Grace in Life and Death — Thoughts on the Mirror’s Edge Catalyst Beta
Speed, momentum, elevation. This was the three-piece suit immediately tangible upon greeting the original Mirror’s Edge from 2008, a fascinating experiment with the love of movement in a medium that simultaneously treasures and squanders it. Since everything in a game needs to be built by hand the manner in which characters move about the worlds that hold them is given a great deal of effort, but it so frequently is effort placed in achieving a mere skeleton to support the true attractions.
Though ‘fascinating’ is unfortunately its most consistently accurate description. The athletic prowess one could display in the game was palpable yet as soon as that momentum was interrupted the whole game ground to a halt; developing speed was the key to propelling yourself through the environment but it could be lost instantaneously. A daring game that felt euphoric when you knew what you were doing and appeared impossible when you slipped up. A stunning game which ironically was not shutterbug friendly.
Given about 5 hours with Catalyst’s Closed Beta, I feel confident that this is no longer the case. Granted, this is based off of an early slice of an incomplete game that elbowed itself into an inconvenient time slot of my comparatively less athletic Real Life, so file this all under enthusiastic optimism. Maintaining a high speed while chaining together gymnastics is still the essence of the game, but now Faith enters a full run much faster than she did 8 years ago. This allows you to get right to the nitty-gritty of pathfinding without nodding off on the left stick, wondering when your bullet train will finally stop worrying about crushing bugs beneath her feet. And now everything clicks in place.
When I found myself stuck, usually by either misjudging the height of a wall or falling too far from a wayward jump, I was able to orient myself, work out the correct trajectory, and hit that run again without requiring the momentum of the last 3 checkpoints. Now it’s just a matter of backing up 3 feet and making like a red-shoed Road Runner. This empowers problem solving and experimentation to such a degree that I retried the introductory race activity for a good 40 minutes, testing different moves and approaches in an effort to shave those precious seconds off my name, then starting fresh with that bumbling knowledge for a sexy, clean run. I was afforded this tourist’s pace because Catalyst’s rendition of time trials paints a finish point that resides within the dense clusters of the open world, so there are always numerous ways to reach it. Thus a ‘race’ becomes more about clever thinking and perception than a pure muscular feat, where climbing the leaderboard demands running an autopsy on a geometric puzzle.
This is but one example of how DICE is demonstrating progress in making Mirror’s Edge a welcoming experience. The controls are more comprehensible. A gradual, narrow tutorial section is destined to draw the ire of players who wish every game was like Dark Souls, as they forget how unenthused the original was with letting you know how to play. Any waist-high object can now be used as a springboard, swiftly attaining that higher elevation. A version of the sixth-sense powers that have seduced games of the last decade en masse presents an opportunity to become an elegant aid rather than a crutch, while also being key to the game’s pulsing visual style. It will highlight the springboards, the pipes to climb, and those ever important objective blips, but frequently, like in the races, it takes you down only one route of many — the practical route any player would be comfortable following. Savvy runners will be able to parse the game’s visual language and travel out of the lines, utilising their more advanced, showy moves and feeding the thrill of both creativity and efficiency.
We may have been lucky enough to witness this game blossom in spite of its progenitor’s lack of commercial success, but it deserves to have as many people touch it as possible. What is already present is not an exclusive experience; somehow this fantasy about a woman who runs across the rooftops of a stark white city for a living manifests as an exercise in serenity. Your viewpoint is always reliably steady, no matter if Faith is falling backwards or even rolling, while head bobbing is subtle and a tiny reticule remains affixed to the center of the screen to anchor the mind’s orientation. Footsteps patter and squeak on varying surfaces to the echoes of delicate, trance-like music. Achieving the pinnacle of momentum causes a highly saturated filter to erupt on-screen, enveloping you in a euphoria that rewards your skill with the sight of this city at its most beautiful.
Combat flourishes by intelligently utilizing momentum and your physical surroundings to incapacitate the guards of this dystopia in as few moves as possible, flowing with slick clarity reminiscent of kung-fu movie choreography. Even dying, the dreaded pace-breaker of every game, is depicted as an angelic white-out that passes over you like a deep, well deserved breath. Somehow, this game which offers the adrenaline rush of nailing miraculous jumps over unseen caverns depicts the tranquil, therapeutic joy of just being present in the world. No matter how fast or how sudden you move, it’s almost like you’re floating through it all, more butterfly than woman.
At the end of my time with the Beta it struck me how much Mirror’s Edge Catalyst feels like the original if it were made with today’s technology. The City of Glass clearly employs the same architects and interior designers after all this time, and Faith’s preternatural reflexes took surprisingly little time to get reacquainted with. Such an impression is only a compliment, given the circumstances; this is the kind of game that rarely survives the scrutiny of marketing-types who think in graphs and spreadsheets on how to make things salable. The hardest battle for DICE could easily be seen as getting it greenlit in the first place. From there it appeared that anything was possible: keeping the female protagonist of East Asian descent, intensifying the high contrast colour scheme, making all , removing the use of guns entirely. Catalyst has the potential to be the Assassin’s Creed II the original game deserved to be — a confident realisation of its personality, tempered by age and trial-and-error wisdom.
Indeed there is much more to be discovered than this test run could scratch; I remain puzzled as to what benefit the skill tree format presents that could not be a achieved by serving abilities in a hand-crafted manner, and my progress had to align with the realities of time so I could not get a proper sense of both the life in the open world and the heart in the writing as distance grew from the opening. Right now, though, I am content with those first few conversations Faith has, the ones heralding her back as a hero that the corporations almost left behind.