever she encounters private security forces along the rooftops. The fighting feels fine but only becomes satisfying as you perfect your moves and timing across your fifteen-ish hours of gameplay. In the end, anything that distracts from the running is a detriment to the game.
And hoo boy, is there a lot of distraction. The original Mirror’s Edge was a linear experience where you ran through seemingly-open-but-actually-constrained environments. The levels in that first game were on the short side and well designed, creating the sensation of being in one setpiece after another. MEC, on the other hand, is an open-world game, with a bazillion pointless collectibles, optional runs, and pointless leaderboard/high-score nonsense. Most of these side objectives require you to run a select part of the city over and over, never giving you that illusion of choice but rather cornering you more and more into a specific path. These are the opposite of fun. There are a few interesting puzzle-like side quests, breaking into server buildings and such, but mostly I wish this were a linear game like the original.
Where MEC really shines, apart from freely wandering the world, is in its main objectives. Run to a person. Run to their objective marker. Interact with something. Run away while something spectacular happens. Run run run. These objectives are for the most part exhilarating, and the last mission in particular, which requires climbing a very high, very rickety building, is a real blast. That combination of great movement, beautiful cityscapes, and gut reactions to heights/speed/gravity/etc., make for hours of really great gameplay.
It’s a shame that, being obviously designed from the bottom up, the creators of MEC tried to shoehorn this story onto the game. Faith is an interesting character, but the only two other characters with any sort of rounded personality are mostly absent until nearly the end. There are telegraphed narrative beats that you can predict a mile away, justification that is painfully, relentlessly articulated through dialogue, and so much angst. Again, this is somewhere that the first game excelled, in making you care about a cyberpunk courier and her hacker friends and her policewoman sister; there’s a hug in that game that feels more meaningful than anything here. This new game (which is a goddam reboot!) just hammers you over the head with motivations without ever showing you anything to care about.
Except the running, of course. Part of me wishes for a game where Faith is aloof, cool, and runs because, like the player, she just loves how it feels. Instead I found myself actively ignoring the story so that I could get back to the freedom of Glass’s rooftops.
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is available on all the current-generation platforms (PC, Playstation 4, and XBox One) and is priced as a AAA game (i.e. $60 unless you find it on sale). If you’re into the pure pleasure of moving around in the world, there’s a lot to love in the game. Just ignore the story and side objectives.