I used to have a huge 3x2 meter version of the below art on the wall of my hallway. I fucking loved the first Mirror’s Edge. The art style was cool, I discovered the magic music of Solar Fields and though there were bugs and quirks in the gameplay, the concept of a first person platformer was fresh (2009). There wasn’t much story to talk about, but Rihanna Pratchett did admirably, seeing how she was presented with a basically finished game when DICE hired her. And when Mirror’s Edge flowed, the white and brightly coloured surroundings melted into streams of light feathered bliss.
So I was slightly annoyed that the sequel, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, was released late 2016, just when I had moved to London and didn’t have access to a gaming rig. Fast forward to January 2019, when I bought a PS4 in order to create some form of work/life balance with this stressful PhD I’m doing. (Let’s not mention that it took time to save enough money to justify the purchase. Oops!)
The first game I played on this PS4 was Horizon: Zero Dawn and I loved it. Not revolutionary in any way, but a beautiful and very competent game with tight and fun combat mechanics, a decent story and main character who was not only tough as hell but also wonderfully sarcastic if you chose the right dialogue options. Oh, and robot dinosaurs. I mean, they had me at robot dinosaurs. I only really have two real criticisms of Horizon: Zero Dawn. The first being that cliffs are only scalable at certain points, and these points can be difficult to find, so several times I spent lots of time running along cliffs trying to find that point only to sometimes conclude there was none. The second criticism is that I initially ran around randomly to explore the world, only to find big areas completely empty, later realising I had to activate a quest for these areas to be populated. But those things don’t matter, because the rest of the game is amazing, just look at this:
Aloy kicks ass. Dinosaur ass. Clip courtesy of SunhiLegend
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst however, is not amazing. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a worse game than the first one in all areas. I’d go so far as saying it’s a worse game than most games. I can’t believe that this game is the result of any reasonable designer’s actual vision. It’s a mess of half-assed things that all scream “me too!”. The kind of metoo that managers give orders about because all they do is read feature lists of the top games on metacritic.
“It has to be open world! Lots of side missions with map icons like how Ubisoft does it! Players want combat! We need to monetise! There has to be some kind of multiplayer interactions!”
–random marketing exec
I really hope, for the sake of all the people who worked on this game, that this crap shoot of a game is the result of management being idiots. It’s like a game from I don’t know when but absolutely not 2016. If you want to copy other games, why did you not look at anything that happened between the first Mirror’s Edge and 2016? Texture resolution is so low the game looks like it’s from before even 2009, and there’s still texture pop-in. I would’ve been satisfied with a free runner with tight controls but not even that part of the game is polished. Running and jumping was generally fine though, until I got to an area supposed to be a big mainframe of some kind. I jumped into invisible walls and needed several tries and very particular aiming to progress. Apparently the test department got tired somewhere around here. Or fired.
I mean if it’s open world; why not allow us to see some of this world and its actual inhabitants by having some levels set on the ground or at least among civilians? Parkouring through a shopping center filled with people, up and down escalators and statues, or jumping from car roof to car roof or.. so many missed opportunities and instead this mess where the only random people you bump into are these people standing around extremely weird places giving side missions. They can be placed in the middle of fights, next to explosions, in ventilation shafts and just generally nonsensical places.
The only way to get some information about what’s happening in the game world is through TV screens. But more often than not, the sound of these TV screens is drowned out by characters also standing next to the TV screen, and they’re saying random things because you’re standing close. If you step away from the character to avoid this happening, you can’t hear the TV anymore. Good job there.
Speaking about thinking things through, as usual there are helpful tips displayed on loading screens, exemplified below:
You don't always have to stay and fight. This is technically correct. Because often, you cannot progress without fighting. But not always.
This text makes sense, it’s a game about free runners after all. Well, unless it’s a boss fight, where you have to fight waves of enemies. Which is stupid for two main reasons. First, it’s a game about free runners, why is there forced combat? Two, did you completely miss the whole shitshow that went down with Deus Ex Human Revolution? Where players had to fight and kill really tough bosses even if they had spent all their points into sneaking? I know, I know, that was 2011, but I had spent all my points on running when I first encountered this kind of forced battle. So why? Honestly I don’t think it would matter much, because the combat system is really bad. To properly dodge you have to lock on to the target which allows you to spin around them to dodge. But the lock is so wonky it sometimes doesn’t work and/or releases randomly. And if there are multiple enemies you can’t dodge them, because only the enemy you’re locking on to can be spun around. Why not just have a dodge roll?
It would make sense because, oh I don’t know, rolling is what Faith does every single time after landing from a high fall? So yeah, these boss fights are completely ridiculous. In the case of Deus Ex Human Revolution, Eidos’ excuse was that another company made the boss fights. Not that that absolves them since they still chose to put those boss fights into the game, but what’s your excuse, DICE? Oh right, you’re still stuck in 2009. And everybody knows the dodge roll was invented in 2014 by the developer Dodge Roll, how else would they have gotten that domain name?
Speaking of loading screens. They go on forever, probably because of bad optimisation (remember texture pop-in mentioned earlier?) I also saw them way too often. Because I kept falling to my death. Which is fine, if it’s because I screw up. But most of the time, it was because of bad hit boxes, imprecise controls and extremely unclear affordances (hints; visual or auditory markers). Like here:
The pipe is red, thanks to “runner vision” which paints red those objects that can be used for climbing and jumping. However, if I climb up it and try to jump onto the platform to the right in the picture, I won’t reach it and will fall to my death. Meaning loading screen.
The red is not a lie here, surprisingly enough. This is a view from the far side of the room seen in the previous picture. The platform in front of us is the same middle platform we wanted to get to in the previous picture. We can make out the grey pipe from the previous picture waaay over there.
The correct action is to jump from the fence/railing. If I use that to go to that other side then the railing/fence is correctly marked as red. There is no pipe here, but apparently the existence of one in the middle platform screws up the runner vision. This kind of thing happens way too often in Mirror’s Edge Catalyst.
Here’s another fun example:
The red is not exactly a lie here, but very misleading. The red beam to the right can be seen from far away and is basically a vertical red stick shoved into the ground where the objective is located. The compass marker in the lower part of the screen also shows where the objective is. They're both technically correct, but not helpfully correct.
The red objective marker in the lower part of the screen tells us to go down, and the objective “beam” to the right shows the exact location of the objective like a red vertical stick through the world. But neither of these “helpful” markers show that actually I need to go left into that tent to get underground in order to reach the objective.
Affordances are also often non-existent. At one point, the platforms you’re running on start breaking. In many games, this is scripted so the platforms break slightly after you pass them, so they’re there only for dramatic effect. In other games, there are affordances that indicate when a platform is about to break. In Mirror’s Edge Catalyst however, it’s completely random. I died four or five times because I fell down. I tried just running, died. Tried jumping along. Died. Randomly pressed jump here and there a few times and eventually made it. I’ve no clue what I did, which is why I draw the conclusion this section was just random. Great feedback loop to improve your play, huh?
Seriously, did anybody test this game, at all? Oh right, they fired the test department. We already concluded that. Sorry, I forgot.
Speaking of crap game design. It’s possible to “hack” TV screens, for no functional reason at all. So when the villains started using turrets against me, I thought; “sweet! I can hack them and use them to my advantage!”. Nope. I can shut them down but not hack them. Maybe I was stupid and hadn’t put points into hacking. Nope. There’s no hacking skill. There was an opportunity here to allow for non direct violence but nope. Oh well, it’s not like the entire story is based around you helping a hacker to take down an evil computer system. Or that the game opens up with you meeting some hacker dude who sees you as his big sister. So you know, hacking is not a skill that is easily accessible to you as a protagonist.
You think that’s not really game design, it’s just story or setting or whatever? How about all the times you’re running through literal storms of bullets and enemies and reach an elevator/door button, press it, and suddenly all enemies are gone? Apparently they can be teleported but when I fall down the side of a building I have to see a loading screen. Poor enemies, I imagine they have to see the text “you won’t be executed if you kill the player before they reach the button” on the loading screen for NPC heaven.
And these random documents and recordings scattered all over the place. What is this, the ’90s? System Shock started this a long time ago (afaik), and it was kind of working although sometimes awkward as story/setting explainers. But at least it made kind of sense that these recordings were made, within the setting. This is the case in Horizon; the recordings you find are lab notes or diaries that you find where appropriate. For example, you can find lab note recordings…in a lab! There are recordings in random locations of the world, but from what I can recall, they are usually found in the rubble of old buildings. In Mirror’s Edge Catalyst however, you find a recording of a very sensitive conversation between two main characters…in a random ventilation shaft.
Sure, that could’ve made sense if that was the only recording found in this way. Because maybe someone secretly recorded the conversation and then hid it in a ventilation shaft. But this particular ventilation shaft is nowhere close to anything, it’s not mentioned by anybody that this conversation has been recorded and was hidden, and it’s just as randomly placed as all other recordings and secret documents you find. It’s like someone was running out of time and placed all these collectibles everywhere and nowhere without thought.
Without thought, yeah, that pretty much sums up how Mirror’s Edge Catalyst must’ve been created.
EA/DICE turned into a Battlefield making workshop many years ago now. I haven’t really played any of them much since Battlefield 1942. Wait that’s not true, I played Battlefield 3 for several hours. Oh, but 1942, that was a great game. What a multiplayer demo. I guess EA/DICE are incapable of doing anything innovative these days. Or even slightly different than run-of-the-mill manshooters. Which isn’t that surprising, they haven’t tried leaving their comfort zone in years. And seeing how crap Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is, they never will again. You keep making your Battlefield FPS games, DICE. It’s okay to be a one-trick pony. At least your shareholders are happy.
Compare all this to Horizon: Zero Dawn, which as I mentioned is not a revolutionary or even innovative game. But it’s great because the parts they have are well made, make sense in their context of the world and are actually interesting. The developers Guerilla Games must’ve had lots of experience making this kind of game before. Oh, they don’t? They’re mainly known for their FPS series Killzone?
Well, isn’t that a funny coincidence?